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Chess960 Strategy: To Control the Center or Not?

GM Hikaru Nakamura, Chess960 World Champion of 2009

GM Hikaru Nakamura, Chess960 World Champion of 2009

Center control is an important feature in traditional Chess. But is it just as important in Chess960?

Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who went on to convincingly win the 2009 Chess960 World Championship, has said that while center control in Chess960 isn’t everything, it is usually a key element leading to strategic success. After the World Championship concluded, Nakamura discussed this concept candidly in a video interview by Chess Journalist Macauley Peterson. http://www.chessvibes.com/reports/nakamura-chess960-world-champion-update-video-added (the 9:00 minute mark).

“What I learned is that in certain positions you can play more for diagonals, play on the flanks a little bit more, as opposed to having to play strictly in the center,” said Nakamura. “But really the main principle to follow is that you have to play in the center most of the time.”

Why? Just as in traditional chess, occupying and controlling the center in Chess960 can inhibit your opponent’s chances of counterplay by cutting off key diagonals and establishing a presence from which subsequent attacks can take place. The side that achieves center control can achieve a more active position, with the more passive opponent resorting to either chip away at the center or circumvent it for any chance for counterplay.

If you don’t control the center, you should keep an eye out for opportunities to strike out against it early, unless you see clear chances for a wing attack. This is easier if the 960 starting position has one or both rooks on the outside files, which can serve to support pawn advances and minor pieces and dominate these open wing files. But if you concede the center too early and don’t feel a solid wing attack supported by major pieces is a possibility, your fate might resemble Viktor Bologan’s at round 8 of the finals of the 2009 Chess960 World Championship in Mainz, Germany.

Sergei Movsesian (2771) vs Viktor Bologan (2702) Chess960 World Championship Finals Round 8.2

One stirling example of center control in Chess960 was in round 8 of the finals between Sergei Movsesian (2771) vs Viktor Bologan (2702) 8.2 Chess960 World Championship, resulting in a Chess960 miniature and black resigning after 23 moves.

Movsesian immediately occupied the center and placed adequate support to maintain it. Movsesian saw that he could displace black’s centrally-developed black knights. Bologon used this to his advantage despite white’s center occupation and control, finding a very resourceful initial counterattack with those same knights by infiltrating into “the space behind” white’s center position, knights on both c4 and d4.

Sergei Movsesian took third place in the 2009 Chess960 World Championship

This resourcefulness was rewarded, with Bologon forking the white king and rook with the d4 knight on move 12, temporarily going up in material. But these extra knight moves left Bologan’s remaining pieces woefully undeveloped. Bologon tried to summon meager counterplay with a less-than venomous attack on the F and G files. But the resulting pressure of white’s pawns reaching the 5th and 6th ranks (d6 supported by e6) resulted in a stranglehold on black’s A-side castled King position. The final position reflects white’s success at dominating the center: all of black’s remaining major and minor pieces, including the Queen, were forced back to the back rank upon resignation.

In this game, Movsesian seized control of the center then slowly moved that center forward, crippling black’s positional mobility. It’s important to note that Movsesian also demonstrated something else, that occupying the center just for the sake of occupation is only a passive strategy. He showed that the center can have purpose other than to merely blockade your opponent’s lines of attack. Instead, as illustrated in the game, he mobilized his central pawns to displace Bologon’s knights, then further advanced on the black position with the support of his minor and major pieces.

An exception to the principle of central control?

Nakamura says that game 2 of the final (round 8.1) versus Aronian was an exception to the principle of central control in Chess960. This may be partially due because the starting position of all four-bishops in the corners, immediately rendering both long diagonals treacherous territory. Nakamura was able to effectively command the a1 to h8 diagonal with a black queen/bishop battery for nearly the game’s duration. Although this could be argued as partial control of the center with its more hypermodern influence on the dark central squares, Aronian still had greater access to and through the center.

Levon Aronian (2800) and Hikaru Nakamura (2777) Chess960 World Championship Finals Round 8.1

Aronian surrendered control of that diagonal to gain active play with his highly mobile central knight on move 15, capturing black’s hanging c7 pawn with check. This very deep knight position, afforded by early central control by white, would lead to a decision point for Aronian.

After the queen exchange on the central d5 square, Aronian blundered by refraining to recapture black’s queen with the knight. This would’ve effectively returned the knight to the center where it would immediately threaten black’s deeply-posted dark-square bishop on c3 supported by a b3 pawn. If Aronian would’ve withdrawn the knight, the Fritz 960 engine indicates black would only have an advantage of -1.45. However, Aronian opted to recapture the black queen with the d1 rook, Rxd5, resulting in a -3.48 advantage for black. This is because there were no other escape routes for the white knight except via the rim, regardless of the fact that it could capture the unprotected a6 pawn. On a6, the knight would be trapped. To expose this weakness and capitalize, Nakamura played Ra8, doing just that. Although Aronian achieved two pawns in material as compensation for the knight, Nakamura’s two rooks, bishop, and H-side pawn majority would be too overwhelming for Aronian’s remaining rooks to manage in the endgame. Aronian resigned on move 26.

While there are certainly exceptions, central control of the chess board is – and will always be – a very important strategic principle within theory or without, and Chess960 is no exception.

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