Always Fight for the Center

The three most important tasks we must accomplish during the opening are developing a central pawn, activating our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) centrally and castling. We know not to make too many pawn moves, move the same piece twice nor bring our Queen out early (all during the opening). The astute beginner who embraces these principles will immediately start playing better chess. However, there’s more work to do during the opening including fighting for the center of the board. “Always fight for the center” should be our mantra all the way into the middle-game. The player who controls the center first, exercising greater control of its immediate and surrounding squares will have greater options going forward. However, what happens when both players have equal central control? When both players share in control of the center, the player who fights for greater control comes out ahead. Take a look at the diagram below.

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Bc5, 4. c3…Nf6, we reach the position above. Black’s Knight on f6 is threatening the white e4 pawn. Do we defend it with 5. d3 or do we attack black’s center with 5. d4? During the opening, we want to develop our pawns and pieces towards the center of the board but we also want to further attack the center, especially if doing so prevents our opponent from gaining a stronger position. Although black is making a threat against the e4 pawn, the position is still relatively balanced. The threat to the e4 pawn by black’s f6 Knight can be problematic for black if white decides to castle on move five (5. O-O). Should black then play 5…Nxe4, white can play 6. Re1 and the Knight must retreat. To capture the pawn on e4 and retreat would mean that black moved the Knight three times, something principled play tells us not to do during the opening!

The problem with 5. d3 is that it’s a passive move. Since white is a turn ahead of black due to making the first move, the player commanding the white army should always aim for more aggressive moves, provided those moves follow the opening principles. Don’t play defensively unless you absolutely have to! Therefore, 5. d4 attacks the center, stopping black from gaining further control. After 5. d4…exd4, 6. O-O…O-O, white is slightly better. After 7. cxd4…Be7, white is definitely better. Why? Because white fought for the center rather than playing defensively.

Of course, there will be times when you have to make defensive moves. After all, your opponent might make a move you weren’t prepared for. However, if you have the opportunity to do so, always fight for the center. Let’s look at the position after move seven.

White has established a classical pawn center with pawns on d4 and e4. What’s so great about these two pawns? Since pawns have the lowest relative value, either of the two white pawns can move one square forward and chase either black Knight off of it’s optimal opening square (c6 or f6). This is a good example of how principles are bent (not broken). Principled play tells us we shouldn’t move the same piece (or pawn) multiple times during the opening. However, bending this principle would force one of black’s Knights off of an active square, causing a weakening of black’s central control.

White’s b1 Knight can still develop to c3, while the c1 Bishop has mobility along the c1-h6 diagonal. Black’s Queen-side counterpart, the c8 Bishop is completely blocked in. Black’s position is somewhat weak while white’s is strong. This came about by white fighting for the center. How did white know that 5. d4 would work? Let me introduce you to a concept called board vision.

Board Vision

Board vision is the ability to see all the pawns and pieces, both yours and your opponents, on the chessboard. Seeing all the pawns and pieces means first looking at each of your opponent’s pawns and pieces and determining if there are any threats being made against your pawns and pieces. Then look at your pawns and pieces and see if you can make any threats against your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Only after you’ve exercised good board vision, can you then think about possible moves. Beginners tend to look only where the action is. During the opening, they’ll only look at the pawns and pieces closest to the center squares. They miss a potential attacker outside their immediate line of site. Experienced players examine the entire board before considering any moves.

With 5. d4, white challenged black’s control of the center but only after examining the entire board. After carefully looking at the pawns and pieces belonging to both players, white was able to create an attack and subsequent series of moves that allowed the position to favor white. Even though the majority of the pawns and pieces for both sides were still on their starting squares, white still double checked to make sure it was safe to execute his plan. Always fight for the center during the opening.

Piece Activity

Just because you’ve followed the big three opening principles and acquired a good centralized position, doesn’t mean you can’t further develop or activate your pawns and pieces. Always remember that the person your playing has a plan of their own. That plan can sometimes force you to develop a minor piece to a square that isn’t active. When a piece is active, it’s on a square that allows it to have more control of specific squares, such as the board’s central squares. Before claiming you’re finished with your opening, look at your pieces as see if they can move to more active squares. The principle regarding not moving the same piece multiple times during the opening can be bent (not broken) to increase a piece’s activity during the opening. However, you should only do so after you’ve initially developed your other pieces. The same holds true for pawns. After you’ve completed your opening development, you can consider making a few additional pawn moves if they serve a purpose. Often, a player will move the white h2 pawn to h3 to stop the black c8 Bishop from moving to g4 and pinning the white Knight on f3 to the white Queen (d1). Non centralized pawns can also be used to keep your opponent’s pieces off of key squares on your side of the board. The key here is control the center with a pawn or two and only later in the opening make additional pawn moves. As for the Queen, she should only move one square forward in order to connect our Rooks. Fear not, this isn’t bringing your Queen out early! Make sure that your Rooks have the freedom to move back and forth along their starting rank. Rooks trapped in the corners of the board are not in the game. While you don’t want to bring a Rook out onto the board during the opening, they can certainly help to control central squares by being posted on the e and d files. They can also support pawns being pushed towards the enemy. Play for control by fighting for the center. Better to be an attacker than a defender and fighting for the center makes you the aggressor. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).