Chess Strategy/The center
The significance of the center
Many inexperienced chess players will often ignore the center. This is a poor idea. The center is the most important part of the chessboard, as pieces from the center can easily move to either flank with great speed. However, amateurs often prefer to concentrate on the king's side of the board. This is an incorrect mindset, and this page will tell you why.
The five schools
Let's start out with a little history:
The Romantic School
Starting in the mid-1800s, a school of thought called Romanticism began to take hold in the chess world. Romanticism is the philosophy of many players, that the king's flank is the most important. Romantic players often played for tactics alone, ignoring the center. In fact, winning came second to winning with style.
The Classical School
Then came the first World Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, who crushed his opponents with his deep positional understanding. He was the first modern master to impress upon his students the importance of the center. Some of his later disciples, including Tarrasch, Lasker, and Capablanca, went on to spread his beliefs about the center. Tarrasch was the leader of this school of thought, and was called "the father of Classical dogma".
The Hypermodern School
In the 1920s there was a revolution in chess. Several Central European players like Reti, Nimzowitsch, and Gruenfeld burst onto the chess scene to dominate chess during the next few decades. Their ideas formed the basis for the Hypermodern school. The idea was that a large pawn center would eventually overextend itself and become a target. Nimzowitsch in particular believed in the importance of piece play against the center. His legacy, the Nimzo-Indian Defense, is very popular today with the world's strongest grandmasters. It involves restraining the central pawns with pieces.
During the 1930s Hypermodernism and Classical dogma often clashed with each other. Classical dogma was more popular than Hypermodernism, and eventually two openings threatened to dominate international chess: the Queen's Gambit Declined and the Ruy Lopez, both sound classical openings. In the end, after Alekhine's death, a new generation of Soviet masters took hold, introducing a new philosophy regarding the center.
The Russian Dynamism, a blend of Hypermodernism, which stresses piece play, and Classicalism, which emphasized the pawn center, came with a welcome change to the Indian Defenses and the Sicilian Defense. The idea behind the Russian Dynamism was that it is okay to allow central pawn weaknesses for dynamic piece play. This brought with it a variety of new openings, such as the Boleslavsky Variation in the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Be2 e5!), which allows a hole on d5 in return for active play against the e4-pawn.
The Modern School
Essentially, the Modern school was introduced by Bobby Fischer. Fischer believed that a dose of all three schools was the correct approach to chess, and had wonderful games using all ideas, including his many great victories with the Najdorf Sicilian. Later world champions like Karpov and Kasparov built up on his work, leading to the present-day school of thought that all previous ideas were correct in their own way.
The pawn center
What Classical masters emphasized was the importance of the pawn center. This is still good today, and will be good for a long time. For example, the game at right, Keres-Fine, Ostend 1937, shows an instructive example of the pawn center.
Ostend, 1937 Position after Black's 20th move
White has a mighty pawn center, and here is how he brilliantly exploits its power: 21.d5! White sacrifices a pawn to blunt Black's pieces and advance his e-pawn. 21....exd5 22.e5 Nd7 23.Ng5 Nf8 24.Nxh7! White's pawn center allowed him to start a brutal attack and won in seven moves.
Notice how White's central pawn duo was very strong where they stood. Even standing on e4 and d4 the pawns can be very powerful, too. Black's passive formation would have allowed White to keep his pawns where they stood, influencing the course of the game. White could have played the pawn break d4-d5 at any moment in the game, followed by the advance e4-e5 to kick back the Black knight, with further preparation. Also, it is a typical idea to block d5 and then follow with e4-e5. e4-e5 immediately would have allowed Black to sink his knight on d5. However, with the intermezzo d4-d5, Black's pieces were blunted and White immediately seized the initiative.
Play against the pawn center
If your opponent has a massive pawn center, there is often no need to fear if you have significant counterplay. Although a pawn center marks out a spatial advantage, you can try undermining its support. For example, in one game against Letelier at Leipzig 1960, Fischer, as Black, played 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 0-0. This is a Fischer idea, which is simply a move-order tool. 5.e5 Ne8 6.f4 d6 7.Be3 White erroneously believes that his center is invincible. As Fischer will prove, this idea is wrong. 7....c5! Fischer sacrifices a pawn to undermine the center and open lines to White's uncastled king. 8.dxc5 Nc6 9.cxd6 exd6 10.Ne4 Bf5 11.Ng3 Be6 12.Nf3 Qc7 13.Qb1 dxe5 14.f5 e4! Black's pawns have supplanted White's in the center. White is coming under serious attack and cannot hold back the threats to his king, which eventually came through on move 23.
Another example of undermining in the opening occurs in the Alapin Variation of the Sicilian Defense. 1.e4 c5 2.c3 White hopes to build up a strong pawn center. 2....Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 4.d4 cxd4 5.cxd4 e6! Restraining the pawn center and opening up the a3-f8 diagonal for Black's bishop. 6.Nf3 d6! Destroying the beachhead at e5. Black is assured of an even game.
Let's begin with a simple axiom. The purpose of maintaining a pawn center is to squeeze the opponent for space. You will have more space if you can deny the opponent's pieces squares. However, if your center looks nice but does not really gain space (i.e. it gives him squares), then it really doesn't mean anything at all! That was what Black had in mind when he played the following game, which is Scheichel--Adorjan, Hungary 1971. 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 The ultra-hypermodern Grünfeld Defense, which gives White a pawn center so that Black can target it. In this game, White plays the super-sharp Exchange Variation. 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Bc4 O-O 8.Ne2 c5 9.O-O Nc6 10.Be3 Qc7 11.Rc1 Rd8 This position has been played over and over in many Grünfeld games. White is trying his best to uphold the integrity of the center, while Black is trying to destroy it. 12.h3 White would like to play f2-f4, gaining even more space, but after ...Bg4 Black would be able to chop off one of the defenders of d4. 12...b6 13.f4 e6 14.Qe1 Na5 15.Bd3 f5! Hoping for the weakening 16.e5? when 16...c4 17.Bb1 Bb7 would give Black domination over the light squares. 16.g4 Bb7 as seen in the diagram to the left.
|Scheichel—Adorjan, Hungary 1971
Position after Black's 16th move
White's center is under attack by all of Black's pieces! White should not play 17.exf5 gxf5 18.gxf5 Re8, which would leave Black with more active pieces and leave White with an exposed king and weak pawns. 17.Ng3 Qd7 18.Rd1 cxd4 19.Bb1? An error. White cannot afford this loss of time. 19...Nc4 20.Bxd4 e5! The center is blown to bits and White's uncoordinated pieces are exposed. 21.fxe5 fxg4 22.Qe2 Qc7 23.Qxg4 Nxe5 After the resultant pawn exchanges, we see that all that is left of White's once-mighty pawn center are two weaklings on c3 and e4. Also note that Black's minor pieces are infinitely superior to White's. 24.Qg5 h6 25.Qe3 Rf8 26.Kg2 Ba6 27.Rxf8+ Rxf8 28.Bxe5? Critically weakening the dark squares. Qxe5 29.Bc2 Bc4 30.Bb3 Bxb3 31.axb3 Qxc3 32.Qxc3 Bxc3 33.Rd7 Rf7 and White resigned. He is down some material, and the endgame is hopeless for him.
The pawn center as regards the attack
Going back to the position in Keres—Fine, we notice that the pawn center was one of the things that guaranteed a successful kingside attack. Control of the center is vital to the success of the attack on the flank. An attack on the flank, therefore, is dependent on the attacker's control of the center or the closed center. Either way, this kind of attack is only successful when the defender cannot land a counterpunch in the center. For example, the game at right, Rodriguez—Tringov, Buenos Aires 1978, shows this drastically.
Buenos Aires, 1978 Position after White's 18th move
All of Black's kingside pawns are on their initial squares, so it appears that it would be hard for White to attack there. However, this is not the case. Indeed, there is an avalanche of pawns hanging over Black's head! However, this attack is sure to fail for three reasons:
- 1. White's king is awkwardly placed.
- 2. Black is not castled on the kingside.
- 3. Black can counterattack in the center.
Black, noting all three of these conditions, decides that the time is ripe for classic Sicilian counterplay. 18....d5! Black counters a wing attack with play in the center. The sacrifice of the pawn is only temporary, for if 19.exd5, 19....Qc5+ 20.Kg2 Bxd5, with an excellent game for Black due to the open center and his bishop pair. 19.Kg2 dxe4 20.Kh2 e3! Now it is easy to see that White's kingside pawn advance was premature and left the kingside overextended. Black's counterattack in the center stopped the attack before it began. Meanwhile, White is powerless to stop Black's central play. 21.Bg2 Rd8 and White resigned because there is no stopping penetration on the second rank with 22....Rd2.
When the center is stable
However, in the case of a stable center, where the defender cannot hit back in the center, a wing attack is usually a good idea. For example, if a wing attack is started, the defender can't do anything about it in the center. He will have to sit passively and defend, waiting for the attacker to slip. Otherwise, he will usually get mated. Of course, you could riskily play for mate on the king's wing, or you could push for a stable spatial advantage in the center. Both options are good, but it's usually just a matter of taste.
- Alburt, Lev and Palatnik, Semyon. Chess Strategy for the Tournament Player, rev. ed. New York, NY: Chess Information Research Center, 2001.
- Vukovic, Vladimir. The Art of Attack in Chess. London: Cadogan Books, 1993.
- Silman, Jeremy. The Amateur's Mind, 1st ed. Los Angeles, CA: Siles Press, 1999.