Pawn structure is one of the most important parts of the chess game. You start with eight pawns, by far the most of any piece. Your pawn structure will determine the specific strategy that you employ the rest of the game. You need to form your strategy around your pawn structure.
Some versions of pawns structure are inherently weak. They become weaker as the game goes along; they are very severe in the endgame (e.g. double pawns), and become weaker and weaker as the middle game goes along.
Though these structures are usually bad, they aren’t always. Here are six possibilities of what pawn weaknesses can be:
- Tolerable, if you got something in return for the weakness. If you get an outpost in exchange for the backward pawn (see later, w/ knight on d6, pawns on e5 and d4), you can make the trade off.
- Neutral, if it doesn’t matter: sometimes, the opponent has too few pieces for it to make a difference, or they are in no position to attack it. E.g. Ruy Lopez, exchange variation (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6), the doubled pawns are okay. As a side note, there is a rule that you should capture toward center, but this opening suspends it for developmental purposes.
- Irrelevant, since issue will be decided by pieces.
- Strong, but this doesn’t happen too often.
- Transient, and will soon be exchanged or weakness will somehow end (i.e. an opponent pawn moves into square in front of backward pawn),
- Weak. This is the most common case.
A backward pawn is one which is either next to or behind all neighboring pawns on a half-open file.
An instructive game, arising out of the Queen’s Gambit Declined:
- d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Nbd2 5. e3 Be7 6. Nf3 O-O 7. Rc1
Black faces a common problem arising from the first two moves: how does he develop his bishop? Black tries one variation:
7…b6 8. cxd5 exd5.
White now has a half-open file against the backward pawn. One game continued:
9. Bb5 Bb7 10. O-O a6 11. Ba4 Rc1 12. Qe2
Black has a dilemma. If he leaves the pawn on c7 at home, it is a weak backward pawn. If he pushes it, he either gets a “hanging phalanx” or “isolated phalanx” (i.e. two pawns next to each other on the 4th rank that don’t have other pawns supporting them), or he can get an isolated pawn.
12…c5 13. dxc5 Nxc5 14. Rfd1.
White trains his rook on the weak pawn; this pawn structure dictated White and Black’s strategy for the rest of the game.
This example shows how weak pawns can arise from certain openings, and illustrates examples of what weak pawns are.
Conditions in which a backward pawn is okay:
- When it can be safely advanced before it becomes fixed, or
- The opponent can’t open the file to attack it from the front
- It can be sheltered from an outpost ahead of it.
An isolated pawn is a pawn without any pawns next to it.
· It is an intrinsic weakness: it can’t be guarded by other pawns, but only pieces.
· If attacked, it can tie up a bunch of pieces
· The square in front of the pawn is a great place for enemy pieces; the square can’t be attacked by pawns, and is protected from the front by the isolated pawn itself.
· It can be neutral in the endgame; the weakness is based on an evaluation of holes and king position. (If you only have one pawn left, of course it will be isolated!
· In certain situations, it can be quite strong, if it opens up attacking lanes and ties enemy pieces down.
The isolated Queen Pawn (d-pawn):
The same rules apply to any isolated pawn; however, since isolated queen pawns are by far the most common in normal chess play, most examples deal with the queen pawn.
Game: Rubinstein v. Marshall
Akiva Rubinstein was a famous Jewish grandmaster, who studied to be a Rabbi before devoting his attention to Chess. Franklin Marshall was an American grandmaster, famous for his attacking style.
Don’t ask me about the opening; it is kind of strange.
1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 c5 3. c4 e6 White will now isolate Black’s queen pawn:
4. cxd5 exd5 Other options will give White a significant lead in development.
Though White’s king is exposed to a check, and is slightly open, it’s okay, since on the Queenside, a bishop will always be able to interpose. On the kingside, though, the bishop is next to the king; that’s why queen checks can be important on the king side.
5. Nc3 Nc6 6. g3
White fianchettoes his bishop to attack the pawn on d5.
6…Nf6 7. Bg2
The usual continuation is …Be7 (if white gains tempo by capturing, then Black advances his pawn)
7…cxd4 8. nxd4 Bc5 9. Nb3 Bb4
Even though they moved a piece twice in the opening, it is okay, since the gain realized by the isolated pawn is much greater than the lost move. Now Black will give Whtie his own isolated pawn. Black threatens …d4, utilizing the pin, so White prevents this:
10. O-O Bxc3 11. bxc3 O-O
Now, looking at the position, you see that White’s isolated pawn is weaker than Black’s, so he changes the picture by a pawn sacrifice.
12. Bg5 Be6 13. Nc3 Qe2 14. Nxe6 fxe6 15. c4 dxc4 16. Bxc6 bxc6 17. Qd4
After this firestorm, Black is left with three isolated pawns, two of them doubled. White’s pawn “sacrifice” is quickly proven to be sound: he will win back a pawn easily, and most likely a next one. (The pawn structure near White’s king is okay, since Black can’t exploit it as he just traded most of his pieces). Also, White is up a Bishop for Black’s knight, another good thing.
Collateral Threats-secondary threats associated with the main threat. E.g. if you attack an isolated pawn, you could be threatening other things as well. These tie up the defending pieces, and usually, one of the two threats is realized.
In summary, not only should you seek to prevent weak pawn structure from occuring in your position, you should also try inflicting it upon your opponent.