- 01. The Immortal Game
- 02. The Opera Game
- 03. Karpov v. Kasparov
- 04. The Game of the Century
- 05. Ivanchuk v Yusupov
- 06. Nigel Short - Jan Timman
- 07. Geller - Euwe
Considering that people have been playing chess for millennia, at first glance, this article's title seems like a wild exaggeration. How could we know about the greatest matches ever unless Superprof has lived a super-long life? Fortunately, we're saved by the grammar. As we are going to highlight only seven from what, no doubt would be a vast catalogue of intense matches played through the centuries, we can choose any seven that suit our fancy - that have at least elemental criteria for greatness, of course. They don't have to be the absolute top seven greatest matches ever. Nor do we have to follow official FIDE guidelines in determining our seven greatest games; chess matches can be great for far more reasons than accrued points - as you'll soon find out. Another way grammar saves our bacon is regarding the subjective nature of what anyone thinks is the best, the most, the... insert favourite superlative here. Consider those people who enjoy watching or playing blitz chess; they might find regular chess matches to be about as exciting as watching paint dry. They'd probably scoff at any 'most exciting' list that includes them. Likewise, classic chess aficionados may turn their noses up at rapid chess or blitz chess. But we never said we're the be-all and end-all authority on determining what's best; please let us know about your favourite chess match in the comments below. Meanwhile, let's get on with our list.
The Immortal Game
If you know anything about chess, you might be wondering which immortal game we're referring to: the 1851 face-off between Andersen and Kieseritzky or the 1999 Tata Steel World Championship match between Kasparov and Topalov. Both are fully deserving of mention but we're going to focus on the one known as Kasparov's immortal. He took control of the centre early in the game and then essentially left Topalov to flounder around for the rest of the game. In perhaps a sardonic nod, Kasparov practically took his queen out of play by stashing her on h6 early in the game. A nice castling and a few zugzwang moves later, and Topalov had no good moves left. Left with nothing but a rook and three pawns, he had no choice but to resign.
The Opera Game
Paul Morphy, AKA The Pride and Sorrow of Chess, is often considered the best chess master of his time. Although he had been playing chess since he was a child - and had such a reputation that world-renowned chess figures would visit his Louisiana home to play him, as far as he was concerned, the game was just a pastime. That is until he was deemed too young to pursue a career in law, even though he had the credentials to practise. With roughly three years to kill, he accepted an invitation to compete in New York from the American Chess Congress. He wiped the floor with every single opponent. His unassuming demeanour misled many of his opponents to not think much of his game. That's why, when he finally made it to Europe - where the real chess players play, few were impressed with him. That was only until he played a set of paired-up contenders during a Bellini opera. As befitting the surroundings, he opened with the Philidor defence, named after a pioneer of chess strategy who moonlighted as an opera composer. For the Brunswick-Isouard amateur duo, it was all downhill from there. Footnote: the reason for his 'pride and sorrow nickname' was because, having trounced everyone he could access in the chess world, he retired from competition. Still today, most think his chess career was far too short.
Karpov v. Kasparov
To understand the mastery that makes this game great, you have to know about zugzwang. Translated from German, it means 'tight spot'. It didn't take long for chess players to co-opt the word, interpreting it as 'the compulsion to move'. The very notion of chess implies the urge to move one's pieces, either to attack or defend. However, zugzwang relates to the notion that a player has no good move to make. Indeed, any move they might make could result in a loss of material. Ideally, a chess player in such a position would rather skip a turn than move any piece. That's not an option in chess so they have to make the least damaging move possible. Clearly, that's not a good place to be when sitting across the board from any chess master, let alone one with tactical skills like Kasparov's. Or, for that matter, Kasparov himself. That's exactly what happened to Karpov in 1985. Kasparov was a relatively young player, only 22 when he confronted the then-current World Chess champion, who'd held that title for 10 years. Kasparov's middlegame consisted of nothing but zugzwang, forcing Karpov into a series of increasingly more self-defeating moves. That match is widely hailed as an all-time masterpiece game; one on a short list of such matches throughout chess history. Fun fact: Both Kasparov and Karpov are considered some of the greatest chess players of all time.
The Game of the Century
Bobby Fischer had just entered his teenage years when he faced off against Donald Byrne in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in 1956. Although overall, Fischer's playing in that tournament was only mediocre, in this face-off, he was nothing short of brilliant. Was it Fischer's unflappable focus on the game that caused Byrne to break the cardinal rule of chess? Rather than developing his pieces - he had still not castled, he sacrificed a tempo by moving his bishop twice in a row. That seemingly minor error is all Fischer needed to take control. He made a couple of stunning sacrifices - his queen among them but, in the end, it mattered not at all. He scoops up both of Byrne's bishops as well as a rook and a pawn. In the end, for all that Byrne gave up to protect his queen, she ended up side-lined while Fischer efficiently lined his remaining pieces for a coordinated attack to force mate. By the way, did you know that virtually every country holds its own chess tournaments? Do you know which chess tournament is the most prestigious of all?
Ivanchuk v Yusupov
With one player developing pieces queenside and the other developing kingside, it seemed that neither of these players was interested in what the other was doing. Early in the game, Ivanchuk took the centre but soon focused on the queenside files. His piece development seemed erratic - whimsical, in fact, while Yusupov's seemed more purposeful and direct. That was all an illusion, of course. Soon, Ivanchuk spotted his opening and started capturing pieces at lightning speed. Undaunted, Yusupov made him choke on his greed. We can't know how nervous Ivanchuk was with Yusupov's pawn on e3 - it took that square early in the game, nor can we divine what went through his mind when he realised the trap was sprung. When Yusupov made his early-game pawn push, the match was all but over. In hindsight, rather than moving his black bishop to a3, Ivanchuk may have had a better chance at victory if he had captured Yusupov's e-file pawn before the 11th move. Find chess lessons here on Superprof.
Nigel Short - Jan Timman
We've all heard of a perp walk and Monty Python fans know all too well about the Minister for Silly Walks but a king walk is far less renowned than any other walk you might know, including Sunday walks through the park. The match took place in Brussels, in 1991. Short, playing White, came on aggressively, immediately claiming centre. He didn't hold it for long. Soon, Timman was making inroads, scattering Short's pieces to the sides of the board. Timman then presses his advantage, commanding the centre. That doesn't last long, as Short moves his queen to e4. From there, virtually all of the action is queenside but the serious goings-on are on the other side of the board. Soon, there are no good moves for either side. There are too many pieces still on the board and too much to sacrifice so, out of the blue, Short starts moving his king. Timman didn't quite grasp what was happening until the White king had moved to f4. Only then did he move his bishop to a suitable square but, by then, it was too late. When Short moved his king to g5, Timman had no choice but to resign. There was no good move left for him to play. Fun fact: most chess engines crash during this game when White king moves to g3. Does yours?
Geller - Euwe
Sometimes, when you think you know where you're going and how to get there, something comes along to mess everything up. This phenomenon is also known as "The best-laid plans of mice and men...". That's exactly what happened during this 1953 match between Russian chess grandmaster Efim Geller and World Chess champion and former president of FIDE Max Euwe. Euwe, playing Black, responds well to the Nizmo-Indian opening Geller employed, exercising classic positional counterplay to overcome Geller centre buildup. As the game progresses, it seems Geller is getting the upper hand but Euwe makes a stunning sacrifice, his rook on h8, to throw his opponent off balance. Not sure exactly where Euwe is headed, Geller falters in his strategy, ultimately allowing the Black's queen and rook through its defensive line. After Geller's queen captures the sacrificed rook, it remains sidelined, along with one of White's rooks and its dark-square bishop. His king was left defenceless. Euwe's rook sacrifice turned the entire game around in what was then a stunning upset. Now, learn more about these and other famous chess players...
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