Chess Grandmaster Edmar Mednis has died

Grandmaster Edmar Mednis died suddenly of cardiac arrest during a bout with pneumonia on Wednesday February 13, 2002 in Woodside, Queens, New York. The chess world is shocked that such a healthy and active man could die in this way. Mednis had recently undergone minor surgery. After coming home from the hospital, he became ill but did not take it seriously. His death came as a great surprise.

Mednis was courteous and polite and well liked by everybody. Born in Riga, Latvia on March 22, 1937, he was a proud Latvian Nationalist who escaped out of Latvia with his parents at the conclusion of the Second World War. After living in a displaced persons camp in Germany, Mednis came to America at the age of thirteen. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City. He never completely shook his Latvian accent, however.
Edmars Mednis
Edmar Mednis

Mednis started his career as a brilliant young chess player. He represented the United States in the 1955 World Junior Championship, where he finished second to future world champion Boris Spassky, ahead of Portisch, Panno and many other future grandmasters. He drew his individual game with Spassky in that tournament.

However, that proved to be his most impressive result. Mednis never seemed to fulfill his early promise as a chess player. He had a cautious style and tried to avoid risk. His strategy was to play conservatively and wait for his opponent to blunder. If his opponent over-extended himself, Mednis was strong enough to beat anybody.

This is how Mednis won the game of his life, when he defeated Bobby Fischer in the 1962 US Championship. Fischer obtained a small advantage early in the game. There was no way for Mednis to play for a win. Fischer had a guaranteed draw any time he wanted it.

However, Fischer played relentlessly for a win, sacrificing a pawn. Just a few moves before the end, Fischer avoided a line which would probably have led to a safe draw. Instead, Fischer advanced his king towards the middle of the board. Then, suddenly, Fischer realized that he was overextended and quickly resigned, without waiting to see if Mednis could demonstrate the win.

This victory formed the basis for the career of Mednis as a chess writer. His most popular book was "How to Beat Bobby Fischer". He neglected to mention that he lost five other games to Fischer and the only other time he even got a draw with Fischer was in 1956 when Fischer was only 13 years old.

Mednis played 730 published chess games. Although he achieved a few victories over top grandmasters, defeating Korchnoi, Lombardy and Jansa, Mednis was most prominent as a chess writer, teacher and trainer. He gave chess lessons to several future grandmasters. He wrote hundreds of magazine articles and 26 chess books. He was a regular contributor to Chess Life and Chess Informant magazines. His contributions to Chess Informant were listed as "Byrne-Mednis". He would take games annotated by Robert Byrne for the New York Times and convert these annotations to Informant style notation.

Fischer vs. Mednis, final position. White had just played Be7. White resigns.

Mednis was involved in several chess controversies, all of which were related to his difficult struggle to earn a living as a chess professional. Although trained as a chemical engineer, Mednis preferred to make his living at chess.

One controversy concerned his desire to have the grandmaster title. The problem was that Mednis was not really strong enough. Mednis was a 2475 player and the standard for the grandmaster title is 2500. Therefore, in international competition, Mednis almost always missed the grandmaster norm by a half point or one point.

His best result was Houston 1974, a nine-game tournament where he missed the grandmaster norm by a half point. His other good result was the 1978 US Championship, where he defeated Lombardy, Commons, Rogoff and Zuckerman and tied for third with Shamkovitch.

However, these results were still not good enough for the grandmaster title. At the FIDE Congress in Buenos Aires 1978, the application by Mednis for the grandmaster title was denied. Thereafter, Mednis went on a letter-writing campaign, insisting that he needed the grandmaster title to earn a living at chess. The USCF refused to sponsor him for the grandmaster title, because he had not made any norms. Finally, Mednis made a deal with the Puerto Ricans. He gave chess lessons to the Puerto Rican chess team and in return they sponsored him for the grandmaster title. The title was awarded to Mednis in 1980 at the FIDE Congress.

Another controversy concerned the 1978 US Championship. The top three US Players qualified to the World Interzonal Championship. Mednis had tied for third with Shamkovitch. The USCF scheduled a play-off match. However, Mednis wanted to be paid for playing. Shamkovitch, on the other hand, was willing to play for free.

Mednis wrote letters demanding payment. He pointed out that in a previous US Championship, there had been a three-way tie between Reshevsky, Kavalek and Christiansen and those three had been well paid to play a play-off tournament among themselves. He demanded to be paid the same amount. However, that situation was not comparable. They had tied for two Interzonal spots plus the US Championship. Moreover, Reshevsky had wealthy patrons who were willing to pay to see him play.

Nevertheless, Mednis refused to back down on his insistence for payment. The match was scheduled for the Marshall Chess Club. Shamkovitch appeared on time, but Mednis failed to show up. Later, Mednis called to say that he had been sick. The forfeit was rescinded and the match rescheduled. The second time, again Mednis failed to appear and again later called to say he had been sick. This continued until finally the match was awarded by default to Shamkovitch.

After escaping out of Latvia in 1944, Mednis had never returned to his country, perhaps out of fear of being declared a citizen and not allowed to leave, or perhaps out of nationalistic pride of not wanting to return while his country was under Soviet occupation. However, in 1979 there were two interzonals, and one of them was scheduled for Riga, Latvia. Col. Edmondson, who was Executive Director of the United States Chess Federation, appealed for an extra spot for Mednis to play. This was accepted and an extra place was created for Mednis to play in Riga. This gave him the first opportunity to return to his homeland in 35 years. However, Mednis did poorly in the 1979 Riga Interzonal, finishing near the bottom.

What follows is the game Mednis used over and over again to establish his reputation, the game he beat Bobby Fischer.

Fischer often had trouble playing white against the French Defense. Here, Mednis got at least equality out of the opening, but then gave away whatever advantage he had by forcing a trade of queens with 28 . . .... Qc7. After that, Fischer could have had a draw any time he wanted it, but kept trying to force a win. Fischer sacrificed a pawn with the risky 43. h5. He could have won back the pawn with 45. gxf5 but that would have left his king dangerously exposed. 55. Bf4 seems to have been a mistake by Fischer, because it allows 55. ... a5. Fischer could not play 56. Rxa5, because of Rb1+ winning the bishop on c1. Fischer should have played 55. Bg2 or Bh3 instead.

Instead of 69. Ke3, Fischer could have played Kc1 followed by Kb2 picking up the pawn on a2. Mednis would have traded rooks and tried to push through his pawn on h5, but it seems that Mednis could do no better than draw. However, still trying to win, Fischer advanced his king to the enemy camp.

Fischer could not have played 37. Bxf5 because of Bxf5 38. Kxf5 a3 and both pawns will queen.

Fischer played 73. Be7 and then suddenly resigned without waiting to see if Mednis saw what he saw, which is that Black wins because the white king will get caught in the tangle between the black knight, bishop and rook.

After 73. .... Re8, Fischer's bishop would have had nowhere to go. If 74. Bxh4, Black wins the bishop with Rh8 75. Kg5 Ne6+ or 75. Kg3 f4+. If almost any other move with the bishop such as 74. Bf6 Ne6+ 75. Ke5 Ng5 discovered check wins the bishop on h3.

Among the notable chess personalities present at his funeral were New York Times columnist and Grandmaster Robert Byrne and his wife, Grandmaster Lev Alburt, USCF Executive Director Frank Niro, Former Director of the American Chess Foundation Alan Kaufman and his wife, former USCF Assistant Director Barbara DeMaro, and chess players Brian Kellebrew and Alex Bruim.

Edmars Mednis was a strong member of the Latvian Community and about 70 Latvians were present.

The funeral service was conducted almost entirely in Latvian. Laris Salinš of the Latvian Lutheran Church of New York was presiding.

Edmars Mednis is survived by his wife, Baiba, and their children, Sari and Mariss.

Sam Sloan

Fischer vs. Mednis, final position. Fischer had just played 73. Be7. Fischer resigned because of Re8 74. Bishop anywhere, Ne6+ winning a bishop.

[Event "US Championship"]
[Site "New York NY"]
[Date "1962.12.16"]
[Round "1"]
[White "Fischer,Robert"]
[Black "Mednis,Edmar"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "C18"]

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Qc7 7.Nf3
Bd7 8.a4 Ne7 9.Bd3 Nbc6 10.O-O c4 11.Be2 f6 12.Ba3 O-O 13.Re1
Rf7 14.exf6 gxf6 15.Bf1 Re8 16.Nh4 Ng6 17.Qh5 Rg7 18.g3 Qa5
19.Bb2 Nd8 20.Re3 Nf7 21.Kh1 Nd6 22.Nxg6 hxg6 23.Qe2 Rh7
24.Kg1 Kf7 25.h4 f5 26.Qf3 Ne4 27.Qf4 Rc8 28.Bg2 Qc7 29.Qxc7
Rxc7 30.a5 Rc6 31.Ba3 Ra6 32.Bb4 Rh8 33.Ree1 Bc6 34.Bf3 Nd2
35.Be2 Ne4 36.Kg2 Nf6 37.Rh1 Be8 38.Kf3 Ne4 39.Ke3 Nf6 40.f3
Bd7 41.g4 Be8 42.Kf4 Bb5 43.h5 gxh5 44.Rag1 Be8 45.Ke3 b6
46.axb6 Rxb6 47.Ra1 Rb7 48.Bd6 Rh7 49.gxf5 exf5 50.Rh4 Ke6
51.Bh2 Rb2 52.Kd2 Rhb7 53.Kc1 R2b6 54.Bf1 Ng8 55.Bf4 a5
56.Rh2 a4 57.Bh3 Ne7 58.Bg5 Kf7 59.Re2 Re6 60.Rxe6 Kxe6
61.Kd1 Nc8 62.Kd2 Bd7 63.Bg2 Ra7 64.Re1+ Kd6 65.Bh6 a3
66.Bf8+ Kc6 67.Bc5 Ra8 68.Ra1 a2 69.Ke3 Nd6 70.Kf4 Nb5 71.Bb4
h4 72.Bh3 Nc7 73.Be7 0-1

UPDATE: Bill Goichberg has explained that although Mednis did not make any GM norms as they were defined, FIDE later changed its system for calculating norms and, under the new system, Mednis was qualified for the GM title.

Bill Goichberg writes:

This type of very close result was usually accepted if the rest of the application was solid, but Mednis' other norm claim was no better, so his title application was rejected in 1978.

Under the previous procedure, a 2551 performance in a 2451 field was good enough, but a 2570-2574 performance in a 2475 field might not be, an absurd situation.

Under the 1980 new interpretation, both Mednis results were clearly norms, and he didn't need a third norm because those two totalled 25 games, one more than required.

It was accepted only when he reapplied in 1980 and FIDE decided that a 2551 performance rating was good enough for a norm.

Bill Goichberg

I don't believe this is correct. According to the March 1975 Chess Life, Mednis achieved the GM norm at the 1974 Houston International. The average FIDE rating was 2454 and the score required for the norm was 7-4, which was Mednis' score.

See also the March 1981 Chess Life, page 6. The second norm used towards Mednis' GM title was the 1978 US Championship. He scored 8-6 in a field averaging 2498. Had his opponents averaged 2501, his score would have been sufficient, but as the 2498 field required 8˝, his application at the 1978 FIDE Congress was rejected. At the 1980 Congress, an identical application was submitted and was accepted on the grounds that his performance rating was sufficient. An article by FIDE Delegate Gary Sperling stated, "This year, however, the QC recognized- for the first time- the use of performance ratings, instead of merely 'norm scores,' to determine whether the requisite achievement was attained. With this new test, the slight difference in opponents' ratings was inconsequential..."

I do recall, though, that after Michael Wilder won the US Championship, he was awarded the GM title based on only this one norm, based upon an assurance by FIDE Zonal President Arnold Denker that Wilder was GM strength. Though Denker's claim was certainly correct, I agree with Larry Parr that titles should be awarded based strictly upon consistent criteria. Wilder should not have been awarded the title, which probably would have resulted in him pursuing and achieving it before long.

Bill Goichberg

Chess Books by Edmar Mednis:
Here are links:
Sam Sloan's Chess Page

My Home Page

Contact address - please send e-mail to the following address: