Thanks to reader Paul Gottlieb, I recently purchased Najdorf’s Zurich 1953 which has for the first time been translated into English and published by Russell Enterprises. You can read my review on the Book Blog.
This is a great book, but it got me to thinking why would anyone want to study old chess games? What’s to be learned? For most of us GM games have too many moves we don't understand and today’s players routinely violate positional principles set down by the great players and teachers of yesteryear. Also in one of John Nunn's books he discussed the number of errors found in older master games and how many were unsuitable for generating good tactical puzzles.
Still, those types of games are still good to go over though because with careful scrutiny you might find improvements in the play. Despite their mistakes and sometimes antiquated ideas there is a certain value in studying the games of the older GMs. The kinds of errors you see being made in their games are usually not the kind that you see in today’s modern GMs, but what you do learn is how to punish them when they are made. If you start out with modern games, they can be hard to follow because you don’t yet know the basics.
Dvoretsky and Yusupov have written about the value of noting an interesting idea or position and analyzing it yourself. You should keep this analysis organized so that eventually more and more games with a similar themes will be collected and analyzed. GM Alex Baburin's book on the IQP is an example of this. Another huge benefit of playing over GM games is helping to develop pattern recognition.
GM Greg Serper wrote about a conversation he had with a strong player who told him he was going to delete all the old games from his database because they were practically useless. Serper commented that he was appalled because he came out of the old Soviet School which placed strong emphasis on knowledge of the classics.
Serper believes you should play through classical games if you want to be a strong player because as he explained, these days when two GMs play and one of them sees a good idea, in most cases his opponent sees the same idea and prevents it. As a result, you cannot learn this idea that was left unplayed unless it is mentioned in the annotations.
The advantage of playing over old games is precisely that the players were not as sophisticated as modern GMs and therefore when they had an idea very often their opponent had no clue about it. Playing over the old classics allows you to have them explain their thoughts and ideas to you. Many modern players simply don’t do that because they already understand the whole process.
And…don’t forget, Fischer was familiar with the classics and even got some ideas from old Steinitz games! Botvinnik read Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals and he ranked it highly. Petrosian said he grew up on The Art of Sacrifice in Chess by Rudolf Spielmann and he was also a big fan of Nimzovich’s My System. One of Kasparov's favorite books was Bronstein's 200 Open Games. If you don't have any books by classical players in your library then you should buy some...NOW! Najdorf's book is a good starting point.