Another in memoriam

by admin on July 3, 2008

Man, this blog is turning into one big obituary page. Yesterday, I heard from a friend that Gerhard Ringel had died. Gerhard has been an active player in Santa Cruz chess for years, since long before I moved here. I mentioned him before in this post, where I described how he saved the Santa Cruz chess club by finding us a place to meet after we got kicked out of the Santa Cruz Operation. He paid most of the rent for our new location, at the German-American Club, out of his own pocket. We met at the German-American Club for a couple of years before moving on to our current location, Borders bookstore.

You can read about Gerhard’s life in this obituary from the Santa Cruz Sentinel. There are lots of things here that I didn’t know about Gerhard. It turns out that he was an avid butterfly collector. It’s probably no accident that he lived on the west side of Santa Cruz, just a couple blocks away from Natural Bridges State Beach. Every winter, thousands of monarch butterflies from all over the western United States flock to the eucalyptus grove at Natural Bridges to hibernate. It’s an amazing sight. The branches look as if they are covered by flowers, but really the “flowers” are butterfly wings. On a warm winter day, they start coming to life. There’s a rustling of wings, and — whoops! One of the “flowers” detaches itself, flaps around a little bit, and then settles down again.

Curiously, the Sentinel article says nothing about Gerhard’s interest in chess. He was close to a class-A player at his peak. (According to the USCF website, his peak rating was 1868, but he was probably rated higher at some point; the USCF online records only go back to 1990.) He was always very deliberate and methodical in the pace of his play, the openings he played, and even in the way he moved his pieces. He had a low, gravelly sort of voice and a sly sense of humor, which I think was enhanced by his German accent. He would speak so slowly and with such careful diction that you weren’t even sure that he was joking, except for the twinkle in his eye that gave it away.

Gerhard’s opening repertoire was highly predictable: Caro-Kann Defense with Black, Bird’s Opening (1. f4) with White. The Caro-Kann seemed like a perfect choice for him, leading to solid positions where he could play maneuvering chess. I’m not quite sure why he was so attached to Bird’s Opening.

I wrote in my earlier entry about the paradox that Gerhard was a world-class mathematician but only a pretty good chess player. I wonder if chess perhaps wasn’t really deep enough for a thinker like him. It’s too much affected by the whims of circumstance and the ticking of the chess clock. In mathematics there are no blunders; if you make a mistake, you can just correct it and proceed from there. In chess, you have to live with your mistakes.

Nevertheless, I know that the game brought Gerhard joy. You could just see it on his face when he found a good move. He wasn’t demonstrative about it; he was not the type to bang his pieces on the board. Maybe he would push his piece just a little bit quicker to its destination. But there was a light in his eyes that said, “Aha! Now I understand.”

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