Getting out of the Squeeze

In past articles I’ve talked about methods you can use to acquire an advantage during the opening and early middle game. We’ve explored some of these ideas, such as having a spacial advantage due to better piece activity or going on the offensive and attacking before your opponent gets a solid foothold in the board’s center. However, I have not yet addressed the subject of what to do should you find yourself in an unfavorable position. What do I mean by unfavorable? How about a cramped position in which your opponent has greater piece activity and therefore better control of the board, leaving you feeling the tightening squeeze of the opposition’s forces!

Every chess player has found themselves squeezed into a cramped position by an opponent at one time or another. While we all try to follow sound opening principles that allow us to develop greater piece activity and subsequently greater control of the board, we eventually square off against a stronger opponent who gets the upper hand early on. By upper hand, I’m speaking of having greater control of the board’s center during the opening as well as control of squares on our half of the board. This type of positional dominance cramps our position which can render our pieces nearly useless. Some chess players made a career out of suffocating their opponent’s position on the board. Tigran Petrosian, the tenth World Chess Champion, was nicknamed “the boa constrictor” because he could create absolutely suffocating positions.

Obviously, we want to avoid playing in such a way that would lead to a cramped position! As obvious as this may sound, the simplest way to avoid such a positional scenario is to “Always Think Ahead” (ATA, as its known to my students). We often hear the phrase “think ahead” as beginners but don’t take this simple phrase to heart. Let’s look at how thinking ahead relates to avoiding a cramped position.

A cramped position can come about in one of two ways. Either our opponent moves his or her pawns and pieces to extremely active squares, keeping our pawns and pieces from safely entering the game or, worse yet, we cramp our own position because we make bad moves. We’ll look at this idea first, making bad moves that cramp our position. Let’s first define a bad move. Since we’re discussing cramped positions, we’ll define a bad move as one that restricts a piece’s mobility or blocks in other friendly pawns and pieces which in turn restricts those pawns and piece’s mobility. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, White decides to move the Bishop on f1 to d3 (3.Bd3). This is a terrible move because it’s blocking in the pawn on d2 which inadvertently blocks in the Bishop on c1 in. This means that it will take a few moves to correct the problem and since the opening is a race for central square control, you can ill afford to be behind in tempo. The Bishop on d3 is on a less active square. If we count the number of squares the Bishop on d3 controls the answer is seven. If that same Bishop had been moved to c4 rather than d3, it would not be blocking in any pawns or pieces and would be controlling ten squares. On move three. Black plays 3…Bc5, gaining much greater spacial advantages than its counterpart on d3. Always think ahead when considering the placement of a pawn or piece early in the game!

When moving a pawn or piece during the opening, consider not only the activity of that pawn or piece but it’s effect, spatially speaking, on the pawns and pieces around it. The beginner should always think about making a move in terms of opening up a position for themselves (positive space) or cramping that position for their opponent (negative space). A question the beginner must always ask is whether or not a specific move blocks in their own pawns or pieces. The beginner should also ask whether or not a move will block in their opponent’s pawns or pieces, cramping their opponent’s position. Coincidentally, moves that develop a piece more actively for one player often have the reverse effect for the other player. Therefore, if given a choice of moves, chose the move that is most active. If given the choice between two good moves that both provide equal piece activity, chose the move that potentially blocks in the fewest friendly pieces. Think ahead!

When I say think ahead, I should add that you need to think ahead in relation to the problem at hand. In other words, you don’t need to think ahead in terms of the endgame when you’re only on move five. You should think ahead only as it relates to the potential problem at hand. Playing 3.Bc4 rather than 3.Bd3 because it blocks in a pawn and a minor piece, is an example of thinking ahead.

Let’s say you’ve done everything I’ve suggested but are now playing against an opponent who you swear is the ghost of Tigran Petrosian. As would be the case, had you actually been playing against Petrosian, you now find yourself squeezed by “the boa constrictor” into an unbelievably cramped position. What now? Now we deal with the immediate, not the future. Now is the time to create some space on the board. We know that the position is cramped which means moving your pawns and pieces anywhere is apt to result in their untimely demise! Therefore, you have to try something else, namely, trading pieces!

One idea I try to embed into my student’s thought process is that you don’t capture pieces unless doing so improves your position. Does that idea apply here? Absolutely! You’ve managed to play Tigran Petrosian reincarnated and he has put you into one of his famously cramping positions. This means that no matter where you move your pawns and pieces to, they’ll become casualties of the war and be quickly captured. In short, you have no space so you’ll have to make some!

Of course, you’re going to have to part with some material in order to gain any space for your pawns and pieces. How you go about gaining this much needed space, via material exchanges, is the crucial consideration here!

In a perfect world, you’s simply trade off material evenly, minor piece for minor piece, etc. However, in the real world, you’re most like faced with having to trade material in an uneven way, such as trading one of your minor pieces for a pawn or trading one of your major pieces for an opposition minor piece. How do you decide what gets traded? Now you have to think ahead a little.

Let’s say you have a choice of two exchanges. In one exchange, you’ll trade a minor piece for a pawn. In the other exchange, you’ll trade a major piece, a Rook for example, for a minor piece. In both of these exchanges, you’ll be trading a unit of greater value for a unit of lesser value. Which trade works better? Look at the position and ask yourself which trade will give you more overall space immediately and in the near future. If you see that trading your Rook for an opponent’s minor piece opens up the board more than the trade of minor piece for pawn, then you should trade your Rook. While you’ll be down the exchange, the position will become less cramped and your other pawns and pieces will become more active.

Sometimes, you have to sacrifice material to open a position up. Trading a Rook for a minor piece will leave you down two material points. However, if that uneven trade opens up the position, giving you the opportunity to gain better piece activity, then that two point deficit is worthwhile. So the next time you’re in a cramped position, see if a bit of material trading helps open things up. Even if you come out down the exchange, you’ll at least have a chance to get the rest of your material into the action. While we should all try to avoid cramped positions by employing sound game principles, we sometimes get boxed in by a stronger player. When this happens, don’t panic. Work your way out of it! 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).