GM Wolfgang Uhlmann, 1935-2020
Wolfgang Uhlmann in 1961. Photo: Jac. de Nijs, Dutch National Archives / Anefo.

GM Wolfgang Uhlmann, 1935-2020

| 31 | Chess Players

Wolfgang Uhlmann, a former world-class grandmaster, the most successful player from East Germany, a chess theoretician, and a writer of several chess books, died on Monday from the consequences of a fall. He was 85 years old.

"The game made up my life," said Uhlmann earlier this year. The legendary East German grandmaster was a world-class player in the 1960s and 1970s and continued playing well into the 21st century. According to his own calculations, he visited 34 countries and also won 34 tournaments.

Uhlmann was born March 29, 1935 in Dresden, Germany. As a young boy, he went through the tragedy of World War II, when the city center of his hometown was completely destroyed in bombing raids by American and British troops that killed approximately 25,000 people.

As a boy, Uhlmann spent a year in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis, when he read two chess books that his father had given him. It was then when his love for the game was born.

His chess talent was demonstrated when he won the 1951 German youth championship at 16. Three years later he won his first national championship. He was trained as a book printer from 1949 to 1952 and later as an industrial clerk, but thanks to his successes at the chessboard, he started to get state support and thus became the first professional chess player of his country.

That was something special because unlike in the Soviet Union, in East Germany—the communist state that existed between 1949 and 1990—chess wasn't regarded very highly by the government. "I've been privileged," Uhlmann stated many years later.

Uhlmann Geller
Uhlmann playing Geller at the 1970 IBM tournament in Amsterdam. Photo: Rob Mieremet, Dutch National Archives / Anefo.

Uhlmann was by far the most successful chess player in East Germany. He won the national championship no fewer than 11 times (1954, 1955, 1958, 1964, 1968, 1975, 1976, 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1986). He represented his country also 11 times between 1956 and 1990 and won the gold medal on board one at Tel Aviv 1964.

Uhlmann became an international master in 1956 and a grandmaster in 1959. He made his first step into the world championship cycle at the 1954 zonal tournament in Marianske Lazne, followed by Wageningen 1957.

When he wasn't allowed to enter the Netherlands in 1960 to participate in another zonal tournament, in Berg en Dal, the other participants from Warsaw Pact countries boycotted the tournament, which was subsequently postponed to 1961 and held in Marianske Lazne instead.

Uhlmann 1960 Schiphol
Uhlmann giving a press conference at Schiphol Airport in 1960. Photo: Henk Lindeboom, Dutch National Archives / Anefo.

Uhlmann finished in third place there and qualified for the first time for an interzonal tournament: Stockholm 1962. He finished in a shared ninth place.

Qualifying from the Raach 1969 zonal (which he won two points ahead of the field), Uhlmann had his biggest success in the world championship cycle at the 1970 Palma de Mallorca interzonal—the tournament that was famously won by Bobby Fischer, who went on to become world champion two years later. Uhlmann finished in shared fifth place and qualified for the Candidates matches, where he lost in the first round to GM Bent Larsen 3.5-5.5. (More on that below.)

Olafsson-Uhlmann, 1961
Olafsson-Uhlmann, Beverwijk 1961. Photo: Harry Pot, Dutch National Archives / Anefo.

In his next two interzonal tournaments, in 1973 in Leningrad and in 1976 in Manila, Uhlmann failed to qualify for the Candidates matches. In general, he is considered to be one of the strongest German players in history, alongside Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879), Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941), Siegbert Tarrasch (1862-1934), and Robert Hubner.

The 1960s was Uhlmann's most successful decade. In 1964 he shared first place in Sarajevo (with Lev Polugaevsky) and Havana (with Vasily Smyslov), and in 1965 he tied for first place with Borislav Ivkov in Zagreb, ahead of world champion Tigran Petrosian. More shared first places were achieved with Boris Spassky at Hastings 1965/1966 and with David Bronstein at Berlin 1968.

Uhlmann IBM 1970
Uhlmann at the IBM tournament in 1970 in Amsterdam. Photo: Rob Mieremet, Dutch National Archives / Anefo.

Uhlmann was one of the participants in the 1970 USSR vs Rest of the World match. Initially, the East German government didn't allow him to participate, but after an intervention by the Russian Central Committee, he was permitted to play. On board seven for the World, he lost 2.5-1.5 to Mark Taimanov.

Then 10 years after his earlier success in the same tournament, Uhlmann again tied for first place at Hastings in 1975/1976, this time with Vlastimil Hort and Bronstein. He also won the Vrbas 1977 and Halle 1981 tournaments alone.

Here's a nice game from 1978 in which he beat Spanish GM Juan Bellon Lopez, who played his "Bellon gambit" in this encounter. Uhlmann adopted GM Ray Keene's refutation:

As Black, Uhlmann liked to play the King's Indian. The Mar del Plata variation is known to be dangerous for Black, and a well-known saying is that they cannot win without at least one piece sacrifice. Uhlmann's knight sac came early in his game with GM Jon Speelman in 1984:

Uhlmann chess 1972
At the 1972 IBM tournament in Amsterdam. Photo: National Archives / Anefo.

Later in his life, Uhlmann participated in many senior world championships, where his best result was second place on tiebreak behind the winner, Vladimir Bagirov, at Grieskirchen 1998. He won the German senior championships in 2001 and 2006.

In 2012, Uhlmann was part of the "Old Hands" team together with GMs Oleg Romanishin, Vlastimil Hort, and Fridrik Olafsson, who played the "Snowdrops"—Tania Sachdev, Alina Kashlinskaya, Valentina Gunina, and Kristyna Havlikova—in Podebrady, Czech Republic. Uhlmann won a nice game against Kashlinskaya in that tournament:

Uhlmann chess 2012
Uhlmann at the Old Hands vs. Snowdrops tournament in 2012. Photo: Anezhka Kruzikova.

During March 28-29, 2014 Uhlmann played a two-game match with Viktor Korchnoi at Leipzig University, and Korchnoi won both. A year later, the two played another match, in Zurich, which ended in 2-2. It was the last time the two played each other; Korchnoi died June 6, 2016.

Korchnoi-Uhlmann Zurich
Korchnoi-Uhlmann. Photo: Zurich Chess Challenge.

When Uhlmann played his last official game, in the Bundesliga on April 9, 2016, he was 81 years and 11 days old, making him the oldest player ever to play in the first Bundesliga.

On April 5, 2020, Uhlmann appeared in a feature on German television where he was interviewed and can be seen in Dresden's Rudolf Harbig Stadium. This turned out to be the last footage of the legendary German grandmaster. (The video needs to be watched on YouTube.)

Over the years, Uhlmann has been considered to be one of the biggest experts of the French Defense, especially the Winawer Variation. It was in this line that he defeated Fischer in their first of a total of eight encounters.

In the same year, the 17-year-old Fischer gained revenge when the Chess Olympiad took place in Uhlmann's own country. Footage of that game can be seen in this video.

Another nice Winawer win from Uhlmann was against Bronstein in 1977. His many successes in the French inspired Uhlmann to write Ein Leben lang Französisch, later translated as Winning with the French.

Former world championship candidate GM Artur Jussupow commented to "He was a sportsman and a friendly person. His contribution to chess is very big. Personally I was influenced by his French games. To understand the opening more deeply before my match against Ivanchuk in 1991, I studied his great book on the French Defense."

Besides his book on the French, Uhlmann wrote more books in German: Offene Linien ("Open Files" in 1981 with Gerhard Schmidt), Bauernschwächen ("Pawn Weaknesses" in 1984 with Gerhard Schmidt), Gute Läufer – schlechte Läufer ("Good Bishops, Bad Bishops" in 1988 with Lothar Vogt), and a best games collection in 2015.

Wolfgang Uhlmann
Wolfgang Uhlmann in 2005. Photo: Wikipedia.

Dresden team member GM Uwe Bonsch wrote: "Many personal memories and numerous joint competitions and training sessions in the East German national team connect me with Wolfgang. I have always seen Wolfgang as an outstanding fighter and an impeccable teammate. Our condolences go to his family, especially his wife Christine, who always supported him and often accompanied him on his travels. For many decades, Wolfgang represented his hometown Dresden and the USV Dresden. Here, too, Wolfgang was a role model for generations of young chess players, some of whom he trained well into old age. We say goodbye, but we will never forget Wolfgang."

Harry Schaack, the editor of the historical chess magazine Karl, commented: "Uhlmann was one of the best players in German history. Only Lasker and Hübner achieved a bit more. As the frontman for decades in GDR, he became a legend and an idol for all coming generations in East Germany (and by the way he was the first professional player of his country). For a very long time, he had a friendly rivalry with the other Wolfgang (Unzicker) from West Germany. Till the beginning of the seventies, both have been the undisputed frontmen of their Olympiad teams.

"During his whole live Uhlmann permanently had health problems (during the Second World War he had tuberculosis and had to stay in a hospital for almost one and a half years where he studied chess against the boredom) and difficulties with the sports policy of the government (although he was much more privileged than all other chess players in his country) which led to a ban of international play for chess players of the GDR in the seventies. That was exactly when Uhlmann reached his peak and achieved his biggest success in his career with the participation in the 1971 Candidates, where he failed in a very unfortunate way (commemorating the fourth game of the match) against Larsen, against whom he had a positive score before the match.

"After the reunification in 1990, Uhlmann was still very present in the German chess scene. He played some German championships and till 2016 in the German Bundesliga, many tournaments, and later on the Senior World Championship, which very often took place in his hometown Dresden right up until old age.

"Since he was an autodidact and never had a trainer, he had a very narrow opening repertoire. That's how he became a worldwide expert, especially in two of his pet openings, the French and the King's Indian.

"I have visited him several times in his home in Dresden and conducted some long interviews about his successes in Hastings, his most favorable tournament, and his life. And I remember him as a very friendly and pleasant man without any affectations."

FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky wrote on Facebook that a few years ago, his organization wanted to award a grant to Uhlmann in the FIDE program to support veteran players. The German grandmaster thankfully declined, proposing to give it to someone who could use the funds better.

Uhlmann was an honorary member of the German chess federation since 2003. He died in his hometown Dresden and is survived by his wife Christine.

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