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Importance of Centre Pawns

Dear reader, this is the first article of a series in which I will try to turn the attention of new comers to our noble games, as well as the growing-in-strength amateurs and our raising young players, to the heritage of our ancestors that left to us. I will focus on famous games that contain a lot of instructive themes, tactical and positional ones with the hope that this will improve our understanding of the game and unlock some of its secrets.

The game that I am going to present to you is the 16th game of the forerunner 19th century match of chess crown, between the French  Louis Charles De La Bourdonnais and the Irish Alexander McDonnell. The match was a marathon one, with 95games (!) and ended in De La Bourdonnais convinced victory (+45 -27 =13). Enough to know that De La Bourbonnais has already analyzed  Philodor’s theses and manuscripts of the 18th century, in which the later explained the importance of positional aspects of the game, famous for (Pawns are the soul of  chess) slogan.

 McDonnell,Alexander – De La Bourdonnais,Louis Charles Mahe [B32]

London m4 London (16), 1834

1.e4 c5


There is no better than the Sicilian defense as an opening to start our first game. From move 1, Black is breaking the symmetry of the pawn chain. Solidity with 1…e5 or defensive play with 1..e6 is not on the menu today, just counter-attack from the first move is the motto of the Sicilian players. A side pawn is ready to be exchanged for the central d4-pawn, preventing the first player the occupation of the centre on e4 and d4 with pawns.

2.Nf3 Nc6

3.d4 cxd4

Otherwise 4.d5 with a lot of space and central domination by white forces.

4.Nxd4 e5

The Lowenthal-Lasker-Kalashnikov variation. Why not just name it: De Labourdonnais variation or De Labourdonnais attack!! Black strikes in the centre, attacks the d4-knight, fixing the e4-pawn and getting control of the d4-square. That’s too much profit from just one move in the opening. The down side? The control over d5 and d6 squares is weak, due to the disappearance of the c5-pawn. The white player should try to point out to these weaknesses by playing 5. Nb5.  



Which he didn’t. We can forgive White for his mistake, as we are following a 19th century game, when chess variations were under the trial-and-error umbrella. Possibly McDonnell was expecting 5…dxc6? Reaching a somewhat symmetrical pawn formation without queens on the board.  




Taking toward the centre! Black took profit from White’s mistake and gain control of the d5-square. He is even ready to occupy the full-centre by himself by playing …d5. With this move, White shows that he recognized his previous imprecise move, and is trying to correct it by controlling the d5-square by a piece, preventing his opponent realizing his plan.

6.Bc4 Nf6


Renewing the …d5 threat. As you can see, just after very few moves from the start of the game, the struggle for the centre is taking shape.   


7.Bg5 White put the second bishop in play, pinning the knight, and still preventing the d5-push, and planning to exchange it for the night just in case. As you can see, the potential value of the bishop was under-estimated by White, and giving the advantage of the bishop pair to the opponent at this early stage was a big concession from the first player. An evaluation, like (?!), can be assigned to this move with a clear conscious mind.

7…Be7 Developing, unpinning, with an extra threat: winning the central e4-pawn!  



A mistake. Instead of developing the last minor piece, the knight, to c3, intensifying the pressure on d5, White thought that by pressurizing on the e5 pawn, he is preventing the d5-push, not realizing that on e2, her majesty can be exposed to an attack by the c8-bishop on the a6-f1 diagonal. Every pawn move opens scope for potential dynamic piece paly. It was even better to play 8.Bxf6, followed by Nc3.  





[9.exd5 cxd5 10.Bb5+ Bd7 11.Nc3  


(After 11.Bxd7+ Nxd7 12.Bxe7 Qxe7 Black achieved his aim: an ideal centre.)

11...d4 12.Bxf6 the only way to complicate as much as possible the position 12...Bxf6 13.Nd5 Qa5+ As you can see, the black queen enters the game with effect on the dark squares. White is trying to take from his opponent the advantage of the bishop pair by issuing tactical skirmish.  14.b4  


(14.c3 Bxb5 15.Qxb5+ Qxb5 16.Nc7+ Kd7 17.Nxb5 Rab8 and the b-pawn is lost.)

14...Bxb5!! Falling in the trap with all his will and without any regret. 15.bxa5 Bxe2 16.Nc7+ Kd7 17.Nxa8 Ba6 the knight is doomed. Black's position is winning: after winning the knight on a8, the black rook can pressurize the c2 pawn and with the help of the 2 bishops, matting threats are on the agenda, as well as promoting to queen a central pawn will keep hitting white's head.]



10.Bb3 0–0




Now, after both players have put their king in safe place, a new phase begins. A new phase means make a new plan. Hoe to do it? Look at the board and try to make a list of the pros and cons of each side. F or White: Positional motives: still need one move to finish the development of his queen side, his bishop is making a certain pressure on the d5-pawn, and his queen is attacking…nothing! Tactical motive: queen and rook are aligned on the same light squares diagonal. For Black: Positional motives: a strong centre, dark squares control enhanced by his possession of the 2 bishops especially the f6 one, the semi-open b-file. Tactical motives: the bad disposition of his opponent’s heavy pieces, and the minor ones! See next note.


With this side pawn move, Black is threatening: a)…a4 trapping the b3-bishop, and b) …Ba6 developing with tempo and clearing the 8th rank for deployment of the heavy pieces.  




Releasing the tension.

No good was:

[12.c4?! a4 13.Bc2 d4 another piece is needed to be developed: the c2-bishop !; A better try was: 12.Rd1 a4 13.Bc4 Bb7 14.Nc3 d4 15.Nb1 the only move. Though the knight can be recycled through d2, BLack keep his advantage and can develop his queen to c7 or b6, increasing his domination on the dark squares, especially the b2-pawn. Also the a4 pawn can be pushed as a minority attack against white's majority, extending the range of the a8-rook and the control of the c3 square, which can possibly be useful as an outpost for the black pieces.]  




13.Rd1 d4



White is creating his own chances. If he can decrease Black’s pressure and activity in the forthcoming middle game, the white passed c-pawn can become dangerous as the black d4 one. The main difference between the two different passed pawns is that the black one is already supported by his neighbor e5 pawn. Possibly a better approach was the restrict the black central pawns by playing 14 Nd2 or 14 c3; but the idea of restrain and blockade, popularized by Nimzowitsch at the easy of the 20th century was recognized or even discovered in the 19th century. At that time, the player’s objective was one: mating the opponent’s king in any way, without knowing and analyzing the hidden positional resources of the position undergoing. 




The queen uses the semi-open b-file to make pressure on white queen side, with extra restriction of the c4 pawn. Already he has started making some sweat eyes to the White king!


15.Bc2 Bb7


 [Occupying the long diagonal and not falling into the elementary trap:  15...Qxb2?? 16.Bxh7+ Kxh7 17.Qxb2 winning the black queen. As Nimzowisch said: Combinations can happen in good positions and in bad ones!]


Now a new plan has to be formulated concerning the black rooks: Where to put them? Allow me, dear reader, to give you a hint on how to decide which rook to move first, as this is a delicate problem for a lot of players. As the position requirements dictate, the central black pawns need support of the rooks. And, as the pawns have tendency to advance, in order to grasp more space, and/or create more threats, they need to be protected. So, as the e-pawn is crying to advance, he needs the support of his brother: the f-one. And as the c2-bishop is now eyeing to the f5-square, the f5-pawn needs protection. This will guide us to keep the f8-rrok at its place and let the a8-rook to slide to the e8-square, with an extra bonus: a tactical factor: a rook is mirroring the enemy queen!



[16...Qxb2? is another trap. After: 17.Qd3 e4

(17...g6 18.Rab1)

18.Nxe4 Bxe4 19.Qxe4 g6 White is back again on equal terms in the issuing opposite-bishop middle game.]

17.Ne4 Bd8

The bishop is need for the future. At least White succeeds for the time being in blocking the black center, and gives Black something to worry about: the white passed c-pawn.


18.c5 Qc6

A battery is formed on the long diagonal, with the treat of pushing the f5-pawn, attacking the e4-knight, with a simple threat: mat in one move on g2. As you can see, the tactics support the positional advantage in converting it to another one of greater value.



Blocking the long diagonal, and restricting the advance of the e5-pawn for the near future. If the f7-pawn doesn’t exist on the board, the knight will enjoy a great outpost. But this is not the case.


Attacking the c5-pawn.



Indirectly defending it, as after 21..Bxc5? 22 NxB QxB 22 Bxh7+ uncovering an attack on the black queen with tempo, and winning it.




With the f-pawn push, no more check on h7, so the c5-pawn is again under real attack, tacking back control of the e4-central square and extending the scope of the f8-rook.As you are going to notice in the coming few moves, the only way to defend the c5 pawn is Qc4+, setting a trap by the move: Ba4, winning the exchange.

21.Qc4+ Kh8!


If 21..Qd5, then 22.Qb5 is preparing 22.Bb3, and the tactics seems working well for the White player. But how it can happen if all the positional considerations are favorite to Black? As Black has made no mistake, on the contrary he has improved his position in the centre; there must be something wrong in white’s strategy. With nearly every move he was setting a trap, in order to save himself from the positional domination of the Black pieces. But this shall finish at a certain point.

22.Ba4 Qh6!


And this is the point! Black sacrifices the exchange in order to extinguish the imaginary initiative of his opponent.




[If White refused to grasp immediately the exchange, and prefer to continue his tactical melee with:  23.Nd6, Black needs to play precise moves in order to keep his advantage. The following variations can serve as food for your thoughts and tactical vision. If you want to improve it, I can recommend considering the moves of each of the following variations as the main moves of a really played game. The idea, behind it is that, as you are going to repeat the main moves, your unconscious mind has already stored the previous analysis, including the positional and tactical motifs. This also will help you in forming the necessary plans in in order to reach your ideal piece setup.  23...Bxd6 24.Bxe8 Bc7 25.c6


(25.Qb3 e4 26.g3 Ba6 yields to active and promising play for Black, since 26...Rxe8 27 Qb7 Qe3 + 28 Kh1 Qxf3+ is just a draw.)

25...e4 now we have 3 variations: 26.g3


(26.h3?? seeding all the dark squares is not recommended as a way of defense. Black wins easily with: 26...Qe3+ 27.Kf1 Bh2; 26.cxb7? Very tempting and a gambling move, but Black can reach a winning setup: 26...Qxh2+ 27.Kf1 exf3 opening the e-file with gain of tempo. 28.gxf3 Qh3+ 29.Ke2 Rxe8+ 30.Kd3 Qxf3+ 31.Kc2 Qxb7)

26...Qe3+ 27.Kh1 Qxf3+ 28.Kg1 Bxg3! destroying the white's   king protection. Now 2 sub variations: 29.Rf1

(29.hxg3 Qxg3+ 30.Kf1 d3 White is a rook ahead, but his king feels lonely. 31.Qc5 Rxe8 32.Qg1 Qf3+ 33.Qf2 Qxf2+ 34.Kxf2 e3+ pawns, pawns, pawns. )

29...Qe3+ 30.Kg2 Qd2+!! A fantastic move.  31.Kxg3 f4+ 32.Kh3 f3 33.Qc2


(33.Rg1 Qh6+ the power of the queen is showed in this backward move.   34.Kg3 Qf4+ 35.Kf2 Qxh2+ 36.Kf1 e3 only black pawns are surrounding the white king.)

33...Qh6+ 34.Kg3 Qg5+ 35.Kf2 Qe3+ 36.Kg3 f2+ 37.Kg4 Qf3+ 38.Kh4 Rf4+ 39.Kg5 Qg4#

Beautiful, isn't it?]

 After this journey in the world of sacrifice and tactics, proving that Black’s game is superior to the white, we can relax and return to the game continuation.




24.c6 exf3?

[24...Qe3+! 25.Kh1 exf3 was the correct order of moves. The move played by White can present to the opponent a chance to complicate the game.]



[25.cxb7?? Qe3+ 26.Kh1 fxg2+ 27.Kxg2 Rf2+ 28.Kg1 Rxb2+ 29.Kh1 Qe4+ 30.Kg1 Qg2#; 25.gxf3?? Qe3+ 26.Kh1 Qxf3+ 27.Kg1 Rf5 28.h4 Qg3+ 29.Kh1 Bxc6+! Deviating the bishop from the h5 square, in order to let the rook land the last blow on that square. 30.Bxc6

(After: 30.Qxc6 the mat is much easier to calculate after 30...Rf2)


 30...Qxh4+ 31.Kg2 Qg4+ 32.Kh2 Rh5# Black's heavy pieces are located on light squares! ]





That’s it. He should have played 26. Rf2, when White is back to the game with force.




[It was possible to play: 26...d3 27.Qxd3 Qxd3 28.Rxd3 f2 29.Rxf2 Rxf2 30.h3 Bc8 31.c7 Rc2 32.Bc6 g6 with a winning position, but this would prevent us from witnessing , at the end of the game, one of the most beautiful positions in the history of chess.]



[27.Bf7 Bg4 28.c7 fxg2+ 29.Rxg2 Bxd1 30.c8Q Why not?! 30...Qe1+ 31.Rg1 Bf3# The 2 white Queens are watching their lovely white king being mated on white squares by the enemy white-squares bishop. ]



With 2 main threats: 28..Qe1+ and 28…d3 (interception motif)




[In case of: 28.Qf1 then comes:  28...Ba6!!]




29.Rc3 Bxd7


The light bishop is not needed any more. Another important factor is that the white’s passed pawed is transferred to the d-file, where the promotion square is a dark color one, which is fully controlled by Black pieces.


30.cxd7 e4


Again, the threat is: Qe1


31.Qc8 Bd8


I told you.


32.Qc4 Qe1


33.Rc1 d2!



34.Qc5 Rg8


35.Rd1 e3

Very esthetic formation.



Now come the final touch of the painter,




37.Rxd1 e2


 A delighted picture on the board that deserves a diagram.



As a conclusion, we can note the following:

1. A pawn majority in the centre is a great positional asset. The correct use of tactics will help you to convert this advantage into a bigger one.

2. Don’t expect that the game will play itself. It is you that you are going to move the pieces. Solving tactical exercises will improve rapidly your vision in choosing the correct candidate move.

3. As the pawns are advancing to their promotional squares, calculate carefully each move, so that not allowing any counter-trap move from your opponent.

4. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice some materials in order to achieve your aim. A sacrifice is always an investment.

5. Applying (2) will facilitate applying (4).

Have a nice day.

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