Helmut Schmidt, Chancellor and chess enthusiast

by Frederic Friedel
11/24/2015 – He was one of the best-loved leaders of the German government, the hero of the devastating 1962 floods and the 1977 rescue of 86 passengers from a hijacked plane in Mogadishu. Two weeks ago Helmut Schmidt passed, at the age of 96. The countless newspaper tributes to this great leader did not neglect to mention one of his great passions: Helmut Schmidt loved chess.

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Helmut Schmidt, 1918 – 2015

Eulogy to a chess player

Helmut Heinrich Waldemar Schmidt, 23 December 1918 – 10 November 2015), was a German statesman and member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), who served as Chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982. Before becoming Chancellor, he had served as Minister of Defence (1969–1972) and as Minister of Finance (1972–1974). In the latter role he gained credit for his financial policies. He had also served briefly as Minister of Economics and as acting Foreign Minister.

As Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt focused on international affairs, seeking "political unification of Europe in partnership with the United States". He was an energetic diplomat who sought European co-operation and international economic co-ordination. He was re-elected chancellor in 1976 and 1980, but his coalition fell apart in 1982 with the switch by his coalition allies, the Free Democratic Party. He retired from Parliament in 1986, after clashing with the SPD's left wing, who opposed him on defence and economic issues. In 1986 he was a leading proponent of European monetary union and a European Central Bank.

From 1961 to 1965 Schmidt was the senator of the interior in Hamburg. He became a national hero due to his effective management of the 1962 flood, during which 300 people drowned. Schmidt used all means at his disposal to alleviate the situation, even when that meant overstepping his legal authority, including employing the federal police and army units, which was prohibited under the German post-war constitution. Describing his actions, Schmidt said, "I wasn't put in charge of these units – I took charge of them!" He saved at least 1,000 lives and swiftly managed the re-housing of thousands of the homeless.

During his term of office Schmidt was confronted with the bloody terror acts of the indigenous Red Army Faction (RAF) extremists. He took a tough, uncompromising line against them and their foreign allies, and in October 1977 ordered an anti-terrorist unit of Bundesgrenzschutz soldiers, GSG9, to end the Palestinian terrorist hijacking of a Lufthansa aircraft, an act staged to secure the release of imprisoned RAF leaders. When the plane finally landed in Mogadishu, Somalia, it was stormed by GSG9 operatives, who killed three of the four kidnappers and rescued all 86 passengers unharmed.

Here's a Youtube description of the events + a recent reenactment of the final moments in a German documentary. And here's description of Schmidt's role in the rescue operation.

Chess as a hobby and for relaxation

"I learnt to play chess from my father when I was six, and never anything new about the game since then," Helmut Schmidt said with typical wry humility. He loved the game and played it throughout his life – the last game was two weeks before his death, against his chess buddy Ulrich Stock, reporter in the prestigious news weekly Die Zeit, of which Schmidt was one of the chief editors.

"Farewell" – commemorative issue of Die Zeit

Schmidt's regular opponent for decades had been his wife Loki, as you can see in the newspaper articles quoted below. When she died in 2010 – at the age of 91, after 68 years of marriage, Stock asked Helmut Schmidt whether he would like to keep playing. Schmidt immediately agreed and the two met regularly for a relaxing game.

"His style was rather unconventional," says Stock in this video interview (in German). "He stood by his carefree playing style, always ready to go on the attack. When he saw that this was not working he became much more cautious." Here's an example of his play (in a simul against Germany's top grandmaster):

[Event "Hamburg Spiegel sim"] [Site "Hamburg"] [Date "1978.08.21"] [Round "?"] [White "Huebner, Robert"] [Black "Schmidt, Helmut"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "C61"] [WhiteElo "2595"] [PlyCount "79"] [EventDate "1978.08.21"] [EventType "simul"] [EventRounds "1"] [EventCountry "GER"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2003.11.25"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4 4. Nxd4 exd4 5. O-O a6 6. Ba4 c6 7. c3 dxc3 8. Nxc3 h6 9. d4 b5 10. Bb3 Bb4 11. Qf3 Qe7 12. e5 d5 13. exd6 Qxd6 14. Qxf7+ Kd8 15. Qxg7 Qf6 16. Qxf6+ Nxf6 17. Bf4 Bxc3 18. bxc3 Bf5 19. Rfe1 Ne4 20. Re3 h5 21. Rae1 Re8 22. Bc2 Kd7 23. Bxe4 Bxe4 24. Rxe4 Rxe4 25. Rxe4 Re8 26. Rxe8 Kxe8 27. f3 Ke7 28. Kf2 Ke6 29. Ke3 Kd5 30. Kd3 c5 31. dxc5 Kxc5 32. g4 hxg4 33. fxg4 a5 34. g5 Kd5 35. g6 Ke6 36. h4 Kf6 37. h5 Kg7 38. Be5+ Kh6 39. Ke4 Kxh5 40. g7 {First nine moves were made by the pawns in this game. As you must have figured out, Helmut loved chess quite a lot but was not very proficient at it.} 1-0

His love for the game and his involvement in it is reflected in the newspaper articles that appeard after his passing. Here is a small selection of chess-related articles and pictures.

Helmut Schmidt the chess player, featured in the biggest German news magazine SPIEGEL

Germany's second largest news weekly Focus shows Helmut Schmidt and wife Loki
"relaying with a game of chess during their vacation."

Helmut with his wife Loki in the biggest Hamburg newspaper

In Germany's biggest tabloid newspaper Bild a picture of Helmut and Loki from 1965

Another tabloid newspaper, Morgenpost, show the chancellor and his wife having a lakeside game

In 2011 Hoffmann and Campe published a book about two politicians, "Helmut Schmidt, former chancellor of the country (1974 to 1982), the other quite plausibly a future chancellor – one 93 years old and razor sharp in his mind, the other, Peer Steinbrück, 64, a preeminent critic of global predatory capitalism." Both were chess players and the book uses a game motif on its cover.

Peer Steinbrück, we must mention, is a German Social Democratic politician who served from 2005 to 2009 as German Federal Minister of Finance in the cabinet of Angela Merkel. He challenged her as the SPD candidate for Chancellor of Germany in the 2013 federal election but was defeated by the incumbent.

In 2005 Peer Steinbrück played an exhibition game on the stage against Vladimir Kramnik

If you can read German Zug um Zug, which translates to "Move by Move", is a highly recommended. At the time of its publication it generated a mini controversy because (can you guess?) the chessboard on the cover was the wrong way around.

The Hamburger Abandblatt started it with a report entitled "Schmidt, Steinbrück and the photo disgrace".
We investigated the matter at the time and published a report to explain what happened.

Helmut Schmidt was also an accomplished pianist – we found at least two records with him

On a personal note

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the German Chancellery staged occasional chess matches between politicians and the press. Helmut Schmidt was a keen participant.

Helmut Schmidt taking part in a chess tournament "Politicians vs Journalists" in 1976 –
next to him the future President of the Republic, Richard von Weizsäcker

His opponent was Israeli journalist Daniel Dagan, who won both games

I was invited to one of these tournaments and after it was over one of Schmidt's deputies, who had organised the event, introduced me to the chancellor. He greeted me courteously and was in the process of walking away when the deputy added: "Mr. Friedel is an expert in computer chess and has made a science documentary on the subject." Schmidt froze in his tracks, he turned back and spent the next fifteen minutes discussing the subject with me.

I was a cocky young journalist not wont to show the respect that is normally expected when talking to the head of a government. So our discussion was fairly adversorial. I predicted that computers would be stronger than the human world champion by the end of the century, and Schmidt emphatically rejected the idea. The reason he gave: computers will never be able to find exceptions, they will never find creative ideas that are requiered in top level chess. "You've been talking to Ludek Pachman?!" I said. (Ludĕk Pachman was a politically active Czech GM with whom I had frequently clashed on the subject of computer intelligence). Schmidt simply smiled – he probably had got the idea from Ludek's articles. "The opposite is correct," I said. "Computers can do nothing else but find exceptions, find crazy ideas." We discussed how you could open a random chess book, look at a diagram in a game and the move following it, with an exclamation mark attached. "That's the move computers will generally find," I said. "They won't be able to reach the position, because that requires strategic understanding. But they will find the brilliant move."

Schmidt was clearly interested, but his fidgeting deputies needed to shepard him to other commitments. "I would like to see these computers in action," Schmidt said. So I offered to bring a set or two around for the next event in the Chancellery. So his deputy and I approached the chess computer manufacturer Novag, who readily agreed to stage everything, with computer participation and a small computer display. During the planning phase I got to meet Helmut Schmidt (and Richard von Weizsäcker) one more time, and he took up our discussion as if it had been interrupted the day before. Unfortunately the event never took place – the advisors decided it was too commercial. I got a "see-you-again-sometime" invitation from the Chancellor, but never took advantage of it. At least I got to tell him that I had been active in his (and predecessor Willy Brandt's election campaigns) and received a warm thank-you for that.

Helmut Schmidt at 95: attending the 50th Munich Security Conference 2014 [photo Wiki]

Helmut Schmidt remained razor-sharp in his mind until his final days. I remember watching an interview just a few months ago, when he was debating a journalist who specializes in economics, on the "world monetary crisis". He not only clearly understood the subject better – way better – than his debate partner. He was also able to put things more succinctly, state essential facts without unnecessary verbosity. He even chided the journalist with meta-reprimands: "You are posing the question to try and get me to respond with careless contradiction. I won't fall into that trap." Schmidt was 96 years old! My reaction: That's how I want to be when I am 80!


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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