The Top 10 Chess Games Of The 1990s (And 100+ Honorable Mentions)
How'd I screw up this list? :)

The Top 10 Chess Games Of The 1990s (And 100+ Honorable Mentions)

SamCopeland
NM SamCopeland
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The 1990s were a spectacular and turbulent chess decade. World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov made huge waves throughout the decade on and off the board. Kasparov held the #1 Elo ranking in the world for the entire decade, only being briefly tied by Vladimir Kramnik in January, 1996.

Kasparov was also widely considered the world champion throughout the entire decade though he did shock the chess world and exit FIDE's good graces when he and Nigel Short agreed to play their 1993 World Chess Championship match outside of FIDE's auspices. Kasparov also fended off a challenge from Anand in 1995, but his biggest challenge proved to be in 1996 and 1997 as he battled IBM's digital chess monster, Deep Blue.

Kasparov defeated Deep Blue in 1996 though the engine did score one win, the first ever achieved by AI against a chess world champion. In 1997, Kasparov was not so fortunate, the engine scored a landmark match victory. The engine age had arrived. By the end of the 1990s, commercial engines were almost impossible for most humans to beat, and the best were superior to grandmasters.

The 1990s were also a decade of new talent as Nigel Short, Boris Gelfand, Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov, Alexei Shirov, and Vasyl Ivanchuk emerged as super-talents and contenders for the world title. These players played many of the finest games of the decade.

While the 2000s and 2010s also featured invigorating chess, the 1990s were a last hurrah for pre-computer chess. Human instinct was still work something, and it wasn't possible to simply plug your game into Houdini or Stockfish and get the answer to the ultimate question, life, the universe and everything.

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

Top 10 Games of the 1990s

#1: Kasparov vs. Topalov, 1999

Can there ever be a consensus when the word "greatest" is used? Start a conversation about the greatest chess player ever or the greatest player of any sport, and you will get 15 opinions from 10 people. Still, the chess world is pretty unanimous that Garry Kasparov's 1999 victory against Veselin Topalov is the greatest chess game of all time.

The setting, the players, the game, and the variations unseen all contribute to this game's stature. Garry Kasparov had been relatively inactive after his 1997 defeat by the IBM engine Deep Blue, and discussions about a world championship match with Alexei Shirov had fallen through. Anand was making rating gains on Kasparov and seemed due for a rematch against Kasparov that many he thought he might win.

In this setting, Kasparov's 1999 is even more impressive. He kicked things off with Wijk aan Zee where he won his masterpiece against Topalov and won the tournament with a record score. The rest of 1999 was equally impressive, with a huge victory at Linares and undefeated performances at Sarajevo and Siemens, allowing Kasparov to reach a record rating of 2851, a mark not equaled until Carlsen surpassed it 14 years later in 2013.

The game features an incredible rook sacrifice on move 24 that Topalov *should* have turned down, but once the sacrifice was accepted, Kasparov was able to launch a king hunt that hinged on a breathless cascade of sacrificial checkmating ideas.

Lessons:

  • Defending dubious openings can be a risky proposition.
  • The defender's task is usually harder.
  • You should be optimistic when you can separate your opponent's king from his forces.

#2: Short vs. Timman, 1991

Short's incredible king walk against Timman is not entirely unique in the annals of chess (See Teichmann vs. Allies and Hillarp-Persson vs. Laurusas and perhaps Alekhine vs. Yates), but it's close. Certainly, the conclusion of this game makes an incredible impression on all who see it.

Although the finish is famous, don't miss the build-up as Short plays brilliant and instructive chess to build the stranglehold that allows him to finish the game.

Lessons:

  • Don't fianchetto against a strong pawn on e5.
  • Control the open files AND invade.
  • Details (Be3!) matter.

#3: Ivanchuk vs. Yusupov, 1991

In 1991, Vasyl Ivanchuk was 22 and ranked 2nd in the world, an incredible achievement. The Candidates' quarterfinal match in that year between Ivanchuk and Yusupov initially favored Ivanchuk who gained an early lead and needed only a draw in the final game to clinch victory in the match. Drawing on demand would never prove Ivanchuk's forte though as Yusuppov defeated him brilliantly forcing the match into rapid tiebreaks.

In the first game of the tiebreaks, Ivanchuk had White and gained an objective advantage against the King's Indian Defense (a new opening for Yusupov), but Yusupov committed himself fully to the kingside and soon worked up some incredible threats.

A misstep by Ivanchuk allowed Yusupov's threats to materialize. Ivanchuk gave back almost all of his massive material advantage, but even that was insufficient to stave off checkmate.

This is probably Yusupov's finest game (though he was personally unimpressed), but for Ivanchuk, it proved an early indication of a lack of consistency that would plague this brilliant "Chucky" throughout his career.

#4: Ivanchuk vs. Shirov, 1996

Outside of /r/chess (and currently within /r/chess), a queen sacrifice is a rare and special thing. In this game, Ivanchuk played one of the greatest queen sacrifices in chess history, 21.Qg7!!

This incredible move offered his queen for two minor pieces and a strong pawn on g7. The fun was not over after this move though as Ivanchuk concludes the game with an excellent barrage of attacking moves (26.Bxd4!! being a standout).

#5: Isaev vs. Timoshenko, 1991

The game begins with a sharp Sicilian Defense, but it soon resolves into a positional struggle revolving around the central light squares. Once the position reaches an opposite-color bishop middlegame, White seems to let up, thinking that the position may be clearly drawn.

Just as White lets up, Black unleashes a barage of pawn sacrifices and breaks including ...b4!, ...e4!, ...h3!!, ...b3!, and ...a4! which rip open lines for the dark-square bishop. Black's ensuing concluding rook sacrifice and mating combination (after a missed difficult defense by White) is deeply striking.

Lessons:

  • In correspondence chess, deep evaluation is critical.
  • In opposite-color bishop attacks, material is less relevant than targets and in-roads.
  • When a first line (Rb3+) doesn't quite work, consider tweaks (...Qg2!!) to improve the line. Small details can change everything.

#6: Ivanchuk vs. Anand, 1992

#7: Nunn vs. Nataf, 1999

Nataf's attack in this game is a masterpiece of chess aggression. At no point in the game does Black retreat, and when asked to do so, Black sacrifices on f2, conceding a full rook for a spectacular assault on the dark squares.

I'd particularly encourage the viewer to take the time to enjoy all of the different mates, queen traps, and skewers that occur - almost all are based in White's weakness on the dark squares.

Lessons:

  • f7/f2 is the weakest square on the board.
  • Identify your opponent's weak colors and exploit them.
  • If your opponent's king can be kept uncastled, you may sacrifice even when not fully developed.

#8: Kasparov vs. Kramnik, 1996

The game is an extremely sharp Meran Semi-Slav. Kasparov innovates and tries to catch Kramnik's king in the center, but Kramnik meets his aggressive play with an exciting piece sacrifice. In fact, the sacrifice as played was incorrect, but Kasparov missed the strongest defensive path and found his king completely at the mercy of Kramnik's perfectly coordinated forces.

Lessons:

  • Know the ideas behind your chess openings. The Meran Semi-Slav revolves around ...c5.
  • Don't be afraid of any opponent, even Kasparov.
  • Chess is a constant struggle for the initiative.

#9: Kramnik vs. Shirov, 1994

The game features a real battle in styles as Kramnik seeks to gain space and squeeze Shirov without ever allowing counterplay, but eventually, after a careless move by Shirov, Kramnik enters complications that are favorable to him, winning a piece but allowing Shirov into his king's position. It seems Kramnik has things totally under control when Shirov uncorks 31...Re4!! an utterly brilliant and chaotic move that creates wild complications. Still winning, Kramnik responds well with 32.Nxd5!, but it is ultimately Shirov who will outlast his opponent in the melee.

Lessons:

  • Ignore the engine evaluation, pose problems for your opponent. (31...Re4!!)
  • It's not over till it's over.
  • Don't get complacent (23...Qd7?); each move changes calculations.

10: Passov vs. Sammour-Hasbun, 1991

#10 on this list of the best chess games of the 1990s is a lesser-known gem–Alexander Passov vs. Jorge Sammour-Hasbun. This game was played in 1991 in the storied Manhattan Chess Club when Sammour-Hasbun (then named Jorge Zamora) was just 11 years old. In fact, this MIGHT be the greatest chess game ever played by an 11-year-old. I challenge you to show a better one!

Sammour-Hasbun was a tremendous prodigy, setting records at the time both for being the youngest player ever to become a FIDE Master and for being the youngest player to beat a grandmaster. His development (and his eventual hiatus from chess) recalls another fixture of 1990s chess, the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." Much like the famous protagonist in that move, Josh Waitzkin, Sammour-Hasbun cut his teeth in the NYC chess scene in the local clubs and tournaments of the era. Sammour-Hasbun eventually left chess, but he came back in the late 2000s when he twice won the famed Dos Hermanas tournament on the internet chess club. Many at the time initially accused him of foul play (Cheating accusations were no less rampant than now...), but he silenced suspicions by repeating his feat under the personal supervision of an ICC-selected proctor.

This particular game has clear flaws, but the vibrant and youthful play leading to a striking king hunt and beautiful concluding checkmate is irresistible.

Lessons:

  • Every junior should know their Italian Game theory.
  • When your opponent's king is caught in the center, open lines as soon as possible. E.g. 11...e3! and 12...e3!
  • King hunts are about calculation, calculation, calculation. Sacrifice everything for mate.

Honorable Mentions