While footballers watch videos of Messi & Ronaldo, Chess players can replay games of World Champions & Grandmasters.
What is even better, some Chess World Champions comment on their games so that one can get into their head.
Why did they go for a certain opening? How far did they calculate some stunning sacrifices? What would they do better if they could go back in time?
Some of these questions are answered by the likes of Kasparov, Tal & Fischer themselves!
But should you spend your valuable study time playing through these games? And if yes, what is the most efficient way to do so? Continue reading to get the answer to these questions!
Here is a short overview of this article:
- The ugly truth about my knowledge of Chess World Champions
- Pros and cons of studying games of Chess World Champions
- How to study classical games
- Great resources to study classical games
The Ugly Truth About My Knowledge Of Chess World Champions
I’m gonna be honest. I was as lazy as it gets until I turned pro in 2015. Watching TV, going out, or chatting with girls was way more interesting than studying chess books.
I did not read one single book of a Chess World Champion before reaching the IM title. Obviously, I knew some of the more known games of chess history. Either through one of my coaches, different puzzle books, or through opening analysis.
But I did not study them specifically. I might have even failed to name all the 16 undisputed Chess World Champions some years ago…
Once I turned professional in 2015 I knew there was no getting around studying classical games a bit more seriously. As I got much more disciplined, it was easier to set aside time to study classical games.
There was also some pressure from fellow Chess players to study the greats.
Whenever somebody would say “do you remember game 24 of Kasparov-Karpov in Sevilla” I would have absolutely NO CLUE what they were talking about.
I barely knew that they played in Seville. Which year? Don’t ask me such things!
Starting with Fischer’s “My 60 memorable games” I read several books of former Chess World Champions.
While I did like it, I never got the impression that it is the most efficient training. To me, this seemed more like free time.
Reading through the stories of the greats is certainly inspiring and interesting. Some motives will stay in your mind forever. But most of it you will probably never use in a practical game.
Should You Study Games Of Chess World Champions?
This brings us to the question: should you study classical games? My answer is: Yes, but…
I do believe that studying the games of Chess World Champions will help your chess improvement. But it is certainly not the greatest way to train.
You can read through all the books of World Champions while someone just solves tactical exercises every day.
Who do you think will have better results in the end?
Obviously, the one solving tactical exercises. While you were thinking along with some World Champions, the other player had focused on straining themself every day.
Solving tactical exercises is much more practical than playing through some master games.
While tactics appear in every game, some deep concepts applied by former World Champions might never occur in a game of yours!
So classical games are a great source of inspiration. And for most of us, great fun to play through.
But they will only really improve your chess if you add other bits of training into your routine.
Obviously, it is not exactly the same. But I still like to compare studying classical games to watching Messi or Ronaldo on TV. It is amazing to see what they can do. The act of watching them can inspire you to put in hard work to be like them one day.
But you won’t automatically be stronger just by watching them. You need to try it out yourself and fail over and over again.
Am I advising against studying classical games? HELL NO. Nobody would advise you against watching your favorite sportsman on TV!
I encourage you to do so if you feel like studying classical games.
But if you really want to improve, you should not overdo it. Get the hard training in and then enjoy studying classical games. Or see classical games as a pleasurable activity, not real training.
The Stronger You Get, The More It Counts
The closer you get to the level of these great players (IM+), the more you can take away from studying their games.
Many beginners will struggle to understand the deep concepts applied in World Championship Matches. While you might enjoy the beauty of their combinations, you are too far away to really take away something chess-wise.
It is most likely much more beneficial to read books written for beginners and your specific level.
Or to have somebody analyze World Champions games with you and break the moves down to your level!
As the World Champions are so far advanced, they will usually fail to break it down to real beginner level.
In this case, it might be more beneficial to watch your favorite YouTuber analyze a World Champions game in an easily understandable way.
Let me take Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain as an example. I find it super intriguing, but I don’t really understand much of it.
Now listening to Vitalin Buterik (founder of Ethereum, #2 Cryptocurrency in the World) on the Tim Ferriss Podcast was super inspiring. But I did maybe understand 10% of what he actually explained!
Reading a book on how Blockchain & Cryptocurrency work will be more beneficial in a learning sense. Once I get the basics I can go back to the interview and start to understand so much more of what he said.
Listening to one of the greats in the Crypto space was more of an inspiration than a learning opportunity. I got the motivation to study the basics and soon I will hopefully be ready to tackle the more complex things.
It is exactly the same way in Chess! If you are too far away, a game of Tal might look fancy, but the moves seem alien to you!
Until you get stronger, these games are a great opportunity to be inspired.
Not Even All GMs Know Many Classical Games
As you get closer to the Top, the differences get smaller and smaller.
Applying some deep strategical concepts might make the difference between a victory and a loss. Then it certainly makes sense to know some of the classical games.
Also because your opponents will most likely know them and might apply them against you!
But even some super strong GMs did not really study the Chess World Champions.
I remember a hilarious conversation with one of the strongest Juniors in the World, GM Nihal Sarin. Talking about different ways to study chess and his enormous skills in online Blitz & Rapid chess, he suddenly goes:
But anyway nobody studies with books anymore, right?GM Nihal Sarin
I just had to laugh out loud. He was absolutely convinced nobody reads books anymore.
You might say this is a case of being strong despite not studying classics, not because he did not study classics. And you are probably right.
But I just want to tell you that not every GM remembers classical games like Magnus Carlsen does.
His knowledge of classical games is insane and it certainly helps him. But it might make the difference between being 2810 and 2850. As at the top every nuance counts, it makes sense for him to accumulate this knowledge.
Also, don’t forget that he is basically a professional Player since his Teenage-Years.
For adults with a limited amount of time (90% of my readers), other rules apply.
So What Do I exactly Recommend?
I’m sorry that I can’t give you a clear answer like “study 3 hours of classical games every week and you’ll be the greatest ever”. I’ll leave this to the gimmicks out there :-).
But in case you want some actionable advice, here it is:
- Use classical games as a source of inspiration
- If your main goal is chess improvement, don’t spend more than 20% of your training on classical games
- Always study games with commentary. Make sure the commentary is good for your level
- Be aware that it always depends HOW you do something. In order to know HOW to study the World Champions, read on.
How To Study Classical Games
No matter what you do, you need to do it WELL for it to work.
Even with the best plan in the world, you still need to do the work WELL. Now it really depends on how you see the study of these great Chess World Champions. Is it pure fun, or would you like to improve by studying them?
As I said, for me this was mostly fun.
And if you see it that way (and don’t count it as training hours when you brag about how much you study…) make it as enjoyable as possible.
Put on the comfiest outfit, go on your beloved couch and take a nice book of a Chess World Champion with you. Only read what is fun, skip all the long and complicated lines. See it more as a storytelling book, than a real Chess study.
Skip games you find boring and go to the ones that excite you. Don’t care about rook endings? Then don’t bother! Get to the next game.
If a football match bores you to death you will also switch off the TV! Handle it exactly like that.
You can also check out some YouTubers or Twitch Streamer (have to recommend my awesome girlfriend Alessia) lean back and enjoy! Do not bother to use your head more than absolutely necessary.
You get it: make the experience as much fun as possible. Take in the inspiration and forget about improvement. If the only thing you remember is that Tal was a true badass and had some sick sacrifices, that is totally fine.
You don’t need to remember games or even positions. If that is your goal, then you probably want to improve…
If your main goal is Chess improvement, then you’ll have to use your head. I know it is tough… But forget about the magic pills, they don’t exist.
Improvement comes with constant well-focused training.
My favorite method aimed at chess improvement is the following:
Take a book (I’ll add some resources at the end of the article) and sit down at your board.
Play through the moves carefully. Whenever there is a Diagramm pause and think for 5-10 Minutes. Don’t spend more than 15 Minutes on any position. In 90% of cases, you won’t have more time in a practical game.
How would you evaluate the situation? What would you play and WHY?
Write those answers down.
Even if you don’t have a complete answer. See where your intuition goes and what your thought process was.
Always force yourself to make a decision. You’ll have to do the same in a game. If you write down 2 moves then both are WRONG!
Only then compare your thoughts with the game continuation. Did you find the right continuation?
If not, what did you miss? In case your continuation is not mentioned in the book, check it with an Engine (or preferably your Coach or a better player).
You can bulk all the questions/positions to check and do it at the end of a session. Just make sure not to forget to do so…
Don’t skip over parts that seem boring. Most likely these parts are exactly where you can improve most!
Players who don’t like endings tend to be bad in endings. Players who hate slow positional play struggle to find plans and only excel playing tactical positions.
Usually, your weakness is what you dislike most! Search games & World Champions that have a completely different playing style of yours. Have trouble sacrificing material? Look at the games of Mikhail Tal!
Can’t stand maneuvering? Then look at Karpov’s masterpieces.
Make yourself think along with those great minds and you’ll learn a lot.
I can’t stress enough how important it is that you think for yourself FIRST before you see their combinations/maneuvers.
Once we see something it is super logical. But in a practical game, you might have NO IDEA whatsoever what to look for and what to do.
With Videos (FREE or PAID)
Nowadays nearly everything is on Video. It is much easier to study in that way. Just open YouTube and you’ll find hundreds of annotated games of World Champions.
But sitting at a screen always comes with a big risk: relaxing instead of focusing.
Make sure to open only this single tab when you try to study at the Computer. Don’t multi-task. EVER!
Then do the same as described above with books: think for yourself! Pause the video before critical moments and take some time to figure out what you would do. Write your answers down.
Whatever is not written down, does not count as a solution.
In some great video courses, you’ll have a Coach telling you when to stop.
A video that is 30 Minutes long will most likely take you an hour to finish in that way. I know that can be frustrating. You feel like you are stuck and not getting ahead. But the opposite is the case.
If you simply rush through the videos (maybe even increasing the speed…) you’ll get a quick shot of adrenaline when finishing a video. It feels like you accomplished something.
But if I were to ask you 1 day later what you learned, you’ll have no idea anymore!
The goal is never to see X amount of games or videos. The goal is to learn as much as possible every time you study. Don’t measure yourself with Quantity. Measure with QUALITY.
Great Resources To Study Chess World Champions
There are hundreds of books & videos on famous World Champions and their games. I certainly did not read/see all of them, so my recommendations will be incomplete. I still hope you find something that appeals to you.
This is a list of books I will soon also add to my resource page. There is no particular order. I did read or begin to read every one of those books.
- Bobby Fischer “My 60 memorable games”
- “Botvinniks Best Games” Volumes 1, 2 & 3
- “Botvinniks Complete Games” Volumes 1, 2 & 3
- “Zurich international Chess tournament” by David Bronstein (not a World Champion himself, but a legendary player.
- “My Great Predecessors” by Garry Kasparov volumes 1-5
- “Garry Kasparov on Modern Chess” Part 1-4
- “Learn from the Legends – Chess Champions at their Best” by Mihail Marin, Picking only the best from several Champions
- “Judit Polgar Teaches Chess” Volumes 1-3, amazing read and incredible games by the strongest ever female player
- “The life and games of Mikhail Tal” by Tal
- “My Best Games of Chess 1908-1937” by Alexander Alekhine
- “My Best games” by Viktor Korchnoi (again not World Champion, but came close several times)
Looking at my bookshelf, that’s about all I have read so far. As you can see, I mostly got the books where a certain player annotates on their own games.
This is always more fascinating, as they can explain exactly how they made decisions and give some background stories.
As the video format is much more recent, few of them are really by the World Champion himself. But I believe the instruction by the presenter to be phenomenal in those cases:
- Commented Classical Games by GM Avetik Grigoryan (Chessmood)
The founder and CEO of Chessmood GM Avetik presents 100(!) games in a very clear-cut and understandable way.
Every game has a theme and some concrete knowledge for you to take away. If I only had to recommend ONE resource, this would be my take. The course is free for all Chessmood-PRO members (29$/month).
The first videos are FREE of charge and thus you can start checking them out without risk. I am a big fan also because GM Avetik explains how you should work with the course. If you use your own brain while watching, you will take away so much more!
- Agadmator YouTube Channel
Agadmator is great in breaking down the games of World Champions for Beginners. If you are below 1800 and enjoy seeing some classical games, this channel is for you.
Be aware that this is rather on the entertainment and not the training side. Agadmator himself is no titled player and thus does not explain all the concepts perfectly well.
But it is a great resource for beginners that want to check out some well-known games with charismatic commentary.
My Favorite World Champion
Before you go off to check out some of these amazing resources, I want to tell you my favorite World Champion. It is not Fischer, nor Kasparov & Carlsen.
Mikhail Botvinnik is my favorite World Champion. Certainly influenced by my former Coach GM Iossif Dorfman, I got fascinated by Botvinnik. Besides being a World Champion, he envisioned a Chess engine in the early 1950s (everybody thought he was insane).
He also was a Coach to Karpov, Kasparov & Kramnik, all future World Champions! That is why he is sometimes called the “father of Soviet chess school”.
While his games were not as shiny as those from the likes of Tal & Fischer, his personality and achievements really fascinate me. If you don’t know much about him, check out his books to learn more about his games & thinking.
Now you are ready to go and study the great World Chess Champions. Have fun doing so. And remember to use your own brain!
Ofcourse going to have fun too and use my head too with annotated games.
“Winning” by Michael Short is another interesting book
I guess you mean Nigel Short? 🙂
Hi Noel – your approach to learning really chimes with me (I’m a science teacher):
“If your main goal is Chess improvement, then you’ll have to use your head. I know it is tough… But forget about the magic pills, they don’t exist.
Improvement comes with constant well-focused training.
Simple, NOT easy.”
You hit the nail on the head. Thank you 🙂
You might enjoy this great article by an educator: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf
Hi Ben, thanks for your kind words. Happy my writing resonates with you! 🙂
I love such papers, thanks for sharing! It is time that Chess teaching gets less “random” and more high quality (and science-based!).
Excellent post this week and very helpful for a player of my caliber. Your insight on the various topics covered thus far is invaluable. Thank you!
Thank you so much, Michael! Happy to hear that my articles help your chess improvement. Keep going!
Thanks Noel for the insight
You are very welcome Rob 🙂
The recomended percentage of 20 % is a lot. As our students are rather lazy, we tell them
to focus on analyzing their own games, opening preparation and tactic exercises. Those seem to be the training fields one can benefit the most. Provided there is passion to do it.
Maybe passion and interest are also the best reasons to study those matches.
Considering tactic exercises we made an experiment. The idea was that the benefit of doing tactic excercises is strengthening your calculator. But beside the storing of motivs, it s training effect seems to be actual and not so longterm. Like you are only in shape as long as you are doing it.
The experiment was to do tactical exercises every day just one month before a tournament. But 5 days before the first round stopping with chess completely!
Like in the marathon, they do all those runs. But in the last week they stop in order to taper the training effect. Getting freshness and the hunger to go in the first round.
The experiment..failed! Do you think that tappering gap just does not work for chess ?
In your Round-Robin aricle you focused on openings of course. Still it would be interesting if you have also concepts to influence the shape in every respect. And I bet you have!
I have a full article on this topic. It is on the general tournament preparation. Hope you’ll find some useful things in there! 🙂
Good article, Noël. Thanks for the insight.
Thank you, Bill! Enjoy studying the greatest of our game 🙂
Great article, I need a coach like you!
Thank you, Jean-Pierre! I am your Coach on the Internet :-). If you have any questions, let me know!
Ich wundere mich, dass Deine interessanten und vor allem akribisch (mein Verdacht.Akribie ist eine Deiner Stärken..) reflektierten Artikel nicht mehrReaktionen provozieren. Wobei es wohl viele gibt, die einfach lesen und geniessen. Würdest Du dir mehr Feedback wünschen Noel? Dann erinnere ich gerne die Spieler in meinem Kreis an die Existenz Deiner tollen Beiträge..
let’s keep comments in English so everybody can understand :-). I’m very happy about the general feedback on several platforms. But I appreciate anybody that shares my blog with even more people!
Thanks Noel! That topic is most welcome as we just started to look at those matches with the youngsters in my club. As if we had asked for it..
My friend Patrick Kupper once said: ” you better study your own games deeply , than studying the games of others” With the idea that this is more economic, as you did spend many hours analysing during the actual game already…
But why not doing one thing and not also doing the other? Considering the analyse of other players games two questions came to my mind. Is it not more admirable to know crucial games in general, than the games of those specific matches? And may there not be other players than the champions, I call them “Stilisten” (Lputian, Simagin, Elskases..) that can give you the richer inspiration? Anyway, beside the useful collection of concrete motivs, the art seems to be to discover their elastic method or specific handwriting.. something that you can integrate in your own game…
The result of that last game of the Sevilla match must have costed Karpov many, many nights of sleep. He must have been confident in the middlegame..unable to imagine he could loose such positition. And thats where the anticipation of the desired draw started to poison the decision making process no?
Wasn’t Dorfman one of the seconds in those matches?
The New York / Lyon match three years later is the best one ever played in my opinion. Like Kasparov the master of making fire and Karpov the master clearing fire with water. A kind of Nadal vs Federer duel, giving up all reluctance! With that Ruy Lopez Saizev being the perfect stage for the celebration of attack vs defence. A defence that wins the game if successfull..
Karpovs choice to go for that stage might have been the crucial strategic mistake. He should have had tryed to “outbore” Kasparov like he did in the first match. Testing patience of a charactere so passionate like Garrys. Do you think 1987 Karpov was basically still stronger than Garry?
Your all time favourite Botwinnik is to me Rubinsteins son in spirit. Perfecting the “timetable” style.
But of course there is more to it than Botwinnik vs Capa or that Queensgambit- Exchange game against Petrosjan examples for systematic chess.
Actually more fascinating to me is that Botwinnink, who had the Aura of a small minded bourgeois Professor who never breaks rules, was such a fearless player! Well ready to burn bridges after crossing them..
As you just wrote an article about Round-Robin prep, you must have been impressed by Aljechins prep for the Capa match as well no?
Hi Noël and yes, you are right in your newsletter (just received) when you claimed that many pelople are landing here for the fisrt time because of Ben Johnson’s podcast. Now that I found about it, I’ve got a bit of ctching up to do – it’ll be fun!!
Regards from Brazil
Hi Fred, glad you have found your way here :-). Have fun reading the articles and let me know what you liked/disliked. My Email folder is always open for feedback & questions.
All the best from Switzerland!