In chess, space is nice—except when it’s not.
I (hope I) learned a lot about space from the following inputs.
Slater (2140) – Schoch (2303)
What I thought at the time: I’m not sure white has an overall advantage, but black’s light-squared bishop is bad. And his other bishop is momentarily not doing anything, unless he wants to play …e5, which obviously creates an isolated d-pawn. Also I have the opportunity to expand on the queenside, which looks like my logical plan. There’s no basis for kingside or central play for white.
So I played 13.b4. Gaining space, keeping the black knight from going to a5 to target c4. This is not terrible, but my followup was poor. Stockfish says the position is more or less equal before and after this expansion. It likes 13.Rc1 slightly better, but not much. And it recommends 13…a6 as black’s response.
Instead my opponent challenged the expansion immediately with 13…a5. And this is where I played a very bad move, failing to recognize the potential tradeoff of space: weak squares in the wake.
14.Qb3? (-0.3; 14.b5 was necessary as black now demonstrates) 14…axb4
Now I played a bunch of stupid stuff and dissolved completely. But even after Stockfish’s recommended 16.b5 Na5 17.Qb2 Rfc8, let’s look at what white has done to his position (and black’s).
Compare this to the first position above. Then, black’s bishops had little to do. Now, the d7 bishop is attacking an isolated white pawn, and the bishop didn’t have to move to do so. I gave it a constructive job myself. The g7 bishop will come back to f8 and then the b4 square is a potential invasion spot. And the knight and rook coordinate on c4. It’s not totally lost for white by any means, but now black has targets to look at and can choose how he wants to probe these various squares.
Let’s rewind to the first diagram and play correctly, and see what a difference it makes.
Compare this to the second diagram just above. Now it feels like white is the one with options. Black’s knight did not get to a5; it could eventually eye c4 again but has to spend a couple of tempi to do so (starting with …Nc8). Black’s Bd7 is looking at my pawn again, but the pawn is not isolated. I can push a4 immediately to support it, or I can wait and consider a move like Na4 first, looking at his dark squares. In the meantime, my b4 square is not weakened.
Again, white doesn’t have any crushing advantage, but I would be dictating the play and black would be trying to neutralize my ideas.
I won’t belabor the point much further but here’s a relevant tidbit from a game Aronian-Grishuk 2011.
Black has space on the queenside, but what is that space giving him? Grishuk now played 16…a5, and here is a comment from GM annotator Lars Schandorff, about the tradeoffs between space and weakness:
“16…a5 The normal reaction. Black defends both pawns, but all the light squares become available for the white pieces to invade the queenside.”
The game continued 17. Bc4 Qd6 18. Bd4 Ncd7 19. Qe2 Ng4 20. Rfe1 Rfe8 21. Ba6 Ra8 22. Bb5 Bxd4 23. Rxd4 Ngf6 24. h3 Rab8 25. Ba4 Red8 and now after 26.Rc1 Nc5 27.Bc6 “it is difficult for black to find constructive moves” – Schandorff.
Striking how white has used the light squares c4, b5, a6, c6 and a4 to slowly bind black up. Squares left behind in the forward march of the black queenside pawns. Exacerbated by the absence of his light-squared bishop, just as my missing dark-squared bishop contributed to the weakness of a3 and b4 in the Schoch game.
Space is nice—but I have to pay attention to the squares behind the pawns.