How to Learn from the Old Masters
There are two ways to guarantee improvement in your chess play. The first is to review and analyze your own games, learning from your own mistakes. The second is to review the games of strong masters, so that you can try to play like “the best.” There are several reasons to study the games of the old masters, and they aren’t just a history lesson!
Master games contain lessons in the opening, middlegame, and ending.
Other than 25-move blowouts against the N.N., or “No Name” as many games are labeled when they lose to masters, most games between strong players are going to demonstrate concrete ideas about all phases of the chess game. In the opening, though the game may not demonstrate current theory, we can often learn why certain moves are or are not played in an opening. In the middlegame, we can see both successful and unsuccessful plans and maneuvers. In the ending, we can see high-quality technical play that even the world’s best rely on to this day. Some of our favorite players are Mikhail Tal, Johannes Zukertort, and Boris Spassky.
We stand on the shoulders of giants.
Modern chess success requires an understanding of what we already know about chess, and the best way to learn what is already known is to go straight to the source. While there are numerous books available that compile knowledge on various openings, middlegame plans, or technical endings, those books draw from the very same history of master games that is available to you directly. By trying to understand why strong masters played the moves that they did, you are exercising the same type of analysis that you use when you are playing a game.
What is old is new again.
Often, seemingly shocking moves can be found in the games of past masters, simply being overlooked for decades until being brought back into fashion by the modern greats. For example, the Berlin Defense to the Ruy Lopez (which is an “opening”) was played by strong masters as early as the late 19th and early 20th Century but was not fully explored as a modern main-line opening until Vladimir Kramnik brought it into vogue in his World Championship match against Kasparov in 2000. The games of the past masters offer opportunities to find ideas and plans that have not yet been fully explored, which can lead us to find new plans and ideas that improve upon past play.
Find a chess hero.
By learning from the games of the old masters, we can try to play like them and become strong players, ourselves. In fact, if one master’s play speaks to you in a certain opening, it is certainly a good idea to review as many games as you can find from that player. You might pick up on new opening ideas and middlegame plan that suit your style of play. From the tactical genius of Morphy or Blackburne, the positional squeezing of Botvinnik or Petrosian, or the sheer domination of Fischer or Kasparov, everyone can find a chess hero that suits their style of play. You can check out this search to see the games collections of many of these famous players.