This week, we’re going to do something a little different, talk about beginners’ treatment of the pawn and why it’s so poor. This topic came up in my chess classes last week and thought I’d share it with you.
I teach beginning players who range in age from six to sixteen. Most of my students have little if any chess knowledge. The first member of their respective armies I teach them how to move is the pawn. I start with the pawn because, unlike the other pieces (except for the Knight) who move in straight lines, along the rank, files, and/or diagonals, and capture the way they move, pawns move and capture differently.
My youngest students who claim to know how to play chess, often only know how the pawn moves and only move the pawns during their early games. In either case, the pawn is a great place to begin. I always start my classes with a breakdown of the relative value of the pawns and pieces. I do this because when my students eventually start exchanging material during their first games, I don’t want them making lopsided trades such as their Queen for their opponent’s Knight. We go over pawn and piece value at the start of every class until it’s etched into my student’s memories. However, this can create a false valuation of the pawn!
Pawns are the basis for relative value, being worth the least, in terms of points. Students will ask me why we have a relative value system in chess. I answer, because it reminds you of the level of power each member of your army has. The higher the number, the greater the power. Again, this can reflect poorly on the pawn who is at the bottom of the value scale (one point). Pawns can be extremely valuable when you consider a few things they can do that the pieces can’t.
The first and most obvious is the pawn’s ability to promote upon crossing the board and reaching its promotion square. If a piece reaches the other side of the board from its starting rank, it has simply crossed the board. When a pawn reaches the other side of the board, it can promote or turn into a Queen, Rook, Knight, or Bishop (it cannot promote into a King nor continue its life as a pawn). Trading in a one-point pawn for brand new, nine point Queen seems pretty important and game changing to me!
The other great thing about the pawn is its low relative value. Wait, what? Think about it! Because the pawn is worth one point and the pieces range in value from three to nine points, the pawn can defend a square and keep pieces off that square or attack a piece and force it to move. Since the pieces are worth more than the pawns, pieces that can be captured by a pawn will generally lead to a losing exchange. You want to either have an even exchange of material or a profitable exchange in which you gain a few points of material. While stronger players will sometimes sacrifice a piece for a pawn, most players will think twice about letting a lowly one-point pawn capture their higher valued piece.
The other big pawn problem is that players start the game with eight pawns each. Beginners tend to think that this means pawns are expendable. They are not! You have a lot of pawns because you will have to exchange a few during the early phases of the game to advance your pieces toward the enemy King. However, this doesn’t mean you should trade them all away and use the pieces to beat your opponent.
The general idea is to advance your central pawns (e and d file pawns) why trying to maintain the other pawns for use in the endgame. You also want to keep the remaining pawns next to one another, so you don’t create pawn islands, which is the topic of my next article. In closing, be kind to those pawns because should you find yourself without any pieces during the endgame, you better hope you have a pawn or three. Remember, pawns can promote into pieces and that is a very good thing. See you next time!