Why the Center?

When I teach my students the opening principles, we talk a great deal about the center of the board because that’s the name of the game when it comes to the opening. My more astute students pay close attention, making mental notes regarding the center of the board. Yet rarely does one of them ask “why the center?” The majority of chess students will simply accept the statement “you must control the center of the board during the opening” as a hard fast rule, a law not to be broken unless you want to lose your game quickly. While I can appreciate the idea of simply taking in such a statement without argument, a great deal more can be learned when you question such a statement. I am overjoyed when a student raises his or her hand and asks me why the center of the board is so crucial to good opening play. Asking questions is a fantastic way to improve one’s knowledge but sadly few students ask questions, even when encouraging them to do so.

Beginner’s too often confuse the game’s principles with the game’s rules, thinking a principle to be another rule of the game. Therefore, I make a point, long before teaching any principles to explain the difference between the two. Rules cannot be broken in chess. However, principles are merely guidelines (albeit great guidelines) that provide us with a way to make informed or sound decisions when considering moves. The principles have been around for centuries and have stood the test of time. They’ve survived this test of time because they work. Of course, students will first ignore the opening principles, trying it their way instead. When they’ve suffered one too many agonizing defeats, they’ll try it the principled way and suddenly see positive results.

To hone in on why opening principles are so important, you have to realize just how important the opening is. For you beginners, the opening comprises roughly the first 12 to 16 moves made in a chess game. Some openings are shorter while some are longer. The opening allows you to build a foundation for the rest of your game. When building a house, if the foundation is weak that house will eventually collapse. The same holds true in chess. If your foundation, the opening, is poorly constructed, your game will collapse.

There are three phases to a chess game, the opening, middle and endgames. The opening sets you up for the middle-game and the middle-game sets you up for the endgame. Therefore, your middle-game is only as good as your opening and your endgame is only as good as your middle-game. They all depend on one another. However, you might not see a middle or endgame if your opening is weak. One question beginners will ask is “I never make it to the middle or endgame because I get checkmated early. What am I doing wrong?” The answer? Not playing a proper opening!

To play properly during the opening, you have to use the opening principles to guide the moves you make. You cannot waste time (tempo) because the goal of the opening is control the center of the board before your opponent does. Remembering that your opponent is trying to achieve the same goals as you during the opening means that every move you make must be principled and not waste time. Wasted moves, such as moving the same piece twice during the opening or bringing your Queen out early allows your opponent to continue their principled moves which furthers their control of the board’s center. When you waste moves you might as well be giving your opponent a free turn.

Before I can even start teaching the opening principles, I have to solidify the importance of the board’s center in the minds of my students. Unless you know why the center of the board is so critical during the opening, you’ll not fully appreciate the importance of the opening principles and might ignore them, opted for wasted moves instead. With that said, let’s look at why the center of the board is so important.

The center of the board is comprised of four squares, e4, e5, d4 and d5. During the opening, both players fight to control these four squares and the squares immediately surrounding them. Why control the center and not one side of the board or the other? Two reasons. First, pieces have greater power or control of squares elsewhere on the board when those pieces are centrally located. A Knight in the center of the board (d4, d5, e4 or e5) controls eight squares while a Knight on the edge of the board (a4 or h4, for example) controls only four squares (a half Knight) and finally, a Knight on a corner square (a1, a8, h1 or h8) controls only two squares (a quarter Knight). The opening is all about having greater control of the board’s center than your opponent. Therefore centrally positioned pieces have greater control and greater options due to controlling more squares.

The second reason for centralized control? the enemy King is on a central file and if you want to get to him, it’s a lot faster to attack through the center than the flanks or sides of the board. Remember, the first person to checkmate their opponent’s King wins the game. Therefore, you want to get to the opposition King as quickly as possible. However, this doesn’t mean you should attack the opposition King the first chance you get. Attacks are built up, often slowly. What I mean by “quickly” is that you should choose the most direct approach when attacking. Why make two moves to get to a square you can reach in one move? This brings me to another important point, time or tempo.

The opening is a race to see who gets control of the board’s center first. The player who makes good opening moves that follow the opening principles will be the winner. The player who wastes time making moves that do nothing to control the board’s center will fall hopelessly behind. In chess terms, we call time tempo and every time you make an unprincipled move that does nothing to help you achieve your goal, control of the board’s center, you lose tempo. Unprincipled moves are wasted moves and every time you make one of these unprincipled moves, you might as well be giving your opponent a free move. Wasted moves waste time and wasting time losses games.

Since the opening comes down to who can control the center first, with greater force, we can see that using the opening principles to guide our moves doesn’t waste time. The player that wastes time or tempo falls behind the player who doesn’t. We now know the reasons for the center of the board being so important, so employing the opening principles should make more sense. Our job during the opening is to control the center of the board with a pawn (or two), develop our minor pieces (Knights and Bishop) to squares that allow them to control the center, castle our King to safety, connect our Rooks and last, continue to improve the activity of our pawns and pieces in order to go into the middle-game with a strong position.

I mentioned that principles are not rules at the beginning of this article. This means they don’t have to be adhered to. There are time when you may have to make a move that goes against these principles because you have no choice. The principles suggest we don’t move the same piece twice during the opening but what if a black pawn suddenly moves to b4 when you have a Knight on c3. Do you leave the Knight there because you don’t want to move the same piece twice during the opening? No! You move the Knight rather than lose it. Leaving the Knight to be captured would be treating principles as rules and they’re not. In fact, great chess players sometimes bend the opening principles if they have a really good reason. However, they don’t break those principles completely, they only bend them slightly. For now though, as a beginner, don’t bend the opening principles until you’ve fully mastered them. Speaking of opening principles, 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).