A Foundation for Beginners Thirty Nine

Last week, we examined some concepts you should employ during the transition between the middle and endgame. We briefly touched on the role pawns play. This week and next, I want to really drive home just how important pawns are, not only throughout the game but especially during the endgame (we’ll finish our student game next month). Beginners tend to neglect pawns because of their low relative value and the fact that the game starts with eight of them. However, when the beginner realizes that pawns have the ability to promote into pieces, their view of the once lowly pawn changes. Sadly, the beginners handling of pawns gets worse because they will do anything they can to get one pawn to it’s promotion square so they can gain a Queen! Beginners will lose the majority of their pawns in an effort to promote one of them! The pawns you have to work with in the endgame are born in the opening and middle-game. Remember that!

At the beginning of the game, with all the pawns on their starting squares, you have perfect pawn structure. Unfortunately, you have to move some of those pawns in order to get the majority of your pieces into the game. With each move, you weaken your starting pawn structure. However, you have multiple opportunities to restrengthen your pawn structure if you know what to do and what to avoid. While this series of articles deals with the transition from middle to endgame, I feel the need to briefly go back to the opening to make my point.

The beginner can easily become overwhelmed with pawn theory, much of it going right over their heads due to its advanced nature. Here’s a simple though to consider in regards to maintaining good pawn structure so you have an advantage going into the endgame: Every single time you consider a pawn or piece move, ask yourself if that move strengthens or weakens your pawn structure? Now, let’s look at what weakens and what strengthens a pawn structure.

Pawns work best when they work together, while pawns that operate on their own are doomed to be captured. Pawns have a unique way of working together in pawn chains. A pawn chain is a group of pawns in which each pawn in next to another pawn diagonally. An example would be a pawn on c2, d3 and e4. The pawn on c2 protects the pawn on d3, while the pawn on d3 protects the pawn on e4. Pawns chains have a head and a base. In our example, the pawn on e4 is the head and the pawn on c2 is the base. In order for your opponent to break up your pawn chain, he or she would have to attack the base pawn on c2. Of course, they could attack either the d3 or e4 pawns, but if they were using a piece to do so, they would lose material. The reason pawn chains or pawns that can easily form a chain are so powerful is because they can work together to move up the board heading towards a possible promotion. Often, your opponent will have to give up material (pieces) to stop them. Because pawns have the lowest relative value compared to the pieces, they can force your opponents pieces back. Of course, you have to have good pawn structure to create pawn chains!

This brings us back to the opening. One of the reasons we only want to move our central pawns (d and e files) is to maintain our non-centralized pawn structure for later in the game and to provide a pawn shield for castling. Many endgames come down to one player having a pawn majority on one side of the board and within that majority, pawns that can work together.

The overlying idea to keep in mind is to create no pawn weakness throughout the game. You want to make sure that your pawn structure on either side of the board isn’t weakened by isolated pawns, backwards pawns, doubled pawns and pawns that have strayed too far from other friendly pawns. Of course, this can’t easily be done. However, it’s a goal to aim for. To get anywhere near achieving this goal, you have to consider your pawn structure when making any move, even moves that involves pieces rather than pawns.

The big question to ask yourself is “what does this (move) do to my pawn structure?” There will be times when you have no choice but to end up with an isolated pawn or doubled pawns. What do you do then? This is a question that beginners can’t always answer easily. Simply put, repair the damage. I know it’s fun to attack and capture material. However, you cannot win the war if your troops are left on the battlefield in tatters! Good generals know when to regroup, when to fight and when to defend. Weaknesses within a position, especially as they relate to pawn structure, grow worse with each passing game turn.

The problem with weak pawns is that they need defending and since they generally can’t be defended with other friendly pawns, it falls to pieces to defend them. If your pieces are tied to the defense of pawns, you won’t be able to launch meaningful attacks. This is why weak pawn structure is so problematic. That and when faced with a strong opposition pawn structure, the strong structure will win out. If given the choice between defending or cleaning up a weak pawn structure, cleaning it up may be the better option, depending on the overall position. Of course, you’ll end up having to defend the mess you just cleaned up in most cases. What about the pawn’s ability to promote?

Of course, pawn promotion can be crucial in the endgame. Therefore, if you have a passed pawn, one that has no enemy pawns on either adjacent file, you should use a piece to protect that pawn. Even if that pawn may not be able to promote right away, your opponent will have to use their pieces to stop it’s promotion, tying those pieces up. You should keep an eye out for passed pawns, both yours and those of your opponent. If you have an isolated pawn, try to remove the enemy pawns on adjacent files to turn that isolated pawn into a passed pawn. We’ll look at passed pawns next week. Clean up your position and strengthen your pawns!

What do I mean by “clean up?” You have to think outside of the box a bit. Say you have an isolated pawn that is not worth defending because it requires a piece to defend it. You know there is no way to turn it into a passed pawn. Consider using that pawn to damage your opponent’s pawn structure. Next week, I’ll present some game examples of this. This week, I want you to think about these ideas. You could sacrifice that isolated pawn and give your opponent doubled pawns, getting rid of your weakness and giving your opponent a weakness. Next week, I’m going to present some examples of how to clean up your pawn structure, which is why I only gave you one example of cleaning up your bad pawn structure this week. Next week, before we finish our student game, we’ll look at building a pawn majority and examples of fixing pawn problems. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy until 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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