Helmut Pfleger turns 80

by ChessBase
8/6/2023 – He is one of our earliest friends in chess, a personality that has done more for German chess than anyone we know. He started as the country's most talented young player, became a grandmaster, a medical doctor, but continued to promote the game in numerous chess columns and TV shows. Today he turns eighty, and is still going strong. In our article we also include some unique problems that another octogenarian composed for his coeval colleague. | Photo Nadja Wittmann

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Helmut Pfleger was born on August 6, 1943, in Teplice-Šanov. He became one of the strongest of German players despite pursuing his medical studies and earning a doctorate. His activities in internal medicine and as a psychotherapist left him but little time for tournaments, and so he did not become a full grandmaster until 1975.

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 Helmut's 12.5 points out of 15, for which he received the gold medal on the fourth board.

Helmut 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

I got to know Helmut in the late 1970s, and we have remained the best of 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.

Grandmaster entertaining kids in our garden

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. There are countless stories – here are a couple worth mention.

In 1979 at a tournament in Munich I was helping Helmut run experiments on the effects of certain drugs on chess players. Helmut measured the blood pressure of players before and during the games, and even took blood samples from Andersson and Spassky. He tried using a beta blocker on himself to see if it was advantageous not to have big spikes in his blood pressure (as measured with all the players at critical moments during the games). The answer was no, since Helmut lost "like a child" (his own words) to Spassky while playing under the influence of this medication. Apparently, chess players need the full adrenalin rush to defend dangerous positions adequately.

In 1980 I was doing a documentary for German TV on chess playing computers, and one of the subjects we dealt with was position recognition in human players. We used special equipment to track the eye movement of GMs and chess amateurs when looking at a position.

Above you see Helmut conducting the procedure with World Championship candidate Andras Adorian, who solved chess positions while we recorded the movement of his eyes.

Finally, 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 during the production of the same documentary 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 none other than Helmut Pfleger, who was giving a simultaneous exhibition at the Chess Festival. We secretly played a computer against him. Using a pair of binoculars I followed the moves on the board of a colleague who was part of the experiment.

Pictures from the original TV production: our collaborator getting prepared, Helmut at work, me and Ken cheating, Helmut Pfleger amazed to hear what we had done. This pioneering episode of "computer cheating" is described in full detail here.

Birthday problems by Werner Keym

For Helmut Pfleger the octogenarian puzzle master Werner Keym submitted problems in two German newspapers to celebrate Helmut's eightieth birthday. It doesn't suffice that the puzzles are very clever – Werner has encoded a unique form of birthday greetings into them (as he is wont to do).

In the first problem all the pieces are on the h-file (for Helmut), and standing on the ranks that give the year of his birth: 6.8.43. A special problem for Helmut Pfleger.

There is a twin to the above problem: change the black knight on h3 into a white knight!

In the second problem the pieces are once again on the ranks 6, 8, 4, 3, pointing to his birth date to clearly personalize the problem.

In helpmates it is Black to move, and he must help White to mate him in the required number of moves. Try to find a way to construct a mate against Black by moving the pieces on the board. 

In help-stalemates it is likewise required that Black (to move) helps White to stalemate him in the required number of moves. Here Werner Keym has added two twins to his puzzle – a single piece moved in each case, to yield a radically different solution:

Do try to solve these unusual problems yourself. They are harder than you think, and of course cannot be solved with regular chess engines. Each has a single line as a solution – no alternatives possible. We will give you the solutions in a follow-up article.

In any case: Happy Birthday Helmut!

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