Remembering Ratmir Kholmov (13 May 1925 - 18 February 2006)

by Dagobert Kohlmeyer
2/18/2021 – 15 years ago, on 18 February 2006, the Russian-Soviet grandmaster Ratmir Kholmov died in Moscow. Kholmov was a sailor and during World War II he was taken prisoner by the Japanese. After the war he became one of the best players in the Soviet Union though the Soviet again and again hindered his career. But in the course of his career Kholmov still won against players such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Robert Fischer and many more strong players. Dagobert Kohlmeyer remembers. | Photo: Kholmov-Vaganian, Moscow 1975 (

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Remembering Ratmir Kholmov (1925-2006)

On the 15th anniversary of his death, I would like to remember the Russian-Soviet grandmaster Ratmir Kholmov, who is perhaps no longer known to young chess players today. His curriculum vitae is unusual, because it is not so often that a sailor becomes a chess player who can compete with the best in the world. The only one who comes to mind is the British sea captain William Evans, who invented the gambit in the 19th century.

Ratmir Kholmov was born on 13 May 1925 in Shenkursk, south of Arkhangelsk. The White Sea is not far away, and Arkhangelsk has the fifth largest port in the world. The childhood of the future Grandmaster Kholmov was difficult. When he was still very young, his father was arrested and sent to build the infamous White Sea Canal. Kholmov later wrote: "In 1931 my father was released and in 1938 he was arrested again. He never returned."

The young Ratmir learned chess at the age of 12 in a pioneer camp. He then became a member of a chess club, where he learned a lot from the experienced coach Nikolai Kutusov, who had already sat at the board with Alekhine. The talented pupil progressed quickly and already beat his teacher at the age of 14. Shortly afterwards Kholmov won the men's championship in Arkhangelsk. But then World War II began and Kholmov's chess career was interrupted for the time being.

Arkhangelsk, where ships arrived with food and weapons from the Allies, was constantly bombed. Young Ratmir first helped put out fires and then became an assistant on a cargo ship. He sailed across the Atlantic to the United States of America, and on the way back to Vladivostok his ship hit a reef. It was so badly damaged that it could not be repaired. Afterwards, the crew spent some time in Japanese captivity. Kholmov recalled, "Because the Soviet Union and Japan had a non-aggression pact at the time, we sailors were soon released to our homeland. A Soviet tanker picked us up. It was like a fairy tale: they turned on the tap, and instead of water, vodka came out! " As for alcohol, the chess player was never averse to it. More about that later.

Kholmov and some other famous Soviet players (

At the end of the war, Kholmov was discharged from the army because of asthma. The doctors recommended that he move to a place with a drier climate. With his mother, he moved to the Belarusian city of Grodno. In Belarus there was an excellent chess school and the opportunity to constantly compete with strong opponents. This helped Ratmir Kholmov in his further development. In 1947 he won the First Category All-Union Tournament and soon after he reached the final of the USSR Championship, for which he was awarded the title of Master.

Kholmov married and moved to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. There, he won the national championship several times. His chess style was original, he attacked very imaginatively and was an excellent defender. Kholmov attached less importance to opening theory. His strengths lay in the middlegame, in attacking and in defending. Even well-known opponents had a hard time beating him. At the board he was tenacious and very hard to beat, which earned him the nickname "stopper" in the Soviet chess scene.

Kholmov-Sopkov, Semifinal of the USSR Championship 1950 (

Before his World Championship match 1951 against Botwinnik, challenger David Bronstein invited Kholmov to play some training games. They played four games and afterwards the challenger's headquarters was in a state of shock. The cunning David was unable to defeat the young master Kholmov, while the latter scored a victory. Three years later it got even nicer: an anecdote fondly told by Ratmir Kholmov is that in 1954 he jokingly considered himself the "real world champion". Before the World Championship match between Mikhail Botvinnik and Vassily Smyslov, the two finalists had each played secret training matches with him. Kholmov won both!

In 1960, in a strong international tournament in Moscow, he shared first place with Smyslov ahead of Kortschnoi and other strong players, a result that gained him the grandmaster title. Shortly afterwards Kholmov moved to Sochi, but a few years later he settled in Moscow, where he remained until the end of his life.

With his independent and libertarian character, Kholmov often rubbed people the wrong way.

The Soviet chess leadership and other powers made me feel it. Once, I was invited to a tournament in Vienna, and the Austrians even sent me a ticket for the trip. I came to pick up a passport, but they didn't give me one. They just asked me: "What kind of telegram will we send to Vienna? Let us write that you are ill." And so they did ... In this way they harassed me all my life. I was only invited to the national team when it played in the USSR. Yugoslavia was an exception. But they never sent me to Western countries where there were big prizes to be won in tournaments.

Between 1962 and 1978 Ratmir Kholmov won tournaments in Bucharest, Kecskemét, Belgrade, Havana, Dubna, Budapest and Tbilisi. He was Moscow champion in 1987 and European champion in 1970 with the USSR national team. Kholmov has defeated the World Champions Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky and Robert Fischer. He defeated Viktor Kortschnoi, David Bronstein, Paul Keres and many other famous players. "When you meet Ratmir at the board, everyone is happy to end the fight in peace," wrote one of his friends.

Until the last years of his life, Ratmir Kholmov successfully played in various events and with the Russian team he won the European Veterans Championship. He could not live on his modest pension alone, which was the equivalent of about 50 dollars.


Ratmir Kholmov

I met Ratmir Kholmov at the 2002 Senior European Championship in Dresden, where he 5.0 points from six games. After one round he told me in the hotel room that his name Ratmir means "warrior" or "bold hero". That was indeed what he was at the board.

The grandmaster also remembered the 1956 tournament in war-ravaged Dresden very clearly. There he shared 1st place with Yury Averbakh. A long chess career followed. Until the end, Kholmov proved to be a tough nut to crack for the stars of the younger generation in individual competitions. One year before his death he took part in the Aeroflot Open. Ratmir Kholmov died on 18 February 2006 in Moscow at the age of 80. His chess legacy, however, lives on.

Several of his famous games have found an eternal place in chess history. When we met in Dresden, Kholmov said that the following game against Paul Keres at the USSR Championship in Georgia was the best performance of his career.

R. Kholmov – P. Keres, Tiflis 1959


No less spectacular is Kholmow's victory over David Bronstein in the National Championship 1964/1965. The move 18.Nc6! and the combination that follows are simply brilliant.

R. Kholmov – D. Bronstein, Kiev 1965


There's a nice back story to the following game that was played in the Capablanca Memorial 1965 in Havana. Ratmir Kholmov came fifth in the tournament and was the only player who did not lose a single game.

Bobby Fischer played in the tournament from afar, because the State Department had refused to allow him to leave Cuba. Bobby sat in the Marshall Chess Club in New York and the moves were sent back and forth by telex. The night before his game against Fischer, Kholmov, who was very fond of drinking, had enjoyed a lot of Barcadi rum in the hotel bar. A concerned Vassily Smyslov got him away from the bar and showed him a variation he could play against Fischer. Fortunately, Kholmov had not forgotten the prepared lines the next day.

R. Fischer – R. Kholmov, Havanna 1965


Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

Dagobert Kohlmeyer is one of the best known German chess journalists. For more than 25 years Kohlmeyer, who lives in Berlin, has been travelling all over the world to report about and to capture impressions of Chess Olympiads, World Championships, and top tournaments.


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