Space and the Attack

Space and the Attack

| 26 | Middlegame

What is “space” on a chess board? And why is it so important?

A simple answer to the first question is that space is “control of squares”. So a player with a “space advantage” is one who controls a greater number of squares. This could even be due to a material advantage. After all, if you have more pieces you control more squares. Eugene Znosko-Borovsky, in his famous The Middle Game in Chess, defines material as an element separate from space. But I think it makes more sense to include material within the concept of "space". This also makes more comprehensible situations where the arbitrary material value system does not work. For example, in the typical early middlegame position, three minor pieces will demolish a queen. On the other hand, there are plenty of positions – usually later in the game and with a more open board – where the queen is stronger. This is because in the first instance, where the queen is relatively inactive, the minor pieces control more squares (and will for a long time), thus giving that side the “space advantage”. Thus the idea of "material” is more complicated than just adding up points. It involves feeling how many important squares the respective armies do or will control.

You might also have a space advantage if you have an active bishop against a passive knight on an open board – or the reverse, a strong knight against a bad bishop hemmed in by its own pawns. And of course there is the traditional concept of space - that your pawn structure is far advanced, thus cramping your opponent’s pieces.

Now, why is space important? At first it seems obvious. If one side controls more of the board, the other side’s pieces are cramped and trip over each other. It follows that the side with a space advantage should avoid exchanges. This is the traditional view. However, the modern view is a little different. There are naturally still situations where you want to avoid trading pieces, just as you always avoid trading your opponent’s superfluous or bad pieces. But the modern concept of space is that it has a value of its own, beyond the mere cramping of the opponent’s pieces. Often modern grandmasters actually exchange pieces to emphasize a space advantage, by removing the defender’s most active sources of counterplay. One example of how a space advantage can have a value of its own is the following:


Clearly Black’s “pieces” are not feeling cramped. Yet White’s space advantage is decisive. As you probably know, he wins by 1.g6 fxg6 2.h6!, leading to a new queen (or 1…hxg6 2.f6!). In this case, White’s space advantage meant that his pawns were more dangerous than Black’s. Here is another example:


You could hardly say that black’s two rooks and king do not have enough room to move around. Nevertheless, it is clear that it was Black's lack of space which did him in. Simply, as White's control of the board increased, so did his own possibilities, while Black's decreased. It is clear that spatial control has an importance beyond the mere cramping of the opponent’s pieces. After all, it is the control of the squares around the opponent’s king which results in checkmate!

Now let’s move on to the main game. This is my game against GM Alexander Zubarev from a tournament in Rethymno (on the island of Crete) in 2009.

In this game I actually sacrificed a pawn in the opening (“space”) but in return gained the open g-file (also “space”!). In addition, the time gained allowed me to take over space in the center, which eventually led to a sharp attack against the king.

What kind of game do you think this was – positional or tactical? It had a crazy opening and there were some sacrifices, so you might be inclined to say it was a tactical battle. But I would say it was a more positional game. Most of the time White was trying to exploit the weak squares around the black queenside, to increase the space control there. The game morphed from a traditional space advantage (White occupies four ranks, Black only three) into a less traditional concept of space control, where the kingside has basically disappeared and become irrelevant, and yet that is where the Black pieces were languishing. The game did not hinge so much on some sharp variations (there were not many long variations, and if I have shown some above, they were easily assessed intuitively during the game without calculating). So this is why I see this game as more of a positional game than tactical.

For more material about the nature of Space in chess, you could watch these videos.

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