Learning from the Old Masters: By IM Max Illingworth

Wed, 2013-05-22 19:40 -- IM Max Illingworth

Learning from the Old Masters

It goes without saying that one of the best ways to improve your chess is to play through lots of games played by others and analyse them yourself. This raises the question: which games are the most instructive to go through? The best games to look at first are your own because they give you the opportunity to identify (and improve) your strengths and weaknesses, plus it’s a lot easier to internalise lessons based on your own experience. But if you’ve analysed your games already (by yourself or with a coach) then I’d recommend playing through the games of the old masters, starting from the very first chess games played.

You might think that you will learn more from one of Karjakin’s wins in the recently concluded Norway Supreme Masters super-tournament (won outright by Karjakin with 6/9). Actually you can learn a lot from any game if you analyse it properly, but for players at the school or club player level, older games are a lot easier to understand (as often one of the players will miss the opponent’s plan, allowing it to be executed in full), and also more accurately show how to punish common mistakes, as there are more of them in the older games! The reason games played over a hundred years ago are still relevant today is because many players still make the same mistakes as these predecessors, and by understanding these games you will have an advantage over players who haven’t studied their ancient history!

The first game I want to show was played as early as 1560, but it’s still a model example of how things can quickly go wrong when Black does not take measures to protect his ‘weakest link’ (the f7-pawn, defended only by the king).

(Lopez de Segura-Leonardo)

1. e4 e5 2. f4 (2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 {is the Ruy Lopez, but Ruy had not invented
it yet!}) 2... d6 $6 {Black should accept White's 'King's Gambit' with} (2...
exf4 {, as the game continuation is passive and leaves his f8-bishop inactive.}
) 3. Bc4 (3. Nf3 exf4 {would transpose to a standard King's Gambit, while}) (3.
d3 $5 {just defending the f4-pawn is interesting but not as critical.}) 3... c6
$6 {Again this pawn move fails to bring Black's pieces to good squares, for
instance the b8-knight can't go to c6 now.} (3... exf4 4. Nf3 h6 {would again
lead to a standard King's Gambit position where Black will try to defend his
extra pawn with ...g5 and White will argue that his lead in development and
centre offer good compensation for the pawn.}) 4. Nf3 $1 Bg4 $2 {This move is
mistaken as the exchange on f3 will give White the bishop pair and increase
his lead in development.} (4... exf4 {intending} 5. d4 d5 6. exd5 cxd5 {would
still be okay for Black, returning the pawn to regain control of the centre:}
7. Qe2+ Be6 8. Bb5+ Nc6 9. Nc3 (9. Bxf4 Bd6 $11) 9... Nf6 10. Ng5 Bd6 $11 11.
Nxe6 fxe6 12. Qxe6+ Qe7 13. Qxe7+ Kxe7 {and the endgame is about equal, albeit
with plenty of life left in the position.}) 5. fxe5 $5 {This move makes sense
as Black can't recapture - can you see why?} (5. h3 Bxf3 6. Qxf3 Nf6 7. O-O $14
) 5... dxe5 $4 (5... d5 $1 {is a nice tactical trick but White is still better
with best play:} 6. Bd3 ({Black's idea is} 6. exd5 Bxf3 7. Qxf3 Qh4+ {forking
the king and bishop.} 8. Kd1 Qxc4 $15) 6... Nd7 ({or} 6... d4 7. h3 Bxf3 8.
Qxf3 Qh4+ 9. g3 Qe7 10. Qf5 Nd7 11. Be2 Nxe5 12. d3 $14 {and White's bishop
pair and central majority offer a small but steady edge.}) 7. exd5 Nxe5 8. Qe2
Bd6 9. dxc6 bxc6 10. Be4 $14 {The position is still complex but Black's lead
in development doesn't fully compensate his pawn deficit.}) 6. Bxf7+ $1 $18 {
After this little trick, Black cannot avoid material loss.} Kxf7 7. Nxe5+ {
Loose Pieces Drop Off!} Ke8 8. Qxg4 {Don't stop playing through the game -
Ruy's winning technique is worth seeing.} Nf6 {This loses more material but
it's not surprising but Black had already given up hope.} 9. Qe6+ Qe7 10. Qc8+
Qd8 11. Qxd8+ Kxd8 12. Nf7+ {White wins a rook too with Nxh8 next move, so
Black resigned.} 1-0 

Lessons learned from this game:
• …Bg4 is very risky when White has a bishop on the a2-g8 diagonal – watch out for Bxf7 and Ne5 tricks!
• The f2 and f7 squares are quite weak at the start of the game. Regularly check for tactics on these squares.
• The idea of the King’s Gambit is to gain a lead in development and control the centre, for the price of a pawn.

The King’s Gambit isn’t very popular these days, but the Italian Game remains a regular guest in tournament play, so let’s look at the first ever game with this opening!


 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Qe7 {This position is actually the first
opening 'tabiya' of chess - tabiya being a critical theoretical position. With
several hundred years' foresight we know that 4...Nf6 is a better move but 4...
Qe7 remains unrefuted.} (4... Nf6 {can be played because the d4 break is not a
real threat:} 5. d4 exd4 6. cxd4 (6. e5 {looks promising until you see the
thematic counter-strike} d5 $1 {, when Black is okay no matter how White
relieves the central conflict.}) 6... Bb4+ $11 {and with this intermediate
check, Black can follow up with ...Nxe4 to erode White's centre.}) 5. O-O {
White believes Black's bluff, but he could have played} (5. d4 $1 {as} exd4 {
runs into the strong gambit} 6. O-O $1 dxc3 7. Nxc3 $16 {and with Nd5 coming,
White has a gigantic initiative for the pawn and a real advantage.}) 5... d6 (
5... Bb6 6. d4 Nf6 {can also be played, but will be similar to the game once
Black plays ...d6.} 7. d5 Nb8 $14) 6. d4 {Now that Black has committed to a
solid but passive setup, there's no reason not to take the centre.} Bb6 7. Bg5
{This was the main move back in the 1500s, but Black wants to play ...Nf6
anyway, while the g5-bishop would be better on a square like e3 where it
supports the centre.} (7. a4 $1 a5 {is a favourable inclusion for White as the
b6-bishop is now more vulnerable - a factor White might exploit with} 8. Ng5 (
8. d5 Nb8 9. Nbd2 $14 Nf6 10. Bd3 Nbd7 11. Nc4) 8... Nd8 {Black could try 8...
Nh6 but either way his position is ugly.} 9. Be3 Nf6 10. dxe5 dxe5 11. Bxb6
cxb6 12. Qb3 $16 {and Black's pawns are suddenly very weak - White is clearly
better.}) 7... Nf6 $1 {The correct way to block the attack, as the pin is not
dangerous for Black. But if the c3-pawn were on c2 then Nc3-d5 could be
annoying!} (7... f6 8. Be3) 8. a4 ({The pawn structure after} 8. d5 Nb8 {is a
precursor to the modern King's Indian, and here Black is fine because it's a
lot harder for White to advance his queenside pawns and the b6-bishop is on a
very active diagonal:} 9. Nbd2 O-O 10. Bd3 h6 11. Bh4 Nbd7 $11 {and Black is
definitely not worse.}) 8... a6 $6 (8... a5 $142 {was probably more accurate
but the difference isn't too significant.}) 9. Bd5 {This is White's idea,
threatening to double Black's pawns with Bxc6. Black can't take the bishop
because of the pin on the knight, so maybe Bg5 has some merit after all!} (9.
Re1 h6 (9... O-O 10. Qd3 h6 11. Bh4 Rd8 12. Nbd2 $14) 10. Bh4 g5 11. Bg3 Bg4
$132) 9... Nb8 $2 {Undeveloping pieces is usually not a good idea.} (9... exd4
10. Bxc6+ (10. cxd4 h6 11. Bxf6 Qxf6 12. Bxc6+ bxc6 $13) 10... bxc6 11. a5 Ba7
12. Nxd4 Bxd4 13. cxd4 $14 {is complex but I'd prefer White because of his
better pawn structure and control of the centre. Note that Black loses his
queen if he takes on e4 with either of his pieces.}) (9... O-O 10. Bxc6 bxc6
11. dxe5 dxe5 12. a5 Ba7 13. Qe2 $14 {is also uncomfortable for Black who has
a lot of exposed pawns on the queenside, and even e5 can become weak after a
Nd2-c4 manoeuvre.}) 10. Nbd2 {White develops immediately, but} (10. Qd3 $5 O-O
11. Nbd2 {is an interesting alternative.}) 10... c6 11. Ba2 $16 {White is much
better because of his big lead in development - only his major pieces are yet
to enter the game. Even in a closed position like this one, such factors are
very important.} Bg4 $2 {This didn't work out last game and it's not much
better here.} (11... O-O {is better but still very unpleasant after} 12. Qb3
Ba7 13. Qa3 $1 $16 {, a cute way to threaten dxe5 and it's actually hard for
Black to stop bad things happening on the dark squares with Nc4 also
threatened.}) 12. Qb3 Ba7 13. Qd1 $4 {Once again, the undevelopment of the
queen does nothing to help White's game. From here the game takes on a very
random character.} (13. dxe5 dxe5 14. Nxe5 $1 $18 {would be a devastating
tactic, exploiting Black's vulnerability on the light squares (caused by the
c8-bishop moving to g4!).} Qxe5 15. Qxf7+ Kd8 16. Qxg7 {sees Black drop a rook,
knight or queen.}) (13. Nc4 $1 {is perhaps even better:} O-O 14. Nxd6 $18 Qxd6
(14... Bxf3 15. Nf5) 15. dxe5 {and White wins material by force.}) 13... g6 $4
(13... Nbd7 {is still better for White but Black can fight:} 14. Nc4 $14 Bxf3
15. Qxf3 exd4 16. Bxf6 gxf6 17. cxd4 Bxd4 18. Qa3 $36 {and White's got a
strong initiative as Black's king can't easily find safety.}) 14. dxe5 dxe5 15.
Bxf7+ $4 {A simple piece blunder that goes unnoticed by the opponent.} (15. Nc4
O-O 16. Qd6 $18 ({or} 16. Ncxe5 {was simple and easily good enough.})) 15...
Kd8 $4 {Baffling.} (15... Qxf7 16. Nxe5 Bxd1 17. Nxf7 Kxf7 18. Raxd1 Re8 $17) (
15... Kxf7 $1 16. Qb3+ Kg7 $19 {was the simplest way to retain the extra piece.
}) 16. Nxe5 $4 {The wrong move order!} (16. Nc4+ Nbd7 17. Nfxe5 $3 $18 {would
have been a beautiful finish: after} (17. Bxf6 Qxf6 18. Ncxe5) 17... Bxd1 18.
Raxd1 {Black can't save his d7-knight because of all the pins!} Kc7 19. Nxd7 {
and White has a mating attack with Bf4 threatened.}) 16... Qxe5 $4 (16... Bxd1
17. Raxd1 Kc8 18. Ndc4 b5 $1 $13 {is sheer chaos, but Black seems to be
surviving.}) 17. Bxf6+ $4 {Again it was much simpler to take the free material
on offer with} (17. Nf3+ Ke7 18. Nxe5 Bxd1 19. Raxd1 $18 {and White is up two
pawns with a complete straight-jacket on Black's development (as Black can't
play ...Nbd7).}) 17... Kc8 $4 {Inexplicable.} (17... Qxf6 18. Qxg4 Qxf7 19.
Rad1 $44 {gives White a strong attack for the piece but no more than that.})
18. Qxg4+ Nd7 19. Bxh8 $2 (19. Bxe5 {A queen is worth more than a rook!}) 19...
Qxh8 {At the end of the madness White is up a rook and two pawns, so it's
hardly surprising that he wins.} 20. Be6 Qe8 21. Nc4 Kc7 22. Qf4+ Kd8 23. Qd6
Bb8 24. Qxd7+ {When you're winning, exchanging all the opponent's pieces is
usually a good idea!} Qxd7 25. Bxd7 Kxd7 26. Nb6+ Kd6 27. Nxa8 Ba7 28. Rfd1+
Kc5 29. Rd4 a5 30. Rad1 b5 31. b4+ axb4 32. cxb4# 1-0 

Lessons learned from this game:
• In the Italian Game, if White can play c3 and d4 without losing material he gets control of the centre.
• Develop your pieces quickly! The first player to bring all their pieces into the game will usually have the advantage (especially in the Open Games).
• If you think you can win material, double-check your analysis and if you still don’t see anything wrong with your intended continuation, play it!
• When the opponent develops their queen’s bishop, the b2/b7 pawn is usually weakened. Look for ways to exploit this temporary weakness.

To conclude, let’s see an example of the ‘Greek Gift’ in its simplest form.


1. e4 e6 (1... e5 {was the continuation of the previous two games.}) 2. d4 Nf6
$6 (2... d5 $142 {, the French Defence, is standard nowadays. Then when Black
plays ...Nf6, he can meet e5 with ...Nfd7.}) 3. Bd3 $6 {This move keeps a good
position but White should take more space in the centre with} (3. e5 Nd5 (3...
Ne4 4. Nh3 h6 5. Qg4 d5 6. f3 $16) 4. c4 Nb6 5. Nc3 $16 {and White will follow
up with f4 and Nf3, with complete domination of the middle of the board.}) 3...
Nc6 $6 {Black develops his knight but he can't rely on attacking the centre
with pieces alone here.} (3... c5 {could lead to a standard French position
after} 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 d5 6. e5 Nd7 7. O-O $14 {, but it's a good version for
White because he has not been forced to move his b1-knight to d2 or c3, and
Black has wasted time moving his knight to d7.}) 4. Nf3 (4. e5 $1 {was again
better.}) 4... Be7 {This simple development gives White central domination, but
} (4... Nb4 $1 {is a good idea, exploiting the fact the bishop can't move
because then the e4-pawn will be undefended. Then the exchange on d3 will give
Black the 'bishop pair' advantage.} 5. e5 Nxd3+ 6. Qxd3 Nd5 7. a3 $1 $14 {
would still be better for White, preparing to kick the knight away with c4
without allowing ...Nb4, but Black can play this position.} (7. c4 Nb4 8. Qe2
d5 $11)) 5. h4 $2 {This move is very 'coffeehouse', relying on Black to
automatically castle. If Black does not castle this move has little point.} (5.
e5 Nd5 6. c4 Nb6 7. Nc3 $16 {would again give White a fantastic position as he
has more space and better development.} Nb4 8. Be2) 5... O-O $4 {Black falls
for it!} (5... d5 $11 {would be a decent French for Black, and even}) (5... d6
$5 6. Nc3 Ng4 $11 {would be interesting, intending ...e5 with an 1.e4 e5 type
position where White's h4 and Bd3 moves are out of place.}) 6. e5 Nd5 7. Bxh7+
$1 $18 {This sacrifice is known as the 'Greek Gift'. For the piece White opens
up the Black king and prepares to flood his knight and queen into the attack
with Ng5 followed by Qh5 or Qd3. It works particularly well when Black can't
defend the h7-square (like here where ...Nf6 would always be countered by exf6)
.} Kxh7 (7... Kh8 $142 {is better but still hopelessly lost:} 8. Be4 f6 9. c4
$18) 8. Ng5+ {Now we see the key point of h4 - Black can't take the knight
without allowing White's rook to join the attack with hxg5.} Bxg5 {Here are
the alternatives, all of which see Black lose material or get mated:} (8... Kh6
9. Nxe6+) (8... Kg8 9. Qh5 Bxg5 (9... Bb4+ 10. c3 Re8 11. Qxf7+ Kh8 12. Qh5+
Kg8 13. Qh7+ Kf8 14. Qh8+ Ke7 15. Qxg7#) 10. hxg5 f5 11. g6) (8... Kg6 9. Qd3+
(9. h5+ Kh6 10. Nxf7+) 9... f5 (9... Kh5 10. g4+ Kxg4 11. Qf3#) 10. exf6+ Kxf6
11. Qf3+ Kg6 12. h5+ Kh6 13. Qe4) 9. hxg5+ Kg6 (9... Kg8 10. Qh5) 10. Qh5+ Kf5
{Here Greco missed the fastest mate, but it no longer matters.} 11. Qh7+ (11.
Qh3+ Kg6 12. Qh7#) 11... g6 12. Qh3+ Ke4 13. Qd3# 1-0

Lessons learned from this game:
• Sometimes you can get away with attacking the centre with pieces, but usually you need to use your pawns to control the centre (like with …e6 and …d5).
• White should have taken more of the centre with his pawns (i.e. with e5 and c4) because he had the development to support his centre.
• The Greek Gift sacrifice is very effective when White can quickly bring his queen and knight into the attack and Black can’t defend the h7-square with …Nf6 or …Nf8.
• Always consider what the opponent is up to, and remember that you don’t have to fall in with their plans!

I hope I’ve convinced you of the instructive value of these older games and inspired you to study them! Remember, if you don’t know your history you are doomed to repeat it.