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I was watching a video last night by Ben Finegold on Paul Morphy and some of his games. He mentioned that some current GMs would discount Morphy's ability since all of his opponents were "terrible". However, Ben countered by observing that ok even if that's true, almost all of Morphy's moves were the best move.

I went back and looked through more of his games and like his style - extremely aggressive, and always gets his pieces out and working together, something I have a tough time doing. So the question is as in the title: for someone at my level (still very much a beginner, probably sub-1200 once my rating stabilizes), does it make sense to study older players like this, or stick with newer games? The problem I have studying newer games is that they are completely inscrutable. I can almost never figure out why certain moves are begin made once they're outside theory, so I'm not sure how much mileage I actually get out of it.

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    Newer games are far more subtle and difficult for lower rated players to understand than the older games, where ideas and themes were often displayed more clearly. This is why newer players are often advised to study the games of the past masters rather than the games of today's top players. – Scounged Dec 27 '18 at 14:19
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    I think studying the games of anyone substantially more skilled than you is useful, as long as they are at least Master level. Just go in with the understanding that neither player is playing perfectly. – ThoralfSkolem Dec 29 '18 at 19:46
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The answer from SmallChess is good. There's also an illustrative tweet from Garry Kasparov on the subject:

For beginning chess players, studying a Carlsen game is like wanting to be an electrical engineer & beginning with studying an iPhone.

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    Ha - exactly what I was thinking, and makes me feel less bad about getting basically nothing out of it. – Derek Allums Dec 27 '18 at 15:28
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Paul Morphy's games are better resources for learning at your level. There's no use for you to get into deep positional understanding typically in modern GM games.

You should get a book on Amazon. Don't try to analyze the games yourself.

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If you're a beginner then studying games from the old masters does more good, especially players like Morphy who emphasized the basics (quick development, attacking an uncastled king, etc). Once you get to the 1500 range, you'd do best looking at games from the GMs of the 20th century up until the 1990s. That was when classical chess theory "matured", so to speak, without being so absorbed in theory.

You noted it's tough to follow the top players currently. That's no accident, as it's not uncommon for them to spend the first 15-20 moves completely in theory generated by engines and hours of preparation.

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Pretty much all great players studied the games of the best players of the past, and it is repeatedly recommended that studying them is a great way to improve. Marin's book Learn from the Legends is pretty much based around his journey of doing that.

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Definitely study classic Morphy's games. The fact that Morphy was so far ahead of his peers is a good thing. His opponents often missed Morphy's plan and the plan came out clearly, and it shows you what you should strive to do.

In modern chess so much depends on opening preparation, where moves are often not intuitive and depend on engine backed calculations, that it is very difficult to see what the plan is.

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It absolutely makes sense to study Morphy. Sure, most of his opponents were "terrible" but so are most of your opponents. And, let's be honest, so are you, at the moment. Studying Morphy's games – and tactics in general – will teach you how to beat "terrible" opponents. At your level, nearly all games are decided by exactly the sort of tactical blunders that Morphy will quickly teach you how to avoid and exploit.

Once you're beating all the "terrible" players, you'll have moved up the ladder to "bad". Then you can look at the games of people like Lasker and Capablanca, who'll help you learn to think strategically too. Then you'll be a "so-so" player and maybe even a "good" one.

The modern games are, as you say, pretty inscrutable. Modern players know so much about chess that most of what they do is basically micro-optimization in an attempt to play something that's 99.5% perfect instead of 99%. It is possible to learn from modern games, as long as they're very well annotated, explaining why alternative moves would be mistakes. But don't fall into the trap of thinking "Carlsen played Bb4 and I was thinking that Nc4 looks like a decent move. Why is it wrong?" Usually, there are two or three good moves in any position. Carlsen needs to play the absolutely best move because his opponent is a genius; you can play any of the good moves and be fine, because your opponent isn't a genius. Mostly, though, people who play chess for a hobby will learn much more from older games than modern ones.

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    Your first paragraph is a nice summary of exactly why I wanted to do this. – Derek Allums Dec 28 '18 at 20:42
  • A nitpick, but your use of "terrible" inconsistent IMO, you use it to refer to Morphy's opponents, like Paulsen, Bird, Andersen (Morphy's most famous games are against these opponents), who are probably at least 2200 in modern strength. And then you are talking about OP moving from "terrible" to "bad", which would imply that OP will become stronger than the mentioned players. – Akavall Dec 30 '18 at 2:32
  • @Akavall Sure, not all of Morphy's opponents were terrible. I don't think that affects my point. – David Richerby Dec 30 '18 at 20:11
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I just wanted to add - for one to say that to say "not all Morphy's opponents were terrible" is really understating the case.

The fact is that Morphy consistently beat all the best chess players in the world. For example, Akavall mentioned Adolf Anderssen. Anderssen was estimated by Arpad Elo ( who invented the ELO rating system ) as being over 2600.

Morphys record against him was +12 -3 = 2.

Etcetera.

protected by Phonon Jan 24 at 16:21

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