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Bobby Fisher once quipped, “you have to give squares, to get squares.” The idea of controlling squares is a very difficult concept for us amateur chess players to come to terms with, especially empty ones. We are constantly reading about how some master player wants to control this square or that one, or how the entire battle is over control of d4 or e4 square. But what the heck does it mean to control a square? Jeremy Silman does a great job of explaining weak squares and outposts in his wonderfully written How To Reassess Your Chess in an awesomely titled chapter called Target Consciousness. This was probably my first exposure to what it means to control a square. Honestly, I think the concept of controlling squares probably deserved it’s own chapter, but heck, the book is 658 pages long, so I suppose Silman had to keep it as a sub-subheading. There is only so much the poor man can do to teach us weak and eager chess students.
I am going to begin by analyzing 3 of my games. Before I begin with that, let me just head-off some of the negative comments, I know are going to come my way. OK? These games are two wins and a draw and they are no way a form of bragging. Frankly, I lose more games than I win (roughly 450 loses at last count). In the first game, I am ahead on material but fall back to a positionally weak game, in the 2nd game I am positionally crushed by a much stronger player and must give up material just to regain some control of the board and in the final game, the material and positional play is even until the very end of the game. I am going to be looking at these games from a “square control” point of view. There are tactics involved in each game and all the games require calculation, but not very deep calculation. Also, none of the games have been checked tactically or proof read by a chess engine. I won’t go too far into variation unless they illustrate a point.
Let’s start with the basics of square control. What does it mean to control a square? Controlling a square means you own it. You can set up shop in it. You can build a hotel on that square and show it to your parents. It means you can walk the streets of that square without fear of getting mugged. You can plop a flag on it and name your first-born child after it. Well, you get the picture. Let’s lay down some quick terms and then look at some concrete examples.
Controlled square: means you can safely occupy a square with a piece or a pawn. Either your piece or pawn can’t be taken or if an exchange or multiple exchanges happen(s), it is in your favor. You may have temporary or permanent control of a square depending on the particulars of your position. The square may be empty or filled. Ironically, it is often the weakest piece or pawn that is the ultimate decider of square control. Often tactics dictate square control. Each player starts the game with control of exactly 24 squares.
Mutually controlled square: neither side can safely occupy a square and both sides exercise some influence over it.
Unclaimed square: neither side exercises control of the square. The games starts with 16 unclaimed squares including the 4 most crucial squares (e4, e5, d4 and d5). The reason why these square are so important is because they represent the superhighway of the chessboard. If you control these 4 squares, you control the game because your pieces can move freely from one side of the board to the other. Your pieces have greater mobility. Greater mobilty allows you gain favorable imbalances.
Take a look at this position from the Sicilian Dragon versus the Yugoslav Attack (white has just moved Bb3 to get out of the way of the black rook on c8 which is about to be freed with 11……Ne5). Who owns the d5 square? The answer is (in this position) white owns the d5 square. The pawn on e4 guards the d5 square, preventing a piece from entering the square and if black moves 11…..d5, black loses a pawn with no immediate compensation for it. 11…..d5, 12 Nxd5 Nxd5, 13 exd5. Note that you must calculate to understand who controls a square. In the previous sequence, 12…..Nxd5, the black bishop on g7 was freed so you must calculate and envision what the bishop can do. Does it uncover a winning tactic? Let’s see: the bishop can take the Knight on d4, but that Knight is protected by 3 white pieces so there is no winning tactic. If there was a winning tactic for black, then white would not control the d5 square!
Control of the d5 square and prevention of black d5 advance is one of the primary drivers behind whites 9th move Bc4 in this line. I think most 1500 players think Bc4 is played solely because it aims directly at the black king and sets up tactics against f7 and in some cases f7 is a target (especially in amateur play). In some lines of the Yugoslav attack, the bishop stays at home on f1 to gain more time for a kingside attack and a good response to that line is the d5 move, answering a flank (or wing) attack with an attack in the center.
Again, looking at the diagram, f6 is a square that is mutually controlled. Each side has a pawn and a minor piece aimed at the square. H4 is an example of an unclaimed square, although after 11…..Ne5, 12. h4, white claims that square too! Note how few unclaimed squares there are on the board after 12 moves! Only 1. There’s lonely a1, but there’s no action happening right now and Kb1 nips that in the butt. This brings up a very valid point that Silman stresses over and over in HTRYC. Don’t take over squares just because they are there for the taking. The squares you control must be relevant to the position. If you take over a square but in the end, the square doesn’t affect the game, then you must ask yourself, why are you gaining control of it? In the final game, I have a choice to move my bishop to g6 which would allow me to control the h7-b1 diagonal or retreat it to b7. I would have owned the h7-b1 diagonal but in the position, that diagonal didn’t mean squat. The a8-h1 diagonal was where the action was so I retreated it to b7.
Let's look at another example where tactics dictate who has square control.
Here’s another move order from the Dragon/Yugoslav attack, where black has moved 6….Ng4 in the hopes of killing off white’s dark squared bishop so that his bishop can live on g7 but the tactics dictate that black does not control g4. He moved into a mutually controlled square and suffered the consequences. At best g4 is a de-miltarized zone.
One more diagram on tactics where the square control is more of a stalemate (at least temporarily).
White owns D8 because if black takes on D8 with 1.... Rxd8, the pawn takes back and promotes. But black owns c8 because the bishop controls that square so the pawn can't promote. 1 c8 Bxc8 2. Rxc8 Rxc8 and white is down material.
OK, enough chit-chat. Let’s look at some games, yo!
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