A Foundation for Beginners Ninety Eight

Last week, we talked about a few ideas to keep in mind while beginning your studies of the endgame. This week, we’ll start delving deeper into one of those ideas, pawn structure. If you’re wondering just how important pawns and pawn structure are in chess, do an online search of books written about pawns and pawn structure. You’ll find book after book, dedicated to the lowly pawn. Let’s get started!

Pawns are important throughout the game for a variety of reasons. Because they have the lowest relative value, they’re great at defending specific squares within a position. No one generally wants to trade a piece for a pawn, since pieces have a higher relative value compared to the pawn. Pawns can promote into a piece upon reaching their promotion square on the other side of the board. This means that every pawn left on the board during the endgame has the potential to turn into a piece, changing the balance of power in favor of the player with the promoted pawn.

A common mistake I mentioned last week was the casual consideration beginners have regarding the pawn. Worse yet, the beginner being completely oblivious to pawn structure. To address the importance of the pawn, I tell my students that every pawn can promote into a piece, if it reaches its promotion square. If you and your opponent lose your pieces and enter the endgame with their Kings and a few pawns, the player who either has more pawns (generally speaking) or knows how to correctly promote a pawn has a better chance of promoting one of them compared to the player with fewer pawns or knowledge of correct pawn play. However, how those pawns are structured determines who has the real pawn advantage. Let’s talk briefly about pawn structure (we’ll dig into it in detail in later articles).

Pawn structure, simply put, is the relationship pawns have to one another on the chessboard. At the game’s start, pawn structure is perfect. It loses its perfection with each passing move. Wait, that sounds dreadful! What I mean by this is that many pawn moves temporarily put your pawns into a dangerous position. Take 1. e4. If we look at this popular opening move solely from the perspective of pawn structure, moving the pawn to e4 leaves it vulnerable to attack. Moving the pawn to e3 would be much safer because the d2 and f2 pawns would be protecting the e3 pawn. Why do we play 1. e4? Because we can easily defend the e4 pawn on our next move, if necessary, and it gives the King-side Bishop and Queen access to the board.

Chess is a game of concessions. Both players want something specific with each move they make. However, your opponent will always try to stop your game plan, forcing you to make a concession. What does this have to do with pawn structure? In the case of 1. e4, this opening move shatters your perfect initial pawn structure, but is necessary to control the board’s center and get your King-side Bishop into the game. The trick is to be conservative in making moves that disrupt your pawn structure, but not so conservative that you lose momentum regarding piece development.

Pawns work best when they defend each other. Since the pieces are more powerful than the pawn, you want to avoid using pieces for pawn defense. Since pawns attack and defend diagonally, they can protect one another if positioned in pawn chains. A pawn chain is a diagonal formation of pawns. If you had a pawn on c2, d3, and e4, you would have a pawn chain in which the pawn on c2 protected the pawn on d3 which protected the pawn on e4. The pawn on c2 would be the base pawn while the pawn on e4 would be the head of the pawn chain. To destroy this pawn chain, your opponent would have to use a piece to capture the base pawn (c2), then the d3 pawn, and so on. In short, your opponent would have to dedicate material to destroying your pawn structure, taking away from their potential attacks elsewhere on the board.

The best pawn structure contains pawns protecting pawns on the journey to the promotion square. This means that groupings of pawns should have friendly pawns on either side of them to aid in protection. The worst pawn structure involves pawns that are isolated, with no friendly pawns on either side of them. An example of this, for White, would be a pawn on a3, a pawn on c3, and a pawn on e3. Each of these pawns has no friendly pawns on either side of it to offer protection should that pawn come under attack. This means a piece would have to act as a bodyguard, taking that piece out of the game. In our example, three pieces would be needed to defend the three pawns. We call this type of pawn an isolated pawn. There are other types of weak pawns, which we’ll get into next week.

For now, I want you to consider keeping your pawns from becoming isolated. While you sometimes cannot help ending up with an isolated pawn, try to avoid creating them. You can do this by considering what any move you make will do to your pawn structure. I’m not saying that you should avoid making a move that garners a material advantage. Just weigh the benefits of a move in terms of what you get immediately versus how your pawn structure will look going into the endgame.

Next week, we’ll dig deeper into pawn structure and talk about some other weak pawn types. As I mentioned last week, think about your long-term pawn structure from the game’s start. Just don’t go overboard and play for pawn structure only. It’s a balance between the two. Also remember that the more pawns you have going into the endgame, the greater the opportunities for pawn promotion. However, how those pawns are spread across the board matters. We’ll talk about that next week. See you then!

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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