Lubomir Kavalek, 1943-2021
Kavalek in 1977. Photo: Hans Peters / Anefo, Dutch National Archives.

Lubomir Kavalek, 1943-2021

| 60 | Chess Players

The Czech-American grandmaster, former number-10 in the world, coach, organizer, trainer, commentator, author, columnist, and member of the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame Lubomir (Lubosh) Kavalek died at the age of 77 after a brief but severe illness. The news was confirmed by his wife Irina.

Kavalek was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), on August 9, 1943, exactly five months after GM Bobby Fischer. He won his first national championship in 1962 at the age of 19. In the same year, he played one of his most famous games, as Black against Eduard Gufeld, at the World Student Team Championships:'s Sam Copeland breaking down this amazing game.

Kavalek earned the titles of international master and grandmaster in the same year, 1965. It has been said that he was the most talented among a "golden generation" of Czechoslovakian players that also included GMs Vlastimil Hort, Vlastimil Jansa, and Jan Smejkal.

The year 1968, when Kavalek won his second national championship and his first major tournament (Amsterdam, ahead of GM David Bronstein), was a turning point in his life and a historic year for his country. After eight months of mass protests in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in August 1968.

Kavalek Bronstein 1968 Amsterdam
Bronstein congratulates Kavalek, Amsterdam 1968, a month before the protests in Czechoslovakia were stopped with military force by the Soviets. Photo: Dutch National Archives.

Kavalek, an anti-communist himself, was playing the Akiba Rubinstein Memorial in Poland (where he finished in second place) when it happened. He decided to defect to the West. After two years in West Germany, where his father lived (he had left Czechoslovakia as early as 1948) Kavalek moved to the U.S. 

When he returned to Czechoslovakia in early 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kavalek would say: "I thought I was in some sort of reversed zombie movie because everyone was smiling all the time." He would return happily to his native country on many occasions, one of the last times being in early 2020 for the Prague Chess Festival.

On Wikipedia, the story behind Kavalek's defection in 1968 was taken from Andrew Soltis' 2006 book "The 100 Best Chess Games of the 20th Century, Ranked." Kavalek was said to "have bought several crates of vodka with his winnings, which he used to bribe the border guards."

Kavalek himself later provided more details in his Huffington Post column while not questioning Soltis's version:

"At that time, I was supposed to play the first board on the Czechoslovakian team at the Lugano Olympiad, having won the strongest national championship in history ahead of Smejkal, Hort, Filip, Pachman, Jansa, Janata and others. During the summer I added a first place finish at the IBM tournament in Amsterdam ahead of David Bronstein and I was just in the middle of the race with the former world champion Vassily Smyslov in Poland, when the Soviet and other Warsaw pact armies invaded my country on August 21. During the next 10 days it became clear to me that I had to go west. I played a few simultaneous exhibitions in Poland, the last one in Wroclaw."

Two years later, on his way to the U.S., Kavalek won a strong tournament in Caracas, Venezuela (ahead of Leonid Stein, Oscar Panno, Pal Benko, Borislav Ivkov, and a young Anatoly Karpov). He played the first half under the Czechoslovakian flag and the second half under the American flag—soon to be his new country of residence.

In his native country, he had studied communication and journalism—which would serve him well later. Having settled in Washington, D.C. with his wife Irena, he studied Slavic literature at George Washington University, and briefly worked at Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Later he would move to Reston, Virginia.

In 1972, Kavalek tied for first place at the U.S. Championship together with GMs Robert Byrne and Samuel Reshevsky. A few months later, he was one of the seconds of Fischer for his world championship match in Reykjavik.

Kavalek got his second U.S. title also in 1973 (sharing first with John Grefe) and his third in 1978, the edition he finished in clear first place, a full point ahead of James Tarjan.

The year 1973 was big: Kavalek became a full-time chess professional and won four tournaments in one year. He had clearly established himself as a world-class grandmaster. He was in the world's top 100 between 1962 and September 1988, peaking at number 10 in 1974.

Between 1972 and 1986, Kavalek played in a total of seven Olympiads for the U.S. national team, including the year 1976 when the team won gold in the absence of the Eastern bloc teams. 

Karpov Kavalek Timman 1981
Kavalek in between Anatoly Karpov (left) and Jan Timman at the 1981 IBM tournament in Amsterdam. Photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, Dutch National Archives.

His path in world championship cycles was less successful. He qualified for several interzonal tournaments but never qualified for the Candidates matches. In 1967 in Sousse, he was one of the three players to draw with Fischer.

The Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman was a second to Kavalek at the Manila interzonal tournament and has good memories. "We did very useful work there, it was a good cooperation. Some of his wins were largely based on our joint preparation, such as against GM Boris Spassky and GM Wolfgang Uhlmann." 

From an early stage, Kavalek was involved in organizing events as well. In the early 1970s, he had a connection with the popular singer Bobby Darin, a big chess fan himself. A low-profile tournament organized, but sadly, bigger plans for a $25,000 "Bobby Darin Classic" didn't come through.

In 1979, Kavalek was a co-organizer of the tremendously strong "Tournament of Stars" in Montreal, in which he participated himself. The prize fund was $110,000, very high for those days. World champions Mikhail Tal and Karpov were co-winners. Kavalek started with what he himself called a "catastrophic" 1.5/9, but then "things improved in the second half" as he performed better than any other player, with 6.5/9. He called it his "career-best result in a single tournament."

Montreal 1979 (second half)

# Name Rtg Perf 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 Pts SB
1 Kavalek,Lubomir 2590 2791 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 6.5/9
2 Tal,Mihail 2615 2743 ½ ½ 1 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 6.0/9
3 Karpov,Anatoly 2705 2692 ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 1 0 ½ 5.5/9
4 Spassky,Boris Vasilievich 2640 2658 ½ 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 5.0/9
5 Portisch,Lajos 2640 2620 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 4.5/9
6 Hort,Vlastimil 2600 2586 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 0 1 ½ 4.0/9 18.25
7 Timman,Jan H 2625 2583 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 4.0/9 16.5
8 Ljubojevic,Ljubomir 2590 2548 0 ½ 0 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 3.5/9
9 Larsen,Bent 2620 2502 0 ½ 1 0 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 3.0/9 13.75
10 Huebner,Robert 2595 2505 0 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 3.0/9 12.25

Kavalek was also involved in the Grandmaster Chess Association in the 1980s, together with Bessel Kok. Timman: "He did excellent work, for instance in the area of contacting and working with tournament organizers." 

Kavalek had quite the career as a trainer/coach/second as well. Besides the aforementioned Fischer, he also worked with Mark Diesen when he won the World Juniors in 1976 and with GMs Robert Byrne, Eugenio Torre, Yasser Seirawan, Robert Hubner, and Nigel Short.

Kavalek helped Short for an important part of his world 1992-1993 PCA world championship cycle, which culminated in the 1993 PCA Championship against GM Garry Kasparov. After a big argument with Short, Kavalek was fired just a few games into the match. 

Timman recalls a comment from Karpov, with whom he played a FIDE world championship match at the same time. "It was very stupid of Short to send Kavalek home," said Karpov. "Kavalek was the only person in their team that Kasparov truly hated." A year later, Kavalek would publish a well-received series of articles in "British Chess Magazine" about the preparation for the match with Kasparov.

Kavalek Files British Chess Magazine
The "Kavalek Files" in "British Chess Magazine."

Kavalek would further cement his reputation as an excellent writer when he took on the chess column for the Washington Post in 1986, a column he would cover for 23 years. According to the Australian GM Ian Rogers, the quality of this column became especially high when the articles were moved from the paper version to the online version, where the space limit was dropped. "His columns were magnificent, with fantastic analysis of games," says Rogers.

When the column was discontinued in 2010, he had written 760 pieces. He would continue for a few more years in the Huffington Post, where Kavalek was the one who coined the description "Mozart of Chess" for GM Magnus Carlsen.

Kavalek was also involved in a number of excellent books as the editor-in-chief of chess publisher RHM Press. Examples are "How to Open a Chess Game" (with contributions from Larry Evans, Paul Keres, Svetozar Gligoric, Vlastimil Hort, Bent Larsen, Tigran Petrosian, and Lajos Portisch) and "Wijk aan Zee Grandmaster Chess Tournament 1975," one of the best tournament books ever written.

Kavalek also spent many years writing a tournament book about Montreal 1979 that sadly never came about, and in more recent times he worked on his memoirs.  

Kavalek participated seven times in the Wijk aan Zee tournament that is currently underway. In 1975, he won the Leo van Kuijk Prize for the Most Spectacular Game against GM Lajos Portisch. The annotators are from the tournament bulletin.

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