Why study classics?
Left diagram: Smyslov's beautiful 18.Nc5! Right diagram: position from my blitz game

Why study classics?

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"Why study classics?" is a question that I hear quite often these and one that was never seriously asked in my youth. 30 years ago studying classics was universally accepted as the best way to learn chess, together with analyzing one's own games. To be honest, there were not many alternatives at the time. There was no online blitz, no tactics trainers and, of course, no computer engines to serve as the omniscient oracles.

So I am going to rephrase the question to "Why study classics today?" I am probably not going to score any points for originality in my answer, but I think that there are many good reasons for spending your time on chess classics:

  • Classics still matter. The games of the past masters serve as the building blocks for the modern understanding of chess. These games are no longer earth-shattering revelations that they were when they first played. Over time the discoveries of Morphy, Alekhine or Rubinstein slowly turn into something of an alphabet, known to most club players. That's a natural process. That's what made these games classic in the first place.
  • Studying classics is fun. I agree that trying to beat your own record in Puzzle Rush makes for more adrenaline, but replaying the games of the greats goes beyond chess. There is always drama behind these games. In fact, it is these victories that made the players great. They are the reason why we study the games of Botvinnik, Tal or Fischer and not their less accomplished opponents.
  • Studying classics pays off. This is probably the main point, although it is not always easy to make the connection between studying classics and your own chess improvement. You think you learned something from going over classical games, but can you put a finger on how this knowledge translated into a better move or a sound positional decision?.. Most of the time it remains in "I want to believe" category.

And so it is all the more reward when you can pinpoint the exact motif, or better yet, a specific classical game, that contributed to your own victory. This is exactly what happened in a blitz game that I played earlier this week. 

I will start by sharing the "original" game. I am writing a book about Vasily Smyslov, so it should not come as a surprise that it was the 7th world champion's victory that served as my inspiration:

And now let me show how I used the knowledge of this motif to my advantage in a blitz game:

I am sure that I would not have found that 16.c5! break if I haven't seen Smyslov-Kottnauer game before!