Last week, we looked at some basic concepts regarding the pawn and its place in the endgame. I wrote about the importance of maintaining a good pawn structure throughout the game. This week, we’ll start to look at this idea in more detail. Let’s dig in!
I mentioned that pawns have perfect structure at the beginning of the game when they are all on their starting squares. I also mentioned that we weaken our pawn structure with many of the moves we make. When I talk about these “moves” I’m not just talking about bad moves. I’m talking about moves that are necessary. A very basic example of this would be, after playing 1. e4…e5, White plays 2. Nf3. If we consider the three pawns on f2, g2, and h2, the White Knight on f3 blocks the f2 pawn. This means the f2 is trapped and unable to work with the g2 and h2 pawns. Of course, White doesn’t need to do anything with the three King-side pawns this early in the game, so it’s not a problem. Why did I use this as an example?
Because all moves have a good and bad aspect to them. The trick is to find moves where the good outweighs the bad. The good part of 2. Nf3 is that White’s Knight attacks the Black e5 pawn and the d4 square, keeps Black’s Queen from poking around on White’s King-side, and brings White one step closer to castling. The bad? The Knight blocks the f2 pawn. The good far outweighs the bad. This is the way you want to think when considering your pawn structure as you make moves throughout the game.
Another idea I want you to consider is a saying I pass on to my students: Don’t capture pawns and pieces unless it helps your game! Beginnings tend to capture everything they can, especially if it’s a hanging piece. Why not capture a piece, especially if it can be captured free of charge (hanging piece)? As the beginner gets better, they start to make even trades of material instead of lopsided trades that cost them material, which is good. However, even an even trade of material can create pawn problems. After 1. d4…d5, 2. Nf3…e6, 3. Nc3…Bb4, 4. a3…Bxc3+, White captures back with 5. bxc3 (as opposed to blocking the check on d2 on move four). The exchange of material is even; a minor piece for a minor piece. However, White’s Queen-side pawn structure is messy, and we’re only five moves into the game!
White now has doubled pawns on the c file. Look at Black pawns on a7, b7, and c7. Each of these pawns can protect the other. Look at White’s pawn on c3. There are no pawns on either b2 or d2 to offer protection to the c3 pawn should it come under attack. This means a piece will have to be used to support the c3 pawn if it comes under attack. This is a waste of resources. The c3 pawn, and the c2 pawn, are an example of doubled pawns.
From a material standpoint, the exchange of Bishop for Knight is even in terms of relative value. However, White pays a price for this exchange in terms of pawn structure. This price can exponentially get higher as the game progresses. So, what should White have done? Rather than tempting the Black Bishop to exchange itself for White’s c3 Knight with 4. a3, White could have played 4. Bd2, blocking the pin. I teach my beginning students about pawn structure early on because it becomes very difficult to break the bad habit of capturing everything they can just for the sake of capturing, and ending up with poor pawn structure.
The general rule of thumb I use with students is this: When considering any move, think about the effect it has on your pawn structure. In the case of blocking in a pawn when moving a piece, ask yourself “does the pawn I’m blocking in need to be used immediately?” In the case of moving the White Knight to f3, the f2 pawn doesn’t need to advance so early in the game. In the case of having to capture Black’s Bishop after it took the Knight, that could have been avoided. What do you use to guide your decision making?
You want to keep pawns on adjacent files (next to each other) throughout the game. In other words, you want to make sure that as pawns advance on the board, there’s another friendly pawn that can come to its rescue should the advancing pawn come under attack. Of course, you can advance a pawn too far, where it can’t immediately be protected by another pawn, but we’ll get into that next week.
For now, I want you to consider what we’ve just reviewed and apply it to your play. Just doing the things I’ve suggested will go a long way towards improving your pawn structure going into the endgame. Next week, we’ll get into a couple of other pawn problems you’ll want to avoid. See you then!