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Elmars Zemgalis


1923 - 2014 Obituary Condolences
Elmars Zemgalis

America's oldest International Grandmaster of Chess, Elmars Zemgalis, died on December 8th in Seattle at the age of 91.

Elmars was born in Riga, Latvia on September 9, 1923, the youngest of three children. He first learned to play chess at age 11, from his older brother, Edvins. Even in his youth, Elmars was considered to be among the most talented chess players in Latvia. After he graduated at the top of his class from the First Municipal High School in Riga, he obtained a degree from the Institute of Teachers' Training in Jelgava and began to pursue Medicine at the University of Riga, but he had to flee war torn Latvia in 1944. He was able to escape on a fishing boat out of Riga, and by train arrived in Germany's northern province of Schleswig-Holstein. Elmars did not see active duty during WWII since he was infirmed due to health concerns.

In 1946 Elmars was able to reunite with his mother and sister in Bavaria at the displaced person (DP) camp. His brother, a member of the Latvian Legion fighting the communist aggressors, had died in battle. In the small village of Neunburg vorm Wald, Elmars met his future wife Cacilia while lunching on a park bench. They wed in 1948. With his knowledge of English and German, he subsequently took on the important position of employment officer with the International Refugee Organization.

He first gained the attention of the chess world by his second place finishes at Augsburg and Regensburg in 1946, but it was his tie for first with World Championship contender Efim Bogoljubow at Oldenburg 1949 that really made him known. There he finished above such players as Unzicker, Rossolimo, Saemisch, O'Kelly, Wade, Tautvaisas, Rellstab and Enevoldsen, scoring an undefeated 12 from 17. These results and other strong performances in Germany from 1946 to 1950 led him to receiving the Grandmaster title from FIDE in 2003.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports writer Royal Brougham had the foresight to include a chessmaster in his program to bring displaced sportsmen from Europe to Washington state. This made it possible for Elmars & Cacilia to move from Germany and settle in Seattle in 1952. Their arrival was immediately celebrated with two special events. The first saw Elmars play 50 players simultaneously at the P.I. auditorium with hundreds of spectators watching. The second was a match against the leading Washington chess master Olaf Ulvestad who had competed in the 1946 USA-USSR match. Elmars won convincingly 3-1. He would later win the Washington State Championship in 1953 and 1959.

With honor society ranking and degrees in mathematics from the University of Washington (MA) and Seattle University (BS), Elmars worked at Boeing as a research mathematician (early 1960s), prior to becoming a tenured math instructor at Highline College. He authored several textbooks for algebra and calculus, as well as contributing research articles for mathematical journals. Over the years, he served as editor for a number of chess publications. Elmars continued to enjoy teaching at Highline College until his retirement.

Elmars love for chess, and his chess colleagues, locally and internationally, was evident throughout his retirement years. He played correspondence chess by mail, and later via the internet. He often reflected on how miraculously chess had shaped his life story. Elmars held Latvia dear, and was able to return for visits, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He was a member of Seattle's Latvian Lutheran Church & the Latvian Association of Washington State, as well as Bellevue Sister Cities (Liepaja, Latvia is a sister city). Elmars was preceded in death by his siblings (Edvins & Rasma), & his lovely wife (Cacilia).

Thank you to Cristina & Dan Moldovan at the Royal Adult Family home (in Lakeridge) who provided the utmost in attentive, loving, professional care for the past 15 months.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to the Seattle Chess Club, www.seattlechess.org, or the Latvian Lutheran Church.
Published in The Seattle Times on Jan. 4, 2015
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