Advanced Positional Play Concepts

The Players

1.  Gioacchino Greco 				1600-1634 Italy

2. Francois Andre Dani Philidor 1726-1795 France
3. Howard Staunton 1810-1874 England
4. Adolf Anderssen 1818-1879 Germany
5. Wilhelm Steinitz 1836-1900 USA
6. Paul Morphy 1837-1884 USA
7. Mikhail Chigorin 1850-1908 Russia
8. Akiba Rubinstein 1882-1961 Poland
9. Aron Nimzowitsch 1886-1935 Denmark
10. Richard Reti 1889-1929 Czechoslovakia
11. Jose Raul Capablanca 1911-1942 Cuba
12. Saak Boleslavsky 1919-1977 Soviet Union
13. David Bronstein 1924- Russia
14. Lev Polugaevsky 1934-1955 Russia

"Pawns are the very Life of the Game: They alone form the attack and the defense..." Many a contemporary chess enthusiast must have been amazed to read this solemn statement by Philidor, bestowing such honors on the modest pawns, of which Francois Andre Dani Philidor's famous predecessors, Greco and Italian chess school, thought so little. Philidor's small booklet was published in London in 1749 and is remembered under the title of its first edition - "L'analyze des echecs".

Philidor practiced what he preached, pawn-formations were a well-known characteristics of his style. Contrary to the Italian school of thought, which enjoyed the play of the pieces, he understood those deeply hidden relations between pawns and pieces that condition any serious plan on the board. He saw the role of pawns from an unconventional angle and much ahead of his time. Insisting on the harmonious relations between pawns and pieces. Neither impressive nor elegant yet above Greco's traps and false analyses, it was a style which by elevating the standards of defense, announced that,

Not many players followed in Philidor's footsteps. One must advance well into the next century to see another great player, Howard Staunton, exploring such niceties as the restrained engagement of pawns, play against doubled pawns or the blockade. He broadened Philidor's views of pawn formations, formulating ideas that Aron Nimzowitsch and Richard Reti were to extend over half a century later. Of course, Philidor's age had its shortcomings too. The philosophy of order and discipline had been developed since the end of the 17th century. It left a deep trace in fine arts and literature, but was essentially as non-dynamic as it was rational. On the chessboard, the period showed a tendency to reduce its interests to static positional values. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that the4 period of chess romanticism that followed did not build on these premises.

The epoch of Adolf Anderssen and Paul Morphy nourished some other convictions. Putting it more concisely, theirs was an age marked by a strong movement from an intellectual to a new, emotional culture, in which the aim of art in general was not to teach but to excite, which preferred freedom to discipline. Personal taste to stereotypes. The leading chess players, sharing the spiritual climate, did not try to formulate a frame of general maxims in the good traditions of common sense like Philidor/ They relied on their feelings, their intuition. A game of chess was primarily a fruit of personal taste, an individual creation. Since it was not conditioned by severe rules, the chess style of the period was a matter of faith, of optimism, we could say of heart, certainly not of common sense. Pawns lost their meaning and importance in the construction of the game. It was no longer the pawns that shaped attack and defense. The center often disintegrated, games be came an open battle, with pawns cannon fodder and the rational build up of central formations was gone.

It is not difficult to recognize in these traits the hidden relations between chess and other forms in which romanticism expressed itself when it rolled over Europe as an enormous wave. In chess it came with the usual delay, but it came with force and in complete harmony with general tendencies of the movement as they were expressed in literature, arts and above all in music, its most natural expression.

However, the end of the 19th century, not surprisingly, brought a new turn. In the foundations of the 19th there was a stressed tendency to formulate systematically the mass of existing knowledge and thus to express general laws of development. It is not by chance that Wilhelm Steinitz belongs to that epoch.

He came as a lawgiver and the core of his teaching was the law of balance. According to Steinitz,
In other words, one must be alert to see an opportunity and imbalance or try to create one and seize the initiative immediately!
This general law took the form of practical advice and various maxims. Steinitz insisted
Together with weak squares, open files, the bishop pair, pawn weaknesses etc, etc, there was again talk of pawns. Pawns were resurrected. In order to keep the balance one had to fight for the center, to occupy it, to share it. 1.d4 was met by 1.... d5, the str4ong points in the center were held as long as normal developments was possible behind the central pawn structure, which became significant. It was firm, symmetrical, sharing influence on the vital central squares. The Queen's Gambit and related systems became the fashion of the day and pawns got a new lease on life.

Each advantage, no matter how small, is important because a few small advantages added together can mean a winning position. Steinitz called this the accumulation theory. If you play to accumulate small advantages, your're playing "positional chess."

However, changes started to take place characterizing the play of a group of great players and theoreticians in the first decades of the 20th century. They called themselves "hypermoderns" and revolted against the dominant dry and somewhat dogmatic style of Steinitz's followers. Aron Nimzowitsch and Richard Reti, the founders of the school, published masterworks of what may be called a chess revolution. Nimzowitsch wrote My System and Reti wrote New Ideas in Chess. Rising against rules and routine, the hypermoderns warned, "there are no general, constantly valid rules. We are interested in exceptions, not rules", declares the motto of the movement. Looking behind the mass of notions and assertions expressed by Nimzowitsch, we find that the core of the new teaching lies in the new concept of the center and pawn structures. While classical chess insisted on pawn symmetry, the hypermoderns introduced the concept of control by pieces. The restricted engagement of pawns in the early phase of the game led to a number of new opening systems. Simultaneously, for the first time in the history of chess all sorts of pawn formations were studied in all the phases of the game. What we know today we owe in great part to Aron Nimzowitsch. In My System pawns lived their days of glory. The new teaching about the center focused on them and their subtle interrelations with pieces.

! However, ironically, Nimzowitsch's philosophy of the center was the beginning of a marked process in the foundations of modern chess, the disintegration of classical pawn structures and asymmetry of modern pawn formations. Typically, and in harmony with general artistic and intellectual trends, the process became stronger towards the middle of the 20th century. After the Second World War, this tendency manifested itself in modern opening systems like the Sicilian and Benoni.

As a matter of fact, as early as the 1940's and 1950's David Bronstein and Isaak Boleslavskiy went further than Nimzowitsch, expressing the conviction that
BLACK SHOULD NEITHER SEEK SYMMETRY IN THE CENTER NOR TRY TO CONTROL IT. ONE SHOULD CEDE THE CENTER, they proclaimed, finish basic development as soon as possible, and then try to fix and undermine the opponent's center by side blows.

The key was to fix the center, which meant to provoke a blockade, and sap the center of its dynamic potential.
They relied on the simple, universal truth that whatever is fixed and immobile, has a tendency to grow weaker.

It was exactly on these new propositions that new, modern opening systems were introduced, with the King's Indian Defense conspicuous among them.

So we reach the second part of the 20th century aware of the constant flow and change of two dominant trends, exploring in turn attacking and defensive possibilities. It is interesting in comparison that the history of art follows the same pattern. There is a constant repetition of the typical process from the severe to the free, from the simple to the complex, from the closed to the open, from the static to the dynamic.

In the constant change of chess vogue, of static and dynamic factors, you can see the inner logic of chess development. Each of the epochs we analyzed in passing bore the germ of the coming period, and each of them was dominated by one style, one understanding. In that sense, however the 20th century was essentially different. Just like 20th century art, modern chess is characterized by a mixture of different styles. At the same time in the same place, strong stylistic currents run side by side, a complex tapestry of ideas and attitudes.

The destiny of pawns in chess, their rise and fall, is interwoven into the patterns of change. The periods that discarded them were followed by those in which rational play was based on them Our time has finally absorbed the experience of previous centuries, understood fully the pawns intrinsic values and the varied roles they can play in a game of chess. Today we are aware indeed that they form the backbone of the opening systems that it really is the pawns that shape in a unique way attack and defense!

The concept of the center always implies the development of pieces and a certain pawn structure, every opening system and variation is based around the relation between the pawn formations, pieces and the central squares. In our day, the importance of these relations is unquestioned, it is accepted as an axiom. However it is the fruit of many years of debate in which the protagonists put forward their conflicting points of view, and over the course of time amended and refined them. The history of modern chess openings from the middle of the 19th century up to the present day has been marked by these changes of opinion and taste. Chess masters observed the pawn center in different periods from different angles and this led to a great diversity of playing styles, which has greatly enriched our chess heritage.

In spite of the diversity of options, a careful observer of chess history will not miss the fact that some dominant ideas and characteristics mark its crucial periods. This starts by observing the time and ideas of Paul Morphy and Adolf Anderssen.

Time and Ideas of Paul Morphy and Adolf Anderssen
Before them, the interpretations of the center were characterized by a certain naivetly of pioneer days or in the best case they can be ascribed to a small number of great masters of the chessboard living and playing ahead of their time. In the play of Morphy and Anderssen, as well as the young Steinitz and a number of other maters, we perceive for the first time that the stormy, brilliant games characterizing the second half of the 19th century were governed by a well studied method of play in the open positions that generally arose.
The chess master of that period did not build a pawn center and they did not use pawns to occupy the vital squares of the board. On the contrary, pawns were used to disintegrate the center, which rapidly became open following early exchanges.
It is that disintegrating, open center we can look upon as characteristic of the period and the method of play can be seen as the most valuable legacy of the epoch.

The lessons of these short, exciting games is clear. In the sharp positions arising from the King's Pawn Openings, the aim of both sides was to develop quickly, to seize the initiative and to attack first. In order to achieve that, no sacrifice was considered too risky. Chess was played with delight and abandon. With such an attitude underpinning it, the game of chess was an open fight. The center was subordinate to the principle of development. The structure often broke down in the early phase of the game. The central pawns were exchanged or sacrificed in order to seize the initiative. The center was open inviting vivid tactical play. It was time that counted, each tempo was priceless.

Players of the romantic period explored open positions, understood; the appropriate methods and employed them, deeply conscious of what they were doing, although quite often their endeavors left an impression of improvisation. Mikhail Botvinnik was absolutely right when he affirmed that "In the handling of open positions nothing new has been found after Morphy" Naturally, times have changed. Positions with an open center are rarer since open gambits have become less common, while the modern positions where they appear are far removed from the simplicity of those days. Sometimes more sophisticated procedures are required, but the essential method of play has remained the same. When you study the subject of the open center, you become aware of how much we owe to Paul Morphy and his unforgettable generation.

The Positional School

At the end of the 19th century, some new thinkers had some new ideas. On the one hand, the decades of the second half of the 19th century had seen protracted investigations of the open games, and some players began to tire of this. Furthermore, chess masters became increasingly aware of other options. Attacks did not yield as much as earlier, since the level of defense had improved over many years of master tournaments. To develop quickly and seek an early initiative was not enough.
An awareness grew that in order to attack, one must first create the right conditions for it. One had to perceive a weaknesses in the opponent's position and then exert a pressure against it. Players became aware of positional nuances and learnt how to take advantage of positional errors.
Perceiving the importance of weak squares and points, chess masters appreciated the importance of pawns, especially those on the central files.

The central squares and central pawns acquired a new significance. The pawn center mattered after all. It was worthwhile investing tempi in the construction of a center. Therefore, the central pawns were firmly established on the central squares, and claimed a share of power in the crucial part of the board. They made possible and directed the development of pieces in harmony with a fixed, symmetrical center. 1.e4 was met by 1...e5, and 1.d4 by 1...d5. Wilhelm Steinitz explained the theoretical basis of the natural positional balance and the new creed stimulated interest and opened the door to queen's pawn openings, most notably the Queen' Gambit with its numerous ramifications. Steinitz emphasized the importance of maintaining a strong central point and was ready to prop it up and grimly hold on to it for as long as possible. In his matches with Chigorin, he went so far that some of his attempts today look bizarre (supporting the e5-pawn by and early ...Qf6, for instance). However, his view of the center was somewhat static and we could say that his view of chess in general was rather static. If it contained no weaknesses, then according to Steinitz, it was worth playing. He underrated the dynamic possibilities that slowly change relations on the board and cause crevices in the defensive line, especially at the moment when the more passive side is compelled to open the position.

It was only in the first decades of the 20th century that the leading positional players, Akiba Rubinstein and Jose Raul Capablanca, saw the value of the stable center in a broader perspective, formulating far reaching strategic plans around it. The center acquired a new value.

The Hypermoderns

In parallel with the maturing of the positional school, in the 1920's and 1930s a new school of thought developed. They called them selves "hypermoderns" and their ideas had a dramatic impact on the problems of the pawn center. Their spiritual leaders, Aron Nimzowitsch and Richard Reti, published their revolutionary works in the 1920s. Reti's, New Ideas in Chess came out in 1922, while Nimzowitsch's editions of My System started in Berlin in 1925. These two books left an indelible trace in the decades to come. They felt that the fixed center limited the scope for imaginative play, directing plans towards well-trodden paths. They also rejected the emphasis placed on "rules" in previous teachings. On the contrary, they were eager to explore exceptions to these "rules". Striving to do so, they introduced some utterly new concepts. Especially significant was their view of the center. Considering it a principle of opening strategy, they supported the view that the center should neither be occupied by pawns nor left to disintegrate. The center, they proclaimed, should be controlled by pieces. It meant completely new pawn structures in the center, flexible use of pawns in the early phase of the game and maximum cooperation of pawns and pieces. Whole new openings were born on that basis: the Nimzo-indian and the Queen's Indian Defense in the first place, but also the Reti Opening, the Alekhine Defense and some minor things as well.

As Nimzowitsch put it, the restricted pawn center made it possible to include maneuvering in the opening phase of the game. These games by Reti and Nimzowitsch convincingly demonstrate the advantages of the new theoretical outlook on the pawn center. In the early phase of the game they use pawns sparingly. This saves time for the development of pieces, which exercise their power on some of the central squares. As a rule, a fianchettoed bishop, whose diagonal cuts across the center and a knight focus their efforts on one of these squares. The control of the center is often enhanced by the pin of an enemy piece that might otherwise exert influence on the relevant central square. The game is characterized by the clever use of bishops on the diagonals and the coordinated activity of knights. In Reti's game it is his fianchettoed light squared bishop on the long diagonal, and in Nimzowitsch's game his dark squared bishop and king's knight which focus their activity on e5. The other bishop pins the knight at c6, thereby achieving total domination of the e5 Square. When the stage has been set, the pawns can be engaged to open the position and seize the initiative.

The consequence of such reasoning is visible in the pawn formations. We move from the classical, symmetrical structures to new, restricted central set-ups, more flexible and increasingly distant from the traditional ideal.

The Post War Soviets

In the 1940s and 1950s two young Soviet grandmasters and candidates for the crown, David Bronstein and Isaak Boleslavsky, evolved a new concept of the center. They recommended that Black should cede the center to White. Occupying it with pawns or controlling it with pieces takes time, and time should be invested differently. Black should finish his basic development as quickly as possible, allow White to build a full pawn center and then undermine that center, trying to bring about a blockade. When the center is blocked and its dynamic strength diminished, Black shlould rely on side-blows to seize the initiative on the wings. The King's Indian and the related systems can be used for this.

It is a curiosity sui generis that in the atrocious years of the Second World War chess life in the Soviet Union did not die. On the contrary, many important events were organized and a tremendous amount of work was invested in chess theory. Once the war was over, the outside world had to face a new generation of remarkable players, playing some new, unknown ideas.

When discussing the epoch of the great romantic players Paul Morphy and Adolf Anderssen, we noticed that open games, gambits in particular, often characterized by the open center, marked the whole period. It was common and typical for the central pawns to be exchanged in the early phase of the game. We could ascribe the phenomenon to the generally accepted view of the game of chess as an uncompromising encounter between two gentlemen, but we cannot overlook the influence of theoretical fashion, which always tends to cast games of chess in the same mold.

Open games were the order of the day, the King's Gambit reigning supreme among them. In order to seize the initiative and attack, a pawn sacrifice was seen as a promising investment. A gambit fuelled the attack, quickening the pace of development. Only decades of experience would later show that on its own a sacrifice is not enough.

If the position is closed, then slow maneuvers may become necessary. The romantic period was too impatient for that. They wanted to unleash an attack and unleash it at once. To do so was a matter of honor and the chess master of the epoch launched it as soon as basic development was complete. He launched quick, sudden attacks, never stopping for risks of any kind. His aims, however, could not be realized without an open or at least semi-open center. Only when the central squares were free of pawns, the major pieces on the files and the bishops on the diagonals would such an attack be launched. The major pieces penetrated via the open central files, the bishops crossfire swept the center, while the unrestrained mobility of the minor pieces enhanced the dynamic options. The scene of action was often additionally nourished by opposite-side castling, easing the concentration of forces and their movement.

The short, typical games of the 19th century emphatically display all these traits. What they taught later generations was the method of play, based on accelerated development, easy maneuvering in the open space, the strength of pieces acting in concentrated harmony and, above all, the value of time. Also was developing was an awareness of the importantance of pieces gaining strength acting in concentrated harmony with pawns. All 20th century masters had to do was play with the sagacity of their predecessors to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the open center. It is not only the narrow territory of gambits, but a wide range of openings, including the closed games too, where the same methods prove valid.


After looking at the games of Morphy, Anderssen, Bogoljubow, Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch, Alapin, Spassky, Fischer, Tal, Alekhine, Kasparov, Ivanchuk, Keres, Winawer, and Steinitz we could say that the open center is a simple phenomenon. Open space, in which no pawns bar the freedom of movement, sets an ideal scene for piece activity. In particular, long ranged bishops on the diagonals crossing the center thrive in this environment, but so also do the major pieces pressing down the open files. That same absence of barriers multiples the possibilities and accelerates attacks, which with the closed center could take the form of slow maneuvers. Here there is no time for maneuvers. Attacks are necessarily quick, precisely directed, concentrated on a precise motif. In such circumstances the element of time becomes a major factor. Consequently, the struggles to gain a lead in development and for the initiative are distinctive characteristics of all the games in the open center survey. It is not by chance that a queenside castling reappears game after game, as it speeds the process of development and quickly creates the conditions for an attack.

It comes as no surprise that most of these games are won by tactical skill. Material sacrifice is frequently justified by a spatial advantage and a strong initiative, which are so often outer expressions of the time factor.
There lies the reason why gambits are frequently characterized by the open center, and also the reason why the essentially same method of play meets the requirements of all open positions. Looking back at the list of player's games, we will notice at once that we find open centers in various systems and variations, and that the problems and solutions get more complex as we enter deeper into the 20th century, but the essential manner in which these positions are treated has not changed since the days of Morphy and Andersen. The general guidelines about time and material, development, initiative, sacrifice, etc., remain the same. What did change, however, is te attitude of the modern master. While respecting the general principles, he abandoned the simplistic rules of development a long time ago and nowadays looks at each position with ingrained skepticism. Each position is treated as a unique case with rules of its own. His aim is to understand those rules and comply. If he lacked that attitude, Lev Polugaevsky would never have immersed himself in a position built by seven pawn and five queen moves in the critical opening stage, challenging not only some theoretical standards, but practical experience too.

In sharp contrast with all the other types of the center, in which the influence of pawns on the general strategy is dominant, their role in the open center is diminished by the very nature of the position, but it cannot be ignored. It is limited to the early stage of the game, when pawns usually play one of two roles. In one scenario they represent the material to be sacrificed in order to seize the initiative: material gets transformed into time. In the other scenario, equally frequent, they are exchanged in early battles in order to open space in the center and create the preconditions for action. They're very absence tells, causing and shaping actions and imposing on the course of the game a distinctive method of play, based on the initiative and activity.

In general positions characterized by an open center that favors White, Black should not enter them light-heartedly. If you happen to be there, White or Black, invest in development and active counter-play: in open positions time is the crucial element. Naturally, while this may be useful to bear in mind, strong players know that each position is a specific case to be placed under thorough, precise analytical scrutiny. The games played in the Polugaevsky Variation provide a warning that we should heed. Even when facing ideas that challenge the firmly established beliefs or border on the improbable we have to take them seriously and check them conscientiously move by move. On a higher level it has always been so.

Lev Polugaevsky Vs. Ljubomir Ljubojevic

Looking at this game, we learn a lesson: it is not enough to have a firm position without weaknesses. A lead in development and spatial advantage become an initiative and the initiative provokes and causes weaknesses, unless counter-steps can be taken. One can analyze many examples that lead to an indisputable general conclusion: waiting entrenched rarely helps and there for an attack must be met by a counter-attack. Force tames force. Whether the reaction should come on the same wing or elsewhere depends on the circumstances; all the board is at our disposal. In the circumstances of the dynamic center, the correct out come of the two sides plans ought to be some form of dynamic balance.

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