‘May you live in interesting times.” The Chinese consider it a curse, but for a memoirist, it’s a godsend.
Lubomir Kavalek, the late, still-lamented Czech American grandmaster, author, organizer, coach and longtime columnist for The Washington Post, certainly lived a full life in an interesting time, as recounted winningly in “Life at Play: A Chess Memoir” (NewInChess, 349 pages, $34.95 hardback). He rose to fame behind the Iron Curtain as a star of a remarkable generation of Czech players, escaped to West Germany and ultimately the U.S. as the Soviet Union was crushing the Prague Spring of 1968, worked as broadcast journalist for the Voice of America, and — among other chessboard triumphs — boasted two sole or shared Czech national championships, three U.S. national titles and two West German national crowns.
As a coach and match second, he worked with many of the greats, starting with Bobby Fischer for the last third of his epic 1972 title match with Boris Spassky and ending with British GM Nigel Short (for a time) in his memorable and ill-starred 1993 London world title match with Garry Kasparov. Kavalek seems to have known everyone of significance in chess in the postwar era, and “Chess at Play” has dozens of tales about those he met (Vaclav Havel, President Clinton and Oscar-winning film director Milos Forman are among those who have walk-on parts in the book) and where he went along the way.
Sadly, Kavalek did not live to see the book through to publication, passing away at his Reston, Virginia, home from cancer at the age of 77 last year. His widow, Irena Kavalek, and Czech American writer Jan Novak helped shepherd the nearly completed manuscript into print, and added a marvelous collection of 47 games and game fragments, many based on Kavalek’s own annotations.
With a sharp, fear-no-complications style, Kavalek picked up a string of brilliancy prizes over his career. The decisive phase of his win over Colombian-born master Bernardo Fernandez at the 16th Olympiad in 1964 in Tel Aviv starts with a striking queen sacrifice and concludes with a precisely orchestrated king hunt. In an English, White locks up the queenside and the center, allowing Kavalek as Black a free hand to build up a raging kingside attack. White is already in desperate straits after 24. Be3 f4! opens new lines of attack, and the poor White king is flushed out into the open after 27. Qd2 Ne3+ 28. Kf2 Qg4 29. Ne2 (see diagram; White stops the threatened mate in three after 29 … Qxf4+ 30. Ke2 Bf1+ 31. Rxf1 Qxf1 mate, but Black has another way) Qg2+!! 30. Bxg2 Rxg2+ 31. Kf3 Re8!, cutting off the escape route and threatening 32 … Bg4 mate.
The only remaining question is how aesthetic the checkmate will be, and Black delivers in spades: 32. f5 (the only move to give the king an escape hatch) Bg4+ 33. Kf4 Rf2+ 34. Kg5 Rg8+ (Black has already calculated that both 35. Kh6 and 35 Kxh4 allow 35. Nf5 mate) 35. Kf6 Rxf5+ 36. Ke7 Rg7+ 37. Kxd6 — and now the clever coup de grace: 37 … Rfg5!, keeping the White king in the mating matrix and clearing the bishop’s line to set up the unstoppable threat of 38 … Rd7 mate; White resigned.
Kavalek picked up another brilliancy prize against a considerably more formidable foe against the great Serbian grandmaster Ljubomir Ljubojevic at a 1973 tournament in Las Palmas, Spain. On the White side of an Alekhine’s Defense that he knew well, Kavalek sacrifices a pawn for the attack and Black quickly finds himself under pressure on 19. Bh6!? Bxc2 20. Bxg7 Kxg7 21. Nd4 Rac8? (“the wrong rook,” Kavalek remarked later; with 21 … Bb3! 22. Bxb3 axb3 23. Nxb5, Black returns the pawn but avoids a lot of the grief to come) 22. Rac1!, and suddenly Black can go disastrously wrong in lines such as 22 … Bb3?? (Bf5?? 23. Nxf5+ leads to the same combination) 23. Nf5+! gxf5 24. Qg5+ Kh8 25. Nxf7+! Rxf7 26. Rxc8+ and wins.
Black finds the only non-losing move — 22 … Be4 — and after 25. Kh2 Nxe4 26. Qxe4 emerges with a rook and pawn for two minor pieces and good chances of holding the game. But there is still some poison in the position, and White takes masterful advantage of another Black inaccuracy.
Thus: 26 … Rc5?! (too clever by half; in a long analysis, Kavalek argues Black can still fight on with 26 … Nf6 27. Qe3 e6!, when the defense holds barely on 28. f4 [Nxb5 Qd1 29. Nd3 Ra1 30. Nc3 Qh1+ 31. Kg3 Rg1 32. Nf4 g5 33. Nce2 gxf4+ 34. Nxf4 Re1!, with equality] Ra1 29. Nxe6+ fxe6 30. Bxe6 [Qa7+ Nd7 31. Bxe6 Qxe6 32. Nd7 Qf7, and White still must work for the win] Qxe6) 27. f4 f5 28. Nxf5+!? — a move that tests an annotator’s objectivity. The modern engines, as Kavalek noted, find a quicker win with 28. Ne6+!! Qxe6 29. Qd4! Qd6 (Rc8 30. Ng4+ Kf8 31. Bxd5, and any queen move allows 32. Qh8 mate) 30. Nd3+, but that would deprive the world of White’s masterful idea that blossoms so beautifully three moves later.
After all the pyrotechnics, White transitions to a won ending with the inspired 28 … gxf5 29. Qxf5 Nf6 (Kavalek also says 29 … e6 can’t save Black, giving the main line as 30. Qg5+ Kf8 31. Bxd5 exd5 32. Qf5+ Kg7 33. Qg4+ Kf8 34. Nd7+, while 29 … Qf6 loses to 30. Qg4+ Kh8 [Kh6 31. Nf7+! Qxf7 32. Qg5 mate] 31. Nd7 Qxb2 32. Ne5! h6 33. Qg6) 30. Qg5+ Kf8 31. Nd7+!, a lovely finesse that forces 31 … Qxd7 (Nxd7?? 32. Qg8 mate) 32. Qxc5 Qd2 33. Qe5, and White is a pawn up and his queen and bishop dominate the ending.
White smoothly brings home the point, simplifying with 38. Qb8! Qd2 (Kg7 39. Qe5+! [Qxe8?? Qxf4+ 40. Kg1 Qe3+ with a perpetual throws away all White’s fine work) 39. Bg4 (threatening 40. Bh5+) Qd6 40. Qxd6 Nxd6 41. Be2 and the rest is a matter of technique for a top GM. In the final position, Black packs it in as 56 … Ng7+ 57. Kf7 Nh5 58. Bd1 Ng3 59. Bg4 Kc4 60. g7 queens the pawn.
(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)
Fernandez-Kavalek, 16th Olympiad, Tel Aviv, Israel, November 1964
1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Bg2 O-O 5. d3 c5 6. e3 Nc6 7. Nge2 d6 8. O-O Bd7 9. Rb1 Qc8 10. Re1 Bh3 11. Bh1 e5 12. a3 h5 13. b4 h4 14. b5 Ne7 15. e4 Nh7 16. Be3 f5 17. exf5 gxf5 18. Nd5 Nxd5 19. Bxd5+ Kh8 20. f4 Nf6 21. Bh1 Ng4 22. Nc1 exf4 23. Bxf4 Bd4+ 24. Be3 f4 25. Bxd4+ cxd4 26. gxf4 Rg8 27. Qd2 Ne3+ 28. Kf2 Qg4 29. Ne2 Qg2+ 30. Bxg2 Rxg2+ 31. Kf3 Re8 32. f5 Bg4+ 33. Kf4 Rf2+ 34. Kg5 Rg8+ 35. Kf6 Rxf5+ 36. Ke7 Rg7+ 37. Kxd6 Rfg5 White resigns.
Kavalek-Ljubojevic, Las Palmas, Spain, April 1973
1. e4 Nf6 2. e5 Nd5 3. d4 d6 4. Nf3 g6 5. Bc4 c6 6. O-O Bg7 7. exd6 Qxd6 8. h3 O-O 9. Nbd2 Nd7 10. Bb3 Qc7 11. Re1 N7f6 12. Nc4 a5 13. a3 a4 14. Ba2 b5 15. Nce5 c5 16. dxc5 Qxc5 17. Qd4 Qd6 18. Qh4 Bf5 19. Bh6 Bxc2 20. Bxg7 Kxg7 21. Nd4 Rac8 22. Rac1 Be4 23. Rxc8 Rxc8 24. Rxe4 Rc1+ 25. Kh2 Nxe4 26. Qxe4 Rc5 27. f4 f5 28. Nxf5+ gxf5 29. Qxf5 Nf6 30. Qg5+ Kf8 31. Nd7+ Qxd7 32. Qxc5 Qd2 33. Qe5 Qf2 34. Be6 h6 35. Qb8+ Kg7 36. Qc7 Kf8 37. Qd8+ Ne8 38. Qb8 Qd2 39. Bg4 Qd6 40. Qxd6 Nxd6 41. Be2 Kg7 42. g4 Kf6 43. Kg3 e5 44. Kf3 Ke6 45. h4 Kd5 46. fxe5 Kxe5 47. Ke3 Kd5 48. Bd3 Kc5 49. g5 hxg5 50. hxg5 b4 51. g6 Ne8 52. Bc2 bxa3 53. bxa3 Kb5 54. Kd4 Ng7 55. Ke5 Ne8 56. Ke6 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.