The so-called “tense center” is really the starting pawn structure of the Ruy Lopez, from there the position can (and probably will !) evolve in other types of structure, such as the closed one or the mobile one that we will tackle in separate articles. The tense center, though, has a dynamic of its own and thus deserves to be studied carefully.
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These first nine moves are automatic on the highest levels, and the nature of the position will be decided in the next couple of moves. Here black is the one that gets to choose the variation.
These five variations are considered to be the main lines of the closed Spanish. All of them feature the central tension between the d4 and the e5 pawn. The basic strategic ideas are similar, even though every variation is, of course, unique and is based on a distinct idea by black.
The main strategic basis of this tension is white’s and black’s reluctance to release it.
It is generally considered that whoever gives in and releases the tension first has made a concession, albeit a small one. This doesn’t mean that neither side should exchange central pawns, but rather that they should do so in a favorable moment.
Before you move on to looking at thematic patterns, have a look at this very tense central battle played between Areshchenko and Grandelius at the 2016 Porticcio Open. Focus on tension releasing moves. Did either side have a favorable moment to chance the central structure? If so, why do you think they missed it ?
After you have read the chapter, go through the game again. Have your conclusions changed ?
A waiting game
This type of pawn center will inevitably lead to one of the three formations described in the other chapters:
- plans in the Ruy Lopez closed center
- plans in the Ruy Lopez mobile center
- plans in the Ruy Lopez symmetrical center
Before that happens, however, there are thematic patterns in this “status quo”.
Black attacks the d4 pawn
The d4 pawn is the weakest point in the white position. Although it is most often supported by the c3 pawn and by the f3 knight, it is common for black to put pressure on it until white cracks and either exchanges it, pushes it forward, or loses it.
Black has a very subtle maneuver which can help him increase the pressure on d4. This maneuver is often the decisive factor which forces white to react and break the tension.
This bishop transfer also serves to defend the e5 pawn, the main target for white in these tense structures (see below).
White’s 9th move in the Closed Ruy, h3, can be avoided, but would lead to big problems in regards to d4. It is therefore necessary to combine tense center positions with the move h3.
As seen in the Chigorin Variation, black can also simply target the d4 pawn with c5. This is, of course, the strongest of all four strategic plans and will often lead to white conceding in the center.