Wolfgang Uhlmann, East Germany’s Top Chess Player, Dies at 85 – Reports

Wolfgang Uhlmann, a chess grandmaster who was regarded as the best player in East German history and one of the best German players ever, died on Aug. 24 in Dresden, where he had lived his entire life. He was 85.

His wife, Christine, who confirmed the death, said he had been sick for most of his life from complications stemming from a childhood bout of tuberculosis, He died after entering the hospital following a fall.

Mr. Uhlmann earned his grandmaster title from the World Chess Federation, the game’s governing body, in 1959. At the time, there were only about 100 grandmasters in the world, but even in that elite group he was a force. For many years he was consistently among the top 30 players in the world, peaking at No. 19 in January 1971 and again in January 1978 in the official rankings.

In the 1960s and ’70s, he won or shared first place in more than 10 major international tournaments. His victory in Raach, Austria, in 1969 qualified him for the interzonal tournament in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, which was the next step in the three-year cycle to pick a challenger for the world championship. He finished sixth, becoming one of eight players to qualify for the Candidates Matches in 1971, the last step before a title match.

He narrowly lost his quarterfinal match to Bent Larsen of Denmark, 5.5 to 3.5. It would be the only time Mr. Uhlmann made it that far in the world championship cycle.

(Mr. Larsen lost his subsequent match to the American Bobby Fischer, 6 to 0, and Mr. Fischer went on to win the title in 1972.)

Mr. Uhlmann won the East German championship a record 11 times. His first title came in 1954, his last in 1986.

He represented East Germany 11 times in the biennial Chess Olympiad, the top national team event in chess, usually as his team’s top player. At the 1964 Olympiad in Tel Aviv he scored 15 points out of a possible 18, even though he was playing against the other countries’ top players. The performance earned him an individual gold medal.

Wolfgang Uhlmann was born on March 29, 1935, the second child of a baker and his wife. He was 6, growing up in Dresden in the middle of World War II, when his father, Alfred, taught him how to play chess. The family was in Dresden during the Allied carpet bombing in February 1945, but escaped serious injury.

When he was 16, Wolfgang contracted tuberculosis and was confined to a sanitarium for months. He studied chess there relentlessly, and when he emerged, with Germany now partitioned into the Communist East and the democratic West, he began to climb East Germany’s chess ladder, winning his country’s youth championship. Three years later, he won his first overall East German championship.

He never finished school; instead, he trained as a book printer. But after he started winning championships he was able to become a chess professional, supported financially by the East German government. Such an arrangement was common in the Soviet Union, but it was unusual in East Germany. Many years later, he would say, “I’ve been privileged.”

After Germany was again unified, Mr. Uhlmann continued to earn a living as a chess professional, partly by writing books and making instructional videos.

Mr. Uhlmann was largely self-taught as a player, so his repertoire, particularly when he had black, was narrow, almost always limited to the French Defense and the King’s Indian Defense, two openings that are popular but risky because they usually depend on successful counterattacks. He wrote a book about the French Defense, “Winning With the French,” first published in German in 1991 and later translated into English, that is still considered among the best references on how to play the opening.

Over his career, he faced seven players who were or would become world champions, notching victories over Mr. Fischer, Vasily Smyslov (who was world champion from 1957 to 1958) and, in 1962, Mikhail M. Botvinnik, the titleholder at the time.

Mr. Uhlmann’s victory over Mr. Fischer came in their first game in 1960, when Mr. Fischer was just 17 but already considered one of the top five players in the world. In the rest of their encounters, Mr. Fischer won three times and four games ended in draws.

The only time other than 1969 that Mr. Uhlmann played in an interzonal — in 1962 in Stockholm — he finished in a tie for ninth place. Coincidentally, Mr. Fischer won both those tournaments.

Mr. Uhlmann and his wife, who was often his traveling companion at tournaments, were married in 1960. In addition to her, he is survived by their children, Ralf and Antje, and two grandchildren.

In an interview published this year, just after this 85th birthday, Mr. Uhlmann estimated that he had played about 15,000 games in serious competitions. “Chess is my life,” he said.

And it remained his life well into his later years.

On April 9, 2016, he played a match game for his Dresden team in the top division of the Bundesliga, considered the toughest chess league in Europe. At 81, he was the oldest player ever to compete in the top division of the league. He lost a tough battle in 58 moves to Alexander Naumann, a fellow German grandmaster.

The post Wolfgang Uhlmann, East Germany’s Top Chess Player, Dies at 85 appeared first on New York Times.

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