The Top 10 Chess Games Of The 1980s (And 90+ Honorable Mentions)
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The Top 10 Chess Games Of The 1980s (And 90+ Honorable Mentions)

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The 1980s were (even more than the 1990s), the "K" decade. In 1981, World Champion Anatoly Karpov played Viktor Korchnoi in their second world championship match, winning convincingly. Three years later he played the first of five World Championship matches (spanning only six years!) against the young and incredibly talented Garry Kasparov. Their Rivalry would define the decade.

Famously, the first match was aborted by FIDE President Campomanes after 48(!) games. Karpov still lead 5-3, but Kasparov had been making progress. The match would destroy the world championship format of playing to six wins. From now on (other than Fischer vs. Spassky, 1992), matches would be played in a set number of games with the trend over the years being to make the matches shorter and shorter.

In the 1985 World Championship, Kasparov defeated Karpov and claimed the world championship title. The 16th game of that match is my number-one game of the decade. Across their great history and across all five world championship matches, Karpov and Kasparov were extremely evenly matched. Kasparov gained the upper hand, but Karpov was a clear #2 in the world and a worthy foe.

Though the KK rivalry defined the decade, the 80's featured many more exciting games as the style of the times favored aggressive chess and exciting opening play with Sicilians, King's Indians, Benonis, and more being played at the highest level. The play also reached a tremendous level without being impacted yet by computer engines.

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

Top 10 Games of the 1980s

#1: Karpov vs. Kasparov, 1985 (game 16)

This game really begins with Kasparov offering his famous ...d5?! gambit. Today we know this gambit to be unsound, but at the board it was quite challenging to meet. In fact, Karpov's second, Geller, KNEW the refutation but failed to make sure Karpov knew it too! After Karpov misses his opportunity with 12.Be3!, Kasparov builds a great initiative.

Throughout the game, Kasparov shows perfectly how to dominate his opponent, always restricting Karpov's ideas and attempts to free himself. The move 21...g5!!, and the potency of the knight on d3 make a particularly striking impression.

#2: Kopylov vs. Korelov, 1981-1983

Correspondence chess prior to the introduction of computer engines was a wild affair. The best players always sought the sharpest openings and most chaotic positions where there would be the greatest possibility of outplaying the opponent. Today's game between correspondence grandmasters, Kopylov and Korelov is a perfect example. Black attempts the creative Nimzowitsch Variation (see our brand new course here!) but gets quickly into trouble. Can Kopylov press home his attack?

After the Nimzowitsch opening, Korelov finds himself competing against a strong pawn on d6. If he can pick it up, he should have a good game. With the creative 12.d4!!, Kopylov keeps the pawn and continues to press the position. One of the great joys of the game is how Kopylov dances with his king (15.Kd2!, 26.Kd1!, 28.Kd2!!, and 36.Kc1!) to always introduce his rooks into the action at just the right moment.

Korelov defends resourcefully, even trapping and winning a bishop, but Kopylov uses the time Korelov needs to win the bishop to start a beautiful king hunt, driving the black king all the way to the opposite corner where a beautiful checkmate awaits it.

#3: Polugaevsky vs. Torre, 1981

Lev Polugaevsky shows off one of the most brilliant chess opening ideas ever played, his positional rook sacrifice against Eugenio Torre in the famed Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav!

Polugaevsky explains the genesis of this idea (which occurred four years before he was able to play it) and clearly explains the ramifications and missed opportunities that ensue!

The major new idea in this game is Polugaevsky's idea to remain down a full rook and play 17.h4!! and 18.f4!! His pawn chain is then so dominant that Torre can hardly activate any pieces. To free his position, Torre gives back a knight when Polgaevsky should be winning, but Torre received and missed a fantastic chance to save the game with 35...d3!!

The quotes come from Polugaevsky's excellent book, Grandmaster Performance. It's well worth a read!

#4: Portisch vs. Pinter, 1984

In one of the prettiest chess games of all time (seriously, I could watch this game all day long ,), Jozsef Pinter conducted a spectacular king hunt in the endgame, using his own king to help checkmate Lajos Portisch! Here are some of the spectacles you will see in this game: 1) a piece sac in the endgame, 2) a king hunt, 3) a king march, 4) an amazing winning resource for Portisch, 5) beautiful checkmating combinations, 6) four consecutive checks, just like in the movies!

The game opens placidly enough with a Semi-Tarrasch Defense, long disreputed and now well reputed, and Pinter overextends on the queenside with his b-pawn. However Portisch (a great positional master), plays slowly in response, and in a flash, Pinter launches an attack on the centralized white king!

The absence of queens does not faze him, and he offers a piece sacrifice to continue the king hunt which his own king joins. There is one way out though! Portisch could have found a spectacular interference and turned the game around! Failing that, a glorious mating attack soon followed.

#5: Tal vs. Hjartarson, 1987

Mikhail Tal became world chess champion at the age of only 23, and he lost the title in the following year. While he wouldn't get another shot at the title, he played INCREDIBLE chess for three more decades, including many fine games in the 1980s. One of his last great brilliancies was his game vs. Johann Hjartarson in 1987.

Tal combines exquisite positional play with a beautiful final tactical denouement, winning a game that I consider one of the most precise of his excellent career. I challenge you to find any notable mistake by Tal in this game!

The game begins simply enough with a solid Chigorin Defense in the Ruy Lopez. Mikhail Chigorin, namesake of the variation, was a great lover of knights, but he would hate to see what befalls Hjartarson's knight here. From a5, the knight can easily end up dominated, and in this game, Tal finds the right opportunity with b4! to exclude the knight from the rest of the action.

With his positional assets in hand, Tal is able to start setting up some clever tactics and eventually, his opponent falls prey to one, the brilliant 36.Rc5!! which allows Tal a brilliant attack, culminating in some gorgeous knight play and a pretty checkmate.

#6: van de Loo vs. Hesseling, 1983

According to GM Andy Soltis, the following game features the most stunning chess novelty ever played—19.Qa4!! On the other hand, some have alleged that this game never even happened and was a fabrication by the white player. The truth of this game is hard to pin down, an obscure but brilliant game from a weekender or the solitary creation of an opening enthusiast?

Wherever the truth lies, the game is an incredible display of both human brilliance and error. Both Black and White make outstanding moves AND shocking errors. From the beginning to the the end of the game, the play is a treat.

The game opens with the Traxler Counterattack, AKA Wilkes-Barre Variation, one of Black's sharpest and most aggressive opening choices. White displays great courage with his king in every step of this game, first accepting the bishop sacrifice on f2, then marching the king on to e3 and eventually on to a8!

Along the way, there are some incredible tricks and turns, amazing moves, missed wins, and stunning ideas. The game concludes with what must be a completely unique situation in chess history. White doubles rooks on the seventh, attacking Black's king on the 8th rank while protecting his own on the same rank!

#7: Korchnoi vs. Karpov, 1981

Anatoly Karpov is absolutely central to the story of chess in the 1980s. Karpov dominated the early half of the decade and played 5 (!) world chess championship matches in the 1980s - four of them against Garry Kasparov.

Karpov's other world championship opponent was Viktor Korchnoi. These fierce chess (and political) rivals contested many interesting and instructive games and a 1978 and 1981 world championship match. The following 9th match game from '81 showed the difference in skill clearly. Karpov won seemingly effortlessly as Black against the great Korchnoi.

Anatoly Karpov has won as many brilliant positional games as any player in chess history, but perhaps the following game is the most instructive he ever played. Karpov gives a perfect demonstration of how to play against an isolated pawn.

How to defeat an isolated pawn:

  1. Control the square in front of the pawn.
  2. Exchange as many minor pieces as possible.
  3. Double your heavy pieces to pressure the pawn and tie down your opponent's forces.
  4. If allowed, play a pawn break to pile up on the pinned piece and win a pawn.
  5. If prevented, seize the newly opened lines.

Be sure to check out Karpov's incredible book about his best games for complete annotations on this and many other games!

#8: Smirin vs. Beliavsky, 1989

Many great chess players have lived in Garry Kasparov's chess shadow. Alexander Beliavsky is one of those players - a brilliant attacker who you may not even have heard of, but who was one of the strongest players in the 1980s aside from Kasparov and Karpov.

Beliavsky is also to be much admired for the length of his career as he was soviet champion in the 70's and a top-ten players in the 80's and late 90's.

Beliavsky's immortal is doubtless his victory here against Ilia Smirin. The also aggressive Smirin pushed forward with the h-pawn, but "Harry" fails to faze Beliavsky who mobilizes his pieces for a central assault which quickly turns into a beautiful king hunt.

The rook and knight sacrifice to drive the white king up the board are very visual sacrifices, sure to please any lovers of chess aesthetics.

#9: Kasparov vs. Petrosian, 1981

In Tilburg, 1981, the 18-year-old prodigy Garry Kasparov faced the great world chess champion Tigran Petrosian. Kasparov, a clear future titled contender, was actually born in the same year in which Petrosian became world champion!

Playing with the white pieces against a Petrosian who was no longer as active or competitive as he once was, Kasparov was ambitious, clearly hoping to win. Initially things went Kasparov's way as he got a great opening position and developed a nice attack with excellent maneuvers, but Petrosian's incredible defense "staggered" the might Kasparov as Petrosian marched his king straight into the teeth of Kasparov's attack.

This game features many instructive maneuvers, including 11.Bf1!, 19...f5!!, and Petrosian's incredible marching king conception.

Also incredible was the resource Kasparov missed beginning with 36.Bxc7!

Kasparov's annotation in "My Great Predecessors III" are incredible, and I highly recommend you read them!

#10: Beliavsky vs. Nunn, 1985

Kasparov and Karpov weren't the only two players at political odds in the decade. At the beginning of the decade, Karpov defended his world championship title from a second assault by Viktor Korchnoi, the Soviet defector. By the end of the decade, the collapsing Soviet bloc would be distributing chess talent all over the world.

Great players who were at their peak and yet lived in the shadow of Kasparov and Karpov in the 1980s include Jan Timman, Ulf Andersson, Lubomir Ljubojevic, Alexander Beliavsky, and Rafael Vaganian. These and other players played many brilliant and ambitious games in the last decade to be largely untouched by computer analysis and computer databases. Most players still lugged their analytical work around in notebooks and suitcases. Informants were always to hand.

My #10 game of the 1980s is Alexander Beliavsky vs. John Nunn. Each of these players were champions of their country. Beliavsky was a champion of the Soviet Union and John Nunn was a British champion. Together, they each won many fine games in the 1980s and beyond and each had a combative and exciting style. In this game, we see Nunn punishing Beliavsky's Saemish variation as the move 9.h3? provides him the opportunity to initiate an inexorable assault.

Honorable Mentions

NM Sam Copeland

I'm the VP of Chess and Community for I earned the National Master title in 2012, and in 2014, I returned to my home state of South Carolina to start Strategery: Chess and Games. In late 2014, I began working for and haven't looked back since.

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