A Foundation for Beginners Forty

Alright, we briefly looked at pawn structures over the last two articles. This week, we are going to finish examining pawn structure by looking at pawn majorities and minorities. Again, it is extremely important that you consider pawn structure, and do everything you can to maintain a healthy structure, early in the game. However, we often find ourselves with less than perfect pawn structure. This is a problem that you see more often in beginners games. However, even strong players can suffer this beginner’s fate. I was going to go over further examples of strengthening your weakened pawns this week but decided to talk about pawn majorities and minorities instead. You will see the strengthening of weaken pawns when we finish our beginners game next weak. Today, I want to talk about pawn majorities and minorities because of a game I watched played between two of my beginning students last week.

We’ll start by defining the term pawn majority and pawn minority. The chessboard can be divided in a number of ways. You can divide it horizontally in half, with the first through fourth ranks being White’s side of the board and the fifth through eighth ranks being Black’s side of the board. However, you can also divide the board in half vertically, with the a through d files being called the Queen-side and the e through h files being the King-side. It’s this vertical division that we will be looking at today in regards to pawn structure.

At the start of the game, both players begin with four pawns on the Queen-side and four pawns on the King-side. When a player has a pawn majority, they have either more pawns on the Queen-side or more pawns on the King-side than their opponent. If a player has a minority, they have fewer pawns on either the Queen-side or King-side than their opponent. The trick here is to remember to consider the concept of pawn majorities and minorities every single time you make a move. Of course, I don’t mean that you should only make a move if it strengthens your pawn structure and never make a move if it doesn’t! You can’t play chess in this manner. Wait a minute, “I’m supposed to keep pawn structure, majorities and minorities in the forefront of my thoughts but then put those thoughts aside when considering a move?” Not exactly. Let me explain.

If you’ve developed sufficient chess skills that keep you from being mated early in the game, you’ll probably end up playing out an endgame. Of course, there’s a lot that can happen between the opening and endgames, including being forced into damaging your own pawn structure, so you often cannot help being saddled with at least slightly bad pawn structure. If White has Knight on c3 and Black has a Bishop on b4, and Black decides to trade Bishop for Knight, White might have to create a weakness if the only way to capture the Bishop involves one of the pawns on the b or d files. This exchange would leave White with doubled pawns. If White didn’t capture Black’s Bishop with a pawn, that Black Bishop might be able to capture more material. Therefore, White has to accept a pawn weakness to avoid a substantial material loss. These types of positions happen all the time. Last week, we looked at possible ways to use a doubled pawn in a positive way. However, if we used the doubled pawn on c3 (after the capture of the Black Bishop) to create a problem for Black that lead to that pawn being sacrificed, we would have one less pawn on the Queen-side.

Many endgames come down to pawns, and the player that has more pawns is King (in most cases). If you have four pawns on the King-side and your opponent has two, you have twice as many pawns. We’ll get into what to do with our pawns in the endgame when we examine that phase of the game. For now, I want you consider the actions that need to be taken to go into the endgame with a pawn majority. To explain this idea, I’ll give you a basic glimpse of how I do it:

It starts during the opening. I know it seems a bit too early to be thinking about the endgame but hear me out! I am by no means a great player. In fact, I consider myself a slightly above average player, which is fine. My skill is in explaining and teaching concepts which I am pretty good at! I mention this because it means that I am in the trenches with those of you trying to improve your chess skills. After I choose three potential candidate moves, something you should always do, the last question I ask myself is how the move I finally choose will effect my pawn structure in the long term. Thankfully, not all moves will greatly effect your pawn structure long term. After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3, as White, I am not worried that my Knight on f3 is blocking in the f2 pawn since I want to keep my initial pawn structure intact for as long as possible. That’s a move that doesn’t require a great deal of thought regarding my pawn structure. Let’s say that, as White, I see that Black can move a Knight to b4 which will allow it to then capture (on Black’s next turn) the pawn on c2 which leads to a nasty fork of the White King and a1 Rook.

A simple way to stop this potential fork is to move either the a or c pawn to either a3 or c3. I would move the c2 pawn to c3, which might allow me to push the d pawn to d4 later on. However, I would consider what moving the c pawn did to my pawn structure. Remember, pawns can’t move backwards so any pawn move is permanent. What if Black had the opportunity to move a piece to a square on the fifth rank that might lead to another devastating fork? Would I move a the a or c pawn two squares forward where it would be alone, with no other friendly pawns to protect it, just to stop my opponent’s piece? I would have to give this some real thought because that pawn could become a target and if captured, I’d lose one of my pawns. By losing that pawn I might end up with a pawn minority.

If I lost that pawn later in the game, I would now have pawns on the a, b and d files. If my opponent still had pawns on the a, b, c and d files, they would have the majority. I’d also have a hole on my pawn structure that could be a disadvantage.

The point here is to consider the effect of any move you make on your pawn structure. While there are times when you have to damage your pawn structure, beginners tend to help create damage by not thinking about the effect moves have on their pawn structure. With every move I make, I ask myself, what does this move do to my pawn structure and do I have a majority or minority after making that move.

This idea of majorities and minorities is so important that players will often trade a piece for a pawn if it means gaining the majority or evening things out. If I see that I have an extra piece compared to my opponent but they have three pawns on the King-side to my two pawns, I would consider trading that piece for one of my opponent’s pawns to even things up. If my opponent and I are even in the number of pawns on the Queen-side and I have an extra piece, I may trade that piece for a pawn to gain the majority. Having a majority is that important!

Of course, if you’re careful and consider your pawn structure early on, you won’t have to make such decisions. Always consider your pawns early on. Don’t trade them away if doing so means you’ll end up with a pawn minority. Play for the majority which means considering the effect a move has on your pawn structure. There are exceptions to this but we won’t examine them until we study the endgame. For now, just try to keep as many pawns as possible throughout the game. If you have to give a pawn up or weaken your position, try to fix that weakness as soon as possible. If you have a majority of pawns on the Queen-side or King-side, maintain that majority. If you have a minority on the Queen-side or King-side, try to even things out. Think about your pawns from the game’s start and you’ll enter the endgame with a better position. Next week, we will see this in the conclusion of our beginner’s game which demonstrates what we have been looking at over the last two weeks. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Hugh Patterson

Author: Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat). View all posts by Hugh Patterson

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