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Val Zemitis, 1925-2012 Print E-mail
By IM John Donaldson   
April 15, 2012
Vallead.jpgChess lost one of its most loyal and hard-working friends with the passing of Valdemars (Val) Zemitis early on the morning of March 22 in Davis, California. The cause was prostate cancer.

Born April 11, 1925, in Riga, Latvia, Mr. Zemitis learned to play in his early teens. He and his sister Rita were taught the game by their father, Martins Zemitis, a master violin maker.

Like many of his countrymen Mr. Zemitis fled west when the Soviet Union invaded Latvia for the second time in 1944. Soon after the Second World War was over he resumed his chess career as a displaced person in Germany while studying at the University of Göttingen. During his stay there he found time to play in one of the first international events after the Second World War (Oldenburg 1946) and to edit the magazine Sacha Pasaule (Chess World). This was the first but certainly not the last time Mr. Zemitis involved himself with chess journalism.

While in Germany Mr. Zemitis was taught some of the finer points of the game by Grandmaster Friedrich Sämisch who also sparked his interest in blindfold play. The ten board exhibition Mr. Zemitis gave sans voir in Ottendorf, Germany, on April 22, 1951, is recounted in Blindfold Chess - History, Psychology, World Records, and Important Games by Eliot Hearst and John Knoff, the most important book on the subject.

Mr. Zemitis immigrated to the United States in 1951, first settling in Salem, Oregon. While there he managed to climb Mt.Hood while also becoming acquainted with American chess players for the first time. Less than a year later he settled in Berkeley where he studied at the University of California. During his undergraduate days Mr. Zemitis enjoyed his greatest competitive success, tying for third in the 1954 California Open where he scored 5.5 from 7, drawing with Grandmaster Isaac Kashdan and International Master Herman Steiner. Held in Santa Barbara over Labor Day weekend, the event had all the best players in the state competing and the 81 competitors was a record setting turnout for the time.

Mr. Zemitis was inducted into the US Army in 1956 and was sent to Fort Sam Houston where he was trained to become a radiological technician. Assigned to Germany in part because of his facility with languages (he spoke Latvian, German, English and Russian fluently), Mr. Zemitis once again found time to resume his chess activities, drawing with soon to be World Champion Mikhail Tal in a simul held around the time of the Munich Olympiad.

Returning to California in 1959, Mr. Zemitis started what would prove to be a productive career as a chess writer and researcher. His first contribution, produced with the assistance of of Bob Burger in 1960, was  The Unknown Tal. This was quite possibly the first book dedicated to the Wizard of Riga. Val's last and biggest project was his Encyclopedia of Latvian Chessplayers. This massive two volume work, over 800 pages in length, can be found at the Mechanics' Institute of San Francisco and the principal public repositories of chess books - the John G. White Collection in Cleveland, the Royal Dutch Library in The Hague and the Anderson Collection at the State Library of Victoria in Australia. There is no other publication like it devoted to the chess players of one small country; albeit one that has produced giants the likes of Tal, Nimzovitch and Shirov.

Mr. Zemitis did not confine himself solely to chess literature. He was also a man of action who helped the young Zsuzsa Polgar make her West Coast debut in the United States in the 2nd San Francisco International in 1986. Later he was instrumental in bringing the Latvian Women's Champion Dana Reizniece to play two international events at the Mechanics' Institute in 2000. Soon after Latvia regained its independence in the early 1990s, Mr. Zemitis found himself corresponding with the young Alexey Shirov and trying to help him find opportunities in a rapidly changing world.

A man who seldom, if ever, raised his voice or lost his temper, Val Zemitis will be remembered as a good husband and father, a friend to any animal he ever met and a true lover of chess.

Slav Exchange D13


1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 c6 4.cxd5 cxd5 5.Nc3 Nc6 6.Bf4 e6 7.e3 Nh5 8.Be5 f5 9.Rc1 Be7 10.Bd3 0-0 11.0-0 Bd7 12.Ne1 Nxe5?!

Safer was 12...Nf6. This exchange offers White's knight an excellent post on d4.
13.dxe5 Qe8 14.Nc2 g5?!
This is too ambitious. More solid was 14...g6.
15.Nd4 a6
Played to prevent the knight incursion which occurs after 15...Rb8 16.Ncb5.
16.Qb3 Rb8 17.g4!
This well-timed blow tears apart Black's position.
17...fxg4 18.Nxd5! exd5 19.Qxd5+ Kg7?
Black's only chance to survive was 19...Kh8 although after 20.Qe4 Qg6 21.Qxg6 hxg6 22.Rc7 Rfd8 23.e6 Bb5 24.Bxb5 Bd6 25.e7 Bxc7 26.exd8Q+ Rxd8 (26...Bxd8 27.Be2) 27.Ne6 Rd6 28.Bc4 the ending is far from pleasant.
20.Rc7 Bc6

No better is 20...Bb5. After 21.Bxb5 axb5 22,Qe4 Rh8 23.Bxb5 Qd8 24.Rd7 Qe8 25.Rc1 Black remains a piece ahead but his position is hopeless.
21.Qe6 Rf7 22.Nf5+ Kf8 23.Bc4 Ng7 24.Qh6 Rxf5 25.Qxh7 1-0

Look for a version of this article in an upcoming issue of Chess Life Magazine.