Wolfgang Unzicker turns eighty

by ChessBase
6/26/2005 – Born on June 26, 1925, young Wolfgang learned the game of chess at the age of ten and was captivated when he visited the Chess Olympiad at eleven. He studied law and became a judge, but played in top events with the likes of Euwe, Spassky, Petrosian and Fischer. Karpov called Unzicker the 'world champion of amateurs'.

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"U as in Unzicker"

Gala Event in Mainz honours Unzicker’s 80th birthday
with Karpov, Korchnoi and Spassky as special guests

By Hartmut Metz
(Translation by Gerhard Kenk)

In 1951, the Chess champion travelled in the former Republic of Yugoslavia, combining his vacation playing simultaneous exhibitions. On the way back he was scheduled to visit Ljubljana, to meet the Yugoslav chess team and return with its players to Krefeld in Germany. In this city, which is not too far from Düsseldorf, the first match of the national teams of Germany and Yugoslavia was to be held. Unzicker tried to inform the local Slovenian Chess Association about his arrival. “I am here now, my name is Unzicker”, he spoke into the telephone. “Who is calling? Could you please spell your last name?” Wolfgang Unzicker did as instructed: “U” – But he was interrupted instantly. His counterpart on the other end of the line asked “U as in Unzicker?” “Yes indeed, I am Unzicker!”

Wolfgang Unzicker vs Dr Max Euwe at the 1950 Chess Olympiade in Dubrovnik. The kibitzers are Lothar Schmid and Vincenzo Castaldi

Unzicker was born on 26 June 1925 in Pirmasens, a small town near Kaiserslautern in the province of Rhineland-Palatinate. This now retired judge celebrated his 80th birthday together with his wife Freia, his three sons and their wives as well as with three grand-children. In addition, a gala event will be staged in his honour during the upcoming Chess Classic Mainz on August 9th and 10th. The gala event will start at 16:00 hours. Unzicker, who played for the German national chess team a record-breaking 386 times, will be joined by three legends of chess: Anatoly Karpov, Viktor Korchnoi and Boris Spassky. “I will be more than pleased to meet my old chess-buddies and friends. The results of the chess matches will be of lesser importance” says the guest of honour, adding modestly “Considering the quality of this line-up, I have no illusions about my chances in this tournament.”

Referee of this tournament will be his long-time companion Lothar Schmid. The Bamberg-based publisher of the “Karl May” novels and chess grandmaster was recently voted the “Referee of the Century”, honouring his achievement when he diplomatically guided the highly explosive title match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. Both Schmid and Unzicker are regular visitors of the rapid chess Tournaments in Mainz, a city that is sometimes dubbed the “Mekka of rapid chess”. Tournament director Hans-Walter Schmitt considered it to be a special honour to present a great stage to a “Grandmaster, who achieved such a high level of play and represented Germany’s national chess team nearly 400 times, especially when you consider that he was an amateur and had a professional career.”

"Arbiter of the Century" Lothar Schmid

Despite his age, the grandmaster still plays tournament chess regularly with his team from the chess club “Tarrasch Munich”, competing in the “Oberliga” on board number one. The retired judge does not want to give up the 32 pieces altogether: “You have to be aware of the fact that at my age, the time of success has passed”, is how Unzicker explains his personal outlook on the game, which ensures that he can still derive pleasure from the 64 squares of the chess board. Nevertheless, he admires Viktor Korchnoi, who is six years younger: “It is amazing that Korchnoi is still playing at such a high level. He is a fighter with an iron will. At the chess board, he is very versatile: strong in combinations and a giant of the endgame. A slight weakness, which may have prevented him from capturing the world championship title is his Zeitnot and his tendency to overextend positions. Sometimes, attacks by his opponent evaporated like water in the desert”. Unzicker’s son Alexander once quipped “You are very good in the endgame, but Korchnoi is even better!” All three sons of Unzicker followed in his foot-steps in addition to Alexander, Ferdinand is also a chess player with an personal all-time high of 2305 Elo points, while Stefan played chess only for a short time.

In addition to his work in the legal area, Unzicker acted as legal advisor to the German Chess Associations for many years. “I never had the desire to become a professional chess player – this seemed to be a risky proposition in the Western World. Also, I did not want to dedicate my entire life to chess” – explains Unzicker. Despite his hesitations to chose the career of a professional chess player, he celebrated many sweet victories as an amateur, being ranked the best amateur in the world at times.

A rare photo from 1939 showing Willi Schlage, Karl Krbavic (17), Edith Keller (17), Klaus Junge (15), Wolfgang Unzicker (14) and Rudolf Kunath (15)

His tournament highlights include the first place he shared with Boris Spassky in the Sotchi tournament in 1965, his victories in Maribor and Krems as well as the Chess Olympiad in Tel Aviv in 1964. The still vital Unzicker commented: “These are tournaments I am very proud of”. Especially during the Tel Aviv tournament he showed a brilliant performance, winning the bronze medal and a 3:1 team victory over the Soviet Union. Playing on the first board, the Bavarian resident scored 13:5 points. Securing the third place finish were Lothar Schmid, Helmut Pfleger, Klaus Darga, Jürgen Mohrlok and the late Wolfram Bialas.

The fourth place that Unzicker shared with Lajos Portisch in 1966 at the Piatigorsky-Cup in Santa Monica (California) was regarded as an outstanding result. While other players such as Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer and Bent Larsen finished ahead of Unzicker, he points out who was behind him in the final ranks: “It was very important to me to place ahead of world champion Tigran Petrosjan, Samuel Reshevsky, Miguel Najdorf, Borislav Ivkov and Hein Donner.”

Playing against Spassky at the Piatigorsky Cup, Santa Monica 1966

World renowned classical cello musician Gregor Piatigorsky, who organised this world class chess event, characterised Unzicker as follows: “With his smart appearance, cleanly shaven and wearing a stylish suit, he was the perfect image of orderliness. The clicks of his heels revealed an unbending tradition and his eyes and laughter demonstrated the kindness of his heart. It was during these weeks that Unzicker gained the reputation of a person endowed with profound opinions and a powerful intellect. I enjoyed our conversations in German and wished that everybody could understand the feelings and thoughts of this friendly and cultivated man.”

At the age of ten, Wolfgang learned the game of chess more or less by chance from his father, a High school teacher. The son did not want to be an outsider. His brother, who was four years older and would later be killed in the Second World War, already knew how to play chess. His two best buddies also played chess avidly during the summer of 1935. It was this environment as well as his visits to the Chess Olympiad in 1936, which motivated Unzicker: “In full concentration, the young boy watched the game in which Kurt Richter sacrificed a Rook and a Bishop in a famous combination against Rumanian Gheorghe Alexandrescu”, explained Harald Fietz in the review of Unzicker’s chess live at the Lasker-Society in 2003. He further outlined “from now on, the book “correct combinations!” by Richter would be a source of inspiration”. Looking back, Unzicker considers himself to be a tactical fighter rather than a cool strategic player.

In the post-war era, invitations to chess tournaments offered one invaluable advantage: all participants were supplied with sufficient meals. Together with Fritz Sämisch, Unzicker was the first German player in 1948 to obtain an invitation to play abroad. In Lucerne (Switzerland) he immediately reached first place. His career developed nicely, not only due to the good nourishment he received during these years. And he considered his play “still to be less than perfect: the capitalisation of strategic advantages, who were not yet sufficient to secure a victory, was not yet as well developed in me as in players like Botvinnik, Smyslov or Karpov. It was especially Karpov who squeezed the winning margins out of every position”, explained Unzicker and knocked on the table just to underscore his argument: “this was missing from my play”.

The judge is also quite self-critical about his chances in the big league of chess: the world championship was somewhat out of his reach, even if he had been be a state-sponsored professional player according to the Soviet model. “I could have achieved the participation at a candidates qualifying tournament, but even Keres, Korchnoi or Geller did not manage to step up to the throne”. Unzicker rates these three players – “with some reservations as far as Evgeni Geller is concerned”, as chess players who had the qualification to become world champion, but never pulled it off. In this group, Unzicker would also include players such as Zukertort, Rubinstein, Tarrasch and Bronstein.

When Unzicker mentions the names of the three legends participating in his birthday gala in the Rheingoldhalle in Mainz, he can not help but to get exited: “Korchnoi is one of the most demanding challengers ever. In this respect, he was superior to Keres or Smyslov, even though his play lacked somewhat the elegance these two grandmasters displayed”. When Korchnoi celebrated his 70th birthday in 2001 in Zurich, Unzicker cited in his birthday speech a quote from Tarrasch. Tarrasch gave high marks to three champions having always performed with consistently high: Morphy, Pillsbury and Lasker”. Unzicker added the multiple vice world champion Korchnoi, who narrowly lost against Karpov.

Luzern 1948, with Grob, Unzicker, Sämisch and Kupper (front row)

Karpov remarks that Unzicker is the “world champion of amateurs” whose games everybody should study. Unzicker returns the compliment and considers world champion Karpov as the champion with most victories in tournament play (a total of 161 first places), “undoubtedly belonging to the greatest of the great chess players in history. It was, however, a sad and sorrow situation that he never had an opportunity to play against Bobby Fischer in 1975.” Unzicker, who managed to beat Bobby Fischer once, would assess that Fischer had better chances in this clash of giants, but in the ensuing years Karpov demonstrated “that he rightfully earned the world champion title and he was simply the best for some years to come.”

The German record-holding national team player also holds another grandmaster attending his chess classic gala in high esteem. “Spassky is in many respects the exact opposite of the fighter Korchnoi. But when challenged, the Russian bear he may become a very dangerous animal indeed. Spassky was a natural talent, one of the greatest talents ever. It took a genius like Bobby Fischer to limit Spassky’s reign as world champion to just 3 years, from 1969 to 1972. “Against Bobby Fischer, everybody would have been second winner”, remarked Unzicker.

Even at 80 years of age, the special guest is a fascinating key-note speaker, who never gives boredom a chance. Many stories come to his mind. In one of them, an old gentleman who was quite jittery once touched a piece on the board. His opponent insisted that he also must move this piece. With some understatement Unzicker remarked “He is not quite the role model of a gentleman.” His friend Ludek Pachmann favoured more direct language: “You have a strange way of expressing yourself. Say that he is a pig and you are telling the truth”.

Pachmann is at the centre of another one of Unzicker’s stories. At the reception of the famous chess congress in Hastings in 1954/1955, the man from Prague reported that his mother had switched the positions of Knight and Bishop on the board when she taught him the game of chess. Paul Keres quipped “that is something one needs to keep in mind when studying your opening books”. The Estonian proved his quick wit at a meeting witch the Dutchman Max Euwe in Varna. When the ex-champion spoke about the legendary game he played against Alexander Alekhine in Zurich in 1934, the following exchange developed: “When I sacrificed my knight, Alekhine took off his jacket.” Paul Keres: “and if you had sacrificed your queen, Alekhine would most likely have taken off his trousers…”

More on Unzicker’s games are available on a German language CD-ROM from ChessBase (Euro 25,50, ISBN 3-935602-48-0). The Cologne-based chess historian Hans-Dieter Müller published in 2003 a biography containing 1750 games, outlining the career of Unzicker. 30 Minutes of video scenes with Wolfgang Unzicker are included as highlights.

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