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Keres - Unzicker Match

Paul Keres6/8(+4 -0 =4)[games]
Wolfgang Unzicker2/8(+0 -4 =4)[games] Chess Event Description
Keres - Unzicker (1956)


This match between Paul Keres and Wolfgang Unzicker played in Hamburg, Federal Republic of Germany, in May and June 1956.

The match was organized by the Schachklub BUE von 1906 on the occasion of its 50 anniversary, and the games were played in the Restaurant Grün, Hansaplatz 1, Hamburg. (1) The club was one of the leading German chess clubs of the 1950s. In 1950, Schachklub BUE von 1906 became German team champions and in 1955 they were runners-up. (2)

A match between a Soviet grandmaster and a western grandmaster outside of the world championship structure was an extremely rare event. Later, potential matches between Fischer and Leonid Stein or Mikhail Botvinnik were talked about but never came to fruition.

The match is further remarkable in that all of the games were the same opening (Ruy Lopez) without prior arrangement. This position, after 13 moves, was seen in three successive games of the match:

click for larger view

Both players were experts in the Spanish opening. GM Egon Varnusz wrote,

"Paul Keres was... at his best in open games and it was his all-round mastery and supreme artistry here which prompted contemporaries to name him - recalling the exploits of the great Paul Morphy - Paul II... This is not to deny that a mature player, after 1.e4 e5, should aim to play the Ruy Lopez. Keres...became a virtuoso of this opening as well, playing either Black or White. There cannot have been more than four or five players throughout the whole history of the game who achieved such mastery of any opening with both colours and with such perfection." (3) .

That is not hyperbole. Using the Chess Base database, Keres had played 150 Ruy Lopez openings with either colour to the end of 1955. His score per colour was:

Won with White - 53 games/66.3%
Drew with White - 20 games/25.0%
Lost with White -7 games/8.8%

Won with Black - 41 games/58.6%
Drew with Black - 21 games/30.0%
Lost with Black - 8 games/11.4%

Nearly all of these games were against elite players, so a win rate of 62.7% with this opening was outstanding (to the end of 1955 his win rate across all openings was 55.8%).

Unzicker's corresponding totals in Ruy Lopez games were:

Won with White - 26 games/61.9%
Drew with White - 13 games/31.0%
Lost with White - 3 games/7.1%

Won with Black - 7 games/28.0%
Drew with Black - 13 games/52.0%
Lost with Black - 5 games/20.0%

His win rate in this opening was 49.3%; to the end of 1955 his win rate across all openings was 47.1%. Until this match, Unzicker had only lost 8 of 67 Ruy Lopez games. These defeats included two recent, and only games to date with Keres, - Unzicker vs Keres, 1955 and Unzicker vs Keres, 1955).

The players

Unzicker (30 y.o.) was the leading West German player. He had been awarded the Grandmaster title in 1954 and had won the West German Championship in 1948, 1950 and 1952.

Despite his obvious strength, Unzicker played relatively infrequently as he concentrated on his career as a lawyer.

"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". (4)

Unzicker was described by Najdorf, "The German grandmaster is a Classical player and prefers the older lines...Unzicker is not fond of complicated variations..." (5), yet when looking back at his career, "Unzicker considered himself to be a tactical fighter rather than a cool strategic player." (6).

He had played relatively few games in the preceding year, his only international tournament being Gothenburg Interzonal (1955) (August to September 1955) where he finished down the field in sixteenth place.

Keres (aged 40) had finished second in the Gothenburg Interzonal (1955) and his good form extended into this match. The late 1950s were a peak period in his career. (7)

Keres had the services of his long-term coach Vladas Mikenas as a second for this match. (8)

According to Chessmetrics, Keres was number two in the world rankings and Unzicker twenty-second. (9).

Progress of the match

Unzicker had white in the odd-numbered games.

Round 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Keres ½ 1 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 6 Unzicker ½ 0 ½ 0 0 ½ 0 ½ 2

<Progressive scores:>

Round 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Keres ½ 1½ 2 3 4 4½ 5½ 6 Unzicker ½ ½ 1 1 1 1½ 1½ 2

<The games>

Game 1

Keres defended against the Ruy Lopez with the system he had used in the previous Candidates' tournament - Averbakh vs Keres, 1953. Both players followed theory and the game was drawn without incident.

Game 2

Unzicker chose the Berlin Defence against the Ruy Lopez and followed old theory. Unzicker grabbed a pawn and allowed Keres a King-side initiative. With <23.Nxg7!!>, Keres smashed his way through to victory.

click for larger view

Game 3

Unzicker played an early <d4> advance in the Ruy Lopez. Keres managed to dissolve the centre and quickly achieved equality. Many years later Unzicker lost very quickly in exactly the same opening -Unzicker vs Smejkal, 1999

Game 4

Unzicker defended with the mainline Chigorin (Ruy Lopez, Closed, Chigorin (C97)) which was new to his repertoire as Black. As White, he had recently won very effectively against this line - Unzicker vs J H Donner, 1955. Unzicker would adopt this defensive setup from the mid-1960s, but he never achieved a victory using it.

Keres' play in this game was extremely accurate and tactically efficient. He finished off his opponent handsomely by:

click for larger view

33.e6! f6 34.Bxf6!

Game 5

Keres used the same Chigorin defense to the Ruy Lopez as Unzicker in the previous game. This may have been psychologically motivated to use the same line as Unzicker, or it may be simply using the preparation he had already revealed in Game 1.

Unzicker had a very promising position but lost the initiative through being distracted by minor material gains on the Queen-side. Keres returned the piece to launch his own King-side attack using the <g> file which Unzicker had opened.

Unzicker defended poorly and Keres won a second game in succession. After 5 games, Unzicker was three games down.

Game 6

Having suffered three defeats, Unzicker refreshed his opening strategy and changed over to the Open Variation of the Ruy Lopez. Although he had regularly used this defence in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it had gradually fallen out of his repertoire.

This game followed the well-known Botvinnik vs Euwe, 1934 before Keres deviated at move 21. Unzicker quickly established and maintained equality with the Black pieces and the game lasted only 28 moves before a draw was agreed.

Game 7

This game was Keres' second win with Black in the match. Unzicker, through an unnecessary exchange, allowed Keres to invade his back rank. Unzicker's King soon succumbed.

Game 8

Having lost heavily in the match using the closed variation Unzicker returned to the Open Variation and again secured equality. After 25 moves, the players agreed to a draw and Keres won the match undefeated.


(1). Information provided by User: Telemus, see Keres vs Unzicker, 1956 (kibitz #28).

(2). Wikipedia article: Hamburger SG BUE

(3). "Paul Keres Best Games vol. 2" p vii., Egon Varnusz, Pergamon Press, 1980.





(7). Najdorf in his annotations to Najdorf vs Unzicker, 1966, "Second Piatigorsky Cup, edited by Isaac Kashdan", Dover Publications 1977, p.46.

(8). "Chess Review", July 1956, vol.24. no.7, p.195.


User: Chessical- original collection and text.

 page 1 of 1; 8 games  PGN Download 
Game  ResultMoves YearEvent/LocaleOpening
1. Unzicker vs Keres ½-½241956Keres - UnzickerC97 Ruy Lopez, Closed, Chigorin
2. Keres vs Unzicker 1-0271956Keres - UnzickerC67 Ruy Lopez
3. Unzicker vs Keres ½-½271956Keres - UnzickerC91 Ruy Lopez, Closed
4. Keres vs Unzicker 1-0341956Keres - UnzickerC97 Ruy Lopez, Closed, Chigorin
5. Unzicker vs Keres 0-1391956Keres - UnzickerC97 Ruy Lopez, Closed, Chigorin
6. Keres vs Unzicker ½-½281956Keres - UnzickerC83 Ruy Lopez, Open
7. Unzicker vs Keres 0-1321956Keres - UnzickerC75 Ruy Lopez, Modern Steinitz Defense
8. Keres vs Unzicker ½-½251956Keres - UnzickerC83 Ruy Lopez, Open
  REFINE SEARCH:   White wins (1-0) | Black wins (0-1) | Draws (1/2-1/2)  

Kibitzer's Corner
Premium Chessgames Member
  offramp: This is it: the <World Championship of the Ruy Lopez>.
Dec-01-22  paavoh: A great find, <offramp>! I was not aware of this match.
Dec-01-22  Olavi: Not only the eight games here were Ruys, all 15 games between the two were.

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