Studying famous chess games can raise your overall understanding and feel for the game. Every game is a chance to learn a bit about everything: from tactics and strategy, positional play, opening theory, to endgame technique.
You get to see the interplay between different elements in chess (often studied in isolation) and how the master uses them to his or her advantage.
But whose games should you study?
If you haven’t picked a chess hero to follow yet, then join us as we take a look at the crème de la crème of chess: the world champions and the famous games typical of their style.
Let’s get started!
1. Wilhelm Steinitz (1886-1894)
Many consider Wilhelm Steinitz as The Father of Modern Chess – and rightly so. He began his career by playing in the same swashbuckling-style common in the 1860s. However, Steinitz is best known for inventing the positional way of playing, whose principles he illustrated through his writing and games.
A close study of the first world champion’s efforts over the board will show the post-beginner player how to win games by acquiring small advantages, such as a lead in development, better pawn structure, more active pieces, etc.
Being a pioneer, Steinitz also played in an experimental fashion to test and illustrate his theories, such as using the king as fighting piece in the opening and middlegame!
Featured Game: Wilhelm Steinitz – Louis Paulsen, Baden-Baden 1870
The game was played before Steinitz completed his transformation as a positional player. However, it has all the hallmarks of a Steinitz game: an opening variation named after him, a king in the front lines, a gradual build-up of his position, and a fantastic mating attack!
2. Emanuel Lasker (1894-1921)
Emanuel Lasker held the title for 27 years! His recipe for longevity and massive success is a combination of deep strategic understanding, endgame skill, defensive grit, and psychology.
Lasker often played in a way that’s most uncomfortable for his opponents. If the man across him excelled in tactical slugfests, he steered the game to drier positions. If his opponent prefered a simple technical game, Lasker took calculated risks to muddy the waters.
Featured Game: Emanuel Lasker – Jose Capablanca, St Petersburg 1914
Lasker’s encounter with Capablanca at the St Petersburg tournament in 1914 highlights the former’s fighting qualities. He needed to win to have a shot at first place while his opponent only needed a draw.
To play for a queenless middlegame where Black must play actively with the bishop pair while White tries to exploit his superior pawn structure.
3. Jose Capablanca (1921-1927)
Jose Raoul Capablanca earned the nickname The Chess Machine when he went undefeated for eight years (1916-1924), a period which included a match with Emanuel Lasker for the crown!
Even more impressive, however, Capablanca’s nickname holds true under the scrutiny of today’s chess engines.
A study by Ivan Bratko and Matej Guid published in the ICGA Journal measured the average difference between the moves played by the world champions and the best-evaluated moves according to computer analysis.
Capablanca was the most accurate chess player of them all!
Featured Game: Jose Capablanca – Savielly Tartakower, New York 1924
The third world champion was almost unbeatable in simple and clear positions, where planning and positional play trump deep calculation. His endgame technique was head and shoulders above the competition, and many of the endgames he has played are just as instructive today as they were decades ago.
Let’s check out one of those legendary endgames now!
4. Alexander Alekhine (1927-1935 and 1937-1946)
His (Alekhine’s) style worked for him, but it could scarcely work for anybody else. His conceptions were gigantic, full of outrageous and unprecedented ideas. – Bobby Fischer
Alexander Alekhine had a heavy-handed style. He played to gain the initiative right out of the opening and embraced complex middlegames without hesitation.
Alekhine’s calculating ability was second to none, allowing him to produce combinations with a sting in the tail. His most famous chess games often feature opponents entering a line they thought they had evaluated to be equal or favorable – only to realize that Alekhine had seen a move or two ahead.
Featured Game: Richard Réti – Alexander Alekhine, Baden-Baden 1925
Alekhine was at a slight disadvantage right out of the opening. His opponent Richard Réti had the upper hand and was slowly gaining ground on the queenside – until Alekhine counterattacked on the kingside. The 10-move combination by Alekhine was a sight to behold!
5. Max Euwe (1935-1937)
Max Euwe was an extremely productive man in and out of chess. He was a world chess champion, a professor of mathematics, an amateur boxer, a revered author, and the president of FIDE from 1970 to 1978.
Euwe’s approach to chess was objective and logical.
He is logic personified, a genius of law and order. One would hardly call him an attacking player, yet he strides confidently into some extraordinarily complex variations. – Hans Kmoch
If the situation at the board called for positional play, Euwe patiently maneuvered. If the position required sacrifices and combinative play, he lit up the fireworks with gusto.
Featured Game: Max Euwe – Alexander Alekhine, World Chess Championship 1935 (Game 26)
The chess world dubbed this epic encounter between two chess giants as The Pearl of Zandvort. Euwe took advantage of every tiny opportunity to improve his position and went head-first into a positional sacrifice to beat his illustrious opponent.
6. Mikhail Botvinnik (1948-1957, 1958-1960, and 1961-1963)
Mikhail Botvinnik became sixth world champion by winning the 1948 World Chess Championship tournament, a five-player round-robin which included Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Samuel Reshevsky, and Max Euwe.
Not only did Botvinnik win the tournament, but he did so convincingly. He finished three points (14 points in 25 rounds) ahead of a field with an average rating of 2729!
Botvinnik steamrolled the competition by seeking balanced but tense positions that require full concentration and nerves of steel – and then outplaying them. He also came armed with thoroughly-prepared openings, world-class endgame technique, and remarkable analytical skills.
Featured Game: Mikhail Botvinnik – Jose Raoul Capablanca, AVRO 1938
This battle between the old and new guards saw the material and time elements of chess in conflict. Capablanca established a strong knight on the queenside and won a pawn, while Botvinnik was quietly brewing a storm on the kingside. The end features the deflection sacrifice to end all deflection sacrifices.
7. Vasily Smyslov (1957-1958)
We can only be happy Vasily Smyslov became a chess professional instead of a baritone singer in 1950.
Smyslov had a harmonious style of play, from which everyone can learn from. He was always striving for perfect coordination among pieces and pawns.
He is truth in chess! Smyslov plays correctly, truthfully and has a natural style. – Vladimir Kramnik
Victory was only a matter of time when Smyslov achieved harmony at the chess board. And whether the finish required trading down to a winning endgame or forcing immediate resignation with a tactical stroke, Smyslov was up to the task.
Featured Game: Vasily Smyslov – Mikhail Botvinnik, World Chess Championship 1957 (Game 12)
Botvinnik sprung a prepared variation which could’ve unnerved a lesser player. But he was facing Smyslov. The opera-singer-turned-chess-professional found his way out of the mess, after which he held on to the initiative until he brought the point home.
8. Mikhail Tal (1960-1961)
Mikhail Tal was perhaps the most creative attacker in the history of the game. Tal treated chess as an art, preferring aesthetically pleasing variations over safer routes to an advantage.
Confident in his creativity and calculation skills, Tal played sacrifices and attacks that are near-impossible to refute over the board. Opponents had to find a series of absolute best moves to survive Tal’s onslaught – and they erred more often than not.
Featured Game: Mikhail Tal – Jack Miller, Los Angeles 1988 (Simul)
Yes, this featured game was from a simultaneous exhibition, played when Tal was decades past his prime. Nevertheless, this brawl with an amateur perfectly illustrated Tal’s motto over the board: beautiful attacking chess whenever possible!
9. Tigran Petrosian (1963-1969)
Tigran Petrosian was impenetrable at the chess board.
Petrosian was content to play for small advantages and approached every game with a heightened sense of danger. He could sniff his opponent’s attacking potential before the latter even realized it, giving him enough time to prepare and render the attack ineffective.
This safety-first approach meant Petrosian drew more games than average. But, boy, was he tough to beat!
Case in point:
Petrosian played in the 1955 USSR Championship. And while he only got fifth place, he didn’t lose a single game against 2649-rated opposition!
Featured Game: Tigran Petrosian – Samuel Reshevsky, Lugano Olympiad 1968
Samuel Reshevsky was a superb positional player with an extraordinary fighting spirit. But in this game versus “Iron Tigran,” Reshevsky never got the chance to showcase his qualities as a player. Petrosian saddled him with weaknesses, nipped his counterplay in the bud, and outplayed him in the arising rook endgame – all done within 42 moves.
10. Boris Spassky (1969-1972)
Boris Spassky was a universal player, comfortable with just about any type of position. He was a beast when he has the initiative, capable of taking down the best players of his day with a well-orchestrated offensive. But Spassky also defended tenaciously when on the receiving end of an attack.
The universal chess style, characterized by the ability to play quite different types of chess positions, is considered by many to derive from that of Boris Spassky. – Garry Kasparov
Spassky’s universality proved to be an invaluable asset. It allowed him to vary his approach based on the opponent and make the most out of equal, better, and even worse positions.
Featured Game: Boris Ivkov – Boris Spassky, Santa Monica 1966
Boris Spassky had the Black pieces when he faced Boris Ivkov during the seventh round of the 2nd Piatigorsky Cup. Ivkov was reluctant to fight and drew most of his games, a problem for Spassky whose tournament position was under pressure from a trailing Fischer.
How did Spassky win with the Black pieces against an opponent who was playing to split the point? Let’s find out.
11. Bobby Fischer (1972-1975)
Many consider Bobby Fischer as the greatest chess player of all time. And why not?! He single-handedly dismantled the Soviet chess machine in 1972 and even posted a 20-game winning streak on his way to the crown!
Fischer was similar to Capablanca in that he loved clarity at the board. He gravitated to positions where he has a clear-cut strategy, which he pursued with unparalleled vigor.
However, unlike Capablanca who was happy to take draws against his most dangerous opponents, Fischer played to win whoever was across the chess board. He also embraced complications and attacked if he believed it’s the most efficient way to win.
Featured Game: Bobby Fischer – Boris Spassky, World Chess Championship 1972 (Game 6)
The game was memorable for many reasons. For starters, Fischer opened with the Queen’s Gambit for the first time in a serious game – and he played it to near-perfection! Spassky was so impressed with Fischer’s play that he had to give a standing ovation and join the crowd in their applause.
12. Anatoly Karpov (1975-1985)
Style? I have no style. – Anatoly Karpov
Anatoly Karpov was a well-rounded player – as one would expect from a man who held the title for a decade. However, a close examination of his games reveals that he is a master strategist and ruthless technician.
Karpov was in his element when he has a small but enduring advantage. He was especially effective when playing against the isolated pawn and hanging pawns, making these dynamically balanced structures seem like losing!
Karpov also had a tremendous will to win. He didn’t mind going the distance in positions where other grandmasters might have split the point, relying on his strategic understanding and ability to outplay the opposition.
Featured Game: Anatoly Karpov – Garry Kasparov, World Chess Championship 1985 (Game 4)
The game features an opening novelty which left Kasparov with an isolated queen’s pawn, the bishop pair, and more active pieces. However, Kasparov erred on the 20th and that was all Karpov needed to put the pain on his opponent.
13. Garry Kasparov (1985-2000)
When you combine the work ethic of Fischer and Botvinnik along with Alekhine’s tactical flair and Tal’s daring, you get Garry Kasparov.
The thirteenth world chess champion was dynamism personified. He had no equal in combinative play and had a fine-tuned sense for dynamic positions. Kasparov didn’t hesitate to sacrifice pawns and pieces to gain the initiative, and very few players could cope with him when he got the type of game he wanted.
Featured Game: Garry Kasparov – Veselin Topalov, Wijk aan Zee 1999
The pilgrimage to the North Sea village of Wijk aan Zee, Holland takes place each January. As it is one of the most important tournaments on the chess calendar, the best players in the world regularly compete there. After sixty-five events, the following game towers above all others and has been proclaimed “The Pearl of Wijk aan Zee.” – Yasser Seirawan
Famous chess games will be continued!
We wrap up this tour of the most famous chess games by world champions. Stay tuned, however, as we will update this post in the coming days with additional games from Kramnik, Anand, and Carlsen. Plus, we also have a surprise coming up for Chessable blog readers. 🙂
Images of Jose Capablanca, Bobby Fischer, and Garry Kasparov are taken from Wikimedia.org and are licensed under Creative Commons 3.0