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


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.



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