Chess Instruction - Fight for the Center! - Part I
Chess Instruction

Fight for the Center!

by Warren C. Loveland

Contesting for the center is probably the greatest maxim in chess, yet many players don't realize when they control the center, or how to proceed after they do control it. This article is intended for lower-rated players in the hope that it will improve their play.

The classic concept of the center is the four central squares of the chessboard: d4, d5, e4, e5. Some authors expand this to include the 16 central squares of the board, and call it the extended center.

Control of a central square means the player can place his pawn on this square without losing material, or can place a piece there without losing material or being forced into retreat. Sometimes these squares are occupied by pieces or pawns, sometimes pawns and pieces are placed so that the opponent cannot occupy one or more central squares.

When both sides play well, neither side can monopolize the entire center. Some squares cannot be held by either side, while others are under a constant state of siege, with both sides maneuvering to gain control. It's not often that a central square, once controlled, remains that way for the duration of the game, as the opponent will also be maneuvering to wrest control of the square away from its owner or, failing in that, to exchange or at least neutralize the effectiveness of an enemy piece posted there. From this comes Nimzovich's theory of overprotection.

Moving as few pawns as possible to bring the knights, bishops and queen from the back rank on to good squares, then castling to protect the king behind a wall of pawns and join the rooks is called development. Posting these pieces where they occupy and/or influence the battle for the center is called, in Nimzovich's terminology, centralization.

The fight for the center is the underlying theme of all opening theory. Amateurs make the mistake of memorizing these published sequences of moves and know where all the pieces are supposed to go, but they fail to understand why these moves are played, i.e., in terms of control of squares. That is why their positions inevitably collapse when an opponent deviates from "the book." If you are floundering in a sea of MCO or ECO footnotes, I strongly recommend Fine's Ideas Behind the Chess Openings.

Why is the center important? Why must we fight for these squares? Simply stated, they are the shortest route for pieces to flow across the chessboard, for attack or defense. If one side dominates the center, the other side has the dubious choice of defending passively or trying to mount a counter- attack around the perimeters of the board; both require time-consuming maneuvering under cramped conditions and rarely succeed.

The following two games illustrate what happens when Black doesn't fight for his share of the center. The first game (Loveland-Searles) was played in 1977 and white wasn't aware that he controlled the center. The second game (Loveland-Anonymous) was played this past year and White, although fully aware of his dominant center, isn't certain how to take advantage of it. However, as we shall see, he gradually works it out. Notes for the first game are by Irving Kandel from Kandel's Kommentary, a column in the Chess Correspondent that feted the game of the month. Any notes that I add will be followed by (WCL.) Notes to the second game are my own.

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1977 North American, Class A
White: Warren Loveland
Black: Richard Searles
Dutch Defense (A87)

1 Nf3 f5
2 d4 Nf6
3 g3 g6
4 Bg2 Bg7
5 0-0 0-0

After Black has played f5, he must decide whether to play ... d5 or ... e5. The latter requires a certain amount of preparation which Black has neglected ( ... d5 normally requires ... e6, and ... e5 requires ... d6. When White omits an early d4, i.e., from the English [1. c4] or the Reti [Nf3 and g3 without d4] Black invariably plays e5 as soon as possible. Excellent coverage of these lines may be found in Play the Dutch Defense Against 1c4 and 1Nf3, by DeVault and Hickman. WCL.)

6 c4 d6

(This is mainline Leningrad Dutch. 6 ... d5 would set-up the Stonewall Variation where Black's fianchetto is unusual. After ... d6, Black controls e4 and contests e5; White owns d4 while d5 is in a state of flux. WCL.)

7 Nc3 c6
8 Re1 ...


8 ... Nh5 ??

Since Black has been unable to play e5, he should at least prevent his opponent's e4. Necessary was 8 ... Ne4. (The text cannot be sound. Black commits the cardinal sins of opening play, i.e., moving the same piece twice, decentralization of a piece, neglecting development of the other pieces, etc. Black is not desperate to play ... e5 in the Leningrad as both bishops already have good diagonals, but Black ought to do something about the QN. 8 ... Nbd7 was worth consideration, to meet e4 with ... e5. If White plays d5, the opening transposes to a King's Indian Defense where Black has the ready-made pawn exchanges at ... c6 and ... f5, to open lines, already in place. If White plays dxe5, then ... dxe5 and Black controls more center squares. Another possibility was 8 ... Na6 - c7 WCL.)

9 e4 f4?

9 ... fxe4 is preferable, even though it gives White the edge.

10 e5 fxg3
11 fxg3 Bg4
12 e6 ...

White has taken full advantage of Black's neglect of the center.

12 ... Bxf3
13 Bxf3 Bxd4+
14 Qxd4 Rxf3

Black has won a pawn at the cost of a lost game. The absence of his dark-square bishop, in addition to White's pawn at e6, gives White an unshakeable positional bind. (All this chess talk was a little over my head back then. However, I was aware that I was well ahead in development, as Black had exchanged his active pieces and failed to develop his queenside. I saw the tactical possibilities kingside and, if Irving was right, what follows is the best ten-move sequence of my life. WCL)

15 Bh6 ...

White immediately exploits Black's dark-square weakness and threatens to win material with 16. Kg2. Black's next is forced.

15 ... Qb6
16 Qxb6 axb6
17 Kg2 ...

The exchange of queens has not weakened White's attack.

17 ... Rd3
18 Rf1 Na6
19 Rf7 ...


19 ... Re8 ??

(Black stumbles into a mating net. The best try for a draw was 19 ... Nf6 20. Rg7+ Kh8 21. Rxe7 Ng4 22. Bf4 Ne3+ [or ... Nc5 23. Rd1 Rxd1 24. Nxd1 Rxa2 25 Bxd6] 23. Bxe3 Rxe3 24. Rd1 Rd8 25. Rxb7 Rxe6 26. Rxb6 Nb8 27. c5 d5 28 Rxd5! but Black is two pawns down in a difficult double rook and pawn ending. WCL.)

20 Raf1!! Nf6

(If 20 ... Ng7 [20 ... Rd2+ 21. Kg1] 21. Rxg7+ Kh8 22. Rff7 etc. WCL.)

21 Ne4 ...

(Missing 21. R1xf6! exf6 22. Ne4 with mate unavoidable. WCL.)

21 ... Nc7
22 Nxf6+ exf6
23 Rg7+ Kh8
24 Rxc7 1-0

Game on this page as playable game and pgn  HERE

Now comes the fun. In Letters to the Editor there appeared a cook from Roy DeVault: "In studying the Loveland-Searles game in Kandel's Kommentary, Chess Correspondent (Dec., 1978) page 178, after 17. ... Rd3 18. Rf1, Black played 18 ... Na6? allowing 19 Rf7 and lost quickly. Much better for Black is 18 ... Nf6! After the forcing moves 19. Bg5 Kg7 20. Rae1 Na6 21. Bxf6+ exf6 we reach a key position. Now:

(1) 22. Ne4 f5 23. Ng5 Nc7 24. a3 Rc8
(2) 22. Rf2 Nc7 23. R2e2 f5 24. a3 Re8
(3) 22. e7 Re8 23. Re6 f5

In all three lines the fall of White's e-pawn is just a matter of time.
White is already a pawn down and thus has a lost endgame.

Rebuttal from Kandel's Kommentary:

After 17. ... Rd3 18. Rf1, Roy suggests instead of 18. ... Na6, as played in the game, 18. .. Nf6 leads to a won game for Black. Actually, White wins immediately with 19. Ne4:

(A.) 19. ... Nxe4 20. Rf8 mate.
(B.) 19. ... Na6 20. Nxf6+ exf6 21. Rxf6 Nc7 22. e7 and Black will be mated on f8.
(C.) 19. ... N8d7 20. exd7 Nxe4 21. Rf8+ Rxf8 22. Bxf8 and White will get a new queen.

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Correspondence, 1999
White: Warren Loveland
Black: Anonymous
Queen's Gambit Declined (D39)

1 d4 d5
2 c4 e6
3 Nf3 Nf6
4 Nc3 Bb4
5 Bg5 dxc4

5. ... Nbd7 is prudent. Black has surrendered the central squares to his opponent.

6 e4 ...

White's most forceful move, establishing the classic pawn center d4/e4.

6 ... Be7!?

A good square for the bishop in the QGD but Black could've achieved this position with a move in hand by playing 4. ... Be7 instead. Thematic would be 6. ... c5 7. d5 (7. Bxc4, cxd4) exd5 8. exd5 0-0 9. Bxc4 Re8+ etc., or White can try 7. e5 cxd4 8. Qa4+ Nc6 9. 0-0-0 with complications. Another good alternative was 6. ... h6, putting the question to the bishop.

7 Bxc4 Nbd7
8 Qc2 c6?


Eight moves played and already Black has committed two errors. First, ... Be7 lost a tempo; Black should maintain the pin until White expends a tempo with a3. Second, 8. ... c6 is too passive; it renders d5 unusable for either side but does nothing to disrupt White's dominating pawn center. Marovic indicates 8. ... c5 is absolutely necessary. In terms of development White leads Blacks five pieces to three and is ahead two tempi. I'm sure a Master would consider this a won game, but then he would know what to do next.

9 h3 ...

White is no Bobby Fischer (in my dreams!) and is not quite sure what to do next. The text was played to prevent ... Ng5 and the exchange of dark-square bishops. I reasoned that being ahead with good attacking prospects I should keep my pieces on the board. It is not clear yet whether this bishop will be needed in an attack on the enemy king, or perhaps posted on the h2/b8 diagonal.

9 ... h6
10 Bxf6? ...

Memory lapse, played in too big a hurry. Pachman recommends 10. Bh4.

10 ... Nxf6
11 0-0 0-0
12 a4 ...

Note that Black does not have a piece or even a pawn beyond his third rank. Because White controls the center, Black's only real chance for counterplay lies in a queenside pawn advance. I chose a4 instead of a3 for two reasons: the pawn at a4 deters queenside expansion by Black and, if Black plays ... Bb4, threatening to exchange, I can safely bring the knight to e2, closer to the action. I have devised a plan to maneuver my bishop to b1, threatening mate (Qh7.)

12 ... b6
13 Ba2 Bb7
14 Rad1 Qc7
15 Bb1 Ne8
15 Rfe1 ...

If 16. e5, g6 and the dark-squared Bishop is missed. 16. d5!? looks unnecessarily risky. The text overprotects the center and White does not commit to anything yet, maintaining flexibility.

16 ... c5
17 d5 e5


White needs to open lines of attack and Black naturally strives to keep the position closed. Black has finally gained a share of the center (d4, e5) but his pieces are hardly poised to exploit it.

18 Nb5 Qb8
19 d6 ...

I considered Nxe5. I'm willing to sacrifice if I can get that diagonal open. Now if 19. ... Nxd6 20. Nxe5 unblocking the e-pawn, or if 19. ... Bxd6 20. Nxd6 Nxd6 21. Nxe5 accomplishes the same thing and Black has lost one of his king's protectors.

19 ... Bf6
20 d7 ...

I still can't make Nxe5 work. The text seems good because it removes Black's knight from the kingside and opens up new possibilities for White.

20 ... Nc7
21 Nc3 Rd8
22 Nd5 Nxd5
23 exd5 Qd6

The immediate 23. ... g6!? may be stronger.

24 Nxe5 g6

If 24. ... Bxe5 25. Qh7+ Kf8 26. Qh8+ Ke7 27. Qxg7 Rxd7 28. Rxe5+ Kd8 29. Bf5 and Black is demolished.

25 Nxf7 1-0

If 25. ... Kxf7 (25. ... Qxd7 26 Qxg6+) 26. Qxg6+ Kf8 27 Qxh6+ etc.

I hope this article helps a fellow CCLA'er to gain a better understanding of what chess is all about. I know these games are not perfect chess - I'm trying to reach class B and under players. If I get another idea down the line I'll share it with you.

I urge more members to submit a game or an article for the Chess Correspondent.

Game on this page as playable game and pgn  HERE

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