Exercises in Style: from Wilhelm Steinitz to Magnus Carlsen (1/4)

by Johannes Fischer
7/6/2017 – World Champions have style. At least, this is often claimed. Kasparov loved to attack, Karpov excelled in prophylaxis, Capablanca liked positional play crowned by a "petite combinaison", Tal loved intuitive sacrifices while Botvinnik preferred clear strategic plans. But do you recognize the style of the World Champions when you see only the moves of their games? Try it out!

The first undisputed World Champion in the history of chess was Wilhelm Steinitz, while the 16th and current World Champion is Magnus Carlsen. In this article and in the days to come ChessBase presents 16 games by the World Champions — one per World Champion. Without giving any information when, where and against whom these games were played, can you find out which World Champion played which game by just looking at the moves?

To simplify the task, the 16 World Champions were divided into four groups. The first group consists of Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker, José Rául Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine.

The games were chosen with a random generator. But only tournament and matchgames were taken into account and only wins. Games between two World Champions were also ignored.

Game 1


Game 2


Game 3


Game 4


If you want to you can explain your choice the in comments. It is, of course, easy to find out who played which game if you search for the games in the ChessBase Megabase. But this would spoil the fun, so if you do, please keep it to yourself! Moreover, we'll reveal who played which game soon. And part two of the "Exercises in Style" series will also follow soon.

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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Malcom Malcom 7/6/2017 03:33
Excellent Initiative...bravo! Also notice many "modern" chess enthusiasts will go mum here because they think life began when Internet was invented... refreshing less idiotic comments!
Cajunmaster Cajunmaster 7/6/2017 05:52
Very interesting, thanks. I am eagerly awaiting the answers!
distrachess distrachess 7/6/2017 06:56
Very nice and instructive initiative! Looking forward to the next post!!
imdvb_8793 imdvb_8793 7/6/2017 10:28
I'm going to assume the champions won the games in question... Seems more likely, even if it wasn't designed that way. No idea how likely I am to be wrong about this.

Game 1 I'm pretty sure is a Lasker because it fits his style/repertoire and I'm also fairly certain I've seen the game before. Which doesn't necessarily mean I'm right that it's a game of Lasker's... Game 2 is tricky, because I know Steinitz used to play c5 in the QGD. Also, I think I might have seen this game recently as well (I'm less sure than about #1), so there's a good chance I'm going to get this wrong. But game 3 is so Steinitz, that I can't guess anyone else there... #4 I have little clue about, but game it looks quite a bit more like an Alekhine game, so I guess I'll have to go with him there - and Capa for #2.
imdvb_8793 imdvb_8793 7/6/2017 10:30
I see I ended up making the same guesses as Classique! :) (Only read the comments after making my guesses - precisely to avoid any influence.)
Classique Classique 7/6/2017 10:33
Game one--unpretentious play, a variation Lasker played frequently as White. No need here for fancy ideas: Black doesn't realize his pawn storm will be much slower than White's. White used his central superiority at the right moment. Lasker's common sense.

Game two--Very closed, safe strategic opening without even attempting a theoretical advantage, very clear plan in retrospect, simplifying with a little sacrifice into a material-down, clearly won endgame--classic late Capablanca.

Game three--suffering a cramped position, defending with ...f6 (the king can help defend himself!), triumph at the end...Steinitz

Game four: Really this could have been any good player with White. Black forced matters with aggressive pseudo-active moves such as shoving all his pawns forward and harassing White's rook with his bishop. White really had little choice; he fell back as he had to, got the safer King, then capitalized on the weaknesses, in the end White giving a good demonstration of play on both sides of the board--an Alekhine specialty--but this was really hardly more than generic good technique. Alekhine by default.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 7/7/2017 02:49
Would be more interesting if all the world champions were given as choices for each game.
drafty drafty 7/7/2017 06:56
Game 1: Capablanca. Game 2: Steinitz. Game 3: Alekhine. Game 4: Lasker. This was based on a little knowledge and some deduction.
vermapulak vermapulak 7/7/2017 12:13
Game 1: Alekhine. Game 2: Steinitz. Game 3: Capablanca. Game 4: Lasker
Peter B Peter B 7/11/2017 01:34
My guesses: 1. Steinitz, 2. Capablanca, 3. Lasker, 4. Alekhine. The last two may be the other way around. Game 1 looks old in style and I can't imagine a 20th century player playing on after move 27. 2 is very Capa like, he was very fond on P to QB5. 3 and 4 are harder but to me 3 looks more Lasker like while 4 is stirring complications Alekhine style. It'll be fun to come back and see how wrong I probably am!
Peter B Peter B 7/11/2017 05:09
After reading others' comments... that's a good point about Lasker and the exchange Ruy. Maybe I've got 1 and 3 back to front. I'll hedge my bets and say now it might be 1. Lasker 2. Capa 3. Steinitz 4. Alekhine.
mdamien mdamien 7/14/2017 02:24
I had Capablanca and Lasker swapped. The Spanish Exchange variation screamed Lasker, of course, and these were described as randomly chosen. I didn't have any memory of Capablanca playing the Spanish Exchange (not that my memory is worth much), and my database only has two games where Capablanca plays it, so that looks like an unlucky random choice for the author's premise. Even so, lots of fun!
Angelo Pardi Angelo Pardi 7/14/2017 07:06
I'm not sure it is really possible to find the player of a random game. Players have style, but good players (and WC) are able to play a game that is not their style. To tale a recent example, if you see a Berlin, your inner chess historian is crying "Kramnik", but just about everybody plays it today. Lasker was known for careful defence, endgame prowess, and dubious openings, but he also played a few opening novelties and clear cut attacking game.

OK, let's suppose you don't know Steinitz immortal. Seeing the extraordinary combination, would you not say it was Alekhine's ?

(Or maybe I just suck at this game ! I did not find anyone...)