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Lubomir Kavalek, international chess grandmaster, dies at 77

Shortly after Lubomir Kavalek was named an international grandmaster of chess in 1965, he was aboard a train en route to Prague when a countryman, the celebrated Czech player Karel Opocensky, made an observation that proved prophetic.

“You are now nailed to the chess board, young man,” Mr. Kavalek recalled the older man telling him.

For the next half-century, until his death on Jan. 18 at 77, Mr. Kavalek was an eminence of the sport — a two-time Czech champion and a three-time U.S. champion after his defection to the West in 1968. He also was an assistant to Bobby Fischer when the enigmatic American player claimed the world championship from Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in the dramatic 1972 match where the Cold War played out atop a chess table.

Mr. Kavalek was a noted writer in his field, penning a regular chess column for The Washington Post from 1995 until 2010 and later for HuffPost. He died at his home in Reston, Va. The cause was metastatic lung cancer, said his wife, Irena Kavalek.

Lubomir Kavalek — known to friends as “Lubosh” — was born in Prague on Aug. 9, 1943. His mother was a nurse. His father, a radio journalist, left Czechoslovakia amid the Communist takeover in 1948 and settled in what was then West Germany, where he spent his career with Radio Free Europe.

The elder Kavalek became an “enemy of the state” in Czechoslovakia, Irena Kavalek said, “so Lubomir did not have it easy during his chess career for these political reasons.”

He had begun playing chess as a boy, joining clubs and poring over chess theory until he had nurtured himself into an accomplished player. While pursuing his incipient chess career, he studied journalism at Charles University in Prague until the Soviet-led invasion in 1968.

Mr. Kavalek, who was competing at a tournament in Poland at the time, decided not to return home and instead join his father in Munich.

“Lubomir’s flight was reminiscent of spy stories,” reads an account published by the Chess Federation of Russia. “The grandmaster used his winnings to buy a few bottles of alcohol, which he then gave to border guards to let him pass into West Germany.”

In 1970, with the assistance of the U.S. Chess Federation, he came to the United States, living first in Washington. As an employee of Voice of America, he traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the championship that pitted Spassky, who held the title at the time, with Fischer.

Although he was covering the match as a journalist, Mr. Kavalek wrote that he “did not hesitate when Bobby asked me to help him with the adjournment of the 13th game.” From then until the end of the match, Mr. Kavalek served as Fischer’s unofficial second, a term used in chess to describe an assistant who aides a player in charting his or her strategy.

“Bobby was obsessed with winning and was not happy until he had exhausted all possibilities,” Mr. Kavalek wrote in his final column for The Post. During Game 18, “we soon realized that every winning attempt was doomed. The chances tilted to Spassky, but was Boris winning? Bobby’s eyes lit up when I suggested a queen maneuver, forcing Spassky to repeat the moves.

“ ‘Great! We have a draw. Let’s go for the win again,’ and we spent four more hours trying to find something that wasn’t there. For a single victory, Bobby would work himself to exhaustion, always giving his all.”

Mr. Kavalek later left Voice of America to pursue a full-time chess career, traveling around the world for tournaments. He represented both Czechoslovakia and the United States, where he became a citizen, in the Chess Olympiads. He was ranked among the top 100 players in the world continuously from 1962 to 1988, according to the World Chess Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 2001.

Andrew Soltis, also an international grandmaster and the author of a chess column for the New York Post, described Mr. Kavalek’s playing style as “very aggressive, imaginative.” In his book “The 100 Best Chess Games of the 20th Century, Ranked,” Soltis included one that Mr. Kavalek played in Czechoslovakia against Eduard Gufeld, a Soviet, in 1962.

“He had sacrificed a rook, which is a very powerful piece, for a small army of pawns,” Soltis said in an interview. “At the end of the game, which featured more sacrifices, Lubosh’s pawns just kept advancing until his opponent resigned. If he had only played that one game, he would be famous in chess.”

Commenting on his assistance to Fischer at Reykjavik, Soltis described Mr. Kavalek as “the real guy behind the throne,” playing a “key role in making Fischer world champion.”

Mr. Kavalek retired from playing in the 1990s, devoting himself to coaching, organizing chess tournaments and writing. His columns in The Washington Post — replete with characters that to the uninitiated appear as undecipherable as hieroglyphs (“White: Kd1,Qb7,Bg6,Ng5; Black: Kd8,Qg8,Nb8,P:e7,e6”) — brought alive the excitement of the sport, as well as the wisdom it contained.

“Pawn sacrifices in the opening,” Mr. Kavalek once advised readers, “work in mysterious ways.”

Survivors include his wife of 49 years, the former Irena Koritsanska, of Reston; a son, Steven Kavalek of Manchester, N.H.; and a grandson.

In his later years, Mr. Kavalek volunteered at local schools, promoting chess among young people and instilling in them its values.

“Just to think about it as a game is degrading,” he once told The Post. “It has certain elements of science and art and some competitive elements that have even to do with sport. It tests your imagination; it tests a lot of things. Sometimes it is not all pleasure. Sometimes you suffer.”

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