The Pawn Center Controversy

The Pawn Center Controversy

| 22 | Strategy

There are basic rules of chess strategy that we learn as soon as we start playing chess. One of the most fundamental premises is the importance of the center. We quickly learn that one of the major goals of positional chess is control over the center. The dream of the majority of openings is the so-called "perfect pawn center."

Many chess textbooks from my youth used the following famous game as an example of benefits of the perfect pawn center.

Indeed, the final position is quite picturesque.

After seeing a remarkable game like this, a young chess player might easily perceive a strong link between the "perfect pawn center" and beautiful attacking play.

I don't remember any chess books that followed the aforementioned gem with this relatively little-known Morphy game.

As you can see, we have the same opening and the same "perfect pawn center," but the result is totally different! So, what's going on? Well, we already touched on a similar subject in this article.

As GM John Nunn correctly explained in his book "Understanding Chess Move By Move": "A pawn center well supported by pieces is desirable, whereas one that is overextended and vulnerable is not. The dividing line between these two cases is often quite fine, and may depend on tactical nuances specific to the given position." The emphasis is mine.

John Nunn at Hoogovens in 1982 | Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

We can argue that in Morphy's game the lack of development of Black's pieces was striking; hence the result. However, what about the next two games where White's pieces were fully developed, yet once again the results were totally opposite.

The main takeaway here is that the "perfect pawn center," just like many other positional concepts (isolated pawn, doubled pawns, etc.), cannot be evaluated superficially. It is only one of many factors that affect a chess position. So, while in the majority of cases the "perfect pawn center" is a great thing to have, you shouldn't think that it means an automatic win.

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