In memoriam: Lubomír Kaválek, Czech chess grandmaster who helped win ‘Match of the Century’ vs. Soviet champ

Lubomír Kaválek in 1982, photo: Hans van Dijk / Anefo, CC0

Lubomír Kaválek, an international grandmaster of chess who won national championships in Czechoslovakia and in the United States after defecting to the West in 1968, has died at the age of 77. Once ranked no. 10 in the world, after retiring from international competition he worked to popularise the sport, penning a regular column for The Washington Post for a quarter century.

Lubomír Kaválek won his first national championship at the age of 19 and earned his international grandmaster title a few years later, while studying journalism at Charles University. He was competing at a tournament in Poland when the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia came in August 1968 – and thought it unwise to return.

At the time, he was already considered politically unreliable by the regime. After the Communist takeover of 1948, his father had left Czechoslovakia and joined Radio Free Europe in West Germany, and so was labelled an “enemy of the state”.

As such, Lubomír Kaválek saw no future for himself in Czechoslovakia after the crushing of the reform movement which came to be known as the Prague Spring.  According to Andrew Soltis’s account in his book ‘The 100 Best Chess Games of the 20th Century, Ranked’, the young Czech “bought several crates of vodka with his winnings, which he used to bribe the border guards” to cross into the West.

Kaválek’s 1962 match against Soviet grandmaster Eduard Gufeld tied for no.6 in Andrew Soltis book ‘The 100 Best Chess Games of the 20th Century,  Ranked’,  photo: McFarland & Company

Kaválek’s 1962 match against the Soviet grandmaster Eduard Gufeld at the Student Olympiad shares sixth place in Soltis’s book. Dozens of annotated replays of the match can be found on professional chess sites and on YouTube, including by international grandmaster Robert Cvek, who posted one along with a eulogy after learning that Kaválek had died of cancer on Monday, at his home in Virginia.

“Lubomír Kaválek was an exceptionally strong chess player. He won two Czechoslovak national championships and then three in the United States. He was among the best of his era and was ranked tenth in the world in 1974... He was truly a gifted artist, playing in the romantic style, and had an unbelievable ability to attack in combination.”

Kaválek lived with his father in Munich for two years before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1970 with assistance from the U.S. Chess Federation. During a brief stint with the Voice of America, before turning professional, he was sent to cover the 1972 World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland between defending Soviet champion Boris Spassky and American grandmaster Bobby Fischer.

Fischer famously sought the advice of the Czech grandmaster turned journalist, who served as his unofficial second to help the American defeat Spassky. Dubbed the “Match of the Century”, it brought an end to the Soviets’ 24-year monopoly on the world championship, a defeat which Garry Kasparov called “a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War”.

In the Eastern Bloc, of course Kaválek, was persona non grata. When he took part in tournaments, censors would omit his name. In Czechoslovakia, a publisher was forced to withdraw 18,000 copies of a book on chess tactics in which he was mentioned, so the offending page could be ripped out.

Kaválek was ranked among the world’s top 100 players for a quarter century – between 1962 and September 1988, peaking at number 10 in 1974. He played in a total of seven Olympiads for the U.S. national team, including in 1976, when the team won gold in the absence of boycotting Eastern bloc teams.

After stepping down as a competitor, he worked together with the Dutchman Bessel Kok, chairman of World Chess Grandmaster Association from 1985 until 1991, who after the fall of communism became a vice president of state Český Telecom before its privatisation.

Together they organised a grandmaster tournament in Prague in 1990, in which Václav Havel played against the Dutchman (with Kaválek as his second) in what the ceremonial opening match. The playwright turned president won – an episode Kaválek chronicled in one of his columns:

“As a writer, Havel is impulsive, intuitive, a risk-taker, a dreamer. As a politician, he is a pragmatist, conciliator, a seeker of consensus. I wondered which man we would be playing. We shook hands all around. The president of Czechoslovakia pushed a white queen pawn forward, and the game was on.”

Lubomír Kaválek was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame in 2001. In his later years, he volunteered at schools in the Washington, D.C. area, promoting chess among young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.