Uhlmann’s defense: how to shut them down when they come for your king

I learned a nice concept recently when researching how to counter the Grand Prix Attack in the Sicilian Defense. It implies a typical way of neutralizing the white Queen that has come to h4 on its standard route via d1-e1-h4, setting itself up to play a major role in the white attack against the black king.

The motif reminded me of something related in the King’s Indian Attack (KIA) that I learned back in the day as a kid when the German Democratic Republic was a country with Grandmaster Wolfgang Uhlmann being its best player.

David Bronstein – Wolfgang Uhlmann, Moscow 1971

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Knowing Uhlmann’s defense …Qe8 has helped me numerous times to stay calm and set up effectively when my opponent was preparing his kingside attack. It’s also a crucial motif to know as the attacker in order to not run into a counterstrike that will immediately shut you down. The idea is by no means restricted to the KIA, but that’s where it is employed most often.

Its history, however, began with a crushing defeat in 1971. Against the great David Bronstein Uhlmann blundered one move after he had played …Qe8 and was totally fine.

As a notorious French player Wolfgang Uhlmann had to face 1.e4 e6 2.d3 followed by a KIA setup regularly in the early 1970s due to Bobby Fischer’s universal love for the KIA (his legendary book „My 60 memorable games“ begins with a KIA game). Other grandmasters of the time tried to walk in Fischer’s footsteps, so that fighting the French with a KIA setup became a common method on the highest level.

When Fischer introduced his idea 13.a3! in 1967 a fierce theorectical debate followed:

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Usually we avoid to move pawns on the side where the opponent attacks in order to not present any marks. Fischer’s idea represents an exception to the rule. By playing a3 himself White prevents Black from going …a3, creating dark squared holes in the white camp that a black knight (via c6-a7-b5, the typical route) would love to aim for. Also White retains flexibility in his queenside structure after …bxa3 bxa3. Should Black go …Nd4 at some point (another typical move) White can kick the horse with c2-c3.

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Bobby Fischer loved KIA setups. Since many others tried to walk in Fischer’s footsteps, Wolfgang Uhlmann faced 2.d3 again and again when playing his French defense. He had to invent something since he was the leading authority on the opening. He then came up with „Uhlmann’s defense“ …Qe8 and …f5.

World Championship Candidate Wolfgang Uhlmann had to come up with countermeasures. First of all Uhlmann stayed true to Black’s Classical and most principled setup involving a pawn storm on the queenside while facing a buildup in front of his king on the other side of the board – and rightly so. 50 years later it has turned out that despite Fischer’s 13.a3 Black is doing well in this line.

Uhlmann’s defense represents a method to defuse White’s attacking move Qh5. Let’s look at Bronstein-Uhlmann once again.

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Should White go 14.Qh5 now, the option …f5 becomes real. With his Queen attacked White wouldn’t have the time to take on f6 en passant. And once Black has installed a pawn on f5 controlling the g4 square his king’s position becomes unshakable.

Obviously after 14.Qh5 an immediate 14…f5 is not possible since the e6 pawn would be en pris (15.Qxh7# works as well). So Black takes on g5 first, and now another of Uhlmann’s points becomes apparent. After 14.Qh5 Bxg5 White would love to play 15.hxg5 with the typical grip on the f6 square, followed by Nf1-h2-g4-f6+ and checkmate. But since now 15.hxg5 would be answered by 15…f5!. White has to play 15.Qxg5, losing his coordination for a kingside attack.

Bronstein (being a former World Championship Candidate himself) understood what Uhlmann had in store for him. He avoided it by playing 14.Qg4 instead with the threat 15.Nxe6. Maybe Uhlmann was still excited about getting to play his idea against one of the game’s greatest? Whatever it was, he immediately donated the game away: 14…a4??, and after 15.Nxe6 he resigned.

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One year later in Amsterdam Uhlmann faced US grandmaster Walter Browne with the black pieces, and quickly the position after 13…Qe8 appeared on the board once again. Uhlmann trusted his setup, and Browne feared an improvement should he follow Bronstein’s 14.Qg4.

Walter Browne – Wolfgang Uhlmann, Amsterdam 1972

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Browne went for Uhlmann’s king with the principled 14.Qh5 Bxg5 15.Qxg5. When three moves later the white queen reappeared on h5 Uhlmann finally got to show the second building block of his concept: …Qe8 first, then …f5 with a white queen on h5:

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Black is doing well and he went on to win a convincing game against a strong opponent.

Wolfgang Uhlmann (83) ist still around, and he still plays chess occasionally. In April 2016, two weeks after his 81st birthday, he was called once again to compete for the team of his hometown Dresden in the „Bundesliga“, the incredibly strong German 1st division. To play there as an 81 year old set a record that won’t be broken anytime soon.

Up to this day Uhlmann trusts his beloved French defense (and King’s Indian), and he still implements his ideas from when he was among the world’s best. Look what happened in 2006 when he faced FM Michael Becker with the black pieces in the German 3rd division:

Michael Becker – Wolfgang Uhlmann, Germany 2006

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And now guess who won that game 😉

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Fortunately Uhlmann has spread his chess wisdom on several occasions. The most notable among his writings is his 2012 book on the French defense („A lifetime of playing the French“) which is only availabe in German. In case you do understand some German we heartily recommend his chessbase DVD „My best games“, a collection of insightfully annotated Classics with Uhlmann battling the world’s best.

Enough with bowing before one of Germany’s few chess legends, let’s switch to a related idea in the Grand Prix Attack.

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This is just an exemplary position to illustrate the concept. The key move …e6 prepares …h5! and …Ng4!, either forcing the white queen back into its camp or to exchange itself after which Black can proceed to bulldoze the queenside without having to fear for his king.

I have found that this motif appears quite often in structures like these. In fact the whole black play is based on it frequently, so I felt a littlebit ashamed that this was news to me.

Make sure to remember it once someone is coming for your king!

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