The Pawn Center: Strength or Weakness?

The Pawn Center: Strength or Weakness?

| 16 | Amazing Games

NachtWulf (1587) – Tnhayseed (1616), [C02] 2012 (TC: 1 in 3 days)

1.e4 e6

Nachtwulf said: “French. I play it as black, but rarely get the chance to practice against it as white.


Obviously best, but those that wish to avoid main lines sometimes try things like the KID (King’s Indian Attack – 1.e4 e6 2.d3 d5 3.Nd2 followed by Ngf3, g3, Bg2, etc.), or the old Chigorin line (1.e4 e6 2.Qe2 when 2…d5 is a mistake since 3.exd5 shows the point of 2.Qe2, namely that black’s e-pawn is now pinned to its King!).

2…d5 3.e5

The Advance Variation. Most common are 3.Nc3 and 3.Nd2, though some players who don’t want to touch all that complex theory play the Exchange Variation by 3.exd5 exd5 when 4.c4 spices it up.


This thematic move is the main line, but strong players also try other moves from time to time: 3…b6, 3…Nge7, 3…Bd7 and even 3…Qd7 lead to very different kinds of play. 

My personal favorite deviation is 3…Bd7 4.Nf3 a6!? intending …Bb5, exchanging black’s bad light-squared Bishop for its far stronger white counterpart. One idea is that 5.a4 (stopping black’s idea) allows 5…c5, when Black enters normal waters again with the difference that …a7-a6 can easily prove useful, while white’s a2-a4 will often lead to a hole on b4. Also important is that 5.Nc3 c5 again returns to normal black plans, when white’s Knight is misplaced on c3 (the center-bolstering c2-c3 is no longer possible).

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bd7 4.Nf3 a6 5.Bg5 (White scores well with this, but is it really that terrifying? Another sharp try is 5.c4 when the game A. Cherniaev (2500) – C. Bauer (2590), Biel 2004 continued 5…dxc4 6.Bxc4 Bc6 7.Be3 Nd7 8.Nc3 Nb6 9.Bb3 Ne7 10.0-0 h6 11.Qe2 Qd7 12.Rfd1 Ned5 13.Bd2 0-0-0 14.a4 Kb8 15.a5 Nc8 16.Na4 Na7 17.Ne1 Bb5 18.Qf3 f5 19.Nd3 g5 20.Ndc5 Qe8 21.Bc2 Nc6 22.Be1 Nf4 23.Kh1 Bf1 24.Qb3 Bxg2+ 25.Kg1 Bxc5 26.Nxc5 Nxd4 27.Nxa6+ Kc8 28.Rxd4 Rxd4 29.Nb4 Qb5 30.Bc3 Bf3 31.h3 Nxh3+ 32.Kh2 Qxe5+, 0-1; After something like 5.c3 Bb5 6.Bxb5+ axb5 7.0-0 Black can try 7…Nd7 8.Qd3 c6 with a very solid position.) 5…Ne7 6.Bd3 (6.Nc3 c5 7.Bd3 [7.dxc5 Qa5 8.a3 Qxc5 9.Bd3 Ng6 10.0-0 Qc7 11.Re1 Nc6 12.Qe2 Bc5 13.Rad1 0-0 14.h4 h6 15.Bc1 Nd4 16.Nxd4 Bxd4 17.Bxg6 Bxc3 18.bxc3 fxg6 19.Qg4 Kh7 20.Re3 Rf5 21.Rg3 Be8 22.h5 gxh5 23.Qb4 Bg6 24.Be3 Rf7 25.Bd4 Bxc2, 0-1, R. Borngaesser (2350) – M. Basman (2410), Birmingham 1972] 7…cxd4 8.Nxd4 Qb6 9.Nb3 Nbc6 10.Qe2 Ng6 11.0-0-0 d4 12.Bxg6 hxg6 13.Ne4, 1/2-1/2, L. Kavalek – J. Benjamin, U.S. Ch. 1985) 6…Bb5 7.Nc3 Bxd3 8.Qxd3 Nd7 9.Ne2 c5 10.c3 Qb6 11.0-0 Nc6 12.a3 h6 13.Bh4 g6 14.b4 cxd4 15.cxd4 Bg7 16.Rac1 0-0 17.Rc2 Qa7 18.Rfc1 Rac8 19.Rc3 Rfe8 20.R3c2 Qb8 21.Nd2 g5 22.Bg3 Ne7 23.h4 Nf5 24.Nf3 g4 25.Nh2 h5 26.Nf4 Bh6 27.Rxc8 Rxc8 28.Rxc8+ Qxc8 29.Nxh5 Qc1+ 30.Nf1 Qc4 31.Qd1 Qxd4 32.Qa4 Nf8 33.Nf6+ Kg7 34.Qe8 b5 35.Nh5+ Kg8 36.Nf6+ Kg7 37.Nh5+ Kg6 38.Nf6 Qa1 39.Nxg4 Nxg3 40.Nxh6 Qxf1+ 41.Kh2 Qxf2 42.Qe7 Nf1+ 43.Kh1 Kxh6 44.Qxf8+ Kh7, 0-1, S. Prathamesh (2382) – D. Sengupta (2488) [C02], Mumbai 2009.


In my youth, I absolutely loved to play the Nimzovichian 4.Nf3 Nc6 5.Bd3 cxd4 6.0-0 followed by the overprotection moves Re1, Bf4 when black’s d4-pawn is actually blocking his own pieces (White can eventually round it up with Nb1-d2-b3xd4). Sadly, the immediate 6…f6 took the fun out of the line.


Another interesting choice is the Wade Variation: 4…Qb6 5.Nf3 Bd7 intending …Bb5. 

5.Nf3 Qb6

5…Bd7 is black’s main alternative.


The classic way to play the Advance Variation is 6.Be2, while 6.Bd3 blocks the white Queen’s contact with his d4-pawn and after 6…Bd7 Black already threatens to eat it. This forces White to either lose a tempo by moving the Bishop again, or sacrifice the pawn with 7.0-0 cxd4 8.cxd4 Nxd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 10.Nc3, which is the famous Milner-Barry Gambit.

The extremely popular 6.a3 intends to annex queenside space with b2-b4.


Nachtwulf said: “End of the book lines I know. I figured that a5 was a blunder, since it seems quite early for pawn rushing, especially on the queen side; black has yet to complete development.

Black has several ways to meet 6.a3. Aside from 6…a5, he also plays 6…f6, 6…Nh6, 6…c4, and 6…Bd7.


Nachtwulf said: “I noticed that in most French games, the light bishop likes to be on d3, since it controls several squares on the diagonal. The only times it doesn’t are when it gets in the way of white’s queen defending d4; in this case, d4 is defended by the possibility of a revealed bishop check.

7...Bd7 8.Bc2

Nachtwulf said: “Now that the check can no longer be played, the bishop must move again. Coincidentally, it defends against an a-pawn advance, which would lock down my b-pawn.

White’s main move, but I prefer 7.Bd3 Bd7 8.0-0! entering a Milner-Barry on steroids since the inclusion of a2-a3 and …a7-a5 favors White – the a3-pawn will deprive black’s pieces of the b4-square while black’s …a7-a5 has weakened b5. 

1.e4 c5 2.c3 e6 3.d4 d5 4.e5 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.a3 a5 7.Bd3 Bd7 8.0-0 cxd4 9.cxd4 Nxd4 10.Nxd4 Qxd4 11.Nc3 Qb6 12.Qg4 h5 (Anand played 12…g6 against Shirov, while Sveshnikov prefers 12…Ne7) 13.Qf4 a4 14.Be3 Bc5 15.Rac1 Bxe3 16.fxe3 Nh6 17.Kh1 Bc6 18.Qg5 Kd7 19.e4! d4 20.Nd5!! Qd8 (20…exd5 21.e6+!! gives White a winning attack: 21…Kc7 [21…fxe6 22.Qxg7+ wins the house since 22…Kd6 allows 23.e5 mate; 21…Kxe6 22.exd5+ Bxd5 23.Rfe1+ Kd6 24.Qe5+ Kd7 25.Qe7 mate; 21…Kd6 22.exd5 Bxd5 23.Qf4+ Ke7 [[23…Kxe6 24.Rc7]] 24.Rc7+ Kd8 25.Rd7+ Ke8 26.Rxd5 with a devastating attack.] 22.Qg3+ Kc8 23.exd5 fxe6 24.dxc6 bxc6 25.Qxg7 Re8 26.Qxh6, 1-0 since White is now a piece ahead.) 21.Qxg7 exd5 22.exd5 Bxd5 23.e6+! (White’s point. Black’s now dead meat.) 23…Bxe6 (I was young and inexperienced at that time, and instead of looking for the best way of killing my IM opponent, I began patting myself on the back since I was a lock to win the brilliancy prize for that particular round. As a result of my lack of technique and lack of common sense, I tossed away a game that nowadays even Kasparov wouldn’t be able to save!) 24.Bb5+?? (It doesn’t take a genius to see 24.Qxd4+ Ke7 [24…Ke8 25.Qxh8+] 25.Qb4+ Qd6 [25…Ke8 26.Bb5+] 26.Rc7+, 1-0) 24…Ke7 25.Qf6+ Kf8 26.Qxh8+ Ng8 27.Bd3?? (27.Rce1 Qg5 28.Rxe6 Qxb5 29.Ref6, 1-0) 27…Qg5 28.Qxd4 Rd8 29.Qb4+ and though I was still winning “easily,” I eventually botched the game and allowed a draw. Silman – Z. Vranesic (2430) [C02], Lone Pine 1975. 37 years later, and I still haven’t recovered from the horror!


Nachtwulf said: “Black plans to fianchetto. To me, this seemed laughable at first (due to the long chain of pawns on the a1-h8 diagonal), but to my dismay, I later discovered that this would assist in a pawn break.” 

A new move! Black has tried 8…Nh6, 8…cxd4, 8…Nge7, 8…f6, 8…Rac8, 8…Qa6, 8…h5, 8…f5, 8…a4, 8…Be7, 8…c4, 8…h6, 8…Qb5, and even 8…Na7 (please keep in mind that many of these moves were tossed out by very low rated players), but nobody of any rating had considered 8…g6 – until now!

Here’s an absolutely thrilling example of correct play by Black:

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.a3 a5 7.Bd3 Bd7 8.Bc2 Nh6 9.0-0 cxd4 10.cxd4 Nf5 11.Bxf5 exf5 12.Nc3 Be6 13.Na4 Qb5 14.Nc3 Qb6 15.Na4 Qb5 16.Nc3 Qb6 17.Qa4 Be7, 1/2-1/2, B. Heberla (2510) – V. Korchnoi (2602), Banja Luka 2008.


The most natural move in the world. However, the immediate 9.dxc5 might have been a tad more accurate: 9…Qxc5 (better is 9…Bxc5, though then one is left wondering why Black bothered to play …g6) 10.Be3 Qe7 (Or 10…Qb5 11.b3 a4 though white’s better after 12.b4) 11.c4 with a nice initiative. 



Nachtwulf said: “The idea of this pawn move was to create a powerful knight outpost. b5 and d6 look like nice places to put the knight. In fact, a knight on b5 would free my dark bishop from guarding b2.

Unfortunately, you’re giving Black a square too. After 10…cxd4 (now or later) 11.cxd4 Black will suddenly have access to b4. You should have played 10.dxc5 (10.Re1!?) 10…Qxc5 11.Bf4 followed by Re1 (overprotecting e5 – that way if Black ever plays …f7-f6 White can chop and gain access to the e5-square, while also instantly getting pressure against the backward e6-pawn) and Nbd2 with the superior position.

Note that instead of going after the b5-square, White needed to anticipate black’s desire to break with an eventual …f7-f6 and prepare for it by overprotecting e5 and also (by chopping on c5) grabbing the d4-square for his b1-Knight (Nb1-d2-b3-d4).

The lesson here is simple: the center is more important than the wing!


He should have played 10…cxd4 11.cxd4 when black’s pieces have access to the b4-square.


White’s a bit better after 11.dxc5 Qc7 12.Be3 Nxe5 13.Nxe5 Bxe5 14.f4 Bg7 15.Na3 0-0 16.Nb5. 


Once again, Black had to try 11…cxd4 with a more or less equal position.


12.dxc5! would have left Black in serious trouble: 12…Qc7 (12…Qxc5? 13.Be3 and Black has to jettison a pawn by 13…d4 14.cxd4; 12…Qd8 13.Re1) 13.Nb5 Qb8 14.Bg5! Nc8 15.c4! Nxe5 16.cxd5 Nxf3+ 17.Qxf3 Qe5 18.Bf4 Qxb2 (18…Qxd5 19.Be4) 19.Bb3 with a clear advantage for White.


Nachtwulf said: “This is when I began to panic a bit. My pawn chain would inevitably crumble, and I couldn’t come up with any way of saving it - a sign of the black side of the French having winning chances.

At the risk of repeating myself, Black had to play 12…cxd4 13.Re1! f6 when Black’s fine. Note that 13…dxc3?! 14.bxc3 gives White serious compensation since moves like Rb1 and Ba3 will prove unpleasant.

It’s funny, but 12…f6 was a bad move, but in one sense it was also a winning move! Why? Because you got so bent out of shape by it that you psychologically never recovered.


Nachtwulf said: “I tried to force an exchange to generate play, since 13…Qxc5 14.Be3 would win a tempo.


Nachtwulf said: “I was surprised by this queen maneuver. I forgot to consider it in my calculations. 13...Qxc5 14.Be3 when Black’s queen would then have to tread very carefully, having limited squares to which she can go.


Nachtwulf said: “This pawn capture was forced more or less.” 

14...Bxf6 15.Nfd4?? 

Nachtwulf said: “I beckoned for an exchange on d4, without much of a plan. The only idea I had in mind was to simplify since I was ahead in material.

A very bad move that takes the pressure off the key e5-square. Instead, you needed to intensify the central battle by 15.Re1!, hitting e5 and e6: 15…e5? (Black’s in bad shape no matter what he does) 16.Bb3! and black’s dead lost since 16…Be6 is met by 17.Ng5 and 16…Bg4 by 17.Nd6. If 15…Bg7 (White threatened Bf4) then 16.Ng5 Rf6 (16…e5 17.Bb3) 17.f4 with a strategically won game for White.


Nachtwulf said: “Whoops. I realized that exchanging knights would only cause my terrific knight to lose its spot. Perhaps Nd6 was a reasonable possibility. Nevertheless, I cracked under the pressure of seeing two connected pawns march down the central files.

Actually, 15…Nxd4 might have been black’s best move! After 16.cxd4 b6 17.Bh6 bxc5 18.Bxf8 (18.dxc5! is probably better) 18…Qxf8 19.dxc5 Nc6 black’s still very much in the game since white’s pawns on b2 and c5 are both hanging, Black has the two Bishops (his dark-squared Bishop is particularly potent since White doesn’t have a Bishop to challenge it), and Black has that nice pawn center. 


Stronger is 16.Nb3 Bg7 (White threatened Bh6 since a Rook move to e8 or f7 runs into Nd6) 17.Bg5 Be6 (17…h6 18.Be3) 18.Qd2 and black’s under tremendous pressure.


Nachtwulf said: “The situation was getting worse. The knight would be a tactical liability if I couldn’t unpin the queen. Perhaps an h3 kick would be reasonable, but the rook looks quite fearsome staring down the semi-open f-file, with ideas of nasty revealed attacks if I attempted to preserve the pawn structure around my king.

You’re right, the situation is indeed getting worse… for Black! 16…e4!? might have been black’s best choice since the position after 17.Nfd4 Nxd4 18.cxd4 Nf5 isn’t altogether clear: 19.Bb3 Bc6 20.Be3 Qd7 21.Qd2 Rf7 and black’s kingside buildup gives him some compensation for the pawn deficit.


Nachtwulf said: “I was out of ideas, and went with what looked like a strong knight move.” 

Sounds like an idea to me, though the immediate 17.h3 was much stronger.


Black needed to rupture your King position by 17…e4 18.h3 Bxf3 19.gxf3 exf3. White’s probably winning after 17…Qd7.


Nachtwulf said: “Here I kicked the bishop, not seeing much other play. Black’s control of the center is quite a bother.

His center was a bother because you feared it and considered it a bother. But the center is also a target, and if you viewed it as that, your mindset would have been far more positive. I suspect you never noticed the key idea of Bc2-b3.

Ponder this: In chess, both sides will be trying as hard as possible to create their own stuff and then show that it trumps their opponent’s stuff. In this game, Black told you he wanted a pawn center and you melted. However, instead of doing a lump of melting ice-cream on a hot day imitation, you should have said, “Okay, he has a mobile pawn center, what do I have?” The answer is clear: You have an extra pawn and a monster Knight on d6. On top of that, you should stop worshipping black’s center and instead laugh at it. See it as a target, not as an unstoppable juggernaut. In that case, you would then have a material plus, a killer Knight, and juicy targets on d5 and e5. Thus, your comment that you didn’t see much play for yourself is way, way off the mark.

18...Bxf3 19.Qxf3 

Nachtwulf said: “The bishop is gone, but the queen is now staring a rook in the face.” 

So what? As your army’s general, it’s up to you to make sure that the face-to-face between his Rook and your Queen never amounts to anything. As it turns out, there’s nothing to it at all.

Unfortunately, the real reason you lost is showing its face: once Black got his center pawns  moving, you started to fear and react to them. That fear grew, and soon everything (like his Rook being opposite your Queen) took on a sense of menace. Instead of looking at the many positives in your position, you immersed yourself in black’s stuff (most of it imagined). 


Nachtwulf said: “Perhaps this was a blunder since it released a little control of the center, but the pawns are well defended.

This is indeed a blunder, though Black had a bad game anyway.


Nachtwulf said: “I was considering a kingside attack by advancing my h-pawn. In the mean time, my f-pawn would take care of black’s e-pawn.

A kingside attack for White? No, the correct idea is still all about black’s center: label his center pawns as targets and smash them! Best is 20.Qd1! which is extremely strong. The immediate threat is 21.Nxe4 (thanks to the pin on the d-file), and 20…Ne5 (defending the black Queen) falls to 21.Bb3. Since 20…Qe6 loses to 21.Nxe4! dxe4 22.Bb3. Finally, 20…Rad8 21.Bb3 Qe6 loses to both 22.Nxb7 and 22.Re1. Verdict: 20.Qd1 wipes black’s center off the board and wins by force. So much for black’s center pawns being “well defended.”


Nachtwulf said: “Black’s pieces are much better coordinated, and I drop my extra pawn. Whoops.


Why do you drop your extra pawn? And why do you think you need to retain the Queens? And finally, even if you do drop the extra pawn, why not try and end up with something nice while Black is taking it? Your 21.Qg5 doesn’t give you anything new. As usual, you should be going after his center. White has two productive ways to handle the position after 20…Be5:

21.Qe3 Bxd6 22.cxd6 Qxd6 23.Rd1 and White has the new advantage of two Bishops vs. two Knights. But you stopped looking for favorable new imbalances long ago and instead embraced an “I’m doomed” mentality, which made it impossible to see beyond your fever dream. Once again, if you say, “I’m doomed”, you’ll play like your doomed. After 23.Rd1 play might continue: 23…Qe5 24.Bb3 Kg7 25.Qc5 Qf5 26.Be3 and aside from White’s two nice Bishops, black’s center pawns are targets that White will go after by Rd2 followed by Rad1.

21.Qg4! Qxg4 (21…Rad8 22.Bh6; 21…Rfd8 22.Nb5 and your extra pawn hasn’t gone anywhere) 22.hxg4 b6! 23.Be3 Rab8 24.f4! exf3 25.Nb5 Bf4 26.Bf2 fxg2 27.Kxg2 bxc5 28.Bxc5 Bg5 29.Bb3 and though Black did get his pawn back, White has two powerful Bishops and serious pressure against d5. Black’s in trouble.


Nachtwulf said: “Black tries to destroy the beautiful knight perch.


White can retain some advantage by 22.Rd1 Qe6 (22…bxc5 23.Nxe4) 23.c4, continuing to tear down black’s center.


Nachtwulf said: “An extremely strange move choice, considering that black could win back the pawn. I happily exchange my tactical liability.

Strange indeed. He should have chopped by 22…bxc5. 


Why take on f5 and allow him to kick your Queen all over the place with gain of time? I’ll repeat the mantra one more time: Instead of reacting, create your own play. And here that play is always about shredding his center. Thus: 23.Rad1 (No groveling allowed! This hits d5 and threatens Nxe4.) 23…Nxe3 24.Qxe3 Bf4 25.Qe2 bxc5 26.Nxe4 Qe6 (26…c4? 27.Qxc4!) 27.Qb5 Rfb8 28.Nxc5 Rxb5 29.Nxe6 Rxb2 30.Nxf4 Rxc2 31.Nxd5 and White is two pawns up.


Nachtwulf said: “...then realize that my queen is somewhat in trouble.” 


Nachtwulf said: “I don’t know what I was thinking, but my queen drops.”

White would still have a good game with 24.Qg4.

24...Rh5 25.Qxh5 gxh5 26.cxb6 Rf8 27.Bc5 Bd6 28.b4 axb4 29.cxb4 Nxb4 30.Bxd6 Qxd6 31.Bb3 Qxb6 32.Rfb1 Qxf2+ 33.Kh2 Kg7 34.Rf1 Qxf1 35.Rxf1 Rxf1 36.Kg3 e3 37.a5 e2 38.Bxd5 e1=Q+ 39.Kh2 Rh1 mate.

~ Lessons From This Game ~

* The center is more important than the wing!

* If you have a negative attitude, your moves will reflect it.

* An indestructible pawn center is a fearsome thing, so when the opponent has a strong pawn center, it’s your responsibility to turn it into a target. If you can’t smash the enemy pawn center, then the pawn center will smash you.

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