"Can we play a little bit more?"
A meek entreaty, but since it was uttered in Czechoslovakia, by the president of Czechoslovakia, it amounted to a command. And so it was that on Aug. 26, 1990, the charismatic, enigmatic playwright-president Vaclav Havel and I played a game of chess.
It wasn't supposed to have happened. Havel was merely to have been the celebrity host of the opening ceremonies of "Prague 1990," the international grandmaster chess tournament I had organized under his auspices, as a tribute to the country's new democracy.
At such events, dignitaries' play is symbolic, usually limited to one move. Often, they simply pose contemplatively at the chess board while the cameras zoom in.
But Havel disdains the ceremonial. He did not wish to be limited to only one move, and he did not wish to play against his designated dignitary opponent -- Bessel Kok. Kok, CEO of the Belgian financial telecommunications company S.W.I.F.T, is chairman of the Grandmasters Association, but he is not himself a grandmaster. For an amateur like Havel to defeat an experienced player like Kok may be a worthy triumph, but to defeat a grandmaster would be ... well, about as heady, and about as unlikely, as a dissident intellectual melancholic getting elected president of a Communist bloc country.
I am a grandmaster. I have been the U.S. chess champion three times; in 1972 I was Bobby Fischer's second in Reykjavik. Havel wanted me.
The logistics were tactfully scripted by presidential adviser Jiri Krizan, formerly a screenwriter. Krizan suggested that I could act as chess adviser to Kok -- standing by him and helping plot his strategy -- and in that way the president would get his wish and actually compete against me. I suggested that Krizan be Havel's adviser: "If my memory serves me, he used to play chess quite well," I told Havel, recalling my last game with Krizan. It was at a New Year's Eve party in 1967 in Prague: I had accepted a modest handicap. Krizan played facing the chessboard, I facing a wall. He called out his moves and I had to keep track of the game board in my head. He had been most gracious in defeat.
Havel agreed to the four-man game.
When I announced to the crowd in the Congress Hall of the Hotel Intercontinental that the president would not only throw out the ceremonial first ball, but would be the home team's starting pitcher, pandemonium erupted.
It was an exhilarating moment at a critical time for the health and survival of chess in Czechoslovakia.
The landscape of chess in Europe has never been far removed from the landscape of politics in Europe.
Poland dominated the sport until a number of the great Polish chess players emigrated to the West in the grim years before World War II. Hungary had a world championship contender in grandmaster Lazslo Szabo, but at the end of the war the Soviet army dragged him into camps. When he came back home, he was weak and broken, and unable to prevail over the Soviet grandmasters. The Soviets' game had improved steadily since the early '20s when diplomats Nikolai Krylenko and Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky devised a master plan to make chess a major part of communist culture by bringing the game to the masses.
East Germany was successfully represented for years by grandmaster Wolfgang Uhlmann, but when a talented West German grandmaster, Robert Huebner, showed up in the matches in the early '70s, the East Germans stopped competing. Their policy was not to send players to events where they might finish behind the West Germans. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and newly found freedom, East German chess players sprang up like mushrooms in tournaments all over Europe.
For most of the 20th century, chess has been big in Czechoslovakia, though chess professionals there -- unlike some other Eastern European countries -- always had to work at other jobs to survive; I was the night sports editor at a Prague newspaper until I left the country when the Soviets marched in in 1968.
But in Czechoslovakia in the past few years, as the country has been celebrating a new, vigorous life under Havel's quiet revolution, the game of chess seems to be dying. During last year's International Czechoslovakian Championship, only 30 to 50 spectators visited the event every day. Some top local players abandoned the game for financially more secure jobs, like computer programmer.
Vaclav Havel is trying to bring chess back; he enthusiastically supported "Prague 1990." Kok and I brought to the tournament two of the best Western grandmasters: Jan Timman of the Netherlands (who would eventually take first prize) and Nigel Short of the United Kingdom, once the third-ranked player in the world.
The attendance was encouragingly robust. And when Havel stepped up to the chess table, and the cheering crowds surged forward past helpless security guards, to secure the best tableside positions, it became evident that chess was back.
About Havel and his chess, I knew nearly nothing; only that he had been imprisoned, and that political prisoners tended to play chess incessantly in prison. And I knew, of course, that he is very, very smart.
As a writer, Havel is impulsive, intuitive, a risk-taker, a cowboy, a dreamer.
As a politician, he is a pragmatist, a conciliator, a seeker of consensus.
I wondered which man I would be playing.
We shook hands all around. The president of Czechoslovakia pushed a white pawn forward, and the game was on.
Kok and I played well initially. By the ninth move, two things were clear: Havel knew how to play the game, but he was no expert. He had doubled up one of his pawns, cramping his queen and bishop, limiting his options. He was very likely heading for a loss.
I offered a draw, a diplomatic resolution. Havel smiled, said nothing and answered by capturing a pawn.
So we were playing the playwright, not the politician.
Kok was a little grumpy. I think he began to suspect that it was actually three Czechoslovaks against one Belgian, since I could understand what the two gentleman from the Prague Castle were whispering feverishly to each other across the table -- and I was clearly more interested in a graceful solution than a win.
Kok wasn't. Neither was Havel. After our 13th move, I again offered a draw, and Havel again declined with a move of the hand. He advanced on a knight so impetuously that he forgot the rules, pushing a pawn one space farther than was legal. His adviser smilingly pulled it back. But Havel had clearly decided on a strategy -- he wanted that black knight -- and he pursued it. It was risky, perhaps foolhardy, but he pursued it.
Coincidentally, his lapses at the beginning of the game were working in his favor now; in a sense, two wrongs had made a right. Because he had doubled up on his pawns, his rook was now clear, in a position to threaten our king.
There are moments when the game of chess takes over, when one does not notice the noise or the crowd. When one forgets his daily problems, does not think about the future or the past. This had happened for Kok and Havel. It was their game now. Krizan and I did not speak to each other, or exchange a sign, but we simultaneously sensed it was time to let whatever would happen, happen.
Havel created his first mating threat, but Kok saw it and prevented it. After white's queen aggressively moved forward, the Belgian moved to shield his pawn, completely overlooking that his knight was also in jeopardy.
Havel didn't notice either, though. No piece was taken.
Neither Krizan nor I interfered. It was bad chess, but good drama.
On move 20, Havel protected his pawn with a rook. It looked innocent, but it contained a trap. Kok impulsively attacked the rook, and Havel moved on black's queen. The queen could not remain where it was. It would have to retreat, forcing the loss of a knight.
Kok peered up at me uncertainly.
"It doesn't look good," he said, and I agreed, as solemnly as I could.
Kok held out a hand and Havel took it. The next day, perhaps, the president of Czechoslovakia would return to the grave business of being a statesman in a young democracy struggling to define itself. But for the moment, he was grinning, just like a slap-happy kid. Lubomir Kavalek is one of the leading grandmasters in international chess, a native of Prague and the author of "World Cup Chess: The Grand Masters' Grand Prix," just published by Bloomsbury.