The Power of Positional Chess, Part 5

The Power of Positional Chess, Part 5

IM Silman
Jul 30, 2013, 12:00 AM |
22 | Strategy


When the center is closed, both sides need to gain space on the wings. One gains space by advancing pawns, which acts as a sort of fence that lays claim to any territory within the fenced borders. Pushing pawns also create open files so the rooks can get in the game.

A glance at this position would immediately tell an experienced player what he should do: The center is closed, which usually means that pawn advances on the wings are called for. Since White’s central pawn chain (e4-d5) is aiming at the queenside and giving White space there, and Black’s (c7-d6-e5) is aiming at the kingside, the mutual goals are clear (okay, there are always lots of exceptions, but we’re going with basic strategic building blocks – exceptions become part of your game after you master the ABCs).

Jumping ahead, we can see that the players have been busy.

Both sides have gained space in their respective areas: White’s initial pawn chain (g2-f3-e4-d5 which occurred in the opening) aimed at the queenside, so he made major advances on that wing and now dominates that sector. Not only can he open the c-file and try to penetrate with his rooks down that file (Rc2 and Rdc1 followed by cxd6), the capture cxd6 (and Black’s recapture ...cxd6) leaves Black with a hole on b6 which can (at some well chosen moment) be used as a home for White’s queen (Qb6) or knight (Nc3-a4-b6).

However, this kind of game isn’t held in the vacuum, and White’s not the only one with ideas: Black has been busy grabbing his own territory on the other wing. Not wanting to wait for White to crash through on the queenside, Black lashes out on the kingside (where all his space is) with...

25...f5! 26.Nf2?

The chances would be balanced after the correct 26.exf5 Nxf5 (26…Bxf5 27.Nf2) 27.cxd6 cxb6 28.Qe1=.


Black already has a powerful kingside attack.


White desperately tries to divert Black’s attention to the queenside but it doesn’t have the desired effect. However, there wasn’t a fully satisfactory solution; let’s see what might have happened if White had tried 27.Ne2:

[Many of the puzzles are very difficult. Don’t lose heart if you can’t solve them! Instead click SOLUTION followed by MOVE LIST so you can see the correct moves, the side variations, and my prose.]


In the actual game Black played 27...gxh3 and, after various adventures and errors, this position was reached:

28.Kh2 gxh3 29.gxh3 fxe4 30.fxe4 and we get another puzzle:

The following game features some of the most outrageous pawn positions I’ve ever seen. Prepare to have your mind completely blown away.

John Cochrane - Somacarana
Calcutta 1856

1.e4 c5 2.f4 g6 3.Nf3 Bg7 4.Be2 Nc6 5.0-0 e6 6.d3 Nge7 7.c3 d5 8.e5 0-0 9.d4 c4 10.Na3 a6 11.Nc2 b5 12.Ne3 a5 13.Ng5 b4 14.Bf3 Qb6 15.Bd2 Ba6 

The position speaks for itself (can you hear it?). White’s pawns are cascading towards the enemy king and the thematic move would be f4-f5, which isn’t very good at the moment. Black’s pawns are cascading on the queenside, and moves like ...a5-a4-a3 will rip that area open and create entry points for Black’s rooks. White can try to defend in that sector, but the most logical move would be 16.g4 intending to get in the very desirable f4-f5.

The general rules for such positions are:

1. When the center is closed you need to open lines on the wings USING YOUR PAWNS to gain space and open files.

2. You usually play on the side where you have more space. This is often delineated by the direction your pawns point. If they point towards the kingside, you will most likely seek play there. If they point towards the queenside, you’ll use your pawns to crack open lines in that sector.

3. Both sides will keep their eyes open for chances to make use of a very well known rule: The best reaction to an attack on the wing is a counterattack in the center. This is usually impossible if the center is closed, but sometimes central cracks are possible since the advance of the side pawns can loosen up the central pawn chains.

We’ll see all these ideas at work in this example. 


White decides to go for a center explosion. The resulting positions are extremely complicated and insanely fun! However, before continuing on with the actual game, let’s pose a question and, after a few moves, create a puzzle: what if White played the thematic 16.g4 intending 17.f4-f5?

and now we reach our puzzle:


Black’s ready to rip the queenside by 17...a3.


Not liking what’s happening on the queenside, White jumps at the chance to create central chaos.

17...fxe6 18.Bxe6+ Kh8 19.Nxd5 Nxd5 20.Bxd5 Rad8 21.Bxc6

Not a decision I’d take lightly since now the h1-a8 diagonal will fall into Black’s hands. This not only means threats to White’s king, but it also means that Black’s domination of the d5-square will freeze White’s pawns. The move that White would like to play is 21.Be4. But does it work? How should Black react to that?

21...Qxc6 22.Qf3

White feels that an endgame will, long term, give his pawns a chance to show their worth.

22...Qb6 23.Rf2 Bb7? 

24.Qg3 a3 25.bxa3 b3 26.Bc1 Be4 27.axb3 cxb3 28.Bb2 Qb5 29.Qe3 Bd5 30.g4 Bb7 31.h4 Qd5 32.Kh2 Bh6 33.g5 Bg7 34.h5 gxh5 35.c4 Qxc4 36.f5 

36...Rg8 37.f6 Bf8 38.Rg1 Qe6 39.Qh3 Qf7 40.Qe3

40.e6 is as tempting a move as one will ever see. How should Black react to it?


A very strong move that prevents d4-d5 (which would open up the b2-bishop’s diagonal) and freezes all of White’s central pawns. 

41.Qf4 Rc8 42.Qf5 Be6 43.Qe4 Rc4 44.Qe3 h6 45.Qf4 Rg6 46.Qh4 Bg4 47.gxh6 Bxh6 48.d5 Qxd5 49.f7 Bf3 50.Qh3 0-1 since 50...Bf4+ 51.Rg3 Rxg3 52.f8Q+ Rg8+ 53.Qxf4 Rxf4 is completely hopeless for White.

The following game shows what happens when one side is making maximum use of his space while the other dithers around and fails to get anything going on his side of the board.

In this game we saw that Black didn’t do anything other than wait to die. Compare that to our next game where White gets a crushing advantage out of the opening but Black never forgets that his only chance is his counterplay on the other wing. Yes, he was losing badly, but by doing what had to be done, hope stayed alive and, as if in a fairytale, the forces of good (if you’re Black) beat the forces of evil (if you’re White – a young Petrosian!) in the end.

A young Petrosian

Black’s position looks really, really bad. White has overrun the queenside while Black hasn’t really accomplished much of anything on the other wing. Shrugging off his miserable plight, Black knows that his only hope isn’t the wasteland that was once his queenside, but the side where he owns at least a modicum of space (the kingside).

The moral here is: “Do what the position wants you to do. It might work, it might not work. But if you don’t follow the position’s path with gusto, you’ll almost always fail.”

Let’s have some fun with the game Alexander Kotov – Harry Golombek, Venice 1950, which will offer us a couple of interesting puzzles (keep in mind that Kotov was the most feared attacking player in the world at that time).

Alexander Kotov (1913 - 1981)

In the first position the center is almost closed and White has kingside space and a strong knight which, combined, gives him serious attacking chances. Black counters on the queenside with pressure against White’s weak c4-pawn.

Black’s extreme lack of space means he’s worse, but he’s far from dead. How should he play this position?

Black played 17...g6 in the game. How would you have reacted to 17...Nb3?

We’re back to the actual game where Black played 17...g6. How should White react to this?

In our final puzzle the center was originally locked. As is typical, Black went after a queenside breakthrough since his pawns gave him space in that area, while White went after the kingside since his pawns were pointing right at the enemy king. When white’s pieces, which were all aiming at the kingside, became a bit too threatening, Black had to push his f-pawn to f6, which allowed White to open the center if he deemed it correct. How would you play White’s position?

Lessons Learned From This Article
  • When the center is closed you will usually seek play on the wings.
  • Play on wing where you have more space. Your center pawns will point in that direction.
  • Use your pawns to gain as much space as possible on your chosen wing.
  • As space is gained, you’ll find that files open up, which should be used by your rooks.
  • At times you might be able to rip open the center. Only do this if you’re the one that can profit by this.
  • Don’t forget the classic rule: “The best reaction to an attack on the wing is a counterattack in the center.” This rule is usually used when the center is open or half open. However, if you can crack the closed center and profit from opening things up, then do so.


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