The Winning Academy 32: The Hole

by Jan Markos
4/22/2024 – It is not very common to have an article focused solely on one specific square. Today, we will make an exception. We will speak about the d5-square, or rather about the weakness that often forms on this square in various lines of the Sicilian defence.

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Black might get a weakness on d5 in any open Sicilian line where he plays …e7-e5: the Sveshnikov, the Najdorf, the Scheveningen and others. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how to live with such a "hole", and how to find out whether this "hole" is a strategical problem or not.

Club players often think that a weak square is always a problem. However, this is simply not true. A keyhole is useless when you don’t have a key that fits into it. Similarly, a weak square in your structure is totally acceptable if your opponent does not have a piece that could benefit from it.

Let us have a look at several examples:


Unzicker-Fischer, 15th Chess Olympiad 1962, Black to move:

This is one of my favourite positions to test new pupils. Is Black worse, equal, or better? Many club players answer automatically: White is obviously better, look at the hole on d5! In addition, Black has got the "bad" bishop.

In fact, the opposite is true: Black is better. Why? Firstly, and most importantly, the b3-knight is very far from the d5-square. Two squares diagonally are the well-known "long-short distance" for a knight. It takes four moves for him to travel it, even on an empty board.

Obviously, the queens knight gets to from its initial position on b1 to d5 very naturally, in two moves. With the g1-knight, the situation is more complicated. It usually gets developed to f3, and from f3 to d5 it is very far.

Therefore, it is always useful to check the position of white king’s knight. If this piece is far away from d5, usually Black is ok despite the "hole".

In the diagrammed position, White has one additional positional problem: his f-pawn is already on f5. Therefore, e4-pawn might be weak, as well as the white king.

In the game, Fischer played 20…Qa6 and with energic play proved that Black truly is better. He won only six moves later, please don’t miss the lovely finish of the game.


The position of the white king’s knight was important also in the next example:

Mohr-Gelfand, Portoroz 2001, Black to move:

Again, it might seem that Black is worse. White controls d5. It is not clear what Black can show as a compensation for this fact. However, Gelfand knew better.

Obviously, Black has got one minor piece that can’t fight for d5: the dark-squared bishop. But White has got two idle minor pieces: the dark-squared bishop (because of …h7-h6, the typical Bg5xf6 idea is prevented), but also the f3-knight.

Therefore, Black is equal. He played simply 12...Bxd5 13.Bxd5 Nxd5 14.Qxd5 0-0 and won a nice game.


In the following example arising from the Sveshnikov line, White has got some troubles with his knight again.

Shirov-Kramnik, Linares 2000, Black to move:

Again, the d5-hole truly resembles a keyhole with no fitting key. White’s knight seems to be better placed than in the previous examples, on an empty board its travel to d5 would only take two moves. However, Black succeeded in constructing an interesting cage: his b4 and f4 pawns guard all the roads to d5.

Perhaps White would like to put a bishop to d5. But this is impossible as well. Therefore, d5 is a "no man’s land". Neither side can make any use of it.

Still, Kramnik has decided to make sure that the d5-square will not bother him in the future. He played the creative 20…d5! 21.cxd5 (21.exd5 would give Black a dangerous avalanche in the centre.) 21…Rb6!, and Shirov had a lot to do to avoid getting mated on the kingside (after …Rb6-h6 and …Re8-g8 virtually all Black pieces are directed against the White king).

But White was up to the task and the game ended in a draw.


In the last example, White has done his homework and transferred his king’s knight close to the d5-square. However, against Carlsen, even this might not be enough:

Naiditsch-Carlsen, Grenke Chess Classics 2018, Black to move:

Please note that Black has done his maximum to safely control the d5-square. For example, his b8-knight is on d7 and might either jump to b6, or retake White’s dark squared bishop on f6 after the potential Bc1-g5xf6.

However, White’s control of d5 is also impressive. How to lessen it? The former World Champion found an ingenious manoeuvre. He played: 12...Bg4! 13.f3 Be6.

At the cost of one tempo, he lured the f2 pawn to f3, where it stands in the way of the g2-bishop. Now Black has an advantage in control of the d5-square. And if White pushes f3-f4, that also gives Black some additional attacking targets (the e4-pawn, the Ng4+Qb6 idea…).

After 14.Ne3 Rc8 15.a3 Nb6 Black was totally fine and Carlsen went on to win a convincing game.


I hope that after this article, you will look at the holes in your camp a bit differently. It is useful to think of them as of keyholes. Does the opponent have a fitting key? If not, you don’t need to be disturbed by the presence of a weakness in your structure.

Thinking about weak squares less dogmatically will surely improve your strategical understanding. Also, it might help you to lure your more dogmatic opponents into positions that you will evaluate better than them.

In these cases, the hole might turn into a trap.

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Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.
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