Monday, August 4, 2008

Edgar Sneiders

Modesty is a virtue not often found among poets, for almost every one of them thinks himself the greatest... Those words from Cervantes fit chessplayers equally well, but Edgar Sneiders was the exception. For a player of such skill he was uncharacteristically unassuming, often self-effacing. When I asked him for biographical data several years ago he replied, "you have to exhaust the list of the more prominent members of the Gemeinde first. I am bashful, you know." Edgar SneidersEdgar was born in Rauna, Latvia on March 25, 1912, and grew up on a farm. He married while a young man and took a job in a sugar factory. But soon the chaos of World War II and the Russian occupation of Latvia were upon him. In 1943 he and his wife escaped to Germany, where later upon Allied occupation of Germany they lived for a time in a camp for displaced persons.

After the war the Sneiders came to the United States, at first working in the tobacco fields of Kentucky for $12 a week. Some of their old friends from Latvia had settled in Lansing, Michigan and the Sneiders soon joined them. In 1951, Edgar began work there as a laborer at the city sewage treatment plant. When he retired in 1977, he was the superintendent of a new $14 million plant.

Like many American fans of the BDG, Edgar was introduced to the opening by another Latvian-American, Nikolajs Kampars. In a 1972 letter to Kampars, Edgar wrote, "Remember, we were assigned to the same CCLA section some years ago. At that time you mentioned that such a gambit existed, and that I should try my hand at it. So I did, and got hooked forever:" In that letter, which was written under protest and only after much prompting from Kampars, Edgar noted that in the late 1950s he "played quite a bit over-the-board. At one time I had more than 2200 points accumulated, which was good enough for my Master's 'degree'." (Edgar was also fond of bridge.) "I also held the title of Lansing's champ for a number of years. Michigan Amateur champ was I once."

A 1963 issue of Opening Adventures carries the report of a simultaneous exhibition conducted by Sneiders following a tournament in Lansing. Competing against 24 of the tournament entrants, Edgar won 22 games, drew 2, and lost none. Since the exhibition lasted just over two hours, he spent only about five minutes per game. Edgar noted that he still enjoyed playing five-minute speed chess now and then, and that in his youth in Latvia he had won several speed championships. "About two years ago I by chance participated in one Michigan Speed Championship Tournament. To my astonishment I walked away with the champ's title. The result was 13-0." Time apparently had little effect on Edgar's abilities. In 1984 he and his wife Hildegarde attended a large reunion of Latvian exiles in West Germany, where one of many activities was a speed chess tourney. A report of the event in a German chess magazine noted that it was won by 72 year old Edgar Sneiders over 18 other participants.

The pages of Opening Adventures abound with many of Edgar's brilliancies in correspondence chess. He was the highest American finalist in the First BDG World Correspondence Championship, finishing eighth in a field of 21. For about ten years following that tourney Edgar essentially withdrew from chess, but when he returned to correspondence play in the early 1980s, he seemed still to overcome time itself. He recently came in clear first in a strong tournament organized by Walter Schneider, ahead of five finalists from the First BDG World (including the second and third place finishers) and a top finisher from the Second BDG World Finals.

It's impossible to choose Edgar's "best" games—he played so many, and so many are good ones. He wrote Kampars that "you are in a much better position to select. All my past games are in a hopeless mess somewhere among other junk. I do not have any system, therefore every new BDG game is also a new experience for me." And while Edgar was always ready to help a friend with analysis or comments on a variation, he was characteristically modest about his games. "I have never annotated a game in my life, and do not feel like starting now. One has to be rather precise in his comments in order to do a good job." That's okay. With or without notes, Edgar's games are a great joy. Playing over them provides some small appreciation for his great talents, together with the realization that when Edgar left us on June 7, 1988, the Blackmar Gemeinde lost one of its finest members.