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If you could bring Morphy back from the dead, he'd beat 99.9% of the players in the world today, and if you gave him enough time to learn modern theory he'd whip Anand as well. At our level of play, your chess would be much better served by trying to imitate him than some boring technician like Kramnik.
Max Euwe argued that the development of chess style in history mirrors the way we learn chess as individuals. As such, the Romantic era in chess represents the first level of chess development.
You don't need to study the games of the old masters to learn how to play open games. But you should begin your study with open games. There are many more recent examples of these games than those played by the likes of Morphy, Anderssen, Dufresne. There are games from Tal's Fischer's Kasparov's and Carlsen's juvenalia for example that are every bit as slashing and beautiful as many of the early games.
Hikaru Nakamura used to brag that he had never studied any games that were played before he was born. He has shown that the early games aren't essential for learning. But he's an exception.
Most strong players study the classics as very young players. Every world champion has studied the games of their predecessors. The main reason is that this gives you a vocabulary of chess that will benefit you as you improve and deepen your understanding.
So study the classics, but don't get stop there. It's just the first step in gaining an understanding of chess.
I agree that Morphy would beat 99.9% of the players today. Statisticians have worked out that his chess ability was about 2350 strength. If he had an open game, he was as strong as today's grandmasters. He was relatively weak in closed games and the endgame. These are weaknesses that can't be fixed in a few weeks or months.
Chess has moved on in the last 150 years or so. I really admire what Paul Morphy accomplished, but our understanding of chess has moved on. The Romantic period that Morphy represents is merely the first stage of development. Learn how to attack in open positions the way Morphy did, but learn chess strategy from later masters.
That's ridiculous. The solid foundations of strategy, tactics, and endgame play will endure exactly as they are now for the next 500 years. Nothing will change. If, in the next decade or so, some genius GM comes up with an obscure winning variation in an opening you've never heard of, you can worry about that when you're a GM.
That's not true at all.
Technique today has moved well beyond what even my hero, Smyslov knew. In the 1990s, an IM friend of mine, now a GM, said that every elite player has the technique of Smyslov in the endgame. Endgame technique has grown by leaps and bounds. Take a look at the Candidates' tournament that has just finished, especially the games of Kramnik and Aronian. They have shown that endgame technique now extends far into what was once considered the middle game. Players avoid certain endgames because they already know the result (drawn or lost), and their strategies have changed as a result.
Strategy has also changed dramatically. It's not just openings that have changed, the types of positions that are considered playable have changed dramatically too.
Thirty years ago, the Berlin Defense was considered inferior. Today, it is one of Black's best bets for playing for a win at elite levels! Thirty years ago, the main line of the Spanish was with d4 and the Marshall was considered sharp but not particularly dangerous. Now, the Marshall is considered a drawing line and white's best practical chances are found with d3 Spanish lines.
And so on.
Chess has really changed in the last 30 years, and it will continue to change.
Like is it a bad idea to base my style off morphy or steinitz are they just too far out of date? At what point are the players safe to study and adopt a style from? Capablanca's era?
All the games of the old masters have a ton of lessons in them Fischer studied them thoroughly and so did Larsen and Karpov and word has it Carlsen studied Kasparov's series of books my great preddecessors.
Say there are a very conservative 1 million players, Morphy would be ranked 1000th?
Technique today has moved well beyond what even my hero, Smyslov knew. In the 1990s, an IM friend of mine, now a GM, said that every elite player has the technique of Smyslov in the endgame.
I think you've made my point FOR me. You mention, in your own refutation of my point, GMs and "elite levels." The OP is clearly not anywhere near elite levels, though from your profile it appears that YOU are knocking on that door. For that, my heartiest congratulations.
But the last part of your post is EXACTLY what I was talking about for class players. What we REALLY need are the foundations of strategy, tactics, and endgames. Those things can be found in abundance in the old masters. Once we've mastered them, it's time to dive in to modern theory and practice.
I mean, if you want to improve your math skills, you start with beginning algebra and work up; you don't dive right into calculus and expect to get anything from it.
Perhaps it's better to focus on well-structured (award winning books). John Nunn's work comes to mind. But their are many others.
Yes, Master Games can be great learning tools, or they can bury you with maneuvers that you little understand and absolutely can't replicate.
So why bother, until your playing strength ( @2000+ USCF) justifies it?
Of course, there is always the aesthetic pleasure of seeing Botvinnik get a grip on the dark squares and throttle his opponent, seemingly without effort.
So my suggestion is for using (excellent) middlegame and endgame strategy-like books, which will be chockabloc with examples from Master Games, but NOT include their whole games. Because that kind of information is basically "over the heads" of the hard-working (non-elite) chess students.
And personally, I'd rather just win level endgames using better chess knowledge. At least that's something you can learn to do relatively quickly, and replicate at fairly fast time controls.
I tried studying the old masters, but they called the police on me and took away my shovel.
I remember having studied two books of Alekhine's games with great interest when I was a kid. Morphy/Steinitz are more "ancient", but their games are still quite instructive. It's instructive to trace how the theory and the game principles have evolved. To do that, one has to start at the beginning.
Do you feel better after that completely pointless display of pedantry?
Please be relevant, helpful and nice !