Space, The Crucial Frontier

Space is a critical factor in chess, both the space your forces have to move through and the space those forces control. Simply put, the more space you control, the less space your opponent has which means they’ll have trouble launching meaningful attacks. At the the start of the game, the opening, both players engage in a space race to see who can control the board’s center first. As we move towards the middle game, more astute players continue to activate their pawns and pieces so that they control more space and/or specific squares. Beginners, on the other hand (due to a lack of experience) tend to stop their quest for spacial control as soon as they’ve fulfilled the basic opening principles regarding controlling the board’s center with a pawn (or two), developing their minor pieces towards the center and castling. More often than not, they start attacking immediately after finishing what they think of as the opening which usually leads to disaster. If the beginner continued the development of his or her forces before attacking, the results would be more favorable. They miss the transitional phase that allows them to gain an advantage in the middle game, namely the continued acquisition of space.

During the opening, you have to develop your forces towards the board’s central squares. However, you have to make sure you don’t block in your pawns and especially your pieces while doing so. Of course, you’ll block the c2 pawn in when your develop your white Queen-side Knight to c3. Some blockage cannot be helped. More often than not, there’s a trade off to every move. Developing the Knight to c3 is a solid move during the opening but the trade off is the blocked c2 pawn. Of course, developing the Knight is more crucial than developing the c2 pawn in many openings so the trade off is minimal. On the other hand, moving the white f1 Bishop to d3 while there’s still a pawn on d2 creates a traffic jam that hems in the c1 Bishop. In this case, the developing move does more harm than good. Beginners must learn to develop their pawns and especially their pieces in a manner that minimizes the blocking in of other material.

What separates advanced players from beginners is the more experienced player’s ability to keep developing their pawns and pieces after the opening is finished. This is a lesson beginners need to embrace. Just because you’ve developed your minor pieces towards the center on each of those minor piece’s first move doesn’t mean they can’t be further developed. Always consider further development before attacking. Once you’ve optimized your pieces on their most active squares, those squares that allow greater control of the board, then you can consider attacking. Beginners sometimes think controlling territory on the boards means squares on their side of the board. While you want to protect your side of the board, it’s more important to control your opponent’s side of the board. Why? Because if you control key squares on the opposition side of the board, it’s going to be difficult for them to launch any attacks without paying a material price. Therefore, develop your pieces in a manner that allows them to control squares on your opponent’s side of the board. As for your side of the board, this is where pawns come in handy.

Pawns have the lowest relative value which means they can keep the pieces off of specific squares because no one really wants to trade a piece for a pawn (unless it leads to checkmate of course). Therefore, you can use your pawns to protect key squares on your side of the board. With that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you shouldn’t go crazy and make too many pawn moves. You just want to make pawn moves that protect specific squares your opponent can exploit. The classic example is stopping the black Queen-side Bishop (c8 square) from pinning the white Knight on f3 to the white Queen on d1. Moving the h2 pawn to h3 prior to the pin can stop the Bishop dead in his tracks. Just keep in mind that the trade off is an opening on the now vacated h2 square. There’s a trade off with every move.

Always try to maintain pawn chains when using pawns to control space. Pawns are better suited for the job of protecting pawns. Using a piece to protect a pawn early in the game means that piece is not being used to control space. It’s as if it isn’t in the game. Always try to create and maintain good pawn structure when using pawns for defending your side of the board. If protecting a key square with a pawn means having to use a piece to protect that pawn, consider another option.

Connect your Rooks! Too many beginners let their Rooks sit dormant throughout the game. Going into and through the middle-game, Rooks can be extremely useful for supporting pawns and pieces. While I previously mentioned that you shouldn’t tie a piece down to a pawn’s defense, it’s perfectly fine for a Rook to serve this role. Why? Because we normally make our Rooks more active much later in the game. However, you have to get your Rooks out of their respective corners. This is another good reason to castle. To connect your Rooks, simply move the Queen up (or down for black) one rank. It should be noted that Rooks are connected when their starting rank is free of other pieces so develop those minor pieces early.

The control of space is the precursor to a solid attack. When you control space on your opponent’s side of the board, you make their positional life difficult. You force them to pay a price (material loss) in order to make inroads towards your King. Always ask yourself, do I have my pawns and pieces on their most active squares, before considering an attack. Of course, if your opponent’s position has a real weakness you can exploit with an early attack, take advantage of it. However, it’s better to carefully build up your forces before sending them into battle. 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).