Yes, we have all heard phrases like 'control the centre'. I would like to know the concrete reason why the centre of the board - in particular the 4 squares - e4, e5, d4, d5, are considered important in chess. What makes them different from any other square? What is the reason that these squares supposedly enjoy such a privileged status compared to other squares? Are they important only in the opening and not so important in the middle and end game? Why? Or is it all just a myth?
While (e4, d4, e5, d5) are generally regarded as the central squares, the same principle can sometimes be extended to the adjacent squares like (c4, c5, d3, d6, e3, e6, f4, f5). So we have a kind of central polygon -
Controlling the center is not an end in itself but a means to an end. The end results could be any combination of the following-
1. Greater influence over the board.
Normally, if you control the center, then your pieces have more control over the whole board in general. Thus, a knight centralized on e5 generally controls more important squares than a knight passively placed, say, on a4.
Karpov vs Kasparov World Championship Match (1985), Game 16 - Kasparov anchors a Black knight on d3 which was famously described as the "octupus", controlling several key squares in White's position and greatly influencing the entire board. White's knights on the other hand are pushed to passive squares like a4 and b1, exerting almost no control over the board.
[FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"] [White "Karpov"] [Black "Kasparov"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nb5 d6 6. c4 Nf6 7. N1c3 a6 8. Na3 d5 9. cxd5 exd5 10. exd5 Nb4 11. Be2 Bc5 12. O-O O-O 13. Bf3 Bf5 14. Bg5 Re8 15. Qd2 b5 16. Rad1 Nd3 17. Nab1 h6 18. Bh4 b4 19. Na4 Bd6 20. Bg3 Rc8 21. b3 g5 22. Bxd6 Qxd6 23. g3 Nd7 24. Bg2 Qf6 25. a3 a5 26. axb4 axb4 27. Qa2 Bg6 28. d6 g4 29. Qd2 Kg7 30. f3 Qxd6 31. fxg4 Qd4 32. Kh1 Nf6 33. Rf4 Ne4 34. Qxd3 Nf2 35. Rxf2 Bxd3 36. Rfd2 Qe3 37. Rxd3 Rc1 38. Nb2 Qf2 39. Nd2 Rxd1 40. Nxd1 Re1 0-1
2. Greater mobility of pieces.
Often, if the central pawns are not advanced two squares, they can hinder the bishops from development. They provide less space for the pieces to move. If these pawns are advanced to the central squares, then the mobility of the pieces is greatly enhanced. Thus, e2-e4 frees the bishop on f1 and d2-d4 does the same for the bishop on c1. Besides, these moves also make room for the queen on d1 and later for the rooks to come into the game on the d or e files if they have been opened.
Paul Morphy vs James McConnell, 1849 - Morphy follows basic opening principles; develops pieces towards the center, advances pawns to e4 and d4, his bishops come to life and the Black queen is at the mercy of his centralized pieces.
[FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"] [White "Morphy"] [Black "McConnell"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Qf6 3. Nc3 c6 4. d4 exd4 5. e5 Qg6 6. Bd3 Qxg2 7. Rg1 Qh3 8. Rg3 Qh5 9. Rg5 Qh3 10. Bf1 Qe6 11. Nxd4 Qe7 12. Ne4 h6 13. Nf5 Qe6 14. Nfd6 Bxd6 15. Nxd6 Kd8 16. Bc4 Qe7 17. Nxf7 Kc7 18. Qd6 Qxd6 19. exd6 Kb6 20. Be3 c5 21. Bxc5 Ka5 22. Rg3 b5 23. Ra3 1-0
3. Restricted mobility of enemy pieces.
Suppose white manages to place both pawns on d4 and e4. This makes it difficult for the Black bishops to find good squares like c5 or f5. They thus have to remain passive or try a fianchetto, which might not always be convenient. Also, the pawns on d4 and e4 restrict and also have the ability to attack the Black knights which might normally be developed on c6 or f6. This constant potential to threaten the Black knights can make it difficult for Black to develop pieces comfortably.
Karpov vs Kasparov World Championship 1986, Game 5. - Karpov demonstrates how pawns in the center can restrict a fianchettoed Bishop.
[FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"] [White "Karpov"] [Black "Kasparov"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Bf4 Bg7 5. e3 c5 6. dxc5 Qa5 7. Rc1 Ne4 8. cxd5 Nxc3 9. Qd2 Qxa2 10. bxc3 Qxd2 11. Kxd2 Nd7 12. Bb5 O-O 13. Bxd7 Bxd7 14. e4 f5 15. e5 e6 16. c4 Rfc8 17. c6 bxc6 18. d6 c5 19. h4 h6 20. Nh3 a5 21. f3 a4 22. Rhe1 a3 23. Nf2 a2 24. Nd3 Ra3 25. Ra1 g5 26. hxg5 hxg5 27. Bxg5 Kf7 28. Bf4 Rb8 29. Rec1 Bc6 30. Rc3 Ra5 31. Rc2 Rba8 32. Nc1 1-0
4. Pawns move closer to the enemy king.
Generally, in an attack on the enemy king, it is important to have a few pawns near the enemy king to make it difficult for the opposing pieces to defend the position. If the Black king (for example) castles to the kingside, then it usually helps White to have a pawn on e5, because then Black cannot place a knight on f6, which is the most natural defensive position for the knight on the kingside.
Fischer vs Myagmarsuren, 1967 - Bobby Fischer fixes a pawn on e5 to drive the Black knight from f6 and then proceeds to win with a kingside attack in instructive fashion.
[FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"] [White "Fischer"] [Black "Myagmarsuren"] 1. e4 e6 2. d3 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6 4. g3 c5 5. Bg2 Nc6 6. Ngf3 Be7 7. O-O O-O 8. e5 Nd7 9. Re1 b5 10. Nf1 b4 11. h4 a5 12. Bf4 a4 13. a3 bxa3 14. bxa3 Na5 15. Ne3 Ba6 16. Bh3 d4 17. Nf1 Nb6 18. Ng5 Nd5 19. Bd2 Bxg5 20. Bxg5 Qd7 21. Qh5 Rfc8 22. Nd2 Nc3 23. Bf6 Qe8 24. Ne4 g6 25. Qg5 Nxe4 26. Rxe4 c4 27. h5 cxd3 28. Rh4 Ra7 29. Bg2 dxc2 30. Qh6 Qf8 31. Qxh7 1-0
5. A favorable exchange of pawns in the center leaving the enemy camp with weaknesses.
Normally, when pawns are placed in the center, the opponent has to challenge them at some point in the future. This can often lead to favorable pawn exchanges and may lead to isolated pawns or backward pawns in the enemy camp, which can be vulnerable in some positions.
Rubinstein vs Salwe, 1908 - Here, Rubinstein creates a backward pawn on c6 and then masterfully exploits it.
[FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"] [White "Rubinstein, Akiba"] [Black "Salwe, Georg"] 1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 c5 3. c4 e6 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Nc3 Nf6 6. g3 Nc6 7. Bg2 cxd4 8. Nxd4 Qb6 9. Nxc6 bxc6 10. O-O Be7 11. Na4 Qb5 12. Be3 O-O 13. Rc1 Bg4 14. f3 Be6 15. Bc5 Rfe8 16. Rf2 Nd7 17. Bxe7 Rxe7 18. Qd4 Ree8 19. Bf1 Rec8 20. e3 Qb7 21. Nc5 Nxc5 22. Rxc5 Rc7 23. Rfc2 Qb6 24. b4 a6 25. Ra5 Rb8 26. a3 Ra7 27. Rxc6 Qxc6 28. Qxa7 Ra8 29. Qc5 Qb7 30. Kf2 h5 31. Be2 g6 32. Qd6 Qc8 33. Rc5 Qb7 34. h4 a5 35. Rc7 Qb8 36. b5 a4 37. b6 Ra5 38. b7 1-0
As I mentioned, these are the end results that a side tries to achieve by controlling the center. If the end result is already achieved, or if it can be obtained in a better way, then there is no need to control the center.
In addition to things already said, notice that pieces have more moves if they're in the center of the board. E.g., a knight on one of the squares in the 4x4 space in the center has 8 moves; as the knight moves towards the edge, he has fewer moves that he can make. It is the same with the other pieces.
Books with precise speech will say that what's important is to control the center, not necessarily be in the center -- an important difference. Just having pawns in the center, for instance, would not get you any advantage. They need to be controlling one or more squares that pieces can use.
It is certainly not a myth! As pointed out control of the centre squares either by direct occupation with pieces or pawns or indirectly via major and minor pieces gives more control over the chess board. Pawns and pieces in the centre of the board affect the most squares compared to being on the outer flank squares and those on the board edge squares exert the least control of the board.
If you don't control these centre squares and let your opponent control them, they will have an easier game than if they have to fight for their control (so don't concede the centre without some other form of good compensation or you will regret it against any good player whose pieces and pawns in the centre will in effect be stronger!).
Some games are classed as open/semi-open or closed. Central openings often give rise to open or semi open games where centre files may become fully open or semi-open (ie with only one pawn on the file or no pawns). In open games pieces can be used more to control the centre. In closed games the pawns are supported and make it harder for the pieces to find good squares.
Some openings are designed to take central control. In the aggressive Sicilian defence black tries to exchange his c pawn for a centre pawn of white and try and control the centre that way. The Scandinavian opening immediately challenges the centre.
This central control concept does hold true more in the opening and midgame than the end game. In the endgame with only Kings and pawns left, other factors are more important (eg pawn structure, numbers and king position).
Still like many principals in chess there is more to chess than controlling the centre, but if you can control the centre you will have an advantage! This though does not mean you should neglect the flank/outer squares. If you let your opponent attack at will on the flanks with pieces and/or pawns you will be at a disadvantage too. So you need to be alert ("on the ball") in chess over the whole board and if you do concede the centre then beware!