The Point of Studying Master Games, Part Three

The Point of Studying Master Games, Part Three

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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 (an important learning tool for players that have lofty [2200 master rating] aspirations). In Part Two, I discussed why master games can be a source of enormous pleasure (and gave my picks for the three best games ever – if those didn’t make you smile or even hyperventilate with amazement/joy, then nothing will). This final installment, Part Three, brings up an interesting question: are non-master games of any value?

The fact is, non-master games are often FAR more instructive than grandmaster games. How can this be? The reason is simple: non-master games feature the same errors that the vast majority of my audience makes, and that allows me (and other teachers) to point out these common mistakes and show how to step beyond them. On the other hand, grandmaster games are often way over the head of most amateurs, and the lessons one obtains from them aren’t as useful as a well-chosen amateur game.

Of course, using amateur games as learning tools calls for more than a database, it calls for the guidance of a strong player – he has to pick the games that call out to his students, and it’s the teacher’s ability to point out the errors and make their cure personal and easy to understand that gives the game(s) ultimate value (or a lack thereof).

Here’s a quote from the introduction of my new book (How to Reassess Your Chess, 4th Edition): 

“A word about the examples: you’ll notice that I’ve used games by grandmasters and also games by amateurs! I’ve used new games, and I’ve also used games from the seventeenth century! I made use of blitz games from the Internet, and even used the blitz players’ online names. I have a simple philosophy: if a position or game is instructive, it’s important. I don’t care if Kasparov played it, or if it’s beginner vs. beginner. In fact, lower rated games and/or blitz games often fea­ture the kind of errors real players make, and this makes the example far more personal for a large range of readers.”

Here’s a very recent example from a student’s game (Mr. Glover), who also happens to be a member!

I highly recommend you look at my written version of the game at the same time as the board version … the instruction will be much richer that way.

S.C. Radmacher (2003) – B. Glover (1796), U.S. Open 2010

1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 0–0 5.0–0 d5 6.cxd5 Nxd5 7.d4 c6 

Very passive (but playable). It’s clear that White will get a big center with e2-e4, so Black needs to immediately fix his mindset on this and prepare to prove the center will be a target. If Black played …c6 with the idea that he would go after white’s center soon after, then it’s okay. But was he thinking that way?

Here’s one example of the kind of play Black should be trying to create (alternatives for White are everywhere, but the mindset is the important thing!): 7…Bg4 (targeting one of the main defenders of d4) 8.h3 Bxf3 9.Bxf3 (white’s happy to get the two Bishops) 9…Nc6 (hitting d4) 10.Nc3 (ignoring black’s threat and making one of his own. Now 10…Nxc3 11.bxc3 would strengthen white’s center, so Black avoids it) 10…Nb6 (renewing the heat against d4) 11.e3 (11.d5 Nd4 12.Bg2 Qd6 13.Bf4 Qb4 14.Rb1 Nc4 15.a3 Qb6 16.Na4 Qb3 17.Qxb3 Nxb3, =) 11…Qd7 (developing and hitting h3 with tempo) 12.Bg2 Rad8 (increasing the pressure against white’s center) 13.Ne4 e5 (at last!) 14.Nc5 Qc8 15.d5 e4! 16.Bxe4 Ne5, = (…c7-c6 will prove annoying for White).

Notice the energy Black played with in this example? He understood that the whole battle would be about white’s center, and he instantly went after it (imagine a starving animal and a piece of meat – that’s how you should view a large enemy center).

Now compare this straightforward slap to white’s center to the move actually played – 7…c6. The difference should be crystal clear.

8.e4 Nb6 9.h3 Be6 10.Na3?

A horrible move. White reacts to his fear of …Nc4 or …Bc4, and deals with it by placing his Knight on the poor a3-square. Keep in mind that White, the guy with the big center, should be doing everything he can to make his center indestructible. Clearly, 10.Na3 doesn’t do that. So, instead of doing what the board wants White to do (defend his center), he bows to fear. This kind of lemming mindset (see a threat, react, see another threat, react again, etc.) is quite common, and leads to many painful defeats.

Instead of moving his Knight to Siberia via 10.Na3, 10.Nc3 is far more natural (it defends e4 and also keeps an eye on the central d5-point. One very instructive line (for both sides) is: 10.Nc3 Qd7 11.Kh2 Na6 12.b3 (not only taking the b3-square away from black’s pieces, but also allowing the c1-Bishop access to both a3 and b2) 12…Rad8 13.Be3?! c5 14.Ne2 f5 (black’s smashing the White center from all sides!) 15.Ng5 fxe4 16.dxc5 Nd5 17.Bd4 Nf6 18.Qc2 Nb4 and the battle rages on.













One would think that 13.Bb2 would be better since it defends the Knight on c3. This means that 13…c5 would now be met by 14.d5. Also, note that 13.Bb2 Bxd4 14.Nxd4 Qxd4 runs headlong into an X-Ray from the b2-Bishop: 15.Nd5 (now the b2-Bishop threatens the Rook on d4) 15…Rd2?? 16.Nxe7 mate!

In a game, I can see many masters refusing to chop on d4 (13.Bb2 Bxd4) because of this soul-numbing line. And this takes us into a completely different piece of instruction: a real student of the game needs to train his mind to laugh at enemy threats, ignore them if possible, and strive to push his own agenda (this is covered in great detail in the chess psychology section of my new book – How to Reassess Your Chess, 4th Edition). Sadly, players from beginner to master tend to see a threat, panic, and react to it. However, titled players tend to think every threat is garbage. In fact, when seeing a threat, their first thought is, “Rubbish!” (use stronger language if the mood strikes you). The titled player only reacts to a threat after convincing himself that it’s for real. If it’s not real, he’ll play the move he wants to play, not the move the enemy is trying to brainwash him into playing! But the amateur tends to deal with all threats (real and imagined) as if they were the coming of the Apocalypse. Thus, a good teacher will try hard to rewire his student’s brain to spit on enemy threats and push his own plans as if his life depended on it.

Looking back at white’s lame 10.Na3, we see him making a move he didn’t want to play to stop a threat that (at least at that moment) wasn’t even a threat. And now we come to the really scary 10.Nc3 Qd7 11.Kh2 Na6 12.b3 Rad8 13.Bb2 Bxd4 (else White will play Qe2 followed by Rad1 when his strategy has won out: his center is huge and safe, while Black has failed in his bid to prove it’s an attackable weakness) 14.Nxd4 Qxd4 15.Qxd4 Rxd4 16.Nd5. As I said earlier, even many masters would reject this line for Black, but a titled player would dispassionately stare at the position after 16.Nd5 in an effort to unlock any hidden secrets that might be lurking behind the obvious things I’ve mentioned. And, if you toss fear into the garbage bin, you’ll soon realize that 16…Rxd5! 17.exd5 Bxd5 gives Black two solid pawns for the Exchange and, with it, an excellent position.

Of course, this is an advanced moment (calling for good calculation skills), but rejecting 10.Na3 doesn’t call for any calculation at all. The right attitude, the ability to laugh at enemy threats, and a rewired brain that insists on pushing its own agenda, will make you a far stronger player.


And there it is! Black is developing and ignoring his correct plan instead of developing AROUND his correct plan! Development that has nothing to do with one’s proper plan is often worse than no development at all.

So what should Black do instead? Here’s a possible line: 10…Qd7 (attacking h3 and preparing to bring a Rook to d8 and increase the pressure against d4) 11.Kh2 Na6 12.Be3 f5 (forcing the e4-pawn to trade or move forward – in both cases the d-pawn will become backward on an open file and the d5-square will fall into black’s hands. In other words, instead of having a space gaining center that takes squares away from enemy pieces, the center will be weak and riddled with holes) 13.e5 Rad8 14.Qd2 Bd5 and Black has a nice position.


This is best, but White didn’t play it for the right reason. If White were my student, I would have been much happier if he had tried 11.b3 when something like 11…h6 12.Be3 Nf6 13.Ne5 Qc8 14.Kh2 Rd8 15.Nd3 leaves White with a comfortable positional plus since he’s managed to retain his center. This line would show me that he was working hard to push that, “I must make my center indestructible” mindset.

11…Bc4 12.Nxc4 Nxc4 13.e5

Trying to milk the position for everything he can. The quiet 13.Qe2 Nd6 14.Rd1 gets less, but leaves Black with a passive, unpleasant position.

13…h6 14.Nxf7? 

White is getting a bit too excited! A more restrained move like 14.Ne4 promises a safe, large advantage: 14.Ne4 Qb6 15.Qa4 and now 15…Qa6 is probably best but obviously ugly after 16.Qxa6 bxa6 17.Rd1. However, 15…Na5 16.Bd2 is game over, and 15…Qxd4 16.Rd1 Qxe5 17.Qxc4 is also hopeless.

After 14.Ne4, 14…Qa5 is better, but even then 15.Qd3 Ncb6 16.a4 Qb4 17.b3 Nd5 18.Bd2 Qb6 19.a5 Qc7 20.f4 leaves Black in a straightjacket and gasping for breath.

The problem with 14.Nxf7 is that it revels in tactics but fails to assess the positional ramifications that it creates. If you look at the position after 14.Ne4, you would see that black’s pieces aren’t very active. However, 14.Nxf7 ends up activating black’s kingside Rook and his Bishop! Since active enemy pieces are dangerous enemy pieces, one should always do one’s best to keep the opposing army as contained and passive as possible.


14…Kxf7 15.e6+ Kg8 16.exd7 Qxd7 leads to the exact same position that’s reached in the game.

15.e6 Rf8 16.exd7 Qxd7 17.Qb3 Qe6??

Black should have played 17…b5 when the game is very sharp.

18.Qxb7 Bxd4 19.Bxh6 Rab8 20.Qa6??

Why? What’s wrong with the obvious 20.Qxc6 Qxc6 21.Bxc6 Rfd8 22.Rac1 Nxb2 23.Be4 when black’s in serious trouble?

20…Rxf2 21.Rxf2 Rxb2 22.Rd1??

Okay, the position after 21…Rxb2 looks horrible for White. However, if you find yourself in such a situation, and if you have plenty of thinking time, settle back in your chair and look hard for a way to survive. As it turns out, 22.Raf1 hangs on (though it looks like a rough ride!): 22…Rxf2 23.Rxf2 Kh7 24.Bf4 Qe1+ 25.Kh2 Bxf2 26.h4 Bg1+ 27.Kh3 Qe6+ 28.g4 Ne3 29.Bf3 Qf6 30.Qxa7! and white’s somehow still alive! Even if black’s winning after 22.Raf1, he would have to find a way to break down white’s defense, which most people wouldn’t be capable of doing.

22…Bxf2+ 23.Kh1 Bb6 

A good move, but 23…Kh7 was more accurate.

24.Qb7 Qe2, 0-1. 24…Qe2 was killing, but 24…Rxg2 was even stronger. However, it’s hard to argue with a move that makes the opponent resign!

Lessons From This Game

* When your opponent has a big pawn center, you MUST find a way to rip it apart or turn it into a target.

* If you have a big pawn center, do your best to make it indestructible - then your opponent will choke to death due to his lack of space.

* In general, you want to develop your pieces to squares where they can participate in the overall game plan. If you don’t know the position’s imbalances/goals, then you will often find that you’re developing pieces to poor squares.

* Never develop and then say, “What’s going on?” Instead, figure out what’s going on and then develop in accordance with the board’s needs.

* Train your mind to laugh at enemy threats. Your first impulse when seeing such a threat should be to laugh at it. Sadly, most feel instant fear, forget about their own goals, and react – they become puppets and the opponent the puppet master. Only react to a threat after you prove that it’s indeed a real threat - in many cases you can create a counter-threat that overshadows the opponent’s, and in many other cases you can just ignore it completely and continue with your own agenda.

* If things seem bad but you still have a lot of time on your clock, don’t just toss something out in despair. Instead, use every bit of that time looking for a miracle or, at the very least, a tough defense that will put pressure on the opponent to find the right path.

Many smug teachers (grandmasters included) and many deluded amateurs love to rave how only grandmaster games, and the games of the world champions in particular, are instructive and worth looking at. This game completely refutes that view. It’s dripping in instructive content, and all it takes is a good teacher to make it shine. Once again: If a position or game is instructive, it’s important. I don’t care if an earthworm played it, an instructive position is worth its weight in gold, no matter whose name is attached to it!

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