GM Helmut Pfleger turns 71

by Frederic Friedel
8/6/2014 – Seventy-one? So why this report, we hear you ask. Because a year ago we missed his 70th birthday – quite unforgivable, he being one of our earliest friends in chess. So we make it up today with a portrait and some personal stories – of which there are more than we can tell. Pfleger has done more for chess in Germany than anyone we know. Happy birthday Helmut!

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Helmut Pfleger turns 71

Helmut Pfleger, the well-known German grandmaster, author and TV commentator, was born on August 6, 1943, in Teplice-Šanov. He became one of the strongest of German players despite completing his medical studies and his doctorate. In 1960 he won the German Junior Championship, in 1961 was fourth in the World Junior Chess Championship. In 1965 he tied for first in the German Championship in Bad Aibling. He took first at Maputo 1973, tied for 1st–2nd at Polanica-Zdrój 1971, tied for 1st–2nd at Montilla 1973, tied for 2nd–3rd at Montilla 1974, tied for 2nd–5th at Manila 1975, tied for 2nd–3rd at Havana 1982, was 4th at Royan 1988.

Playing World Champion Anatoly Karpov in Hannover 1983

Pfleger played for Germany in the Chess Olympiads of 1964, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1978, 1980 and 1982. At the Tel Aviv Olympiad of 1964 Germany won the bronze medal, mainly due to the Pfleger's 12.5 points out of 15, for which he received the gold medal on the fourth board. His activities in internal medicine and as a psychotherapist left him but little time for tournaments, and so he did not become a grandmaster until 1975. He became known far beyond the narrow chess scene with his chess programmes on German television (from 1977 to 2005).

Helmut Pfleger (right) on the German TV chess show, with anchor Klaus Spahn, the German Minister
of Finance (2005-2009) and candidate for Chancellor Peer Steinbrück, and GM Vlastimil Hort

German TV show with Helmut Pfleger and Vlastimil Hort commenting the game
Karpov vs Hübner in 2002 – you can watch the entire episode (in German) here.

Helmut Pfleger is also known to a vast number of readers with his chess columns in major German newspapers (including Die Zeit and Welt am Sonntag). Pfleger has always placed great value on producing entertaining and readily comprehensible articles.

On a personal note

By Frederic Friedel

I got to know Helmut late in the 19th century – or so it would seem. We have remained close friends for decades, not withstanding the fact that we have opposing views on a large number of subjects. I have stayed at his house in Munich on numerous occasions, and he at my house, entertaining my young sons with wonderful stories he made up as he was telling them. I also learnt more than I can tell about chess in general, chess problems, the psychology and physiology (!) of chess. And we had many an adventure together. As mentioned in the introduction, there are so many stories. Here is one that is worth retelling.

Do you know the very first time that a computer was used to clandestinely help a human player during a game of chess? It occurred in Hamburg, Germany, in August 1980. The perpetrators of the deception were the author of this article, a few colleagues from a German TV station, and Ken Thompson of the Bell Laboratories. The victim was Helmut Pfleger.

At the time we were making a science documentary about computer chess and wanted to perform a chess Turing test of sorts. Dr Pfleger was giving a simultaneous exhibition at the Hamburg Chess Festival, and we decided to secretly play a computer against him. Ken had just finished constructing his new Belle machine. We hid a radio receiver under the hair of a young colleague of mine, Dieter Steinwender, who had a place in the simul. I was able to talk to him from a vantage point high above the tournament hall. Ken was standing by in New Jersey to deliver the moves by phone.

Using a pair of binoculars I followed the moves on Dieter’s board. As soon as the GM made a move I relayed it by phone to Ken, who entered it into the computer. When Helmut approached the board again I would warn Ken, and he would give me Belle’s current best move. This I dictated by radio transmission to Dieter’s earphone, and he executed it as naturally as possible on the board.

Pictures from the original TV production: Steinwender getting the bug, Pfleger at work,
Friedel and Thompson cheating, Pfleger amazed to hear what we had done.

After some hours Helmut Pfleger was winning all his games, including the one against Belle. However, at move 49 he missed a clear way to end it – and eventually lost. Immediately after the game we pointed a camera at Helmut Pfleger and asked him whether he had noticed anything unusual. Nothing. One of the games, we told him, had been played by a machine. Helmut was very surprised. “Which game was that?” He was amazed to hear it was the one he lost. “I really noticed nothing. Wow, these things are really playing quite well these days.” This pioneering episode of "computer cheating" is described in greater detail here.

Yes, Helmut, we really tricked you that day, almost 35 years ago!

Helmut has been a great friend of our company. Above he is commenting on a Christmas game between Vlastimil Hort and German talent Melanie Ohme in the ChessBase office. He has also recorded a number of Fritztrainer DVDs for us, two of them together with Vlastimil.

Here is Helmut commenting one of the most beautiful games in chess history –
a treat if you speak German. You can see more here and here.

Click here for Helmut Pfleger's Fritztrainer DVDs in the ChessBase Shop

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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