Cramped Positions

When we first learn how to play chess, we study open games as opposed to closed games. In an open game, there are plenty of available squares on the board, making piece placement easier. Long distance attackers, such as the Bishop, Rook and Queen rule the positional roost. In a closed game, there is less space available, so our long distance pieces can’t openly control the board. Our Knights and pawns become the positional weapons of choice. Open games lead to more tactical play while closed games lead to more positional play. The beginner, more often than not, becomes lost when their opponent steers the game toward a closed position. In closed games, the center of the board is often cramped which leaves beginners wondering what to do. Here are some simple suggestions for un-cramping a closed position.

When faced with a closed or cramped position, you have to create a plan for relieving the pressure. Many beginners end up further cramping their position because they make moves that avoid exchanges, thinking that if they can further close the position down, their opponent will eventually have to give in and make a move that costs them material. Wrong! If you’re playing an opponent who has experience with closed or cramped positions they’re going to, as the saying goes, give you enough rope and watch you hang yourself. Remember, you are used to open positions while your opponent may be used to closed or cramped positions. This is the type of position they like! Therefore, you have to have a plan, which can be difficult for those not used to this type of situation. There are four ideas you can employ to relieve the cramped or closed position.

First, consider removing or trading opposition pieces that are cramping your position. Bishops, for example, are at their best in open positions where they have great mobility. However, if they have no room in which to move, they’re “bad Bishops.” On the other side of the coin, because Knights can jump over other pieces, they work extremely well in closed or cramped positions. If your opponent has “good Knights” and you have “bad Bishops,” see if you can find a way to trade you immobile Bishops for your opponent’s mobile Knights. While Knights and Bishops have the same relative value, this value changes depending on the type of position they’re in. Trading a bad piece for a good piece will help to unclog the position, opening things up. The better a piece’s mobility, the better that piece is!

Second, use pieces of lesser value to push back pieces of greater value that stand in your way. This is a realm in which pawns are King! Because pawns have the lowest relative value, a pawn attacking a minor or major piece is (in most cases but not all) going to force that piece off of its square. The same holds true with minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) attacking major pieces (Rooks and Queens). However, you must take care when attacking in such a way. This type of attack is only completely successful if it drives the targeted piece away without weakening your position. If you successfully drive the piece in question away, only to create a position that allows your opponent to win material or checkmate your King on the next move, you might reconsider your attack. Don’t be discouraged by this last statement! In closed or cramped positions, it usually takes more than one opposition move to ruin your game.

Third, consider attacking your opponent’s weakest point on the board, which can be difficult for beginners to determine. The easiest way for the beginner to find the weakest point in their opponent’s position is to look at each opposition pawn and piece and determine the number of defenders that pawn or piece has. Since attacking the King is the name of the game, start by looking at the pawns and pieces defending the opponent’s King. However, there are often weaknesses elsewhere that can provide an avenue for attack. Always count the number of attackers you have and compare it to the number of defenders your opponent has. Remember, you’ll want to have more attackers than opposition defenders.

Fourth, Attack the opposition’s space advantage straight or head on! When experienced chess players navigate closed or cramped positions, the scales are a bit more balanced. By this, I mean that both players have a more even positions, cramped as it may be. When beginners face a closed or cramped position, they are more often than not playing someone who knows this type of position better. This means, the beginner’s pieces are cramped together with no room to breath while their opponent’s pieces have a bit more in the way of mobility. This means the beginner has to bit the bullet and attack. However, you can’t just attack any piece! Examine the position and look for the piece that controls the most space. When I refer to space, I’m talking about space on your side of the board! Think about where you’d like to put your pieces and determine which opposition piece prohibits this. That’s your target. You might consider exchanging a piece of great value for an opposition pieces of lesser value if doing so gives your other pieces much needed breath room.

I have my students learn a bit about closed positions early on, not so they can start playing closed games out of the gate but so they can recognize openings or sequences of moves that lead to closed or cramped positions. Recognizing that a position is heading towards becoming closed helps you prepare for such a position. If your opponent is trying to close or cramp a position, you should be trying to keep it open. If you find yourself in a cramped position, try using my four suggestions to open that position up. Here’s a game by a gentleman who loved closed positions. Enjoy!

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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).