A humble hero is our chess piece, the pawn. Don’t be fooled by its size because the lowly pawn can become a powerful queen.
Smallest of all the pieces, it often leads the way into conflict with our opponent. The first contact is more-often-than-not made by the pawns.
If any piece is to get sacrificed, the pawn is usually the first to be given up for the greater good of advancing our plans.
Where the Chess Pawn Starts
All eight of your pawns start the game on the second rank. They occupy a square in all eight files from the a-file to h-file.
How the Chess Pawn Moves
The chess pawn moves one square forward on each turn except for the first move. On the first move, the pawn can advance two squares if there isn’t a piece blocking these squares.
Interestingly, while it moves forward in a straight line, the chess pawn captures one square ahead on the diagonal.
Pawns can neither capture nor move backwards.
They can, however, capture in passing or “en passant”.
When you advance a pawn two squares from its starting square to avoid capture, your opponent can still capture the pawn. He captures the pawn as if you had moved it one square.
For example, in the following position, black can advance his f-pawn two squares.
White can capture en passant as shown in the next diagram.
Promoting the Chess Pawn
Another unusual quality unique to the pawn is the ability to promote the pawn to another piece. When a pawn advance to the eighth rank it gets promoted to a piece of greater value.
You can promote the pawn to any of your minor or major pieces except the king. In most cases, the pawn is promoted to a queen because she is the strongest chess piece.
However, in some instances, you must be careful such a promotion doesn’t lead to a stalemate.
For example, in the following position, if white pushes the a-pawn and promotes it to a queen or a rook, then the game ends in a draw by stalemate.
Instead, white can promote the pawn to a bishop or a knight and capture the black pawns.
White could also delay the pawn promotion by playing Kh5. This forces the black king onto the back rank and white can promote the pawn to a queen with check.
The Chess Pawn in Openings
At the start of the game, only the knights can move before a pawn move. All of your other pieces need a pawn to move before they enter the game.
In the opening, the chess pawns determine the nature of the position. Their placement determines if the position will be:
- or semi-closed.
You will often hear these terms spoken in connection with an opening.
One of the most famous is the Ruy Lopez opening. Chess players will speak of the “Closed Ruy Lopez” and the “Open Ruy Lopez”.
The Open Ruy Lopez begins when black captures the white pawn on e4 with his knight on the fifth move.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4
This is a very dynamic way for black to play. In this opening there aren’t any pawns restricting the movement of the pieces. Thus the description of open.
Semi-Closed and Closed Positions
Now take a look at another popular opening called the French Defense. This is a semi-closed opening beginning with the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5
This position is semi-closed because the d-pawns are locked. The position isn’t closed because black can play dxe4.
If white advances his e-pawn with 3.e5 then the position becomes closed.
A closed position is one where the pawns are locked and usually leads to games of a more positional nature. That is not to say there will not be any tactics.
If black manages to play the c5 and f6 pawn breaks, in the French Defense, the position can become very tactical very fast!
In a closed position, pawn breaks are crucial! The strategy for both sides is usually based around them.
Either playing the pawn break or restricting your opponent from playing them.
Understanding the nature of different pawn structures in the openings is so important whole books have been written on the subject.
The Chess Pawn in the Middlegame
Any study of the opening must include the pawn structure if you wish to succeed in the middlegame.
Pawns in the opening decide the structure and nature of the position. In the middlegame, you must implement your strategy.
When you choose to play an opening with an isolated queen pawn, always do your best to keep as many pieces on the board. Your opponent will do his best to exchange pieces.
Exchanging pieces will increase the weakness of an isolated queen pawn. The fewer pieces you have to attack with, the more your opponent can concentrate on attacking your weak pawn.
When you adopt a strategy that involves playing with an isolated queen pawn, you accept the weakness in return for active piece play. Keeping pieces on the board is therefore very logical.
IM Ekaterina Atalik shares a lot of her wisdom about the isolated queen pawn in the following video.
Understanding Pawn Chains
Understanding pawn chains is crucial for good middlegame play.
A good pawn chain can not only gain you lots of space but also act as an indicator for which part of the board to play in.
If you have established a pawn chain with a pawn on e5, then black’s kingside will be missing an important defender – the knight on f6.
Against the King’s Indian Defense, white usually establishes a pawn chain with pawns on e4 and d5.
In this opening, the white pawns point in the direction of black’s queenside. White will want to advance on the queenside with the c5 pawn advance.
In the middlegame, your pawns can act as a shield while you arrange your pieces for an attack. The more space your pawns gain you, the easier it is for you to move your pieces from one side to another.
When you have the space advantage try to keep as many pieces on the board. This will make it difficult for your opponent to move his pieces.
Chess Pawns In Defense
The chess pawn often plays an important defensive role in front of the castled king. Unless the center is closed, advancing the pawns in front of your king is almost always a risky strategy.
When you have castled on opposite sides, it is usually the pawns that lead the attack. But if you have castled on the same side, it is best to let your pieces lead the attack.
Sacrificing a pawn or a piece is often needed to open lines against the enemy king or force away your opponent’s most important defender.
Chess Pawns in the Endgame
Because of the pawn promotion rule, the humble chess pawn becomes very important in the endgame. All endgame study is important, but pawn endings and rook and pawn endgames are the most common.
Enjoy this video about how to play pawn endgames by IM Ekaterina Atalik.
Despite their simple appearance, there are several tricks and traps you must know. This will help you win a game or hold on for a draw.
A king and bishop cannot deliver a checkmate, so if your opponent has an advantage in the material count, you can save the game by exchanging all the remaining pawns.
One essential concept to fully understand about pawn endgames is the opposition. Take a look at the following diagram.
Both kings are standing in the same file, and they are both on the same color squares. This is called distant opposition.
If white was to move forward towards the black king with Kd3 black could keep the opposition with …Kd7. When the kings met white would be forced to move away.
Fortunately, white can regain the opposition because he can play a pawn move – b3. This forces the black king to move away and white can attack the black pawns.
Here is a great article on the most common types of endgames. Can you guess what they are? Yes, rook and pawn endgames.
Even though you know an endgame is drawn, if you have the material advantage make your opponent show you he knows how to draw the game.
Many chess players neglect the study of endgames so asking him to show he can draw the game is sensible.
Philidor famously said, “Pawns are the soul of chess.”
The GingerGM not-so-famously said pawns could be considered the skeleton of the position and the pieces organs.
Despite their humble appearance and the fact they are the least valuable of all the chess pieces, the pawns are packed with potential.
All you need is to play one game where you have a bad bishop to gain a clear understanding of how important they can be.
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