The Sailor Who Beat Bobby Fischer

The Sailor Who Beat Bobby Fischer

| 42 | Tactics

In last week's article, we discussed how alcohol affects a chess player's abilities. There I mentioned the Soviet grandmaster Ratmir Dmitrievich Kholmov. I don't want the readers to have an impression that this great chess player was mostly famous for being drunk.

Yes, he probably consumed more alcohol than an average recreational drinker, but jokes aside, he'll be remembered as one of the top players of the 1960s and probably one of the best defenders ever! Kholmov was called the "Central Defender" in the Soviet Union for his unbelievable ability to save the most difficult positions.

Even in the game vs. Sturua that we analyzed last week when Kholmov lost his right to castle due to his dubious play in the opening, he managed to survive a very unpleasant situation. How did he develop his unique defensive skills? The answer is simple: Kholmov never had the traditional chess education and mostly learned chess by playing against strong opponents.

The lack of opening knowledge meant that in most of his games he had a difficult position right out of the opening, hence he had to be very resourceful to survive. Even when he became a very strong chess player, he frequently neglected opening preparation. As he confessed in his interview to Genna Sosonko: “How did I prepare for games? I didn’t. Before a game I would toss a coin to decide how I would open the game.”

Image Wikipedia

During WWII, Kholmov was a sailor in the Far East, and his adventures there deserve a separate book. The single most important event of his life happened when he, together with the entire crew of his ship, was captured as POW in Japan. At that point any soldier captured by the enemy was treated by the Soviet government as a potential spy, and as a result Kholmov rarely played in tournaments outside of the Communist Bloc.

Of course it didn't help that Kholmov liked to tell the stories about the time he was a POW. One of the stories was that while he was in captivity, he had the best food of his life. At that time, you could easily get ten years of Gulag for a phrase like this, but Kholmov didn't really care about politics. Here is a very typical quote from him in the same interview to Sosonko: “And what about Putin? How did I vote in the election? The way I used to prepare for games, I tossed a coin and voted for whichever party it indicated.”

Ratmir Kholmov is one of the most underappreciated grandmasters, and he's virtually unknown to Western people. Even the entry about Kholmov in Wikipedia is full of mistakes. For example, it gives Kholmov's lifetime score vs. Tal as zero wins, 17 draws, and six losses. I don't know what the correct score is, but I do know the following game where Kholmov tricked the "Magician from Riga." At first sight the position looks pretty good for Tal thanks to his powerful Nd6. Can you spot the move that completely turns the table?

This is not the only game where Ratmir Kholmov beat a World Champion (he even managed to beat Kasparov, although Garry was just 15 years old then), but the most famous game was played in the Capablanca Memorial in Havana. As the story goes, Vassily Smyslov visited Kholmov the night before Kholmov was going to play Fischer.

Kholmov was not in the best physical condition, if you know what I mean (see last week's article). Smyslov scolded him gently (the way only Smyslov could do) and generously shared one of his opening novelties. The next day Smyslov's opening bomb exploded and, as they say, the rest is history:

As you can see, Kholmov was a very talented and resourceful tactical player. I think this was also the result of his "school of hard knocks" period when he played much stronger players in his youth. Since he couldn't match the knowledge and experience of his opponents, he had to rely on his tactical abilities.

Robert James Fischer | Image from the Dutch National Archives & Spaarnestad Photo / Wikipedia

Here is Kholmov's tactical potpourri. Play like the sailor who once beat Fischer!

Not done solving puzzles? Tactics Trainer is waiting!


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