Sunday, January 18, 2009

First thoughts about The Center

BlunderProne pointed out that there is a vast hiatus in my rantings about the game:

Missing in the battle of the piece placement is the need to control the center. This oversight could be explained by the fact that back in the Steinitz’s day ( and Tarrasch), controlling the center with pawns was the main idea while an augmentation of that included indirect control with pieces on the wings through the hypermodern movement. So the question is whether this meme is something to included for piece battle or pawn battle. I believe its ultimately a piece battle issue since I view pawns in the opening and middle game as a “supporting cast” member in the play. In studying the old games, controlling the center was the first priority for both piece and pawn placement. The battle of the center dictates where the players will create secondary weaknesses as they take resources and time to defend or attack the central squares. If one is allowed to “win” the center, then the conversion to a permanent advantage could be realized either through a direct attack on gaining material or checking the King. Under these circumstance, the second player tends to create further weaknesses in pawn structures or inherits a cramping position with much less mobility.

Indeed I haven't given the center a single thought. I must admit that I have only a very vague notion of why the center is so important. Can the importance of the center be derived from my 3 battles (battle of the pieces, battle of the pawns, battle of time) or has it a meaning of its own?

Parts of my theory of piece activity are among others: a safe home for your piece (outpost or from a distance) and a pathway into enemy territory (open lines). Sofar I identified the following issues that are related to the importance of the center:

  • Open lines. The open lines don't seem to be of equal value. Some diagonals and some open lines are more important than others. Maybe the most important lines go through the center. On what depends the importance of a line?
  • Space. If you have a pawn on d4 and e4 you have a lot of safe space to manoeuvre your pieces behind them from one flank to another.
  • Piece placement. They say that pieces are best placed in the center. Of knights that is easy to understand, due to their short range. But for the bishop matters are less clear to me. If a bishop is called a monster it usually stands on a long diagonal.
  • Control of squares on the enemy side. Pawns on e4 and d4 stretch their influence into enemy territory. But so do pawns on a4 and b4. Why are the center pawns more important?
  • The king is safer on the flank. Why?


  1. Hmm, I'll take a shot at answering your questions:
    1. In my experience, the relative values of open lines depend on a lot of factors and often have little to do with how central they are.
    2. I agree: space is usually the most important consequence of better centre control.
    3. It's not that bishops are somehow weaker in the centre than on the side (since they control more squares, they must be stronger), but they don't gain nearly as much by being in the centre as knights do. So they're often better placed on the side where they don't get in the way of the other pieces.
    4. The central pawns control squares of higher value, because pieces are stronger when placed in the centre than on the side.
    5. The king is safer on the flank because his opponent must divert his pieces away from the centre in order to attack it - which is essentially a weakening of his position. Also a king in the centre gets in the way of the major pieces on the first rank.

  2. Why the center matters:

    Marked by the first battle in the opening, control of the central 4 squares is a dominant theme. Depending on the opening direction the first 5- moves revolves around the struggle and pressure of one or two of these squares. Why the center and why not a4 or b4?

    The answer lies in the flexibility a piece has along with it’s influence. Knight’s are most susceptible to this idea due to the short range nature. In the center, the flexibility of being able to hop from one side to the other can determine a game.

    Bishops like the long open diagonals but to have a closed center can ruin it’s influence. This is an antithesis of central play but makes for a good defense if your opponent has the more active Bishops. They don’t have to be directly on the center, merely “influencing” the center from away.

    In general though open diagonals and open files for Bishops and major Pieces are a means to a greater cause. Penetration to the 7th rank for instance is a result of good use of an open file and targeting flank pawns in front of a castled king is the ultimate goal of an open diagonal. Now, is it necessary to have it run through the center? It depends on where the action is going to be. Nothing is written in concrete. Chess is dynamic.

    On that note, a King tucked safely away in the corner is perfect during the early stage of the game. In the endgame, the king who is closest to the center usually has a better go of the endgame due to Flexibilty and Influence.

    Why are the center pawns more important? Again, I state pawns are merely supporting cast. Get out of the way for the real players. The best ones to get out of the way are the e-and d- pawns. Sure an a-pawn can allow a rook to lift … but that’s not ideal.

  3. Aziridine,
    Good points

    it's strange how every author seems to agree with the importance of the center while none of them explained the actual why. As I have found thusfar.