A Pawn Up, Part 1

A Pawn Up, Part 1

| 25 | Endgames

"And the rest is technique..." You've seen that annotation before. What does it mean? The rest is easy? Or we should pay less attention to the rest because it is less artistic?

In fact, the technique of winning with an extra pawn is one of the most difficult areas of chess to master, and at the same time, one of the most valuable. It is extremely important, having played a successful middlegame and won a pawn, to be able to guide the game to victory against even the strongest opponents. Otherwise, everybody will be able to bail out against you and go into a "theoretically lost" ending which you, however, cannot win.

It is hardly possible to codify the exact methods of exploiting an extra pawn, because every position is different. Nevertheless, there are common patterns in the utilization of the smallest material advantage, and study of instructive examples will allow you to pick up the techniques.

In this series, we will be examining various "difficult" endings with an extra pawn and multiple pieces  and pawns on the board. The best way to learn is by example, and that is what I will be using. I will be examining some famous examples, and perhaps also some from  my own games.

But before I begin, I will just say that one of most important skills in the technique of winning with an extra pawn is proper simplification. You need to know which pieces you can trade, and what kind of positional transformations will leave you with a winning position. To this end, it is crucial to study basic, simplified endings. For example, you need to know immediately, without analyzing, that an ending with three pawns against two on one side of the board is usually a draw unless there are only kings. You need to know that rook and pawn against rook, with the defending king in front of the pawn, is usually a draw. If you don't have these basic building blocks, every more complex endgame will be more difficult. 

In this, the first part of this series, we will be seeing a classic example of a complex position in which one player has an extra pawn. This was the game Gligoric-Smyslov, from the famous Zurich 1953 candidates tournament.

I apologize if you have seen this game before! However, even if you have seen this game at some point, have you looked into it very deeply? You may still benefit from seeing Smyslov's technique. I have chosen this game because here he have a "messy" position, typical of the difficulties of exploiting an extra pawn. Here there is not really any question of Black simply creating a passed pawn, diverting the white pieces, and then winning. The winning concept is much more complicated than that; and although Vassily Smyslov makes it look easy, we should examine exactly how he makes it look so easy - that is where you can find the instructional value.

Let us begin by just seeing the moves which led to the above position, without notes. This game can be found in the famous book Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 by David Bronstein, and there are some notes on the beginning of the game, if you are interested. In general I believe this is one of the best books on chess, although perhaps this is not so much just due to the annotations, but also due to the fact that this tournament was a very strong tournament held at a time when a great many new ideas were being introduced to chess.

A really unsatisfactory conclusion to the opening and middlegame for White. After only twenty moves, he is already down a pawn and merely fighting for a draw. But it is far from simple for Black to win this game, and if he fails and White manages to hold the draw, then it is marked up on the cross-table exactly the same as if White had been pressing the whole game and Black only barely saved the draw - "½-½".

A big part of being a successful chess player is not constantly getting advantageous positions from the opening, nor always outplaying your opponent in the middlegame - a huge part of success in chess involves utilizing every opportunity that comes your way. Like in poker, you need to get the most out of the hands you are dealt. And that includes winning this game as Black when your opponent has messed up the opening. After all, it is not as if Smyslov has done something incredible earlier in the game to reach this position.

I will quote David Bronstein's notes to this position: "There exists a widespread, and therefore dangerous, misconception that the win is automatic once you are a pawn ahead. As a matter of fact, Black's chief advantage in this position lies not so much in his plus pawn, which he is still far from exploiting, as in his control of most of the center squares: d4, d5, c5, f4 and f5."

Advantages in material always give their owner more square control. When you are a pawn up though, there is another factor in play - that the threat of promoting a pawn will divert your opponent's pieces. The extra square control is usually not what leads to victory, since it is only one square and the extra pawn has limited mobility compared to other pieces. But, if - as here - the extra pawn is in the center, then that can become the decisive factor.

Where exactly is Black's extra pawn in the above position? This question might make sense if it were a standard situation with three pawns against three on the kingside, and three against two on the queenside. Then it would be clear that one player possesses an extra pawn on the queenside. But in the above position, which pawn is Black's "extra" pawn? Couldn't it be any of them?

Black has a potential passed pawn on the h-file (by ...g5, ...h5, ...h4 etc), and this surely will become an important part of any winning plan. This potentially-passed h-pawn will divert the white pieces. White, of course, has the same thing on the c-file. Ultimately, to utilize his extra pawn, Black will have to move forward his pawn mass in the center.

Now Bronstein verbalizes Smyslov's plan:

"White has his counterchances: a queenside pawn majority and the d-file. How many similar games have been drawn because of inexact play! Smyslov, however, manages such endings with an iron hand. His plan may be divided into the following phases:

  1. The immediate exchange of one rook, leaving the other to restrain White's queenside pawns and attack the c- and e- pawns.
  2. Deflecting White's rook to the h-file by the threat to create an outside passed pawn, and then occupying the d-file with his own rook.
  3. Advancing the g-pawn to g4, undermining the e-pawn's support, which is the f3-pawn.
  4. Tying up White's pieces by attacking the e-pawn.
  5. Sending his king in to pick off the weak pans.

As we shall see, a simple winning plan - for a Smyslov, naturally!"

Of course, it is very easy after the fact to verbalize the plan which...ended up happening. But how much, if any, of this plan did Smyslov consciously conceive at the outset? Of course, Bronstein did not claim that Smyslov decided on all these steps verbally, at the beginning.

I think, first of all, Smyslov decided to exchange only one rook mostly on intuition and experience. We all know the rule that you should exchange pieces when you are up material, and this rule tends to be particularly important for rooks - the trade of the last pair of rooks can often be completely decisive. But in such positions, keeping  a pair of rooks is a good idea. As Bronstein pointed out, Black would always be in danger of counterplay by a passed white c-pawn in a knight endgame. One of the advantages to keeping a pair of rooks is that you can gain space by offering the trade in more profitable circumstance later, which is what Smyslov ends up doing.

Smyslov at a later age

Of course, the advance ...g5 and ...h5 are called for by the structure: using the potential passed pawn to divert the white pieces. Surely this was second nature for Smyslov, and with his innate understanding of pawn structures this would be one of the first things he would see if he was looking at the position for the first time.

Beyond this, I doubt he planned much more out. You don't need to plan things out until checkmate. At the onset, he might have been aware of the potential value of the move ...g4 (rather than ...h4, creating a passed pawn), but his future course of action would also be determined by how White played.

Now let's see how the game continued.

On the surface, it all looked simple. But - if you do not have Smyslov's level of technique - think to yourself about what you might have done differently. Many players, even quite decent ones, would have played differently in some way which was markedly inferior. Perhaps they would have exchanged both pairs of rooks, ending up getting mired in the complexities of a tricky knight and pawn endgame. Some players might have not realized the value in the move ...g4, preferring instead to try to create a passed h-pawn, which could become weak and lead to all kinds of difficulties. Still others, presented with a position like the one after White's 32nd move, would not have found the most straightforward way of making progress with the white pieces tied down - the ...Ke7-f8-g7-g6 maneuver. And there were other pitfalls as well.

Examining such endings should acquaint one with a greater feel for the way good technicians think, and a greater understanding of which kinds of positions one should be aiming for when trying to exploit an extra pawn. In subsequent articles I will be showing other examples of this very important area of chess.


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