Mastering Squares, Part 1

Mastering Squares, Part 1

IM Silman
46 | Strategy

When I have lessons with students, we usually go over their games.

Invariably, the student comes to me thinking that the errors in the game are based on blunders, missed tactics, a bad opening, or some form of positional atrocity. Of course, these kinds of things are ubiquitous in amateur chess, but quite often I find that the most important mistakes are subtle, and almost always strategic in nature.

The following game is a case in point, and I was delighted to go over it since I feel it’s extremely instructive.

Chris Keefe (1862)-Edward Collins (1813), [B12] 2014

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.f3

This line is quite dangerous. In fact, there is a new book from New in Chess on this one line: The Extreme Caro-Kann, Attacking Black With 3.f3 by Alexey Bezgodov.

3...dxe4 4.fxe4 Nf6?!

A dubious move. The whole point of 3...dxe4 is to meet 4.fxe4 with 4...e5 5.Nf3 and now both 5...Be6 and 5...Bg4 are critical, with very sharp play.


Black pretty much admitted that he had no idea how to play this position, but White, facing something new, replied in a non-critical manner.


If you know the opening you’re playing and someone tosses out a move that you’ve never seen before, do your best to punish it in some way. That doesn’t mean the move loses, but it does mean you should try and milk its weaknesses as much as possible.

Before discussing the correct way to deal with Black’s 4...Nf6, let’s take a quick look at the Four Pawns Attack in the Alekhine’s Defense:

Now let’s leap back into our Caro-Kann game. The best way to punish Black’s 4...Nf6 is 5.e5 Nd5 6.c4 Nb6 7.Nc3 when you transpose into that bad Alekhine Defense with the terrible 6...c6.

Anyway, back to our game!

Puzzle 1:

Since White played 9.Bd3, moving the bishop again (to c4) is a loud acceptance that he screwed up. And with that acceptance, he loses all confidence in his position while the opponent becomes empowered.

Puzzle 2:

Back to the real game! 

However, pay special attention here, since we are about to see the game’s driving concept -- an all-important strategic idea that neither side fully embraced.

Puzzle 3:

And, once again we return to the actual game.

Puzzle 4:

Here's the rest of the game:


  • If you know the opening you’re playing and someone tosses out a move that you’ve never seen before, do your best to punish it in some way. Perhaps the opponent’s move is good, perhaps not. But if you don’t look for some kind of smackdown (be it small or big), you won’t find it.

  • The pawn structure is your friend, so listen to it! In this game the structure told us that the e5/f4 dark-squared complex was the make-or-break strategic imbalance for both sides. If you want to become a good player, train yourself to notice things like that, and then to make the most of them.

  • The misguided people who think chess is “tactics, tactics, and more tactics” are badly misinformed. Chess is a beautiful mix of tactics and strategy. If you have no positional skills, you will find that you are on a fast track to nowhere.

  • Making the most of that dark-squared complex means that both sides will do just about anything to win those two squares! If you will get them by dancing and singing, do it! If sacrificing a pawn gets the job done, sac it!


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