CHESS king in the center

King in the Center

By Donny Gray

Back in the olden days, late 1970’s, GM Larry Christiansen came to Little Rock Arkansas to give an exhibition and lecture. My rating then was around 1800 give or take a rating point or two. Two things stand out about his visit to me that day.

During his lecture I got up the nerve to ask him a question. Standing up, I started by saying that when we played much higher ranked players like IMs or GMs, we had no clue what was going on in the game and we just lost horribly. Then I asked him if during his career there was any opponent that stood out above all others that gave him trouble like that. He said definitely. He said that when he played former world champion Tigran Petrosian he never understood a thing that was going on the board and he lost just like I described!!

Then after the lecture the simul began. During our game I actually got him to the ending with pawns only! However as soon as we got there he placed a pawn right where I could take it. For free!!  It took me by surprise. Figuring he had either lost his mind or was just preoccupied with the other games in the simul I snatched up the pawn with glee! But as soon as I gulped down the pawn a horrible thing happened. His king took over the center. It dominated what seemed to be all 64 squares. Although I was a pawn up, his king ruled the board. Soon I was resigning. It was then I realized the power of a centralized king.

Nowadays one of the things I constantly stress to my students is using the king in endings. In the opening you do not want to keep your king in the center and it is usually best to castle. However, once the queens come off the board, the king can quit being so afraid of being mated and participate in the quest for the win. Usually the best way is to centralize your king as it becomes a powerful force once there. Once in the center it becomes a strong piece in the endgame where it can protect its own pawns, attack your opponent’s pawns, and hinder movement of the opponent’s king.

Now I would like to show an example of a dominating king in the center by former world champion Vassily Smyslov. Smyslov was known for his positional style, and, in particular, his precise handling of the endgame. You can put Smyslov up there with anyone that is associated with great endgame skill. Going through his endings almost always astounds me with fantastic ideas.

The game we will see features former world champion Smyslov going against Wolfgang Uhlmann. Uhlmann was at one time in the top 5 in the world, a candidate for the world championship in the 1970’s, and is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on the French Defense. He refined and improved many of the variations of the French and authored books on the opening. He is one of very few Grandmasters to have deployed the French almost exclusively in reply to 1.e4.

Not only does Smyslov beat Uhlmann and his beloved French in this game, he also does it with tripled pawns!! The ending is, as in most Smyslov endings, fantastic.

Smyslov, Vassily – Uhlmann, Wolfgang
Mar del Plata 27th Mar del Plata, 1966

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 Ne7 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 doubled pawns

c5 7.Nf3 Bd7 8.a4 Qa5 9.Qd2 Nbc6 10.Be2 Rc8 11.dxc5 tripled pawns

Ng6 12.0–0 0–0 13.Qe3 Qc7 14.Nd4 Qxe5 15.Nb5 Qxe3 16.Bxe3 a6 17.Nd6 Rc7 18.a5 e5 19.Rfb1 Nd8 20.Rd1 Bc6 21.Bg4 Ne6 22.Rab1 Ne7 23.g3 f5

So far Rybka says this game is dead even. Rybka would have played 23.Be6 but even then it is basically dead even.

24.Bh3 g6 25.f4 d4 26.cxd4 Nd5 27.Bf2 exd4 28.Bxd4 Nxd4 29.Rxd4 Re7

It is amazing that players in 1966 play Rybka’s 1st or 2nd choice a majority of the time. Here for the first time in the game Uhlmann plays a move that gives white a slight pull. Better according to Rybka is Nc3, maintaining the dead even evaluation. Now Smyslov gains steadily in advantage.

30.Kf2 Nc3 31.Re1 Rxe1 32.Kxe1 Ne4 33.Nxe4 Bxe4 34.c3

Now Smyslov plays the rest of the game with dead eye precision as he was known to do throughout his career; very instructive ending play for the rest of the game.


Of course not 34….Rc8 as 35.Re4! wins on the spot.

35.Rd8+ Kg7 36.Rd7+ Rf7 37.Rxf7+ Kxf7

Think you could win this bishop and pawn ending against a top GM? Doubtful many in the world could, but Smyslov puts on a clinic and shows us all how.

38.Kd2 Ke6

Both kings try to reach the center. As stated earlier this is how to get to a dominate position in most endings. White will be able to while black cannot.

39.c4 Kd7 40.Ke3 Kc6 41.Kd4

And white’s king is on one of the center squares.

Kd7 42.Ke5 Bf3 43.Kf6

White correctly decides to go after black’s king side pawns. Black will now go after white’s queenside pawns, but it will not be good enough. The point of having the king in the center means that white gets to choose how to proceed. This is big.

Kc6 44.Kg7 Kxc5 45.Kxh7 Bh5

If black had taken here with Kc4, white wins easy. Well easy for a GM. For the rest of us, it could go something like this:

46.Kg6 Bc6 47.Bf5 Be8 48.Kg5 Kd5 49.h4 Kd6 50.h5 Ke7 51.Be4 Kf8 52.Bb7 Bb5 53.g4 Kg8 54.f5 Bd3 55.h6 Bc4 56.f6 Kh8 57.Ba6 Be6 58.Bd3

Back to the game….


This is way better than 46.Bg2 b6 47.ab Kb6 48.Bd5 a5 49.c5+ Kc5 50.Bf7 a4 51.Kh6 Kd4 with chances for black. As you can see it can get out of hand in endings like this.

Kb4 47.Bg2

And here Smyslov misses what Rybka the mighty finds instantly! Rybka wants to play g4! and black is dead. Either 47.g4! fg 48.Bd3 or 47.g4! Bg4 48.Kg6 wins the game. Even so, Smyslov’s technique is wonderful from here on out. He found a win in the position, just not the one the computer beast finds 48 years later.

Kxa5 48.Bxb7 Kb6 49.Bc8 a5 50.Bd7 Kc5 51.h3

The threat of winning the bishop wins the g pawn for white. Smyslov now finishes the game off in style.

Bf3 52.Kxg6 Bc6 53.Bxf5 a4 54.Bb1 a3 55.f5 Be4 56.Ba2 Bd3 57.h4 Kd4 58.h5 Ke4 59.g4 Kf4 60.Kg7 1–0


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