Lubomir Kaválek, 1943-2021

by Frederic Friedel
1/19/2021 – Lubomir Kavalek was born in Prague in 1943. He 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 helping Bobby Fischer in Reykjavík. He was also a prolific writer, with dozens of well-read chess columns, including one he shared on ChessBase over the years. Kavalek passed away on January 18 at the age of 77. He will be sorely missed.

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Kavalek was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia on August 9, 1943. He studied communication and journalism, but was also a budding chess player, winning the Czechoslovakian championship in 1962 and 1968. In 1965 he received his IM and GM title.

In 1968 Kavalek was playing in a Polish tournament when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. An enemy of Communism, he decided not to return to Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. He bought several crates of vodka with his tournament winnings and used them to bribe the border guards. Kavalek defected to West Germany, and moved to the United States a few years later. He moved to Washington, D.C., studied Slavic literature and started working for the Voice of America, soon becoming a US citizen and a full-time chess professional.

In 2016 he wrote an article for us and the Huffington Post in which he summarized his chess life. The article is historically and didactically interesting, and we reproduce it in excerpts here:                 

Nailed To The Chessboard For 50 Years

By GM Lubomir Kavalek

“A grandmaster title is like a driver’s license,” the Serbian grandmaster Dr. Petar Trifunovic once told me. “You don’t yet know how to drive well, you learn on the go.” The World Chess Federation (FIDE) started honoring chess players with the title of Grandmaster (GM) in 1950. There are nearly 1550 chess grandmasters in the world today. A half century ago there were just 94 GM titleholders.

My graduation from national master and International Master took just seven months before I made my last grandmaster norm in December 1965 in Leipzig. The newspaper Vecerní Praha (The Evening Prague) announced it the next day with a little drawing.

“You are now nailed to the chess board, young man,” the nestor of Czechoslovakian chess, Karel Opocensky, told me on the train to Prague. I laughed it off. What did he know? He had seen many generations of chess players and compared me to young Salo Flohr. At the same time he told me I would never become a world champion: “You have no discipline or patience. You only want to attack. Chess is hard work. You have to take care of small details.”

The GM title opened some opportunities for me. I started to write chess and cultural columns in one daily and became editor of the final sports editions in two newspapers in Prague. I was also a subject of some interviews. Sometimes the photographers tried to be too original.

I went to Bucharest in March 1966 for my first tournament as a grandmaster. It was won by Viktor Korchnoi and I finished third. My game against Milan Matulovic was voted third best in the Chess Informant behind two games between Petrosian and Spassky.

Here is the final combination:


Flohr was the only Czechoslovakian player in history with a world championship contract in his pocket, signed with Alekhine in the Alcron hotel in Prague in May 1938. The World War II intervened, Flohr emigrated to the Soviet Union and never played the match.

The famous Czech new film wave started to gain momentum in 1966. Jiri Menzel was making “Closely Watched Trains” that won the Academy Award for the best foreign film in 1968. In 1966 he appeared in the fashion column of the most popular Czech magazine Mlady svet (The Young World) and I followed him.

“Put your hand in the pocket and don’t smile,” I was told. Eventually, the pictures ended up in the magazine and life returned to normal.

Boris Spassky was the strongest player in the world in 1966. He won Candidates matches against Paul Keres, Efim Geller and Mikhail Tal in 1965 and finished first in the 1966 Piatigorsky Cup ahead of Bobby Fischer, Tigran Petrosian and Bent Larsen. In the world championship match Spassky narrowly lost to Petrosian 11.5-12.5.

I covered the match together with Flohr. His phone calls from Moscow were full of sartorial details. He even reported on grandmasters’ ties, socks and shoes. The articles, typed on a typewriter, appeared in the paper the next day. No live coverage, only occasional photos or drawings were used in the reports.

I finished third at the Zonal in the Hague behind Svetozar Gligoric and Istvan Bilek. I qualified for the 1967 Interzonal in Sousse, where Bobby Fischer played ten games, including seven wins, before he withdrew. I was one of the three players making a draw against him. The knight sacrifice in that game has been influencing opening theory in the Poisoned Pawn variation of the Najdorf Sicilian for the next 30 years.

The Olympiad was played in Havana, Cuba, and I saw Fischer live for the first time. He resurrected the Exchange Variation of the Spanish with wins against Lajos Portisch, Eleazar Jimenez and Gligoric.

I have selected a fragment from the recently published book “Checkmate” by Russell Enterprises. It is a collection of Fischer’s Boys’ Life columns, a rare look into his way of thinking, and worth reading.

I had the best score on the Czechoslovak team in Havana and on this high note my first year as a grandmaster ended. It didn’t cross my mind that ten years later I would collect a gold medal on the U.S. team that won the 1976 Olympiad in Haifa. It didn’t cross my mind that I would be nailed to the chessboard for the next 50 years.

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!

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 and I, we two paid tribute to Brezhnev together?

Working with Lubos

By Frederic Friedel

I worked with Lubomir Kavalek literally for decades. Initially he wrote articles for our news page, and guided me with my own articles. In fact, he played a major role in converting me from a science journalist into a chess writer.

Lubos was writing for Chess Life and the Washington Post. When he started writing a column for the Huffington Post he gave me permission to reproduce the column on the ChessBase news page. Here's a typical column we published: Zugzwang in chess problems, and the version in Huffington. I would make the diagrams for him, which were JPGs grabbed in ChessBase, and send them to him a day or two before publication. For years we would do our weekly columns in this way.

At some stage Lubos started to fear that the Huffington chess column might be terminated. He discussed it at length we me, and we came up with a plan. We would make his annotations and analysis in the Huffington column replayable. It took many weeks, and some fairly traumatic discussions with the webmaster, before we could implement our plan – they agreed to an iFrame embed of the JavaScript replay on the ChessBase page. It made the column more popular among chess enthusiasts.

Our weekly column continued for a number of years. In the Summer of 2016 I came up with a plan to commemorate the Spassky-Fischer match that had taken place in Reykjavík 45 years earlier. I decided to write as though the match was actually taking place at the time, often using the present tense ("Spassky is now two games down – will he be able to come back?"). And the articles were switched on exactly 45 years to the day after each round.

Lubos, who had been in Reykjavik for the match, both as a journalist and, in the second half, as one of Fischer’s seconds, helped me tremendously in my endeavour, providing stories and scans of chess columns from 1972. Here are the stories I published with his help. Especially this report contains a large section he wrote (in the second half) about his experience at the Match of the Century.

One more thing Lubos added to my life as a chess person: he intensified my love for studies and problems. Like me he loved unusual chess position, and fed them to me regularly. Often we would have long conversations where he show me a position and ask me to find moves. And he did this with humour and teasing.

Thank you Lubos for decades of fun and learning. You will be sorely missed. 

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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