75 years young: Lubomir Kavalek

by André Schulz
8/9/2018 – Lubomir Kavalek was born in Prague, but left his country in 1968 and found a new home in the USA. In the 1970s, he was one of the world's best players and also successful as a second and coach, including Bobby Fischer, and a prolific writer with dozens of columns shared on ChessBase over the years. Today he celebrates his 75th birthday. | Photo: (left) Kavalek and (right) World Chess Hall of Fame

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Lubomir Kavalek was born on August 9, 1943 in Prague. However, he spent the much longer of his life in his new homeland, the USA. In his youth, Kavalek was part of a "golden generation" of Czechoslovakian players, including Michael Janata, Vlastimil Hort, Vlastimil Jansa, Jindrich Trapl, Slavoj Kupka and the slightly younger Jan Smejkal. Some say Kavalek was the most talented of this generation of players. Many of the Czechoslovakian talents were trained by Ludek Pachman. Kavalek twice won the championships of Czechoslovakia in 1962 and 1968. In 1965, FIDE awarded him both honorary titles: Kavalek was named International Master and Grandmaster in the same year. Twice, in Tel Aviv in 1964 and in Havana in 1966, Lubomir Kavalek played for Czechoslovakia at Chess Olympiads. In addition, he studied communication and journalism at Charles University.

Kavalek's father had fled Czechoslovakia as early as 1948 after the communist seizure of power and afterwards lived in Munich. He worked for the US propaganda channel "Radio Free Europe", which did not make life easy for his son in Czechoslovakia. After the suppression of the liberal movement of the "Prague Spring" by the Warsaw Pact forces, Lubomir used the opportunity of a tournament in Polanica Zdroj, Poland in 1968 and also relocated to Germany (See "A Vodka escape"). He lived for a while in the Federal Republic of Germany and eventually moved to the United States in 1970, where he found a new home in Washington D.C. with his wife Irena, but continued to compete in the German League for the team of Solingen SG in 1974, 1975, 1980 and 1981.

Kavalek in his younger years | Photo: Kavalek archive

For Czechoslovakia, however, Kavalek became persona non grata. When he participated in chess tournaments, either his homeland was not reported or his name was deleted from the lists entirely. When Vlastimil Jansa and Vlastimil Hort once published a tactical book in which the name of Lubomir Kavalek was mentioned in one of the assignments, the publisher had to withdraw the book on censor's orders and remove the name of Kavalek from the 18,000 printed copies. The publisher cut the relevant page out of the book, Kavalek once reported, reprinted the page without his name, and manually pasted it back into each copy.

In his new home, Kavalek continued his chess career after initially trying to establish himself as a journalist, including for Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. His wife Irena became a librarian for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Kavalek was very good friends with the director Milos Forman (One flew over the cuckoo's nest, Hair, Amadeus), who died earlier this year and who also left Czechoslovakia heading for the USA in 1968. In 1993, Forman visited the World Championship match between Kasparov and Short in London.

Between 1972 and 1986 Kavalek played in a total of seven chess Olympiads for the US national team. In 1976 he won the gold medal with the US team at the Chess Olympiad in Haifa in the absence of the Eastern bloc teams. Kavalek won Bronze with the US team five times. In 1973 he won the United States Championship (together with John Grefe), 1981, the German International Championship. Kavalek also won a number of other tournaments and participated twice in Interzonals — 1967 (Sousse) and 1976 (Manila) — but was never able to qualify for the candidates stage. His best rating came in 1974 when he was tenth in the world at an Elo of 2625.

Fischer and Kavalek

As a coach Kavalek seconded Fischer during his World Championship match in 1972 against Boris Spassky and later also worked together with Yasser Seirawan and Robert Hübner.

Kavalek helped Nigel Short in 1993 as a coach and second to reach the final of the candidates, where he eventually emerged to face Kasparov.

As an oraniser, Kavalek is known for the 1979 double round-robin tournament in Montreal where he also played himself. Anatoly Karpov won in front of Mikhail Tal.

In the mid-1980s, Kavalek was also active in founding the GMA player union, acting as the right-hand man for chairman Bessel Kok.

Vaclav Havel and Bessel Kok at the chessboard, as Kavalek kibitzes | Photo: Kavalek archive

In 1996, Kavalek took over the chess column of the Washington Post, which continued for 23 years and 760 editions before being discontinued in 2010. He later brought the chess column to the online newspaper The Huffington Post

His chess style can be characterized as very tactical and similar to Mikhail Tal. One of his most beautiful games is a win in Marienbad against Eduard Gufeld.


On the occasion of Lubomir Kavalek's 75th birthday, Vlastimil Hort related the following story:

Two Czechs — one Idea!

by Vlastimil Hort

As chess players, the Swiss are not known high achievers, they did not and do not count remarkable ratings among their ranks. Except, of course, for the immigrants. But in the organization of special events, the Swiss are second to none. Accordingly, the Chess Olympiad in Lucerne in 1982 was superbly undertaken!

Walter Browne and Lubomir Kavalek

Walter Browne, Lubomir Kavalek, Luzern 1982 | Foto: Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame

Two of my most pleasant memories occurred there on the same day and have become eternally dug into my memory. It was November 10th, 1982. The Czechoslovak-USSR match ended in a draw of 2 : 2 — a success that even brought us to the winner's podium in the end. We won the silver medal!

But the top news of the day we came before the round, over the loudspeaker. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev had died of "sudden cardiac arrest" in the early hours of the morning. His voice in the Soviet Politburo had determined the invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries. The menacing tanks in Prague in August 1968 and the consequences are unforgotten for us Czechs. We hate him for it even today!

On this very day the Russian team was our opponent and the result, as mentioned above, a draw (Karpov-Hort 1-0, Smejkal-Geller 1-0, Polugajewski-Ftáčnik 0-1, Yusupov-Plachetka 1-0).

To this day the "high art of diplomacy" remains foreign to me. Shortly before the gong beat to open the round, the organizers had come up with a "special surprise". In honour of Brezhnev, the Soviet national anthem was included in the program. We should commemorate him for three minutes and forty seconds...

All my teammates got up. My opponent in this round, Anatoly Karpov, cried bitter tears. Yes, Tolya, one man's suffering is another man's joy!

We played on the stage — visible from afar. "I'm not going to make a fool of this dead tyrant", was my spontaneous thought. I ran to the edge of the stage and with a hearty jump landed on the floor. My goal was the toilet — a safe retreat. A quick glance back convinced me that many players of the Western teams had remained seated. That's right! Diplomacy back and forth.

I headed for one of the white, Swiss-made urinals at the far end of the row. Thank God, the Soviet anthem was barely audible in this quiet little village. Instead, the unmistakable melody of splashing.

What a surprise! My former teammate Lubomir Kavalek, who had emigrated to the USA after the Soviet invasion, stood a few feet away from me. Two Czechs — one idea!

So, dear Lubos, do you remember when we two paid tribute to Brezhnev together?

Translation from German: Macauley Peterson

Editorial postscript

Joose Norri, Helsinki, Finland writes:

The URS - CZE match was played in the 5th round, on 4th November; and it ended 2½ : 1½, Kasparov and Smejkal making a draw on the second board.

Indeed, although CSR did win the silver medal, according to Olimpbase.org, the match results against the Soviet team were as follows:

URS URS Soviet Union 2635 2½ : 1½ 2535 Czechoslovakia CSR CSR
GM Karpov 2700 1 - 0 2600 GM Hort
GM Kasparov 2675 ½ - ½ 2565 GM Smejkal
GM Polugaevsky 2610 0 - 1 2535 GM Ftáčnik
GM Yusupov 2555 1 - 0 2440 GM Plachetka

Brezhnev did tie on November 10th, however, there was no Olympiad round that day. So, Hort's account of Karpov and the "two Czechs' idea" to leave the playing hall may have come on the 11th, when the CSR team defeated Poland 3 : 1. In the prior round (round 9, played on November 8th) CSR drew a match 2 : 2 against Hungary. We will update as warranted.


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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