Pawn Islands. I forgot to really talk about pawn islands! One of my students, who is reading this series of articles, asked me about pawn islands during a class last week and why I didn’t write more about them. Therefore, that is what we will look at this week. Sorry to put off our student game again but ultimately my goal is to teach people how to play better chess and I consider student input extremely important. The more I thought about this topic, the more I realized how important the concept of pawn islands are when it comes to the endgame and that transitional period between the middle and endgame.
Exactly what are pawn islands? Well, we know that an island is a land mass that is surrounded on all sides by water. I mention this because it will make understanding pawns islands easier. Simply put, a pawn island is a grouping of pawns belonging to the same color that are not connected to other groupings of pawns of the same color due to an empty file on either side of the pawn grouping. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the phrase “simply put.” Let me give you an example of pawn islands. Get out a chessboard and both Black and White’s pawns. Set up White pawns on a2, c3,d4, f3, g4 and h3. Set up Black pawns on a7, b6, d6, e5, g7 and h6. White has three pawn islands. The first pawn island is made up of the a2 pawn. The second pawn island is made up of the c3 and d4 pawns. The third island is made up of the f3, g4 and h3 pawns. Black also has three pawn islands. The first pawn island is made up of the a7 and b6 pawns. The second pawn island is made up of the d6 and e5 pawns. The third pawn island is made up of the g7 and h6 pawns. What makes each of these pawn grouping pawn islands are the empty files (devoid of pawns) that separate them.
The general rule of thumb is as follows: The fewer pawn islands you have, the better off you are. The more pawn islands you have, the greater your potential problems. In short, the more pawn islands you have going into the endgame, the more difficult things will become. Why do pawn islands cause problems?
Remember, earlier in this series of articles, we talked about isolated pawns, those pawns with no friendly pawns on either adjacent file to aid the isolated pawn should it need to be defended. A piece would have to come to the aid of the isolated pawn when that pawn comes under attack. This takes the piece out of the game from an attacking perspective. When you are down to a limited number of pieces during the endgame, you need those pieces to deliver checkmate rather than using those pieces for defensive purposes. This idea of having to defend an isolated pawn with a piece holds true with pawn islands. Wait, some of the pawns in the example we just set up can protect one another, so why should we worry?
Yes, some of those pawns can protect one another. However, there are fewer pawns and pieces in play during the endgame which means it is easier for your opponent to get at those pawns, even if they can protect one another. Let’s quickly look at the pawn chain. A pawn chain is made up of a grouping of pawns connected to one another on adjacent diagonal squares. For example, as White, if you had pawns on c2, d3 and e4, you would have a pawn chain. All pawn chains have a base and a head. In our pawn chain, the base pawn is the c2 pawn and the head pawn is the e4 pawn. During the middle-game, there is generally a great deal of material on the board and in play. To start demolishing a pawn chain, you have to start by capturing the base pawn. If there are a lot of pieces in play, this becomes a difficult task. However, during the endgame, there are fewer pieces in play which makes attacking the base pawn a much easier task. If your pawn chain (such as those in our example) is made up of two pawns and there are few pieces belonging to you on the board, it is relatively easy for your opponent to take out the base pawn. This means you have to keep the base pawns belonging to each pawn island protected! Thus, the more pawn islands you have, the more pieces you’ll have to employ to possibly protect those islands.
The fewer pawn islands you have and the larger those pawn islands are (having a greater number of pawns) the better your endgame will be. A player with four pawn islands has to cover all of those pawn islands when they are attacked. If those pawn islands are made up of one or two pawns each, they are likely to be easy to destroy. The player with two pawn islands made up of three and four pawns only have to defend two pawn islands, which is an easier task than defending four pawn islands. The greater number of pawns making up a pawn island matters as well.
If you have four pawns making up a pawn island, those four pawns can easily work together to push one of them to it’s promotion square. This means that your opponent will have to tie up a fair amount of material to stop a potential promotion. A pawn island made up of two pawns is much easier to squelch. You can control the number of pawn islands you end up with going into the endgame to a certain extent, starting early in the game.
I’ve said repeatedly that you should consider your pawn structure from the game’s start. This holds true for pawn islands as well. Of course, you cannot help making moves that disrupt your pawn structure. When you make a move that may alter your pawn structure, always consider that move’s effect on the number of pawn islands you ultimately have going into the endgame. You should also consider moves that damage your opponent’s pawn structure. If you have a chance to exchange material of equal value and it leaves your opponent with doubled or isolated pawns, or an extra pawn island, you get an added value in that exchange; the damaging of your opponent’s pawn structure. Always think about pawn islands when considering your pawn structure. If you keep pawn islands in mind early on, you’ll be less likely to end up with too many pawn islands going into the endgame.
I mentioned trying to damage your opponent’s pawn structure because beginners tend to think about “damage” in terms of having more material than their opponent. Chess is a positional game in which the position changes from move to move. A position is simply the arrangement of both players pawns and pieces at any given point during the game. As the beginner gains experience, they discover that the concept of damage can apply to weaknesses within a given position. They start to purposely create damage by weakening their opponent’s position. Damaging or weakening your opponent’s pawn structure is extremely helpful. If your opponent has a better pawn structure than you, going into the middle-game, look for ways in which to damage or weaken your opponent’s pawn structure.
In regards to pawn majorities and minorities, forcing the creation of pawn islands in your opponent’s position can be useful. If your opponent has four pawns on the Queen-side and you have three, look for an exchange that might split those four enemy pawns up so they then have three pawns but two pawn islands. Just make sure to keep an eye out on your own pawns so your opponent doesn’t try the same thing with you. Good endgame pawn structure always comes down to maintaining hat structure early on. However, don’t be afraid to make a move that has merit even if it causes a minor problem with your pawn structure. Hopefully, if one of my students doesn’t chime in with a suggestion, we’ll finish that student game. Here’s a game to enjoy until then!