The Top 10 Chess Games Of The 1960s (And 150+ Honorable Mentions)
Is 158 honorable mentions too much? Never!

The Top 10 Chess Games Of The 1960s (And 150+ Honorable Mentions)

NM SamCopeland

The 1960s might be my favorite chess decade. In some ways, it was a golden age for chess. The world championship cycle was stable and (mostly) working well with regular Zonals, Interzonals, and Candidates Matches producing exciting chess and generally giving the best chess players in the world the chance to battle their way to the world title.

In the 1960s, there were five world championship matches. Mikhail Botvinnik vs. Mikhail Tal ('60 and '61), Mikhail Botvinnik vs. Tigran Petrosian ('63), and Tigran Petrosian vs. Boris Spassky ('66 and '69). All featured exciting chess, and many masterpieces were produced. The dubious rule stating that the reigning champion retained draw odds had been done away with in the 1950s, and after Botvinnik's rematch with Tal, the champion's right to a rematch would be dropped as well.

In the 1960s, members of the "old guard" such as Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Sammy Reshevsky, (four of the five contenders in FIDE's 1st World Championship - Max Euwe now took on other roles in chess and played less.) David Bronstein, and Miguel Najdorf were all active and competing at the top level, but the younger generation lead by Tal, Bobby Fischer, and Boris Spassky soon dominated the scene. Even when they weren't winning events in crushing fashion, they remained the center of attention to the drama and excitement they created on and off the board. Interestingly, each of these players, the best of their generation, faltered in some way, receding a bit from their most dominating form once they gained and then lost the world title.

An incredible snapshot of the time. The five Soviet players depart the plane in Curacao, 1962. From left to right, they are Keres, Geller, Tal, Petrosian, and Korchnoi. Photo: Dutch National Archive.

On the board, chess in the 1960s was incredibly exciting, almost all of the mainline openings played today had been discovered at this time, but the theory was still being developed so fresh ideas infused the opening phase. This pre-computer age also saw a lot of risk-taking from players like Tal (see 21...Nf4!!) and Spassky (who played the King's Gambit). Events like the Olympiad and various exhibitions and zonals also lead to real mismatches in skill level as the world's best played masters and International Masters. The resulting imbalanced games such as Letelier vs. Fischer and Tal vs. NN were often the type of spectacular defeat that you just don't see between two elite players.

Finally, it's worth noting that as I worked on this series, "The Queen's Gambit" released on Netflix. This incredible limited series overlaps with this time period but in a fictional world. Still, I think that the style and intrigue of the period helped infuse the show with some elements of it's success. Here are some things depicted in the show that are true to the time period:

  • The United States chess scene is correctly depicted as something of a minor league relative to the Soviet scene. After all, Fischer was able to win the U.S. Championship of 63/64 with an 11-0 score. Beth's trajectory is very similar to Fischer's.
  • The chess enthusiasm in the U.S.S.R. at the time is well shown. The most important tournaments were often (though not always) played in spectacular venues, and there would be a large audience.
  • The tension (and Soviet mystique) in the Cold War era is well captured. Fischer himself was enamored of Soviet chess at a young age and (like Beth) learned Russian to read the literature. He later bitterly decried the Soviet players and accused them of colluding, but he maintained at least somewhat positive relations with players like Tal, who he visited in the hospital, and Spassky who always showed himself to be the quality sportsman Borgov is in the show.
  • In the show, Beth develops not just as a chess player, but also a person, becoming more confident and glamorous throughout the show. This also mimics both personal and global traits at that time. Fischer developed a sartorial bent after his younger, scruffier days and became known for his suits, and generally the 1960s and the Fischer era is one of progression from minimal media attention and small venues (such as the high school in which the Kentucky Championship is played) to unavoidable media fervor and spectacular prize funds.
  • The parallels between Beth and Bobby are numerous and have been discussed widely. Beth conquers her demons in the show. Fischer sadly succumbed to his.

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See also: Top 10 of the 1970s, Top 10 of the 1980s, Top 10 of the 1990s, Top 10 of the 2000s, Top 10 of the 2010s

Top 10 Games of the 1960s

#1: Botvinnik vs. Tal, 1960

#2: Byrne vs. Fischer, 1963

#3: Nezhmetdinov vs. Chernikov, 1962

#4: Estrin vs. Berliner, 1965

#5: Polugaevsky vs. Tal, 1969

#6: Petrosian vs. Spassky, 1966

#7: Veresov vs. Bronstein, 1960

#8: Spassky vs. Bronstein, 1960

#9: Gufeld vs. Kavalek, 1962

#10: Korchnoi vs. Udovcic, 1967

Honorable Mentions