The Point of Studying Master Games, Part One

The Point of Studying Master Games, Part One

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Henry asked:

You often talk about studying master games, but is one master game as good as another, or are certain games better than others?

Dear Henry:

I’ve gotten many, many letters about studying master games. It seems people are confused by the whole idea. Thus, I’ll be giving a three-part reply that, hopefully, will put the matter to rest.

Henry, you are mixing two separate topics. There are two main reasons to look over master games. One is to absorb patterns and thus calls for the student to go over as many games as possible as quickly as possible. These games should be by fairly strong players (IMs or GMs), and you can either zip through reams of them without having any idea what each is teaching you, or you can try and label at least one major pattern from each game. Thus, quick mental labels like (starting with, “That game showed me …”) “a lead in development”, “a central enemy King”, “a space advantage”, “dueling pawn majorities”, “a tactical trick”, “the strength of two Bishops”, “a Knight wiping a Bishop out in a closed position”, and on and on it goes.

As I said, you don’t really need to do that since you’ll still be absorbing patterns on the subconscious level, but if you’re able to make even that one mental comment, it will help nail a game’s lesson home.

The other reason for going over master games is simple enjoyment – going over a favorite player’s game is relaxing, fun, and will also continue your pattern absorption mania. We’ll explore that in Part Two of this answer (next weeks column).

This particular article will address going over many master games and, after each one, giving it a basic pattern-label.

Here are a few examples (with minimal, if any, notes).

Example One

Akiva Rubinstein – T. Tylor, Ramsgate 1929

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.g3 0-0 5.Bg2 d6 6.0-0 Nbd7 7.Nc3 c6 8.h3 Rb8 9.a4 a5 10.e4 Qc7 11.Be3 h6 12.Rc1 Rd8 13.Qc2 Nf8 14.Kh2 Be6 15.Nd2 Bd7 16.f4 Kh7 17.f5 g5 18.Nf3 Kg8 19.e5 N6h7 20.Qe4 Qc8 21.g4 Qc7 22.Kg1 Be8 23.Rfe1 Nd7 24.Bf2 dxe5 25.dxe5 e6 26.Nb5! (Other moves would also win, but this is by far white’s best) 26…Qc8 (26…cxb5 27.cxb5 and black’s Queen has nowhere safe to go) 27.Nd6 Qc7 28.c5 b6 29.cxb6 Nxb6 30.Nxe8 Rxe8 31.Rxc6 exf5 32.Qc2 Qd8 33.Rd1 Nd7 34.gxf5 Nhf8 35.f6 Bh8 36.Bc5, 1-0.

After this game, you would quickly tell yourself, “Man, what a huge space advantage! Seems that a game can win itself if you have a space advantage like that!” Then you move on to the next game. Over time, you’ll see thousands of games where a space advantage wipes the opponent out, and you’ll become quite adept at making use of it due to your brain’s subliminal addiction to space, which was caused by it witnessing countless space crushes. I can already imagine the government’s anti-space commercials:  This is your brain (a smiling person) … this is your brain on space (eggs frying in a pan). 

Example Two

J. Silman – L. Christiansen, Los Angeles 1989

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.Nc3 axb5 6.e4 b4 7.Nb5 d6 8.Bf4 g5 9.Bxg5 Nxe4 10.Bf4 Qa5 11.Bc4 Bg7 12.Qe2 b3+ 13.Kf1 f5 14.f3 0-0 15.fxe4 fxe4 16.g3 Qxa2 17.Rxa2 bxa2 18.Bxa2 Rxa2 19.Nc7 Bf5 20.Ne6 Rxb2 21.Nxf8 Rxe2 22.Nxe2 Kxf8 23.Kf2 Na6 24.Bd2 Nc7 25.Nf4 Be5 26.Ba5 Bxf4 27.Bxc7 Bg5 28.h3 Ke8 29.g4 Bc8 30.Kg3 Bd2 31.Rb1 e3 32.Kf3 Kd7 33.Bb8 Ba6 34.h4 e2 35.Kf2 Bd3 36.Ra1 Kc8 37.Ba7 Kb7, 0-1.

Here you would think, “Silman got his ass kicked! And his opponent didn’t even have a Queen. I guess you can give up your Queen and still do well.” And, over time, you’ll see many more games where three minor pieces beat a Queen, or a Bishop and Rook hold their own against the enemy Queen, or other material mixes prove their stuff vs. the enemy lady. Eventually, giving up your Queen for various other imbalances will just be business as usual.

Please keep in mind that going over games quickly means you don’t care if a game is sound or if many mistakes were made. You just want to absorb those all-important patterns!

Example Three

R. Britton – J. Silman, Lloyds Bank London 1978

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 g6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Bc4 Qa5 8.0-0 0-0 9.Nb3 Qc7 10.f4 d6 11.Be2 b6 12.Kh1 Bb7 13.Bf3 Na5 14.Nxa5 bxa5 15.a4 Bc6 16.Qd3 Nd7 17.Rad1 Nb6 18.b3 Rac8 19.Ne2 Bb7 20.c4 Nd7 21.e5 Bxf3 22.gxf3 Nc5 23.exd6 exd6 24.Qxd6 Nxb3 25.Qxc7 Rxc7 26.Rb1 Nc5 27.Rb5 Nxa4 28.Rxa5 Rxc4 29.Kg2 Re8 30.Kf2 Bf6 31.Rd1 Nb2 32.Rd7 Bh4+ 33.Ng3 Rc2+ 34.Bd2 Nc4 35.Rad5 Nb6, 0-1.

After this game, you might say, “Doubled isolated a-pawns? It’s okay to have doubled isolated a-pawns? Really?”

That would be more than enough since, as you continue to look at games, you will continue to see many “poor” pawn structures that somehow turn out to be not so poor. Of course, in the Britton game black’s doubled isolated a-pawns gave his Rooks two powerful half open files (b- and c-files). This led to enormous queenside pressure and, ultimately, to a superior endgame.

Example Four

Ruy Lopez de Segura – Giovanni da Cutro Leonardo, Rome 1560

1.e4 e5 2.f4 d6 3.Bc4 c6 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.fxe5 dxe5 6.Bxf7+ Kxf7 7.Nxe5+ Ke8 8.Qxg4 Nf6 9.Qe6+ Qe7 10.Qc8+ Qd8 11.Qxd8+ Kxd8 12.Nf7+, 1-0.

Okay, a stupid game (but hey, it would have taken you all of 4 seconds to look at it). But it does demonstrate an important tactical pattern, and after you go over such tactical patterns enough times you’ll never fall for them (and you’ll trap your opponents by using these tricks). In fact, you might think, “Nice tactical trick. I’ll make sure I keep that in mind!”

Example Five

G. Greco – NN, Europe 1620

1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Bc4 Be7 4.d4 Bh4+ 5.Kf1 g5 6.g3 fxg3 7.hxg3 Bxg3 8.Qh5 Qf6+ 9.Nf3 d6 10.Bxg5 Qg6 11.Qxg6 fxg6 12.Bxg8 Rxg8 13.Kg2, 1-0.

Here the game’s message might be reflected in the following personal dialogue: “Note to self, don’t leave my pieces too deep in enemy territory. They might not get out alive!”

Example Six

A. Alekhine – J. H. Giersing, Stockholm 1912

1.c4 e6 2.e4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.cxd5 Qxd5 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.Nc3 Qa5 7.Bb5+ c6 8.Bc4 Be7 9.Qe2 Qd8 10.0-0 0-0 11.h3 Bf5 12.d4 Nbd7 13.Nh4 Bg6 14.Re1 Re8 15.Nxg6 hxg6 16.Bg5 Nb6 17.Bb3 Qxd4 18.Rad1 Qc5 19.Bxf6 gxf6 20.Ne4 Qh5 21.Qxh5 gxh5 22.Ng3 h4 23.Nf5 Bb4 24.Rxe8+ Rxe8 25.Rd4 Re1+ 26.Kh2 Bc5 27.Rg4+ Kf8 28.Rxh4 Kg8 29.Rg4+ Kf8 30.h4 Bxf2 31.h5 Bg1+ 32.Kg3 Rf1 33.Bc2 Nd7 34.h6 Bf2+ 35.Kh2 Ne5 36.Rg7 Bg1+ 37.Kh3 Bf2 38.g3 Ng6 39.h7, 1-0.

There was a lot going on here. But perhaps the following was the one thing that really hit you: “Wow, that Knight on f5 ruled the universe! I’m going to make a point of getting my Knights to squares like that in the future.” Indeed, after a few thousand games where Knights reach advanced squares, you’ll be doing everything you can to turn your horses into gods, just like Alekhine did.

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