The Weird And Wonderful Empty Square Sacrifice

The Weird And Wonderful Empty Square Sacrifice

| 32 | Strategy

I will not hide the fact that I love to hear the spectators react after a sacrifice of a piece or pawn. I dont think that there is anything bad in such a feeling; no artist or musician is indifferent to the reactions of the public.  -- Mikhail Tal

I challenge the world to find one single chess player that does not enjoy the sight of a brilliant sacrifice. Surely it is impossible; sacrifices are a thing of pure joy and excitement, and without them chess would be missing a big part of its soul.

Sacrifices often have a quite mystical and magical feel to them, and I am often asked questions about them:

  • When should I sacrifice?
  • What makes a good sacrifice?
  • Are there different kinds of sacrifices? 

In this article we are going to take a look at the mysterious art of the empty square sacrifice. This is a type of sacrifice where one side does not capture a piece, but instead leaves a piece to be captured on an empty square, for some particular reason.

First before we move on to the empty square sacrifice, let's take a quick look at a more common type of sacrifice that might occur in a chess games.


(Watch the full video here.)

I am going to call the above type of sacrifice a violent sacrifice. This is when one side gives up material in a very forcing manner, normally by capturing something or playing a check. This type of sacrifice can be used to forcibly aim for a goal, like opening up your opponent's king position as seen above.

In chess this is the most common type of sacrifice but not the only type...

The type of sacrifice that we are going to concentrate on is the type where a piece or pawn is offered to the opponent on an empty square. To me this has a more Zen-like feel to it, even as if a Buddhist would approve of the idea. You are not forcing anything, mearly giving your opponent an offering. Take a look at the next famous position as an example of this:

This game was said to have happened in a coffee shop, and has been called the golden coin game. Apparently after the move ...Qg3, spectators where so overawed by the beauty of the idea that they started throwing gold coins apon the chess board. The last time I played chess down at Costa Coffee, the only thing I got after winning a nice game was a burned crotch, due to an excited cup of cappuccino.

We can see what effect the move ...Qg3 had. For a start it threatened checkmate on h2 and then second, it could not be captured, so the move won the game.

Can you spot the correct move in the next position?

Let's now take a look at some different types of empty square sacrifices that have occurred, and see what we can learn from them.

The move 18 Bh6 had a decisive effect on the game, but first before we talk about that individual move we should discuss the build up to it. It is important to remember that sacrifices do not appear out of the void they appear for a reason. Normally the accumulation of small factors  will lead to a successful sacrifice.


This reminds me of the parable from the bible, about the man who built his house on sand. The house eventually fell apart due to weak foundations. The same is true for sacrifices -- they will only be successful when built on strong foundations.

What were those foundations in the last game?

  1. White had first slowly and patiently moved his pieces towards the black king. Like a swarm of angry wasps, they were sitting there eager to attack.
  2. Black had a very cramped position. His pieces were lacking many good squares and they all had to huddle together creating a traffic jam on the kingside.
  3. Then Black made the critical error, ...Qd7, this gave White the chance to play Bh6!! Why was this move so strong? Because it opened up the black king and allowed the white queen to enter into the attack.

The idea of Bh6 is a pattern well worth remembering. It does occur at top level. Take a look at the next game.

Again the move Bh6 was the reason for Black's demise. In both of these examples the empty square sacrifice was used to open up the position of the opponent's king, but it can also be used for other reasons. The next game shows an example of it being used as a square/space/line- clearing tool.

What a game and what a move 18 Nc6!! was. I must admit this is one of my favourite examples of any type of sacrifice. Mind-blowing stuff! Now yet another example: this time the sacrifice is used as a distraction and speed tool, and yes, such things do sometimes occur in the endgame!

The move 47...Bh3!! was played so that the black king could get quicker access into the key squares. The move also distracted white's pawn to an inferior square, h3. The main reason it worked though was due to calculation.

Calculation is the work that you need to put in behind any idea.

I used a similar idea in the next game, this time the sacrifice worked as it cleared lines for my queen into the attack and gained me time.

Now maybe the most famous example of this type of sacrifice. This time the empty square sacrifice is used as a blocking tactic.

19 Rf6! was played by Fischer in order to block the black pawn on f7. When the pawn was blocked Black can no longer defend against the ensuring attack.

After I showed this example to one of the main guys at, Peter Doggers, Peter showed me two games where he also used a similar rook maneuver. As we can see, Peter can clearly play just as well as he writes.

And if that was not good enough, look what happens in the next game.

So who else thinks Peter should start playing a bit more chess again? Me for one!

One of the most bizarre examples of the empty square sacrifice occurred in the next game. I must also say this is one of my favourite moves of all time.

16...Nc6!?!? for me is a truly human concept; that is why I love and appreciate the move. Put the position on a computer and the computer will never find the idea of 16...Nc6!?!? in a trillion years.

Who can say that chess is not art after such a move!? Spassky was simply thinking of any way to create counterplay in what he saw as a hopeless position. Desperation can often lead to some quite astonishing ideas, in chess and in life.

Now to finish this article, I will leave you with one puzzle. Can you find the best moves for both sides?

I hope you enjoyed some of these examples just as much as me, and I also hope you get a chance to shine by playing an empty square sacrifice. If you do please send them into!

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