History’s Greatest Chess Matches

I’ve been poking at chess lately, the way a chimpanzee might poke at a car engine. Does he understand it? Not really. Is he having fun? Sure!

Chess is much like math. Instead of problem sets, you play games, and in lieu of lectures, I’ve been YouTubing famous games from chess history. Here are 3 of my favorites, each no longer than an episode of Arrested Development – and just as intricate and clever.

The Immortal Game

In 1851, Adolf Anderssen (a math teacher) and Lionel Kieseritzky (the editor of a chess magazine) played a match that has been talked about ever since.

In it, Anderssen leads his pieces in a suicide charge. He sacrifices a bishop, both rooks, and the queen – nearly all his best material – in exchange for nothing but pawns. It’s like a parent chanting, “Go! Go! Go!” as he sends his children sprinting out into onrushing traffic. He’s a madman. Yet in spite of the seemingly crippling losses, he checkmates Kieseritzky on the 23rd move. The madman wins.

Anderssen’s play is as spooky as a zombie movie. The attackers seem to have no regard for their own safety. They’ll destroy themselves to bring you down.

The Game of the Century

In October 1956, an English professor and chess master named Donald Byrne sat down to play a 13-year-old boy named Bobby Fischer.

Mid-game, Fischer sacrifices his queen. You wonder: How can Fischer win without his best piece? How will his remaining hodgepodge of supporting players rally to victory without their leader?

The rest of the game unfolds as a thrilling underdog story. Fischer’s pieces band together in seamless teamwork. Byrne’s increasingly isolated queen – powerful though she may be – proves no match for the unity and precision of the opposing ensemble. Led by two misfit bishops, Fischer’s ragtag army topples the giant. And at age 13, a legend begins.

Kasparov vs. Topalov, 1999

For 23 moves, two titans of chess circle one another cautiously. Each knows that wasting a single pawn could prove fatal. They tread softly across the board, as if creeping across a minefield.

Then, suddenly, Kasparov offers up a rook.

Topalov spent a full hour staring at the board, envisioning scenarios, debating whether to take the rook. He knew that Kasparov would never make such a sacrifice out of recklessness or desperation. He knows that Kasparov wants him to take the rook – which makes him want not to take it. But in the end, take it he does.

A scrum ensues. Kasparov chases Topalov’s king all the way to the other side of the board, a knife to his throat the entire way. In the end, the pressure overwhelms him, and Topalov resigns – ending what is perhaps the greatest chess match ever played.

[Thanks to the the Chess Website for the videos and commentary!]

11 thoughts on “History’s Greatest Chess Matches

  1. Despite complexities, intuition can still be an unfailing guide- the “lunatic” streak comes uppermost and it proves to be inspired.

    1. Yeah – it seems like good intuition can substitute for having to compute out all the possibilities. (And sometimes intuition does BETTER than raw computational power.)

  2. The first trumpet sounded far and clear and brazen cold, and Rogard the Bishop stirred to wakefulness with it. Lifting his eyes, he looked through the suddenly rustling, murmuring line of soldiers, out across the broad plain of Cinnabar and the frontier, and over to the realm of Leukas. Away there, across the somehow unreal red-and-black distances of the steppe, he saw sunlight flash on armor and caught the remote wild flutter of lifted banners. So it is war, he thought. So we must fight again.

    Again? He pulled his mind from the frightening dimness of that word. Had they ever fought before?

    —Poul Anderson, “The Immortal Game” (1954)

  3. If you’ve got a bit of free time, you should look into a game called Go. It’s like super chess; bigger, longer, harder, with less rules and more strategies and headaches than you could imagine. Additionally, a lot of people who play go and chess say that it really improves their game.

    1. I’ve heard great things about “Go.” Seems like a more elegant game than chess, in some ways – simpler rules and more complex strategies. A good next project!

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