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All-time chess classics
Compiled by IMErikKislik

You will often read in chess books that we should study the classics. Outside of World Championship games, it is not entirely clear what authors mean by that. Telling an amateur player to play through every played game by every elite player is neither a fun, nor a realistic plan for a player trying to become acquainted with famous ideas. Improving players have asked me countless times what the classics actually refers to, because there is not an actual list put out by any highly-esteemed chess authors, coaches, or top players. Players are essentially left to their own devices and we know what usually happens then: due to an overload of information and games to study (here, study this 3 book series on one player...), nothing gets studied at all. I put together this compact list of classic games to highlight the most useful ideas to be aware of. Most lists of classics are plagued by featuring too many surprising checkmates (that even modern 2200 players, let alone top Grandmasters, would very rarely fall for) that occur at the end of an otherwise not particularly instructive game. I balanced this list with positional ideas, defensive ideas, and more slow-moving attacks than just the usual double exclamation mark sacrifice and stock mate.

Useful plans to recall: Qa1 by Reti versus F. Fischer, d5 and Nd4-c6 by Reti to defeat Rubinstein, Qe3!! by Botvinnik against Sorokin, Bc5 by Alekhine against Flohr, Be3 by Boleslavsky against Smyslov, Ba7!! by Karpov against Unzicker, and the king walk by Short against Timman. Additionally, Maroczy-Suechting, Saemisch-Nimzowitsch, Capablanca-Treybal, and Karpov-Kasparov feature awesome domination.

Besides the king walk in Short-Timman, impressive king walks can also be found in Alekhine-Yates, Shashin-Korchnoi, Petrosian-Unzicker, Petrosian-Mecking, and Petrosian-Peters in this collection.

Schlecter-Gunsberg, Euwe-Maroczy, Euwe-Bogoljubow, Spassky-Avtonomov, Gufeld-Ivanovic, Polugaevsky-Petrosian, and Cifuentes-Zvjaginsev are all attacking masterpieces, while great defensive play can be found in the games Geller-Euwe, Petrosian-Tal, Kraehenbuehl-Akesson, Pedersen-Hansen, Ljubojevic-Szmetan, and Lopez-Larsen.

Model games using weak squares are Schlechter-John, Reti-Rubinstein, Lilienthal-Botvinnik, Smyslov-Rudakovsky, and Ivanchuk-Kramnik. Model games exploiting the backward pawn are Tarrasch-Alekhine, Petrosian-Beliavsky, Petrosian-Geller, and Fischer-Reshevsky. Masterful handling of the bishop pair can be seen in the games Alekhine-Alexander, Botvinnik-Reshevsky, Botvinnik-Euwe, and Karpov-Gligoric.

Lastly, take a look at the famous sacrifices of Qxe5!! by Gusev, Rxa1 by Bronstein, Ne5! by Botvinnik, Be6!! by Fischer in the Game of the Century, Rxf4!! by Nezhmetdinov, Nxf2!! and Rf6!! by Fischer, Rd5!! by Kasparov, f4! and Rxf5!! by Gufeld in the Pearl of Sochi, dxe6!! by Polugaevsky against Torre, Nxf2!! by Zvjaginsev, Qg7!! by Ivanchuk against Shirov, Bh3! by Shirov against Topalov, and Rxd4! and Rxc3 by Kasparov, the final two games in this collection.

Please note that no World Championship games are given on this list intentionally, because every player should have a basic familiarity with World Championship games. I made this list to give helpful direction to players not sure what the chess classics refers to. Nearly every game in this list features a particularly memorable plan or idea beyond the scope of just a stock checkmating pattern.

If you think any games belong on this list, please let me know which idea from your proposed game was particularly memorable and classic. While making this list, I looked through over 100 lists of games and numerous books, including one by Grandmaster Soltis and the games featured in the five My Great Predecessors books by Garry Kasparov. I have left out repeat ideas as far as possible (with the exception of the Qa1 plan).

Black's pawns leave a strong impression in the final position
McDonnell vs La Bourdonnais, 1834 
(B32) Sicilian, 37 moves, 0-1

Very famous classic game with a great mating finish
Morphy vs Duke Karl / Count Isouard, 1858  
(C41) Philidor Defense, 17 moves, 1-0

The first known game with Bxh7+ and Bxg7
Lasker vs J Bauer, 1889 
(A03) Bird's Opening, 38 moves, 1-0

d5 is a great pawn sacrifice, and the stairway checks are showy
Steinitz vs Von Bardeleben, 1895 
(C54) Giuoco Piano, 25 moves, 1-0

Strong and direct attacking play by Schlechter
Schlechter vs Gunsberg, 1901 
(D31) Queen's Gambit Declined, 44 moves, 1-0

Strong pawn chain play by Maroczy.
Maroczy vs H Suechting, 1905  
(D61) Queen's Gambit Declined, Orthodox, Rubinstein Attack, 48 moves, 1-0

Schlechter dominates the weak dark squares in Black's position
Schlechter vs W John, 1905 
(D31) Queen's Gambit Declined, 50 moves, 1-0

White plays the sliding move Rd6! to get a passed pawn.
Janowski vs Alapin, 1905 
(D31) Queen's Gambit Declined, 47 moves, 1-0

Alekhine sacrifices with power.
Alekhine vs Breyer, 1914 
(C50) Giuoco Piano, 53 moves, 1-0

Impressive outplay by Capablanca
Capablanca vs Kostic, 1919 
(C42) Petrov Defense, 86 moves, 1-0

Euwe's attack is very powerful, showing White French play
Euwe vs Maroczy, 1921 
(C12) French, McCutcheon, 28 moves, 1-0

Powerful attack by Euwe in the MacCutcheon
Euwe vs Bogoljubov, 1921 
(C12) French, McCutcheon, 36 moves, 1-0

White walks the king up with his knight dominating the bishop
Alekhine vs Yates, 1922  
(D63) Queen's Gambit Declined, Orthodox Defense, 38 moves, 1-0

Great technique by Capablanca.
H E Atkins vs Capablanca, 1922  
(B12) Caro-Kann Defense, 67 moves, 0-1

The first known execution of Reti's main plan with Qa1
Reti vs F Fischer, 1923 
(A13) English, 39 moves, 1-0

White took a piece, but could barely move after that
Saemisch vs Nimzowitsch, 1923  
(E18) Queen's Indian, Old Main line, 7.Nc3, 25 moves, 0-1

The plan of d5, Nd4 and Nc6 is worth studying closely
Reti vs Rubinstein, 1923 
(A06) Reti Opening, 50 moves, 1-0

Alekhine advances the IQP and presses against a backward pawn
Tarrasch vs Alekhine, 1923 
(C60) Ruy Lopez, 54 moves, 0-1

White's endgame play is famous
Capablanca vs Tartakower, 1924  
(A40) Queen's Pawn Game, 52 moves, 1-0

Alekhine's kingside majority advances through Marshall.
Alekhine vs Marshall, 1925 
(D06) Queen's Gambit Declined, 30 moves, 1-0

The 33. Ng6+ knight sacrifice is surprisingly strong.
Nimzowitsch vs Alekhine, 1926 
(B02) Alekhine's Defense, 46 moves, 1-0

Capablanca slowly builds up and wins, preventing counterplay.
Capablanca vs K Treybal, 1929 
(D11) Queen's Gambit Declined Slav, 58 moves, 1-0

20. Qe3 is a studylike move, even though 20. Rd6 is stronger
Botvinnik vs N Sorokin, 1931 
(D60) Queen's Gambit Declined, Orthodox Defense, 55 moves, 1-0

This game is a positional masterpiece. Bc5 is a great move
Alekhine vs Flohr, 1931 
(D26) Queen's Gambit Accepted, 29 moves, 1-0

Euwe sacrifices a pawn and breaks down the QGA
Euwe vs Flohr, 1932 
(D26) Queen's Gambit Accepted, 28 moves, 1-0

This is a classic queen sacrifice, attacking the exposed king
Lilienthal vs Capablanca, 1935 
(E24) Nimzo-Indian, Samisch, 26 moves, 1-0

Alekhine dominates with the bishop pair and e6 square
Alekhine vs C H Alexander, 1936  
(E11) Bogo-Indian Defense, 27 moves, 1-0

Capablanca executed Reti's Qa1 plan and played calmly to win
Capablanca vs Lilienthal, 1936 
(A12) English with b3, 54 moves, 1-0

Botvinnik defeats Black's hanging pawns.
Botvinnik vs Levenfish, 1937 
(D10) Queen's Gambit Declined Slav, 68 moves, 1-0

Alekhine's c2 knight is dominated by Euwe's c3 bishop pre-match
Euwe vs Alekhine, 1937 
(D29) Queen's Gambit Accepted, Classical, 37 moves, 1-0

Botvinnik overpowers Reshevsky with his two bishops.
Botvinnik vs Reshevsky, 1938 
(A25) English, 37 moves, 1-0

Classic Alekhine aggressive positional play.
Alekhine vs E E Book, 1938 
(D26) Queen's Gambit Accepted, 25 moves, 1-0

Botvinnik gives up the exchange in a Winawer and wins.
I Rabinovich vs Botvinnik, 1939 
(C19) French, Winawer, Advance, 67 moves, 0-1

Lilienthal uses far advanced pawns to outpost over Botvinnik
Lilienthal vs Botvinnik, 1940 
(E19) Queen's Indian, Old Main line, 9.Qxc3, 43 moves, 1-0

Botvinnik blockades, sacrifices the exchange and wins.
Botvinnik vs Boleslavsky, 1940 
(E67) King's Indian, Fianchetto, 49 moves, 1-0

This is a classic good knight versus bad bishop game.
Smyslov vs I Rudakovsky, 1945 
(B83) Sicilian, 29 moves, 1-0

Probably the deepest queen sacrifice ever played
Y Gusev vs E Auerbach, 1946 
(B72) Sicilian, Dragon, 37 moves, 1-0

Black's sacrifice on a1 and dark square play is studylike
F Zita vs Bronstein, 1946 
(E64) King's Indian, Fianchetto, Yugoslav System, 30 moves, 0-1

Petrosian breaks down the Stonewall and maneuvers well.
Petrosian vs Korchnoi, 1946 
(A94) Dutch, Stonewall with Ba3, 23 moves, 1-0

17. Ne5 sacrifices a pawn to open up the bishop pair with power
Botvinnik vs Euwe, 1948 
(D46) Queen's Gambit Declined Semi-Slav, 32 moves, 1-0

Dutch breakdown, strong outposts, and a queen sacrifice.
Taimanov vs Lisitsin, 1949 
(D30) Queen's Gambit Declined, 38 moves, 1-0

Spassky wins beautifully with the IQP pawn sacrifice.
Spassky vs S Avtonomov, 1949 
(D28) Queen's Gambit Accepted, Classical, 21 moves, 1-0

14. Be3 damages the structure, but wins the d6 square
Boleslavsky vs Smyslov, 1950 
(D16) Queen's Gambit Declined Slav, 22 moves, 1-0

Smyslov temporarily sacrifices his queen
Smyslov vs Tolush, 1951 
(A62) Benoni, Fianchetto Variation, 40 moves, 1-0

This is a great example of running away to safety
Geller vs Euwe, 1953 
(E26) Nimzo-Indian, Samisch, 26 moves, 0-1

16. Na2, the knight tour, and the sacrifices after are classic
Petrosian vs C Guimard, 1955 
(D37) Queen's Gambit Declined, 62 moves, 1-0

This is regarded as the "Game of the Century"
D Byrne vs Fischer, 1956  
(D92) Grunfeld, 5.Bf4, 41 moves, 0-1

Petrosian sacrifices the exchange and gets it back later.
Polugaevsky vs Petrosian, 1956 
(E63) King's Indian, Fianchetto, Panno Variation, 35 moves, 0-1

This is a backward pawn masterpiece.
Petrosian vs Geller, 1956 
(D34) Queen's Gambit Declined, Tarrasch, 73 moves, 1-0

A nice queen sacrifice by Larsen wins the game.
Larsen vs B Soderborg, 1957
(D86) Grunfeld, Exchange, 40 moves, 1-0

Rxf4!! was a great queen sacrifice
Polugaevsky vs R Nezhmetdinov, 1958 
(A54) Old Indian, Ukrainian Variation, 4.Nf3, 33 moves, 0-1

Petrosian's pieces dominate Pachman's queen.
Pachman vs Petrosian, 1958 
(A54) Old Indian, Ukrainian Variation, 4.Nf3, 36 moves, 0-1

Fischer toughs out a Ruy Lopez grind.
Fischer vs Unzicker, 1959 
(C97) Ruy Lopez, Closed, Chigorin, 65 moves, 1-0

Enticing king walk and breakthrough by Petrosian.
Petrosian vs Unzicker, 1960 
(D30) Queen's Gambit Declined, 55 moves, 1-0

Same-colored bishop clear win at the end.
Averbakh vs A Matanovic, 1961 
(A17) English, 42 moves, 1-0

Korchnoi creates two isolated pawns with c4! and wins.
Korchnoi vs Petrosian, 1961 
(C11) French, 68 moves, 1-0

Backward pawn exploitation masterpiece by Fischer
Fischer vs Reshevsky, 1962 
(B90) Sicilian, Najdorf, 54 moves, 1-0

This is one of Fischer's nicest wins.
R Byrne vs Fischer, 1963  
(E60) King's Indian Defense, 21 moves, 0-1

Rf6!! is a great blocking sacrifice.
Fischer vs Benko, 1963 
(B09) Pirc, Austrian Attack, 21 moves, 1-0

Thematic KIA play and a nice mate at the end.
Fischer vs Myagmarsuren, 1967 
(A07) King's Indian Attack, 31 moves, 1-0

The 19. ...e4! pawn sacrifice ripped the White king open.
Polugaevsky vs Petrosian, 1970 
(A14) English, 36 moves, 0-1

Petrosian breaks through the closed position with pawn breaks.
Petrosian vs T Ledic, 1970 
(D45) Queen's Gambit Declined Semi-Slav, 44 moves, 1-0

Petrosian's king marches through the position.
Petrosian vs Mecking, 1971 
(A46) Queen's Pawn Game, 57 moves, 1-0

Beliavsky's backward pawn costs him a pawn
Petrosian vs Beliavsky, 1973 
(A30) English, Symmetrical, 43 moves, 1-0

Shashin's king run is very unique
A Shashin vs Korchnoi, 1973 
(E56) Nimzo-Indian, 4.e3, Main line with 7...Nc6, 35 moves, 1-0

Ruy Lopez masterpiece with Karpov dominating the bishop pair
Karpov vs Gligoric, 1973 
(C95) Ruy Lopez, Closed, Breyer, 63 moves, 1-0

24. Ba7!! is a fantastic blocking idea to dominate the file
Karpov vs Unzicker, 1974 
(C98) Ruy Lopez, Closed, Chigorin, 44 moves, 1-0

Nb1 and the finale Rxd8 are moves every player should see
Karpov vs Spassky, 1974 
(B83) Sicilian, 35 moves, 1-0

Rd5 showed players how to play Rauzer structures with White
Kasparov vs A Sokolov, 1975 
(B67) Sicilian, Richter-Rauzer Attack, 7...a6 Defense, 8...Bd7, 32 moves, 1-0

Petrosian tried to attack Tal, but his attack was refuted
Petrosian vs Tal, 1976 
(A15) English, 28 moves, 0-1

Petrosian's calmness and his king walk make this memorable.
Petrosian vs J Peters, 1976 
(A34) English, Symmetrical, 50 moves, 1-0

This game is known as the pearl of Sochi. Superb attack
Gufeld vs B Ivanovic, 1979 
(B33) Sicilian, 34 moves, 1-0

Groszpeter sacrifices his queen to mate. Gross White king
J Diaz vs A Groszpeter, 1980 
(B93) Sicilian, Najdorf, 6.f4, 22 moves, 0-1

Do not give up when you have a strong passed pawn
L Day vs S Barbeau, 1980
(B25) Sicilian, Closed, 52 moves, 0-1

A rook sacrifice for pawns that redefined a variation
Polugaevsky vs E Torre, 1981 
(D44) Queen's Gambit Declined Semi-Slav, 40 moves, 1-0

White defends by covering all key focal points near his king
G Kraehenbuehl vs R Akesson, 1981
(A86) Dutch, 38 moves, 1-0

One of the best defensive games, involving a queen sacrifice
H B Pedersen vs C Hansen, 1981 
(B02) Alekhine's Defense, 42 moves, 0-1

Defensive queen sacrifice, then solid g4 knight blocks checks
Ljubojevic vs J Szmetan, 1981
(E97) King's Indian, 44 moves, 1-0

Larsen covers all of the squares near his king and wins
J Bellon Lopez vs Larsen, 1981
(C47) Four Knights, 39 moves, 0-1

Direct play pushing the queenside majority and queening. Power
Karpov vs Portisch, 1982 
(B92) Sicilian, Najdorf, Opocensky Variation, 40 moves, 1-0

A very hard-fought and well-played draw.
Oll vs Salov, 1982 
(B82) Sicilian, Scheveningen, 39 moves, 1/2-1/2

22. Rxb4! is a deep and impressive exchange sacrifice
Andersson vs Seirawan, 1983 
(A37) English, Symmetrical, 41 moves, 1-0

Beautiful long-term outplay.
Karpov vs A J Mestel, 1984 
(C05) French, Tarrasch, 61 moves, 1-0

Karpov grinds out a nice win against the IQP.
Karpov vs Timman, 1986 
(A15) English, 70 moves, 1-0

Dreev wins the quintessential French Defense endgame
Dreev vs Bareev, 1986 
(C11) French, 41 moves, 1-0

This is the most famous king walk in chess history
Short vs Timman, 1991 
(B04) Alekhine's Defense, Modern, 34 moves, 1-0

23. c5! steamrolled Kasparov
Ivanchuk vs Kasparov, 1991 
(B51) Sicilian, Canal-Sokolsky (Rossolimo) Attack, 38 moves, 1-0

Yusupov's mating idea was very unique
Ivanchuk vs Yusupov, 1991 
(E67) King's Indian, Fianchetto, 39 moves, 0-1

Classic Ruy Lopez play crowned with a piece sacrifice
Fischer vs Spassky, 1992 
(C95) Ruy Lopez, Closed, Breyer, 50 moves, 1-0

Anand brilliantly damages his own pawn structure to advance it.
Ivanchuk vs Anand, 1992 
(B62) Sicilian, Richter-Rauzer, 45 moves, 0-1

This was a superb case of domination
Karpov vs Kasparov, 1993 
(E86) King's Indian, Samisch, Orthodox, 7.Nge2 c6, 27 moves, 0-1

Serper's piece sacrifices for mobile pawns are amazing
Serper vs I Nikolaidis, 1993 
(E70) King's Indian, 48 moves, 1-0

Karpov sacrificed both of his rooks, creating an immortal game
Karpov vs Topalov, 1994 
(A32) English, Symmetrical Variation, 39 moves, 1-0

Zvjaginsev sacs a rook to put the king in a mating net
Cifuentes Parada vs Zvjaginsev, 1995 
(D45) Queen's Gambit Declined Semi-Slav, 35 moves, 0-1

White's Qg7!! idea is extremely in-your-face
Ivanchuk vs Shirov, 1996 
(D44) Queen's Gambit Declined Semi-Slav, 35 moves, 1-0

White had two killer outposts
Ivanchuk vs Kramnik, 1996 
(E81) King's Indian, Samisch, 34 moves, 1-0

This game made Kasparov quit playing the King's Indian.
Kramnik vs Kasparov, 1997 
(E97) King's Indian, 32 moves, 1-0

Bh3! in the endgame is a stunning sacrifice for time
Topalov vs Shirov, 1998 
(D85) Grunfeld, 53 moves, 0-1

Rxd4! was a practical sacrifice, confusing Topalov
Kasparov vs Topalov, 1999 
(B07) Pirc, 44 moves, 1-0

The most famous exchange sacrifice ever played, shaming a 2700
Movsesian vs Kasparov, 2000 
(B80) Sicilian, Scheveningen, 32 moves, 0-1

100 games

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