Happy birthday: Robert Hübner turns 75!

by Hartmut Metz
11/6/2023 – Robert Hübner is the best German chess player since Emanuel Lasker. At the height of his career, the grandmaster from Cologne was ranked third in the world behind Karpov and Korchnoi. With his scientific training, Hübner also took a scientific interest in the game of chess. The multiple World Championship candidate turns 75 today. | Photo: Robert Hübner during a lecture about a game he played in Tilburg 1985 against Ljubomir Ljubojevic (Photo: Hartmut Metz)

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Too modest and sensitive for the title

Dr Robert Hübner turns 75

If you were to take Dr Robert Hübner's comments at face value, you would think he was a patzer. In chess jargon, that's what you call a no-hoper. But the man from Cologne, who celebrates his 75th birthday today (6 November), is quite the opposite: Hübner is a linguistic genius and the best German chess grandmaster since the Second World War.

The former world number three tragically missed out on a World Championship match. A roulette ball stopped him in the casino in Velden: after a 7-7 draw, including overtime, against former world champion Vasily Smyslov, the ball landed twice on the zero! Then on red - but Hübner had bet on black.

In addition, the doctor of papyrology gave up two candidate matches against Tigran Petrosian and Viktor Korchnoi. Against Petrosian Hübner retired in the quarter-finals of the Candidates Matches in Seville in 1971 after his first defeat following six draws. Petrosian was able to ignore the disturbing noise outside by simply switching off his hearing aid.

Born in Porz, Germany, Hübner came close to a World Championship match against Anatoly Karpov in 1980: In the 16-game final against Korchnoi, Hübner was leading 2-1 after six games. But then Hübner missed a simple knight fork in an equal endgame and blundered a rook. He also lost the eighth game. Two adjourned games were decided in Korchnoi's favour because Hübner had withdrawn from the Candidates' Final. The idea that the German would have reached at least one World Championship final if he had possessed the chess obsession, will and self-confidence of Korchnoi is obvious.

One of the titles of his books is characteristic of his sensitive nature and his eloquence: "Fünfundfünfzig feiste Fehler" (Fifty-five fat mistakes) is the title of the work in which Hübner dissects and meticulously picks apart his own games. The former Bundesliga player, who played for SG Porz, Bayern Munich and OSG Baden-Baden, prefers to portray himself as a bungler. At a lecture in Bad Wildungen, made possible by the founder of the "Kinderschach Foundation" (children's chess foundation), Gerhard Köhler, the fans listen to their idol with rapt attention, even though Hübner proclaims: "I'm not interested in chess!"

He said that he has a "very ambivalent relationship with chess". He also felt that the computers had made the new top players very "uniform" and that they "at the age of 23 are already a relic of the past".

Gerhard Köhler (on the right) had invited Hübner to give a talk at the German Seniors' Championships

Hübner is said to speak 22 languages. His genius in this regard is underlined by an anecdote: he once played a game against Heikki Westerinen. After the duel, Hübner was unable to communicate with the Finnish grandmaster because, according to the legend, Westerinen only spoke Finnish. So Hübner went home and learnt Finnish so that he could talk to Westerinen after the next game!

Although Hübner would never boast about the difficulty of the language, there is indirect evidence to support the anecdote, or that the Cologne-born papyrologist studied Finnish in depth: he was enthusiastic about the Finnish poet Oli and translated several of his works.

According to Wikipedia, the 75-year-old won his last titles in Luxembourg with De Sprenger Echternach in 2018 and 2019. He also won the Swiss team championship with SK Luzern in 2018. With his last sentence in Bad Wildungen, Hübner dashed his fans' hopes of a comeback on the 64 squares: "Translating ancient Greek texts is 100 times more fun for me than chess!"

Hartmut is an editor at Badischer Tagblatt, headquartered in Baden-Baden. He also writes for chess and table tennis among others for the Frankfurt Rundschau and the Munich Merkur. In addition, the FM of the Rochade Kuppenheim regularly writes articles for the chess magazine 64, Chess Active (Austria) and Chessbase.de.