10 Greatest World Championship Chess Games

10 Greatest World Championship Chess Games

The World Chess Championship is the pinnacle of the chess world. A crown that many players have fought for over the decades. Some of the best chess games ever were played in World Championship matches.

The competition has a rich legacy and has had its share of dramas and controversies. However, on the board, the players always strived to produce the best game possible.

Many rivalries were born on and off the board during the World Championship matches leading to some of the greatest chess matches of all time.

In this article, the games are all arranged in chronological order and cover the period from 1886 to 1987—100 years of World Championship history.

Let’s take a look at the 10 greatest World Chess Championship games.

Game #1: Steinitz vs Zukertort, USA 1886

This match was the first officially recognized championship.  Steinitz and Zukertort both claimed the title of “World Champion.” The ‘World’ championship was organized to settle this claim.

The setup of the match was not all smooth sailing. Steinitz initially offered a match in 1883, but it was declined by Zukertort. Furthermore, Zukertort’s health condition delayed the match further. Finally, an agreement was reached in 1885, which started the match negotiations.

10 Greatest World Chess Championship Games

Image Credit: Chessclub

Local patrons and personal backers wholly financed the match. There was no official worldwide chess body at that time.

The match was played in three venues: New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans.

An interesting fact about this match was that the games were played on the same chessboard that was used in the Morphy – Paulsen match in 1857.

Zukertort took an early lead in the match. But Steinitz struck back and won crucial games in St. Louis to level the score.

Johannes Zukertort vs Wilhelm Steinitz, New Orleans, Game 19

Game 19 was the best chess game of the match. It showed the new chess thinking that was proposed by Steinitz. Although Zukertort and Steinitz were arguably equal in terms of combative strength, Steinitz understood the intricacies of positional chess much better than Zukertort.

Game #2: Lasker vs Steinitz, USA & Canada 1894

Lasker, a young and upcoming player had earned his right to challenge the reigning World Champion Steinitz. The players still had to find financial backers to fund the match. Lasker managed to secure a $3000 prize money for the match.

Three venues were selected for the match. New York, and Philadelphia in the USA, and Montreal in Canada. The match format was best of 10 wins, with a rematch clause for the loser.

10 Greatest World Chess Championship Games

Image Credit: Chessgames

Steinitz was considered the favorite to win the match. But the match didn’t quite start that way. Lasker took an early lead 4:2 in New York and extended it to 7:2 in Philadelphia.

Steinitz staged a comeback in Montreal, closing the gap to 7:4. However that wasn’t enough and Lasker clinched the title with a 9:4 win after 18 games.

Emmanuel Lasker vs Wilhelm Steinitz, Philadelphia, Game 7

The game is one of the most famous chess games of its era. It shows how much of a tenacious defender Lasker was. This art of defending and then counterattacking at an opportune moment was alien to players of that era. Lasker was way ahead of his time in this regard. He understood that chess was not only a battle of skill but also a psychological battle between two humans. Lasker sought to exploit this as much as possible.

Here’s what Kasparov had to say about this game

“In this game, balancing on the brink of defeat, the young Lasker demonstrated those qualities that would allow him to maintain himself as World Champion for so long. In a difficult position, he succeeded in setting his opponent the sort of complex problems, of a sort that chess would not see again until the latter half of the 20th century.”

Game #3: Euwe vs Alekhine, Netherlands 1935

The Enthusiasm for chess in the Netherlands fueled a fundraising effort for Max Euwe to challenge Alekhine. The match happened in 13 Dutch cities spanning two months.

Euwe vs Alekhine, Netherlands 1935

Image Credit: Chessgames

Alekhine took an early lead in the match with 3:1 followed by a series of draws. Then Euwe struck back with comeback wins.

The score fluctuated throughout the match, reaching a critical turning point when Euwe took a 2-point lead by winning Game 26 with four games remaining.

Alekhine won one more game before the final set of draws secured Euwe’s victory. Despite the tense moments, the match was a historic moment for Dutch chess.

Max Euwe vs Alexander Alekhine, Game 26

This game happened in the city of Zandvoort. Max Euwe played so brilliantly that it was nicknamed the ‘Pearl of Zandvoort’. This game is one of the best chess games of all time.

Game #4: Botvinnik vs Bronstein, Moscow 1951

After winning the 1948 World Championship match, Botvinnik was hailed as the best player in the world. His first challenge came up in 1951 when Bronstein qualified as the challenger.

This match proved to be an exciting battle of styles. Botvinnik was famous for his pre-match tactics. He sought rule changes with Bronstein. Some of these rules were sought to possibly gain dominance or psychological leverage. This played a role in the games going forward.

10 Greatest World Chess Championship Games

Image Credit: Chessbase

The games started with some early draws but Bronstein took the lead with 5:4 wins with a win in  Game 22. Botvinnik leveled the score with a win in game 23.

The match finally ended in a draw with Botvinnik retaining the title as per the rules. They fought so intensely that it turned Botvinnik and Bronstein into bitter rivals.

David Bronstein vs Mikail Botvinnik, Round 22

Game #5: Smyslov – Botvinnik, Moscow 1954

The 1954 World Championship match happened in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. Botvinnik took an early lead in the match with 3:0. Smyslov managed to stage a comeback and gain a lead with 5:3. Afterwards Botvinnik missed a win in game 8 which played a psychological role in Game 9.

Smyslov – Botvinnik, Moscow 1954

Image Credit: Chessgames

Game 9 was pivotal as after this Smyslov managed to secure three consecutive victories. In this game, Smyslov uncorks one of the greatest combinations in World Championship history with 19.Qxe4!! One of the greatest games of chess in the World Championships.

Vassily Smyslov vs Mikhail Botvinnik, Round 9

Game #6: Botvinnik vs Tal, Moscow 1960

Tal, the ‘magician’, faced Botvinnik, the experienced strategist. The match happened in Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre. Tal won the first game and surprisingly led 3:0 after 7 games. This was partly due to Botvinnik’s time-trouble mistakes.

Botvinnik vs Tal, Moscow 1960

Image Credit: Chessgames

Botvinnik fought back with wins in games 8 and 9. After illness pauses for both players, Tal won again and extended his lead by winning games 17 and 19.

Game 6 is a typical Tal game that showcases his natural attacking instincts. This game is one of the best-attacking chess games in world championship history.

Mikhail Botvinnik vs Mikahil Tal, Round 6

Game #7: Fischer vs Spassky, Reykjavik 1972

Dubbed the ‘Match of the Century’ the 1972 World Championship match garnered international attention towards chess never seen before. The media advertised it as the greatest chess match of all time.

10 Greatest World Chess Championship Games

Image Credit: dw.com

It was Fischer the lone fighter from the West against the Soviet giants. The match was full of controversy and drama. Despite the drama surrounding the match, the chess games were brilliant. And When Fischer won, he won dominantly.

The sixth game was like a demonstration. As White, Fischer surprised Spassky in the opening with 1.c4. This was Fischer’s strategy throughout the match. To play opening lines he hadn’t played much before to catch his opponent and his team of seconds off guard.  Fischer went on to outplay Spassky in this game in clinical style.

Robert James Fischer vs Boris Spassky, Game 6

Game #8: Karpov vs Kortchnoi, Baguio City 1978

The 1978 World Chess Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Kortchnoi wasn’t just a fight for the crown; it was a Cold War-era drama played out on 64 squares. Korchnoi was a Soviet defector living in the West, while Karpov represented the might of the USSR.

Karpov vs Kortchnoi, Baguio City 1978

Image Credit: Chessbase

The match had many controversial decisions on and off board as well. The match itself lived up to the hype. Early on, Karpov led comfortably, but Kortchnoi fought back. He managed to even the score at 5-5.

However, Karpov regained his composure and clinched the final victory 6-5.

While Karpov retained the title, the match went beyond chess. Even today, it remains one of the most fascinating and controversial World Championship clashes in history.

From the start, both players didn’t cede an inch to the other player. After 7 consecutive draws, Karpov took the lead with a win in the eighth game. This game was a masterpiece from Karpov.

Anatoly Karpov vs Victor Kortchnoi, Game 8

Game #9: Karpov vs Kasparov, Moscow 1984/85

The Karpov-Kasparov rivalry will forever be etched in history as the greatest rivalry in chess. They played 5 World Championships against each other. The match was a clash of personalities and political narratives within the Soviet Union.

Kasparov, representing a new generation, challenged the established order led by Karpov.  This clash of generations and styles fascinated the public and garnered enormous attention.

Karpov vs Kasparov, Moscow 1984/85

Image Credit: Chessgames

Kasparov himself ceded that the 1984 match was like a lesson to him. The 9th game especially being a masterclass from Karpov.

This game features one of the best chess endgames in the history of the World Championships.

Anatoly Karpov – Garry Kasparov, Round 9

Game #10: Karpov vs Kasparov, Sevilla 1987

The 1987 World Championship between Karpov and Kasparov marked their fourth epic clash. Kasparov held the title from the previous encounter in 1986.

After 23 games, the score was in favor of Karpov. If Kasparov was to retain the title, then had to win on demand against Karpov! A herculean task to say the least.

10 Greatest World Chess Championship Games

Image Credit: kasparov.com

In this final dramatic 24th game, Kasparov emerged victorious, retaining his title by a hair’s breadth. This close shave further established the rivalry and historical significance of these two chess titans.

The chess community considers this match one of the greatest World Chess Championship matches.

Garry Kasparov vs Anatoly Karpov, Game 24

We also recommend reviewing 10 Best Games of Max Euwe as well as 10 Things to Learn from William Steinitz.

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Updated 02.18.2024