The 5 Worst Chess World Championship Games of All Time
The 2021 World Chess Championship between GM Magnus Carlsen and GM Ian Nepomniachtchi is just around the corner. It takes a lot of talent, hard work and dedication to play for the world championship. These players are always the best of the best, whether they win the title or not.
But they’re still human, which has resulted in poorly played matches over the years, by both Champions and Challengers, the players who either won the match or lost it. Here are five of the worst world chess championship games ever played:
- Game 23, Mikhail Chigorin vs. Wilhelm Steinitz, 1892
- Game 14, Emanuel Lasker vs. Frank Marshall, 1907
- Game 1, Emanuel Lasker vs. David Janowsky, 1910
- Game 16, Alexander Alekhine vs. Max Euwe, 1937
- Game 1, Boris Spassky vs. Bobby Fischer, 1972
Game 23, Mikhail Chigorin vs. Wilhelm Steinitz, 1892
Wilhelm Steinitz became the first official world champion in 1886 and successfully defended his title three times, including twice against Russian master Mikhail Chigorin. Steinitz won their first match in 1889 relatively easily, but the second was much closer.
In 1892, Steinitz and Chigorin were tied at eight wins apiece after 21 matches, with the first to win 10 matches winning the match. In the 22nd game, Chigorin made a mistake in the opening and lost. But it was nothing compared to Game 23.
Despite playing the super-aggressive King’s Gambit, Chigorin invited a queen to trade on the 11th move, which completely nerfed his chances of attacking. But Steinitz slowly let his advantage melt away, leaving Chigorin one step ahead and noticeably better on the 31st move. Chigorin was about to tie the game with nine wins apiece!
One stroke later, Chigorin had lost the game, the match and the last chance he had ever had at the world championship; the brutal 32.Bb4 ?? abandons square h2 and authorizes a checkmate in two moves. Two years later, Steinitz would cede his crown to Emanuel Lasker.
Game 14, Emanuel Lasker vs. Frank Marshall, 1907
Six of Lasker’s seven world championship matches weren’t particularly competitive, with the winner scoring at least four more wins than the loser. Lasker’s 1907 match against Frank Marshall was his first defense in 11 years, and it was one of the most lopsided: eight wins for Lasker, seven draws and a total of zero wins for American master Marshall.
After 13 games, Marshall was down 6-0 and getting desperate, or at least desperation is one of the most logical explanations for the rather ridiculous sacrifice. 11 … Bxh2 + ??.
The “Greek gift” is a common chess theme, but the player making the sacrifice usually developed more than one piece. Pro tip: If … Ng4 + just blocks the jumper and … Qh4 + is not possible, don’t waste your time thinking about playing … Bxh2 +. A master attacker like Marshall didn’t stand a chance either.
On top of that, everyone recognizes the importance of coin activity and development, but Marshall didn’t hit a coin on his queen side until move 17. Four moves later, he quit.
Some models feature shiny attacks, and some … don’t. Marshall also lost the next game and his championship efforts were over.
Game 1, Emanuel Lasker vs. David Janowsky, 1910
In his match against David Janowsky, Lasker somehow won even easier than against Marshall, again 8-0 but this time with just three draws. And Janowsky’s problems started in the first game.
An aggressive player, Janowsky played Siegbert Tarrasch’s defense at Queen’s Gambit (3 … c5), where Black accepts an isolated d pawn in exchange for a coin activity. After 16 moves, however, Janowsky was left with two isolated pawns on the queen side. Faced with a difficult defensive task in the heavy pieces final, Janowsky attempted to consolidate the position with the gaff 19 … Rd6 ??
This move simply loses a piece, in a tactic that appeared on the board before Janowsky threw in the towel.
Janowsky managed to draw in games two and three of the game before being knocked out with just half a point in the next eight games. Although the first game remains his worst effort in the duel with Lasker, it set the tone for the most lopsided world championship game in chess history.
Game 16, Alexander Alekhine vs. Max Euwe, 1937
In perhaps the biggest upheaval in world championship history, Max Euwe defeated Alexander Alekhine in 1935, but Alekhine was on the verge of reclaiming the title when that match took place.
To understand why this is so serious, we turn to GM Andrew Soltis’ 1994 book, The indoor chess game: “If this post [beginning with White’s 26th move] appeared in a magazine under the title ‘White to play and win’, most amateur tournament players might find 26.Dh8 + !. Certainly 99 out of 100 masters would find this elemental queen fork. Here we start the game a little earlier for the context.
Not only Euwe’s 25 … Qe5 allowed 26.h8 +, and not only did Alekhine miss it, Euwe missed it … again. In fact, Qh8 + on move 27 was going to be even better for Alekhine, and yet the move still hasn’t been played. Euwe finally protected his queen with 27 … Bd6 to put an end to the shenanigans, but the two world champions had played two shots each without seeing the combination of two pitchforks. “And,” as Soltis continues, “the game has drifted into a 65-move draw.”
Their blindness is our gain, however, as observing these themes from a distance helps us recognize such opportunities when they arise in our own games. Perhaps GM Tigran V. Petrosian was aware of this game and its Qh8 + / Nxf7 + pattern when, nearly 30 years later, during one of the better matches in the history of the world championships, he played this superb final combination.
Luckily for Alekhine and Euwe, their 16th game ultimately had little effect on the outcome of the match, which Alekhine won easily, by a margin of six games.
Game 1, Boris Spassky vs. Bobby Fischer, 1972
Earlier we saw a challenger, Janowsky, play very poorly in his league debut. But no less a chess superstar than GM Bobby Fischer also played a very strange first game.
The most famous chess match in the history of the world should have started with a draw. Unless you remove all the pawns, it’s hard to even imagine a more zero position than this game’s on the 29th move.
It changed with 29 … Bxh2? There was no way this move would actually win a pawn without losing the bishop, and the game eluded Fischer. So why did Fischer play the trick? Hallucination? Arrogance? Boredom?
We’ll never really know. But in Pawn sacrifice, the 2014 dramatic adaptation of the 1972 game, Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber) had an idea: “A man who is ready to kill himself always has the initiative.”
Fischer managed to find an even more suicidal way to lose Game 2: by forfeit. He didn’t even show up for the second game and was aiming for a 0-2 start. Of course, Fischer wasn’t Janowsky and recovered from a bad game one (and non-existent game two) to win that game. No harm, no fault.
The more failures, the better. This is true at the individual level: play more, study more, see more models, improve yourself. This is also true at the macro scale. Only one of these games has happened in the past 80 years, and none in the age of supercomputers. There are certainly always bad games among the best players, some of which could even have been featured in this article, but chess is better than ever, and there have never been more resources for the budding player.
And if players of the caliber of an Alekhine or a Fischer are capable of bad plays, it should make us feel less bad about our own mistakes on the board, and give us the confidence to move on. before.