From our earliest beginnings in chess we learn that the center is the most important part of the board to try to control. To some extent this is self-evident – probably many people don’t even need to read or be taught this, but just understand it for themselves. To explain why it is so important, it is easy to point to a knight on e5 controlling eight squares versus one on h1 controlling two. But it goes beyond this. The center is the heart of the board, and when you control the center, you control the whole board.
The battle for the center can take many forms. In many games, initial pawn tension quickly turns into a blocked, calcified center. Then the battles tend to move to the flanks, although the center never loses its importance – a sudden opening of the central pathways can prove decisive. In other games, one side forms a pawn center, and the other pressures it with pieces.
In this game, my opponent, the Croatian grandmaster Hrvoje Stevic, tries early on to breach the center with pawns. It seems like a simple concept, but you must always remember that pawns cannot move backwards. Thus, when they advance, they permanently weaken the squares behind them. White’s e4-e5 advance left behind squares on d4 and d3 where the black knights ultimately settled. Finally the center opened up, and a fierce battle took place for the crucial squares.
This game gave me a certain feeling - it is hard to explain - of certainty, which I have rarely had in games where I play black. Maybe it was the bishop anchored on f5, along with the knight on d3. Usually when you have black you are fighting against your opponent's space advantage. Or if you yourself manage to take over the initiative, it comes along with some kind of positional weaknesses or commitments. But here somehow my pieces worked together harmoniously, and they controlled the center without any kind of commitments and without leaving behind weaknesses. The only other game that gives me the same sense is one game I played as black in a Gruenfeld with g3 in a tournament in Canada, where also I felt like my pieces just locked down on the right squares and lines. Strange.