Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I Think I Finally Appreciate the Center

I'm still going through My System, among other things. I think I've finally achieved one breakthrough -- a better appreciation of the center.

Everybody reading this blog has probably heard this drum beaten again and again: control the center. Yet how many readers are constantly thinking about the center during their games? When you play a "book" move out of an opening repertoire that doesn't address central control, do you understand why it's good? Central control always seemed like a mundane, pedestrian topic that I didn't need to dwell on too much.

However, I had been noticing some common themes in my games. I didn't often think about central control directly, except with respect to tactics (dropping the e4 pawn in a Sicilian, for example) or general positional considerations (e.g. space advantage). It was also staggering to see in my Blitz games how often the best move that I missed was a simple push of a central pawn. This year, in order to improve my understanding, I finally put the French aside, and started playing 1...e5 as Black. I also abandoned the Spanish Exchange for something more main-line. This was a big deal...I played those lines exclusively for the last 13 years.

At some point, I am going to write a major blog entry about some of my discoveries, but I'll pass this along for now: it is surprising how much "opening theory" you can figure out yourself by just thinking about the center. Starting to play 1...e5 was uncomfortable because, if your opponent plays older stuff like the Four Knights, Vienna or Giuoco Piannisimo, transpositions abound and the maze of variations can get confusing. However, beginner's rules can guide you through the morass. For example, in the 1.e4 e5 openings:

  • if White gets to push a pawn to d4 without concessions, they typically will have at least the slight edge White is "supposed" to get with correct play.
  • if Black can get away with ...d5, they probably equalize or get the advantage.
  • both sides try to retain their e-pawns

Similarly, a lot of 1.d4 theory boils down to: White tries to push a pawn to e4, and Black tries to prevent it. Black often tries to maintain a pawn at d5 as a strong point, in which case White often tries to assail it.

Further, if White attains a classic d4/e4 (or d5/e5, for Black) center, its mobility should be considered. Another weakness I've found in my games is a reluctance to push pawns because it changes the pawn structure. Sometimes the most powerful moves on the board involve throwing mobile pawns forward. My System's chapter on the Center was a great refresher, and really drove in the points of occupation of the center, and using a mobile center as a weapon.

Instinctively, I rebelled against the notion that the four central squares are more magical than other squares like c5 or f6, and thought "oh yeah, that's all well and good, but you always have to consider other factors like tactics and development". Which is true. But I was finding in my own games that I was too often passing over moves such as P-Q4 as candidates. I've already seen in my Blitz games that my handling of unfamiliar openings has improved because of this.(I may, at some point, provide specific examples). For example, as Black I'll ask: "White's last move seemed weak. Can I push my pawn to d5 safely? Do I like the looks of the resulting position? OK, I'll play it!" Later, I'll check with Fritz and, sure enough, it was Fritz's favorite move by a good margin.

I've also found such thinking helpful in choosing between possible repertoire moves...if it's a natural move that addresses the center, play it. That also fits in with my philosophy that it's better to play a move you're happy with than some move recommended by theory but mysterious to you. If the bulk of your repertoire moves are natural to you and follow basic principles of development and central control, you avoid both the chore and the trap of memorization. Concentrate on the exceptions, where the best move in a position is unnatural to you, and try to understand why the counter-intuitive move is best.

A few additional points:

1. You need to be aware of the Center Fork Trick, which is essentially a mechanism to force an advantageous d4 or ...d5. Currently I'm finding that I still miss these too often...they're often the key to finding the best move in some of these Old School openings. If you're not familiar with it, an example is here.

2. A lot of other features of these "old school" openings are covered in older books like My System and Pawn Power in Chess. Many instructors recommend that beginners start out playing 1.e4 e5 to get practice with basic chess knowledge, and my experience so far is that this is very, very good advice.

3. This post may seem to fly in the face of my advice not to dwell on studying openings. What I'm trying to show here is that studying general principles will greatly reduce the need to study opening theory. In other words, a grasp of chess basics allows you to be the master of your openings, and not a slave. I am not intentionally studying theory that is helping me play 1.e4 e5 better. I have chosen to play 1.e4 e5 because the games that result will be guided by general chess principles and will help me to understand basic chess concepts.


chessloser said...

as usual, you are sooooo right...i know all about "control the center" but in practice i ignore it completely, and it was shown to me exactly how important the center is...great post

Ryan Emmett said...

I haven't read "My System" since I first attempted to do so when I was in my teens. I was completely baffled by it. I might try again at some point, but I've just bought "Pawn Power" and it looks really good.

Grandpatzer said...

Just don't let Kmoch's eccentric terminology (telestops and leucopenia and whatnot) hold you back. The material is very, very good.

One thing I will be watching carefully as I go over the master games is how they use pawns. They often push pawns in manners that are counterintuitive to me. For example (bear with me, I have no board atm) if you had a 3 vs. 2 majority on the kingside (such as f4, g3, h2 vs. g6 and h7) the natural way to create a passer is something like h3, g4, f5. However sometimes you see a setup like f4, g5, h4 and then push f5 with assistance from the king or another piece.

transpositions said...

I am submitting this post in the vein of contributing additional insight to an otherwise excellent article. Stated in "My System" is the following principle:

"the strategically and tactically correct advance of the pawn mass"

What Mr. Nimzovitch is talking about is that all 16 pawns and all of the pieces are involved in the 'pawn mass' principle.

Except for Mr. Nizovitch's My System I have never seen text that expressly states the principle.
Fragments of this principle are sallied forth by various authors in chess publications. Concepts such as pawns are usually strongest and coordinate best when they form "duos", attacking the base of the "pawn chain" is usually best, preparation of the "pawn break" is necessary in order to avoid it being too late or premature, or the--one quoted from Mr. Nimzovitch's book--the weakness in the "doubled pawn complex" is like a limp in a sitting man..., the process of "restrain, blockade and execute" the criminal, "prophylaxis" and many other examples. Individually these concepts are digestible bits of wisdom for the average player, but together they form the big picture, "the strategically and tactically correct advance of the pawn mass".

For your target readership simply stating the principle is sufficient to give them the overarching idea that ties all of the smaller concepts together.

You use the word "counterintuitive" in your article and in your post. A concept or methodology is counterintuitive when the individual's overall understanding is incomplete. As soon as the comprehensive prespective(big picture)idea is introduced, instantly clarity hits you in the face. Then it's just common sense. My favorite example of this comes from physics. There are billions of people on this planet walking around with "absolutists" Newtonian principles firmly entrenched in their subconscious and conscious minds. To prove this a simple question will suffice: 'If the planetary system consisted of only the Sun and the Earth(no Moon) and the Sun suddenly disappeared, how long would it be before planet Earth would stop following its elliptical orbit and begin traveling in a straight line?' The answer you will get from almost every one is, "Immediately". The reason for this answer is our common sense hasn't caught up with Einstein's Theory of Relativity regarding gravity. The correct answer is, "a little over 8 minutes". I am reasonably certain that you knew the correct answer and why that is. But, returning to the idea of the "advance of the pawn mass"; armed with the knowledge of this principle many players will no longer see certain moves as counterintuitive.

Keep up the good work. From time to time if I can humbly submit contributions to this ongoing dialogue I will.

Thanks for getting me back to basics. I only came here looking for an answer about building a PGN file for a subrepertoire. I found something even better.


Grandpatzer said...

Tony: part of me chafes at recommendations (by myself or others) to play stuff that's "reasonable", "understandable", "intuitive", etc. because, objectively, it's a cop-out. Humans have to rely on on intuition, positional understanding, etc. because they're mortal, and can't calculate everything out to iron-clad win, lose or draw from White's first move. Tactics always trumps these mental crutches.

Still, for the practical player, these guidelines have merit. When you can't find a good move by brute calculation, positional principles may direct your attention to an overlooked candidate move that actually works. Similarly, familiarity with master games can help you find a good plan, such as what pawn breaks to work towards. If you've seen a2-a4 work in certain openings as the Ruy Lopez before, you can spot a similar opportunity and calculate its viability.

Anonymous said...

Grandpatzer: If your read my post you noticed the principle is:

"the Strategically and TACTICALLY correct advance of the pawn mass"

I capitalize "tactically" only to emphasize.

The reason pawn moves are so important is because pawns can't back up the way pieces can. They are completely commital moves.

I practice visualization tactics for at least 2hrs with breaks everyday.
I keep a written mental checklist in my pocket at every tournament I play in. I have committed it to memory.
I have had a mental checklist for years that I run through one by one in my mind before every move

Part of that checklist is as follows:
1. Am I sitting on my hands so I won't reach for a piece impulsively.

2.What is the THREAT?
a. Was my opponent's move a pawn move? Was it a pawn break? Was it premature, too late, or right on time?
(1) Have you scanned the pawn structure?
(a) Is it a strategically correct pawn advance?
(b) Is is a tactically correct pawn advance? Are there any pawn or piece tactical shots?
(2) How has it affected the pawn structure?
b. Was my opponents move a piece move?
(1) Are there any tactical shots? Any undefended pawns or pieces? Any typical fork, pin, mate threats, sealer sweeper tricks, etc. formations?

(2) Have you checked for backward piece move capture possibilities by your opponent or yourself.

(3) Have you checked to see if moving back with a piece will help your plan (strategy or tactic)

3. Have you stepped away from the table and gone for a brief stroll, so you can come back with a fresh perspective of the position.

Mental perspective of the position is very important. That is why a player must use both general principles and brute force calculation. The difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. From the outside in and from the inside out. When you shift your mind back and forth your prespective of the position before you one the board changes. And, more importantly stepping away forces you to carry the position around in your head which gives you yet another perspective of that same position on the board. As you stroll the tournament hall examining other contestants positions forces your mind to yet another mental perspective and sometimes it will trigger an idea or a move you had not considered in your own position.

I will agree with you that brute force calculation will not always provide the answer and the time used on the clock will begin to work against you. Not to mention the mental exhaustion that brings on seeing ghosts and outright blunders. Besides there is no way you are going to find all the move order finesses, traps, tricks, transpositions, positional pawn and piece sacrifices, etc. During a typical game there are several transpositions from within an opening from one variation to another, and/or from one opening to another. My opening repertoire consists essentially of 6 openings. One of those openings that I play as Black is the Sicilian Najdorf. I know by heart around 400 subavariations of the Poisoned Pawn variation after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6
3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxf4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6
6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qb6 8.Qd2 Qxb2. I can tell you of a certainty that if you don't know these lines cold and you play into these lines as White you are a walking dead man. There are so many tricks, traps, move order finesses, sacrifices, transpositions, etc. that there is no way to find them over the board. I am glad that this line isn't so popular anymore because there are too many ways for White to draw in these lines if he knows his stuff.

But, that is the reason that you study openings. Understanding and memorization go hand in hand. They provide you with the shortcuts in the brute force calculation process that save you time on the clock and mental exhaustion.

Finally from an outside in mental perspective I have found it very helpful to know that there is a strategially and tactically correct advance of the pawn mass. And, how to recognize when that principle has been violated and how to exploit it.


Anonymous said...

It absolutely is surprising how much opening theory you can gather yourself just by considering the center. When I started looking at book openings I was shocked to see that I had intuitively played many of the book positions just by clear and focused thinking.