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All-time chess classics
Compiled by Southernrun

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 (game 7), d5 and Nd4-c6 by Reti (game 9), Qe3!! by Botvinnik (game 11), Bc5 by Alekhine (game 12), Be3 by Boleslavsky (game 17), Ba7!! by Karpov (game 29), and the king walk by Short in game 42. Additionally, games 8, 14, and 46 feature tremendous domination.

Great defensive play can be found in games 18, 19, 35, 37, 38, 39, and 40.

Lastly, take a look at the famous sacrifices of Qxe5!! by Gusev (14), Rxa1 by Bronstein (game 15), Ne5! by Botvinnik (game 16), Re6!! by Petrosian (game 19), Be6!! by Fischer (game 20), Rxf4!! by Nezhmetdinov (game 22), Nxf2!! (game 24) and Rf6!! (game 25) by Fischer, Rd5!! by Kasparov (game 31), f4! and Rxf5!! by Gufeld (game 32), dxe6!! by Polugaevsky (game 36), Nxf2!! by Zvjaginsev (game 50), Qg7!! by Ivanchuk (game 51), Bh3!! by Shirov (game 52), and Rxd4!! (game 53) and Rxc3 (game 54) by Kasparov.

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 Schlecter
Schlechter vs Gunsberg, 1901 
(D31) Queen's Gambit Declined, 44 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

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

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

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

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

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

Petrosian's Re6 is a classic sacrifice, preparing Ne7
Reshevsky vs Petrosian, 1953 
(E58) Nimzo-Indian, 4.e3, Main line with 8...Bxc3, 41 moves, 1/2-1/2

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

A nice queen sacrifice by Larsen
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

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

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

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

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

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

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
R Cifuentes Parada vs Zvjaginsev, 1995 
(D45) Queen's Gambit Declined Semi-Slav, 35 moves, 0-1

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

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

57 games

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