This article will address the concept of open files and ways of exploiting them to one’s advantage.
Open files are files free of pawns. They serve as important routes for heavy pieces, especially for rooks that can burst into the enemy’s camp via them. In open positions both partners may control open files, thus minimizing the benefits of doing so. In semi-open or closed positions, where quite often only one open file is available, controlling it may lead to a serious advantage.
Capturing an open file is one of the ways of obtaining an advantage. So, how can open files be exploited? Here’s the answer:
- Burst into the opponent’s camp and, for example, double heavy pieces on the 7th or 8th ranks (2nd and 1st for Black), where they will become especially efficient and formidable.
- Limiting the mobility of the opponent’s heavy pieces and attacking on one of the flanks. In such situations it is hard to defend successfully since your opponent’s pieces will be paralyzed by guarding key squares in his/her camp.
- Attack the opponent’s king (if the open file allows it). For instance, in the Dragon variation Black often faces serious problems along the h-file (remember Fischer’s “h4-h5-sac-sac-mate”?).
The fewer pieces there are on the board, the more benefits controlling open files offers. This is connected with the fact that it is hard to control key squares in such a case. However, one shouldn’t be religious about capturing lines whenever possible. In certain situations it makes sense to give up a file in order to obtain a decisive advantage on one of the flanks, e.g. when attacking the opponent’s king in a position where open files can’t be exploited for this purpose. In other words, controlling an open file doesn’t automatically guarantee an advantage.
Some of the ways of capturing an open file are:
- Doubling (tripling) heavy pieces (while the opponent can’t act likewise) and gain control over the file. The queen is usually placed behind rooks, so as not to get attacked by the opponent’s rooks (Alekhine’s gun).
- Attacking an opponent’s heavy pieces with a light piece (pawn, knight, bishop), making him/her remove the rook or queen from the open file.
Summing it all up, we should note that heavy pieces, especially rooks, need open files to do their best. In some cases capturing open files leads to a serious advantage, in other cases the benefits are illusionary. Nonetheless, it is a serious positional threat that should never be neglected.
The following game was played against IM Marina Romanko at the Women’s European Championship-2011. I had to win game after game to qualify for the WC, but here I missed a few decent chances to succeed.
My opponent doesn’t have much experience in the Caro-Cann, so I decided to try to confuse her by choosing a rare line with Bd2. After missing drawing options, she made a mistake - 14… Nf6, but I failed to capitalize on it. Later I overlooked a way to obtain a nice position after 23.Qc3 and 24. Qa5. The endgame was about equal, but my carelessness (allowing a5) left Black with no problems whatsoever, and the game was quickly drawn.