Amidst all the renewed media attention chess received with its pandemic-inspired digital renaissance, there also came the sad news of the death of one of the few remaining legend’s left from the golden era of the game, with Germany’s Wolfgang Uhlmann passing away at the ripe old age of 85 in late August in his hometown of Dresden.
Uhlmann was the strongest chess player to emerge from East Germany in the post-war period, and he stayed faithful to the GDR regime right to its end with the reunification of Germany. The genial GM combined modesty and real chess force, reaching his peak at the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal of 1970, where he tied for fifth place (with Bobby Fischer famously taking first, en route to winning the world crown) to become a world title Candidate in 1971, though going on to lose to Bent Larsen in their quarter-final match.
He remained a force to be reckoned with in the elite circuit right until the end of the seventies, almost always placed in the world’s top ten. Even in retirement, Uhlmann found a new audience through his insightful chess writings and considerable knowledge of the game. He also took part in several lesser international open tournaments through the 1990s, even branching periodically into the senior/veterans tour and, more poignantly, the last match-partner for a frail and wheelchair-bound Viktor Kortchnoi.
A full tribute of Uhlmann’s playing career by Peter Doggers can be read on Chess.com.
Some players can be defined by the openings they played: with Bobby Fischer, it was the cut and thrust of the razor-sharp Sicilian Najdorf, but for Uhlmann, it was a more complex strategical and positional battle in his one and only true love, the French Defence, that he played almost exclusively against 1.e4 throughout his long and distinguished chess career. He was a recognised expert in the French, defending its honour against some of the all-time greats in the game – and in 1995 he arguably wrote one of the most influential books on it, Winning with the French.
And when I took up chess in the aftermath of Fischer’s famous 1972 world title victory, I insatiably devoured his cult classic My 60 Memorable Games – and a couple of years later, I also equally devoured Edmar Mednis’ excellent antithesis to the legend’s anthology masterpiece, How to Beat Bobby Fischer.
And there, among the 61 career-defeats inflicted on Fischer, what impressed me most of all was a standout Uhlmann victory that came during their first meeting at the Buenos Aires tournament of 1960 that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the May Revolution in Argentina – and naturally, it had to be in his trademark pet-line of the Winawer, which only added to the young American’s perceived French complex issues.
Photo: © Jac. de Nijs, Dutch National Archives / Anefo.
GM Bobby Fischer – GM Wolfgang Uhlmann
Buenos Aires 1960, (8)
French Defence, Winawer Variation
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 c5 7.a4 Nbc6 8.Nf3 Bd7 9.Qd2 Qa5 10.Bd3 c4 11.Be2 f6 12.Ba3 Ng6?! Mednis analyses this game in HTBBF and Uhlmann in his WWTF. Both of them think Fischer actually emerged very well from the opening after this inaccurate move. 13.0-0 0-0-0 14.Bd6 Nce7 15.Nh4 Rde8 16.Nxg6 hxg6 17.exf6 gxf6 18.h3 Nf5 19.Bh2 g5 20.f4? Mednis attributes this move to Fischer’s overconfidence; failing to spot that Black can immediately seize the initiative. Instead, with 20.Rfe1! White would have retained a solid advantage. 20…Nd6 21.Bf3 g4!! An inspired – and somewhat thematic French – pawn sacrifice from Uhlmann that not just frees his problematic light-squared French bishop, but also proves to be the decisive turning point in the game, as suddenly dangerous lines become exposed on the kingside. 22.hxg4 The only sensible capture, as 22.Bxg4 f5 23.Bf3 Reg8! and White is in deep trouble on the kingside. 22…f5 23.g5 Re7 24.Bg3 Now Uhlmann has lumbered Fischer with the awkward bishop. 24…Be8 25.Qe3 Ne4 26.Bxe4 dxe4 27.Kf2 It’s not really like Fischer to miss a chance to open lines to ‘mix it’ in a game where’s he’s under pressure, and 27.d5!? exd5 28.Bf2 Reh7 29.Qc5+ Kd7 (The queen trade only helps ease White’s problems. After 29…Qxc5 30.Bxc5 Rh1+ 31.Kf2 R1h4 32.Bxa7 Rxf4+ 33.Ke3 Rg4 34.Rxf5 Bc6 35.Kf2 and with the opposite coloured bishops, White has excellent chances of holding the draw.) 30.Bd4 Qxc5 31.Bxc5 Rh1+ 32.Kf2 R1h4 33.Ke3 seems to hold, with much the same assessment as the above note. 27…Reh7 28.Rfb1 Qd5 29.Qc1 More accurate would have been 29.Qd2 or even 29.a5. 29…Rh1 30.Qxh1? The position favours Uhlmann, but this error only adds to Fischer’s Winawer woes. Instead, 30.Qe3 Rxb1 31.Rxb1 Bxa4 would have returned the pawn though kept White in the game, especially with the major pieces coming off the board and the opposite coloured bishops remaining. 30…e3+! [see diagram] Even today, all these years later from first seeing this game in Mednis’ HTBBF circa 1974, I still find it hard to believe that Fischer missed this wonderful shot. 31.Kg1 As ugly as it looks, this is the only move as 31.Kxe3 Rxh1 32.Rxh1 Qe4+ 33.Kd2 Qxg2+ and Black will soon clear up. 31…Rxh1+ 32.Kxh1 e2 33.Rb5 This move is attributed by many commentators to be either a blunder or a time trouble misstep, but I doubt if it was as simple as that – I think it is more a case of Fischer typically trying to ‘make something happen’, rather than watch the horror show as the Black queen creeps into the position after, say, 33.Kh2 Qe4 34.Re1 Qe3 35.Rab1 Qd2 and White will soon run out of useful moves to make. Today, the engine will tell you that it is not quite dead yet for White, but we can clearly see what the direction of travel is going to be with …Bh5 looming and the queen hoovering up all the loose pawns. So rather than that, Fischer was at least going to go down while still looking to make a fight of it. 33…Bxb5 34.axb5 Qxb5 35.Re1 a5 36.Rxe2 At least the dangerous e-pawn is gone – but alas, only to be replaced by an equally more dangerous a-pawn now running up the board! 36…a4 37.Rxe6 a3 38.g6 Qd7 39.Re5 b6 40.Bh4 a2 41.Re1 Qg7 42.Ra1 Qxg6 0-1 Fischer resigns, as after 43.Rxa2 Qh5 44.g3 Kb7 White is dead in the water with threats of …Qf3+ or …Qc1+ picking off his queenside pawns.