Everyone has heard the saying “an attack on the wing should be met by a counter in the center”. Or, if you haven’t – now you have. But what does a central counterattack look like, and why is it so strong?
Every attack uses up some kind of energy, whether it involves moving pieces away to where the attack is taking place, or pushing pawns and possibly creating weaknesses during the course of a pawn storm. To be able to carry out a successful attack, you have to have some kind of advantage in your position, to be able to take such liberties. If not, then the opponent can hit back, and the best place to hit back is in that tinderbox of the chess board, the center.
The main effect of a central counterblow against a wing attack is that it shifts the battlefield. Often, the counterattack in the center involves a move which would normally be undesirable for the side making the counterattack. For example, in the typical Scheveningen structure, …d6-d5 is a crucial counterblow. However, if it can be safely met by e4-e5, it often just leads to a sad French defense position. Now, after g2-g4 by White, it’s another matter…
When one side carries out a piece attack on the far wing, centralization of the defender’s pieces can carry more “weight” than even the scariest threats to the king. Here is an old game of mine that took place in the last round. I was a half point behind, and thus needed to win. I had a nasty cold and I remember generally having very little confidence in my chances. But I surprised myself, and by winning also won the tournament.
Note the serious problems the Black experienced as a result of his rook lift – not only did the rook not defend the back rank, but also it prohibited him from making a comfortable luft by playing …h6. This is a common scenario, showing the double-edged nature of rook lifts.
When carrying out potentially weakening operations on a wing, one needs to have either very strong threats there, or the center closed or under control. But even an apparently closed center can be torn open:
Burn is mostly known as the guy who couldn’t light his pipe fast enough to avoid defeat by Frank Marshall, but clearly he could play some chess too!
The “center counterattack against an attack on the wing” advice is so well-known that it is almost a cliché. Just as with any chess principle, it has its exceptions. Deciding what move to make in chess does not involve only applying principles, but also calculation and concrete considerations. To decide on a move, you need to first find candidate moves, using your intuition and the general principles of strategy. Then you calculate those candidate moves.
Among good players, the “principles” of chess strategy are usually internalized. During a game I don’t have such thoughts as “he is attacking me on the kingside, I should counterattack in the center”. Rather, I just feel a desire to counterattack in the center, without necessarily being able to explain why. Maybe other masters think differently, you would have to ask them.
Anyway, the principle of counterattacking in the center, while an important principle (after all, the center is the most important part of the board), is by no means always true. There are many instances where central counterattacks have failed. For example:
In this game, Najdorf lost because his central counterattack was simply not effective enough. It was a combination of the fact that White’s threats on the kingside were too strong, and that the white targets in the center were not worth enough.
While just as no chess principles operate 100% of the time, it is nevertheless important to be aware of them. You would be surprised how effective a central pawn break can be against even the scariest-looking pawn storm.