The Point of Studying Master Games, Part Two

The Point of Studying Master Games, Part Two

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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?


In Part One of this three part answer to Henry’s question, I pointed out that one of the main reasons for studying master games is to subliminally absorb patterns by zipping through as many games as possible. I also wrote that mentally labeling each game with an imbalance or tactical point you noticed adds to the effect, and I gave various examples of how this is done. Of course, this “zipping” through games is only for those that have serious aspirations – i.e., ultimately dreaming of reaching master class (2200) or beyond. Note the difference between “serious aspirations” and the more laid back “I’d like to improve my game”. One is based on the desire to improve without making it a life-changing, insanely time-consuming obsession (learn by experience, read some books, perhaps take a lesson or two – these things don’t take over your life and are an easy and enjoyable way to improve), while the other demands hard work, commitment, and perhaps even some measure of sacrifice.

Please understand that making master, though a nice dream, won’t necessarily make you enjoy chess more. A rating of 1500 means you’re already a strong player, and if you make 1900 you’re at a level few achieve (and you can do it with minimal work). Whatever your rating might be, the main goal of chess should be pleasure … kicking opponent ass gives one pleasure, watching your chess idols do things that only gods can do gives pleasure … learning about the imbalances and slowly but surely integrating them into your own game so that you suddenly see and appreciate things that were invisible to you a short while before – that gives one enormous pleasure.

And so, knowing that at heart we’re all seekers of joy, here we’ll discuss the other reason master games are such an integral part of the complete chess experience: pure entertainment and pleasure. I should add that this entertainment comes with an added bonus – you still get the full instructive bang that comes with every game: opening plans, imbalances strutting their stuff in all the game’s phases, and endgame technique (if it lasts that long).

You can enjoy master games in many ways:

* Watch online blitz chess in games featuring titled players brutally hacking away at each other. It’s relaxing, it’s a rush, and you even get to root for your favorite “horse.”

* Pick a chess hero and go through all his/her games. They can be with or without annotations. If they have annotations, the whole experience becomes slow and relaxing and, as you look over one amazing variation after another, intense. If it’s sans notes, then you can just view it as a movie of a famous player’s art and life work.

* Go through lists of the best games of all time and look over all of them.

* Look through whole tournaments (old and new … New York 1924, featuring notes by Alekhine, is a classic example) and enjoy the ebb and flow as some favorites smash the opposition while others fall on their face.

In the present article we’ll look at my three picks for the best (dynamic – the best positional games are quite another matter) games ever (I list my least favorite first). And, even though the games are all insanely complex, I’ll point out the salient points that shaped the play. You might not be able to calculate like these giants did, but everyone can understand the position’s basics and gain some insight into the board’s needs.

Our first game features perhaps the most violent attack ever seen. It’s depth is staggering, but one must understand that though Kasparov calculated a mind-numbing amount of variations, much of what he did was based on intuition – he simply believed in the attack’s soundness.

I’m not going to give the vast amount of notes these games deserve – proper annotations could fill many, many pages! Remember: what we’re looking for here is the raw visual entertainment they offer. Nevertheless, I’ll toss in enough variations to give you a feel for what was happening behind the scenes!

What to look for in Game One: White comes up with a mind-blowing attack (beginning on move 24), but the factors that made this attack possible were:

1) Holes on a5 and c6.

2) Possible Rook penetration down the open e-file (if black’s Queen loses touch with e7, then Re7+ can be tough to deal with).

3) Black’s King position is loose.

4) White’s pieces are more active than black’s.

5) The Knight on f6 will be loose in many lines (black’s Queen is babysitting it).

G. Kasparov – V. Topalov, Wijk aan Zee 1999

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Be3 Bg7 5.Qd2 c6 6.f3 b5 7.Nge2 Nbd7 8.Bh6 Bxh6 9.Qxh6 Bb7 10.a3 e5 11.0-0-0 Qe7 12.Kb1 a6 13.Nc1 0-0-0 14.Nb3 exd4 15.Rxd4 c5 16.Rd1 Nb6 17.g3 Kb8 18.Na5 Ba8 19.Bh3 d5 20.Qf4+ Ka7 21.Rhe1 d4 22.Nd5 Nbxd5 23.exd5 Qd6 

So far we’ve seen an interesting Pirc Defense where both sides have played well. Black appears to be safe, but he missed (or underestimated) the incredible continuation that follows.


In general, tactics only work if factors like a vulnerable King or undefended pieces or inadequately guarded pieces exist. In the present case we see them all: black’s King is obviously vulnerable, his f6-Knight hangs in some lines, and even the h8-Rook will turn out to be inadequately protected in a variation or two!


Hard to resist, but better was 24...Kb6! 25.Nb3 Bxd5 (and not 25...cxd4?? 26.Qxd4+ Kc7 27.Qa7+ Bb7 28.Nc5 Rb8 29.Re7+ Qxe7 30.Nxa6+ Kd6 31.Qc5+ Ke5 32.Qxe7+ Kd4 33.c3+ Kc4 34.Bf1+ Kb3 35.Nc5 mate) 26.Qxd6+ Rxd6 and Black is fine.

25.Re7+! Kb6

No better are lines like 25...Qxe7 26.Qxd4+ Kb8 27.Qb6+ Bb7 28.Nc6+ Ka8 29.Qa7 mate, and 25...Kb8 26.Qxd4 Nd7 27.Bxd7 Rxd7 28.Rxd7 Qxd7 29.Qxh8+. As mentioned earlier, the h8-Rook turned out to be far less safe than one might have supposed!

26.Qxd4+ Kxa5

26...Qc5 27.Qxf6+ is an example of f6 being loose. After 27...Qd6 28.Be6!! Bxd5 29.b4 Bc6 30.Qxf7 Qd1+ 31.Kb2 Qxf3 32.Qg7 black’s losing. For example, 32…Rhf8 (hoping to trade Queens by …Qf6+) 33.Rc7! (now 33…Qf6+ 34.Qxf6 Rxf6 35.Rxc6+ is an easy win for White) 33…Ba8 34.Rc3! and the dual threat of 35.Qc7 mate and 35.Rxf3 ends the game.

27.b4+ Ka4 28.Qc3

Kasparov feels that 28.Ra7 is even stronger.

28...Qxd5 29.Ra7! Bb7 30.Rxb7 Qc4 31.Qxf6 Kxa3 32.Qxa6+ Kxb4 33.c3+! Kxc3 34.Qa1+ Kd2

Black’s Queen vanishes after 34...Kb4 35.Qb2+ Ka5 36.Qa3+ Qa4 37.Ra7+.

35.Qb2+ Kd1 36.Bf1! Rd2

36...Qxf1 37.Qc2+ Ke1 38.Re7+ Qe2 39.Qxe2 mate.

37.Rd7! Rxd7 38.Bxc4 bxc4 39.Qxh8

There’s that inadequately defended h8-Rook again!

39…Rd3 40.Qa8 c3 41.Qa4+ Ke1 42.f4 f5 43.Kc1 Rd2 44.Qa7, 1-0. Very flashy, brilliant stuff, though I’ve always viewed it as being a bit shallow since, after the opening, a nuke-like tactic went off and it was all downhill from there. In other words, the “battle” wasn’t a battle at all – it was one-sided.

What to look for in Game Two (which is my pick for the greatest game of all time): This game has a bit of everything, and is extremely complicated. However, many of its salient features are easy to comprehend:

1) Black creates a pawn weakness (the a4-pawn, which is a static weakness) and aims everything he can at it.

2) White gives up the pawn, but makes some (dynamic) gains of his own.

3) White misses a tactical chance to put the game up for grabs (move 25), and as a result enters a technically lost position.

4) At this point both players show tremendous imagination and do everything they can to make use of their positive imbalances – After move 34, White has opposite colored Bishops (his dark-squared Bishop gives him control over many important dark-squares) and a passed d-pawn. Black has an extra pawn and a passed a-pawn. These pawns are shoved down the opponent’s respective throats, which only increases the tension and the game’s overall difficulty.

5) A one of a kind endgame occurs which features an entombed black Rook and multiple pawns vs. white’s Rook.

V. Spassky – R. Fischer, Reykjavik 1972

1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.Nf3 g6 5.Bc4 Nb6 6.Bb3 Bg7 7.Nbd2 0-0 8.h3 a5 9.a4 dxe5 10.dxe5

Spassky was surprised by Fischer’s choice of the Alekhine Defense, and didn’t play the opening particularly well. In the present position Black sees that he has two potential targets: e5 and a4. White’s e-pawn can be given support by Qe2 followed by 0-0 and Re1, but the a-pawn turns out to be a real liability. Thus Black brings as many soldiers to bear against a4 as possible.

10…Na6! 11.0-0 Nc5 12.Qe2 Qe8

A lovely picture – black’s assault against a4 is a true team effort. However, there’s a price to pay for this demonstration against a4 – it takes time, and this allows White to seek compensation in the form of central and kingside space and a potential kingside attack. Thus we get to see a true dynamic vs. static battle, where each side will push his agenda with as much energy as possible.

13.Ne4 Nbxa4 14.Bxa4 Nxa4 15.Re1 Nb6 16.Bd2 a4 17.Bg5 h6 18.Bh4 Bf5 19.g4 Be6 20.Nd4 Bc4 21.Qd2 Qd7 22.Rad1 Rfe8

I’m sure Fischer (who loved gulping material) wanted to chop on e5 via 22…Bxe5, but perhaps he was a bit put off by the Bishops of opposite colors that occurs after 23.b3 axb3 24.cxb3 Ba6 25.Nc3 Bxd4 26.Qxd4 Qxd4 27.Rxd4. Of course, Black would have tremendous winning chances here, but he probably thought he could get even more with the restrained 22…Rfe8.

23.f4 Bd5 24.Nc5 Qc8 25.Qc3?

Various commentators pointed out that Spassky missed a great chance here: 25.e6! Nc4?! (25…a3! 26.bxa3 Rxa3 is better, with chances for both sides) 26.Qe2 Nxb2 27.Nf5!! and White has created a very strong attack.

25…e6 26.Kh2 Nd7 27.Nd3

Years later, as is always the case, computer analysis discovered that 27.Ne4 was a better try.

27…c5 28.Nb5 Qc6 29.Nd6 Qxd6!

Forcing a technically winning position.

30.exd6 Bxc3 31.bxc3 f6 32.g5 hxg5 33.fxg5 f5 34.Bg3 Kf7 35.Ne5+ Nxe5 36.Bxe5 b5 37.Rf1 Rh8 38.Bf6 a3 39.Rf4 a2 40.c4 Bxc4 41.d7 Bd5?!

A quick move. Later analysis showed that 41…e5! was best.


The sealed move (which creates the threat of Rh4 in many lines). The game was now adjourned and, as Kasparov wrote in Book 4 of his Great Predecessors series, “The adjournment session of this intricate game became virtually the most colorful and gripping in the history of chess.”

Now the “good” stuff really begins, and what follows is so complicated that it boggles the mind.

42…Ra3+ 43.c3 Rha8!

And not 43…a1=Q 44.Rxa1 Rxa1 45.Rh4 Rha8 46.Rh7+ Kf8 47.Rh8+ with a draw.

44.Rh4 e5!

This gives black’s King access to e6.

45.Rh7+ Ke6 46.Re7+ Kd6 47.Rxe5 Rxc3+ 48.Kf2 Rc2+ 49.Ke1 Kxd7 50.Rexd5+ Kc6 51.Rd6+ Kb7 52.Rd7+ Ka6

Black’s King has escaped the assault by white’s Rooks, and though he’s a piece down, his armada of queenside pawns is hard to deal with.

53.R7d2 Rxd2 54.Kxd2 b4 55.h4 Kb5 56.h5!

White creates his own passed pawn!

56…c4 57.Ra1!

Far easier for Black was 57.h6 c3+ 58.Kd3 a1=Q 59.Rxa1 Rxa1 60.h7 Rd1+ 61.Ke2 Rd2+ 62.Ke1 Rh2 63.h8=Q Rxh8 64.Bxh8 Kc4 and black’s pawns will win the game.

57…gxh5 58.g6 h4! 59.g7!

A nice Kasparov quote: “Brilliant play by both sides – their imagination in this ending is truly inexhaustible!

Black would win mundanely after 59.Bxh4? Rg8 60.Rxa2 Rxg6 61.Ra8 c3+.

59…h3 60.Be7!

Threatening to promote the g-pawn by Bf8.

60…Rg8 61.Bf8

Entombing black’s Rook. The resulting position is simply incredible. I’ll share a Botvinnik quote here: “Fischer finds a paradoxical solution: he stalemates his own Rook, but blocks white’s passed pawn and ties his Bishop to it. Now five passed pawns are fighting against the white Rook. Nothing similar had previously occurred in chess. Spassky was astounded and he lost. Soon Smyslov found a draw for White, but would he have found it at the board, sitting opposite Fischer?”

61…h2 62.Kc2 Kc6 63.Rd1!

This excellent move traps the enemy King on the queenside and should draw.

63…b3+ 64.Kc3 h1=Q

The best chance, which forces the Rook off the d-file and let’s black’s King penetrate to the kingside. Black gets nowhere fast with 64…f4 65.Rd6+ Kc7 66.Rd1 f3 67.Kb2 f2 68.Kc3 Kc6 69.Kd6+ Kc7 70.Rd1.

65.Rxh1 Kd5 66.Kb2 f4 67.Rd1+ Ke4 68.Rc1 Kd3

Both players have played flawlessly since move 42, which is actually quite remarkable. Now, though, Spassky cracks from the pressure.


69.Rc3+! would have drawn: 69…Kd4 70.Rf3 c3+ 71.Ka1 (71.Rxc3 a1=Q+ 72.Kxa1 Kxc3) 71…c2 72.Rxf4+ Kc3 73.Rf3+ Kd2 74.Ba3! (The only move!) 74…Rxg7 75.Rxb3 Rc7 76.Bb2 (and not 76.Kxa2?? Ra7 and Black wins), =.

After 69.Rd1+ Black wins by force.

69…Ke2 70.Rc1 f3 71.Bc5 Rxg7 72.Rxc4 Rd7 73.Re4+ Kf1 74.Bd4 f2, 0-1. After 75.Rf4 Rxd4 76.Rxd4 Ke2 77.Re4+ Kf3 78.Re8 f1=Q (78…a1=Q+ also did the job) 79.Rf8+ Ke2 80.Rxf1 Kxf1 81.Ka1 Ke2 82.Kb2 Kd3 83.Ka1 Kc4 (and not 83…Kc3?? Stalemate!) 84.Kb2 a1=Q+ 85. Kxa1 Kc3 86.Kb1 b2 there wouldn’t be any reason for White to continue the game.

Why do I prefer this game (which I consider to be the best of all time) to the Kasparov victory? Because, where the Topalov – Kasparov brilliancy was a one man show, the Fischer game offers us an epic strategic struggle that takes us through a tense opening (going after enemy weaknesses but giving White some dynamic compensation), an even more tense middlegame (material vs. white’s dynamics), and an insanely complex and original endgame (which almost defies description). Both players gave it their all.

Our final game was my childhood favorite, and I’m still crazy about it many decades after the love affair started.

What to look for in Game Three: This game starts out as a positional contest but soon turns tactical. Here are its basic features:

1) White plays the opening quite well and is soon building up a very threatening initiative on the queenside.

2) By advancing his queenside pawns, White makes use of the time-honored Minority Attack – he will push his b-pawn to b5 and create serious pawn weaknesses in the enemy camp.

3) Understanding that he’s ultimately doomed on the queenside, Black pushes his h-pawn (moves 20 and 22) to h4, which loosens up white’s protective kingside pawn structure.

4) Just when it seems that White is having his way with the game, Alekhine tosses a bomb on the board via 26…Re3!! (taking aim at that loosened g3-pawn). Suddenly Black is threatening all sorts of things and White is forced to adjust to the new situation.

5) White doesn’t defend properly and drowns under a sea of Alekhine tactics. The final tactic is based on two undefended pieces (b7-Knight and f3-Rook), and on an odd, quite beautiful, anomaly which stops white’s Rook from giving support to its Knight.

R. Reti – A. Alekhine, Baden-Baden 1925

1.g3 e5 2.Nf3 e4 3.Nd4 d5 4.d3 exd3 5.Qxd3 Nf6 6.Bg2 Bb4+ 7.Bd2 Bxd2+ 8.Nxd2 0-0 9.c4 Na6 10.cxd5 Nb4 11.Qc4 Nbxd5 12.N2b3 c6 13.0-0 Re8 14.Rfd1 Bg4 15.Rd2 Qc8 16.Nc5 Bh3 17.Bf3 Bg4 18.Bg2 Bh3 19.Bf3 Bg4 20.Bh1 h5 21.b4 a6 22.Rc1 h4 23.a4 hxg3 24.hxg3 Qc7

Two legendary chess icons do what they do best: Reti has the superior game and is going to bust up black’s queenside with b4-b5. Alekhine knows he will lose if he can’t get something going on the kingside (hence his …h7-h5-h4 idea, which loosened up white’s protective kingside pawn cover).

25.b5 axb5 26.axb5

Black can’t avoid a weak queenside pawn, but Alekhine isn’t one to roll over and die without a fight.


A shock! I’m sure Reti was quite happy with his position, but a move like this can destroy anyone’s confidence. Taking by 27.fxe3 isn’t possible due to 27…Qxg3+ 28.Bg2 Nxe3 with mate to follow. However, Black now threatens …Rxg3+, so White is obliged to stop his queenside assault and deal with the impending kingside explosions.


An error. It turns out that 27.Bg2? doesn’t stop black’s threat: 27…Rxg3! 28.fxg3? Ne3 29.Qd3 Qxg3 and it’s game over.

Another defense is 27.Kh2 but then 27…Raa3! keeps up the pressure. Alekhine then gives 28.Ncb3 (28.fxe3? Nxe3 29.Qb4 Nf1+! and White is toast) 28…Qe5! 29.bxc6 bxc6 and Black retains serious kingside chances.

White’s best was 27.Bf3 Bxf3 28.exf3 cxb5 29.Nxb5 Qa5 when 30.Rxd5 (30.Rdd1 is correct) 30…Re1+ 31.Rxe1 Qxe1+ 32.Kg2 Nxd5 33.Qxd5 Ra1 34.Qd8+ leads to a draw by perpetual check.

27...cxb5! 28.Qxb5 Nc3

Black’s pieces are extremely active and White has no way to deal with them.

29.Qxb7 Qxb7 30.Nxb7 Nxe2+ 31.Kh2

Black also wins after 31.Kf1 Nxg3+ 32.fxg3 Bxf3 33.Bxf3 Rxf3+ 34.Kg2 Raa3.

Now, after 31.Kh2, neither 31…Nxc1 32.fxe3 nor 31…Rxf3 32.Rxe2 offer Black any real winning chances. Has 31.Kh2 plugged up the leaks?


Alekhine doesn’t slow down and instead just steams ahead like a rabid elephant! What blew my mind was Alekhine’s note (in his book of best games), which makes it clear that he saw the rest of the game at this moment (actually, he hints that he might have seen the remaining moves quite a bit earlier): “The beginning of a new combination – which, however, is the absolutely logical consequence of the previous maneuvers – aiming, after a series of twelve practically forced moves, at the capture of white’s exposed Knight at b7.”

Really? He already saw that he was going to win the b7-Knight? No wonder Alekhine was my first chess hero.


Best. 32.fxe3 Nxd2 wins the Exchange for Black.


Simple but efficient. Other moves failed to do the trick:

* 32…Nxd2? 33.Nxd2 Rd3 34.Nc5, =.

* 32…Bxf3 33.Rxe4! Bxe4 34.fxe3 Bxh1 35.Kxh1 Nxg3+ 36.Kg2 and black’s extra pawn won’t be enough to win the resulting endgame.

33.Bg2 Be6!

Setting up an elegant finish.

34.Rcc2 Ng4+ 35.Kh3

Sadly for White, moving back to h1 allows …Ra1+.

35…Ne5+ 36.Kh2 Rxf3! 37.Rxe2 Ng4+ 38.Kh3

Neither now nor before could the white king move to the first rank because of the deadly check on a1

38...Ne3+ 39.Kh2 Nxc2 40.Bxf3 Nd4 41.Rf2 Nxf3+ 42.Rxf3 Bd5 and white’s Knight can’t be saved, meaning that Black will end up with an extra Bishop and pawn. White resigned.

This game featured some nice positional chess from Reti, and Alekhine’s impressive answer to white’s “I’m going to weaken a pawn and ultimately win it” mentality. In other words, we have witnessed yet another statics vs. dynamics battle (that same battle occurred in the Fischer game). After the shocking 26…Re3!!, Reti wasn’t able to regain his equilibrium. He made one mistake and the resulting Alekhine tidal wave rolled him off the board.

I also prefer this game to the Kasparov one-sided rout because, in Reti – Alekhine, both sides were pushing their position’s agendas. It was a battle of ideas, and in this instance Alekhine’s brilliance won the day. Others will surely disagree though, and pick Kasparov’s breathtaking attack. But, for me, it’s Spassky – Fischer (1st), Reti – Alekhine (2nd), and Kasparov – Topalov (3rd).

As you can see, I’ve gotten tremendous pleasure from looking over master games ever since I learned how to play chess. And though I no longer participate in tournaments, I still get enormous enjoyment from going over these same classic games again and again.

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