The Winning Academy 34: Welcome to the Open Space

by Jan Markos
5/27/2024 – Most of the time, chess pieces can rely on the pawn structure. Pawns serve as a shelter, as a support, and as a natural barrier. However, sometimes all the central pawns get exchanged. The pawn structure evaporates, and the pieces are hovering in an open, empty, pawnless space. What does change in the lives of chess pieces when pawns disappear? | Photo: David Baron

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Well, two things. Firstly, pieces (except of knights) are more powerful on an empty chessboard. Secondly, they are also more vulnerable, as they lack outposts naturally created by pawns. Again, knights suffer most, as they are much slower than bishops, rooks, or queens.

Positions with a pawnless centre are very tactical and the price of every move is high. Therefore, you should play actively and dynamically. In open positions, there is little space for fear or hesitation!


In the first example, we will have a look at the game of a genius of dynamical play, Garri Kasparov:

Kasparov-Kasimdzhanov, Wijk aan Zee 1999, White to move:

The pawn structure on both wings is symmetrical, and the centre is fully open. White's pieces don’t seem to stand very actively, so many club players would simply assess this position as equal.

And yet Kasparov has some initiative. Firstly, he is to move. Secondly, the a5-knight is badly placed and vulnerable. And thirdly, the bishops are operating on different diagonals. That gives White the chance E.g. to attack the opponent's queenside, and black bishops might have difficulties to join the defence.

These pluses are very small and might vanish soon. Therefore, Kasparov needs to act quickly. I think that many players would more or less automatically play something like 15.Rc1, giving Black the precious time to recover.

However, Kasparov knew that he must act quickly. He played: 15.Ne4! Now after 15...Bxa1 16.Qxa1 Nd5 (covering both the a5-knight and f6) 17.Bh6 White regains the sacrificed material and keeps the edge. Therefore, Black responded 15…Nc6. And again, Kasparov went for the most active move: 16.Bg5 Qxd1 17.Raxd1.

White harmoniously developed his pieces and is going to secure his knight a strong outpost on d6.

After almost 20 moves of an interesting fight, the following position with White to move appeared on the board:

White's edge is now rather obvious. All his minor pieces are active, and Black's pawns are vulnerable. However, even here it is not too late to spoil the advantage. For example, the materialistic 34.Bxb7?? leads after 34…Ne5 only to an equal game. Black's pieces might get fairly strong on the open chessboard.

However, Kasparov knew better. In fact, White is winning by force, making use of the vulnerability of both the black rook and the bishop. He played 34.Bc1 Rb1 (34...Rc2 35.Bxe6 fxe6 36.Nd4) 35.Be4 Ra1 36.Ne7+ and Black resigned, as any retreat of his king will be answered by a check of the c1-bishop, followed by Rxa1.

Here's the complete game:

Please, remember: in an open positions, even seemingly unimportant differences in the activity of the pieces might be decisive. Without the pawn structure, pieces are stronger than they seem to be, and the differences between them are also far more important than they seem to be.


Keeping your pieces active is thus the most important task in an open position. Let us have a look at an example from the highest possible level.

Kasparov-Anand, World Championship Match 1995, White to move:

It is great that such a position can arise in a World Championship Match! Black is an exchange up, but his centre is collapsing, and his pieces are not cooperating at all. In fact, except of the king they are all standing in corners.

Anand was out of book at this stage, and he took twenty minutes to find the best move. But he found it. After a long thought, he played 15...0-0-0!!.

It seems to be totally crazy to castle right into all this mess on the queenside. However, long castling is the most effective way of getting the rooks into play. The d8-rook is already centralised, and the other rook will get to e8 with a check.

After 16.Rxc6 Rhe8+ 17.Kd3 Rd7 Black was fine and the game was drawn five moves later.


The last example is from a game that I saw live, playing in the same hall. In the diagrammed position, I was unsure how Black is going to tame White's obvious initiative. The task was also complicated by the fact that the white army was led by Magnus Carlsen…

Carlsen-Movsesian, European Club Cup 2008, Black to move:

White's pieces are well placed in the centre. Once the a1-rook joins the rest of the army, Carlsen's initiative might become unbearable. Therefore, Black must act now. And Movsesian was up to the task.

He played 16...Bg4!, attacking the queen as well as the d5-bishop. White had to take the bishop: 17.Nxg4 Nxd5. And now it was Carslen's time to be annoying. He played the surprising 18.Nh6+. Now after 18...gxh6 19.Bxh6 Kh8 20.Bxf8 Bxf8 21.Qb3 White has a strong initiative. Therefore, Black correctly answered 18…Kh8, and after 19.Nf5 Nxf4 20.Rxe7 g6 21.Qxd8 Raxd8 the game transposed to an almost equal endgame.

Here's the complete game:

So many blows and exchanges in only five moves! This is very typical for positions with an open centre. Pieces are both powerful and vulnerable, and therefore the fight often escalates quickly.


Let us summarize what we have learned about positions with an open centre:

  1. Pieces are more powerful and more vulnerable at the same time.
  2. Knights might suffer, as they are the slowest pieces on the board.
  3. Even an optically small difference in the activity of the pieces might prove decisive.
  4. The fight is often quick and tactical.

Middlegame Secrets Vol.1 + Vol.2

Let us learn together how to find the best spot for the queen in the early middlegame, how to navigate this piece around the board, how to time the queen attack, how to decide whether to exchange it or not, and much more!


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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