Every tournament has good games, but these matches stand out as the most thrilling, influential, and iconic chess matches ever played.
Some chess matches in history stand out from all the rest as iconic, historic, and influential. These often come to be known among the chess community as “immortal games” due to their undying impact on the game as a whole. Some of these immortal games become so due to the sheer skill displayed in the playing, others because of a complete upset victory, and still others because they represent a fundamental shift in chess culture and history. Some even have a combination of all of these elements. Much as sports fans have highlight reels, musicians have albums of their greatest hits, and artists have compilations of their most significant works, chess players have a select few immortal games that have become the most studied, the most talked about, and the most iconic chess matches of all time. Here are a few of those games:
Adolf Anderssen vs. Lionel Kieseritzky (1851)
The 1851 match between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky was the original Immortal Game. It took place in London during the very first international chess tournament. It is not renowned for being a spectacularly tight game, since it was obvious all along that Anderssen was the better player. However, its beauty lies in its finish, when Anderssen allowed virtually all of his pieces to be captured by Kieseritzky. He gave up his Rook, both Bishops, and his Queen. With only one Bishop and two Knights remaining, he cornered Black’s King and ended the game the victor.
Some scold Anderssen retroactively for toying with Kieseritzky in a cruel way, but most appreciate the sheer audacity of his play. What a way to kick off a system of international tournaments that would endure to this day!
Stefan Levitsky vs. Frank Marshall (1912)
This quick, 23 move game took place in a cafe in Breslau, Germany and is famed for its finishing move. Frank Marshall was an American champion at the top of his game, and one of the strongest players of his era. Nearing the end of this particular match, he found himself a piece up and decided to make a bold move – a very bold move.
Marshall put his Queen in a position where it could be captured by not one, but two of Levitsky’s pawns – and it forced him to resign! Levitsky recognized that if he captured the Queen, mate would soon follow for him and opted not to continue.
This was a casual game and likely not very evenly matched, but it is said that a crowd had gathered around the chessboard in the cafe to watch how the match unfolded and they were so impressed with the final move that they showered the board and the players with gold coins! This may be a bit of historical hyperbole, but it sure does make for a good story.
Boris Spassky vs. David Bronstein (1960)
The 1960 match between Boris Spassky and David Bronstein was so dramatic that it actually served as the inspiration for the chess scene in the movie From Russia With Love. The head to head match between two Soviet masters took just 23 moves to result in a win for Spassky, though the two players were very evenly matched. The game began with Spassky, as White playing the traditional King’s Gambit opening, after which, his pieces quickly got involved in the action. He finished the game with an attack, sacrificing his Knight to break Bronstein’s line of pawns. Once that line was broken, White’s pieces quickly flooded in on the light squares and took Black’s King.
Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky (1972)
This is a game that all Americans know about, even if they have no interest in chess. There have been many chess movies made and books written about this game, and about Bobby Fischer’s chaotic life. There are even many replica sets for sale of the chess pieces that were used in the match! This match captured the nation’s imagination because it saw an American player facing off against the heretofore unstoppable Soviet Bloc in a game of wits – and he actually won! Americans at home took it as a sign of superiority, something they were desperate for in this era on the heels of the Cold War.
It was an unusual game not only because the Soviet player lost, but also because Fischer used the Queen’s Gambit opening move – a move he had never before used in the highest levels of competition. The big risk paid off and resulted in an upset victory considered so unlikely that many people who heard the news thought it was a misprint!
Bobby Fischer remained largely unbeatable in chess until his disappearance from competitive play a few years later. He was an unpredictable man who often made odd demands, including hat cameras not be present at this 1972 match. Spassky, ever the gentlemen, generally acquiesced to him so that the game could go on. He remained well known for his eccentricity and the occasional controversy until his death in 2008.
Anatoly Karpov vs. Garry Kasparov (1985)
This was an iconic match between two of the Soviet Union’s most skilled chess players, defending champion Anatoly Karpov and future champion Garry Kasparov. This match ended Karpov’s 10 year reign as World Chess Champion and began Kasparov’s era of complete dominance over the highest levels of competitive chess. Kasparov played as Black and fell back on his favored Sicilian Najdorf defense, which had served him well in many games throughout his career already. Around the 23rd move (out of a total of 42) Kasparov made an unusual move by putting his Rook on a space where it seemed to have few prospects and little involvement in the action. Later in the game though, he managed to clear the area and activate that Rook, proving his far-sightedness and skill at assessing the big picture. Garry Kasparov is certainly one of the best chess players of all time, if not the very best.
Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue (1997)
Another Kasparov game, this time he faced a highly unusual opponent – the chess computer Deep Blue constructed as an experiment by an IBM team. In this match, Kasparov became the first world chess champion to lose a match to a computer, after having beaten previous versions of the chess computer soundly. He can hardly be faulted for this loss, as nowadays chess technology has blossomed so much that chess computers are now capable of attaining levels of chess strength that no human player could ever hope to match.
Spectators watched with bated breath as Deep Blue challenged Kasparov, face to screen. Each competitor won one match each and had drawn three, making the sixth match decisive. In the final match, Kasparov chose to use the Caro-Kann defense, which was not one he normally employed, believing that the computer would not be able to make the early sacrifice necessary to circumvent it. To his surprise, Deep Blue did make the sacrifice, and followed up on it effectively, securing itself a win, and the first major win for computer kind!
This event represented a fundamental shift in chess culture that happened before our very eyes. At that time, even the strongest chess computers were no match for human players, and Garry Kasparov had said that no computer would ever beat him. Of course, now, human-computer matches are no longer interesting since the outcome is certain.
Magnus Carlsen vs. The World (2009)
Another unique game, this one featured Norwegian chess champion Magnus Carlsen playing against “The World”, which was represented by three top chess players and assembled spectators on the internet. It worked by Carlsen making his own moves, and then each of the three advisers (Hikaru Nakamura, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, and Judit Polgar) submitting their own move suggestion, which the audience would then vote on. The move with the most votes was employed, and Carlsen would respond, etc. After 44 rounds of this, Carlsen emerged the victor. He was using the King’s Indian defense and could have secured victory for himself in a mundane way, but instead he chose to make it a bit flashy by passing his pawns on the Queenside.