An Infestation of Isolated d-Pawns

An Infestation of Isolated d-Pawns

| 10 | Amazing Games

Mahto_Man said: “This game was from a local tournament between schools in the district, which is pretty low rated to begin with. Being on board 3, most of the games are won or lost from simple tactical blunders, so most aren’t good to look at to learn from. However, in the most recent game I had no idea what my plan should be out of the opening, and I couldn’t find much of an imbalance to try to focus the game around.” 

Mahto_Man (1000) – Robert (1000), Washington 2012 [E10]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3

Mahto_Man said: “In retrospect, I probably should have gone for Bg5 here, since I’d have been more familiar with these sorts of positions. Also, Nf3 is a bit of a passive way to start a game.” 

It’s wise to stick to things you’re familiar with, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with 4.Nf3. 


Mahto_Man said: “This is where I was thrown off. On the one hand, I was considering giving him an isolated queen pawn, but I didn’t like the speedy bishop development and loss of center control. So I opted instead to block in my bishop and try to work with an IQP should he force one at some point, though I’ve never had to work with that structure before.


This is quite a common move, though the main line will always be 5.cxd5. Black gets an isolated d-pawn but gets plenty of counterplay thanks to his fluid development and active pieces. Players like Spassky and Kasparov championed this system for Black in their respective primes.

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.g3 Nf6 7.Bg2 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Bg5 cxd4 10.Nxd4 h6 11.Be3 Re8 (11…Bg4 12.Nb3 Be6 13.Rc1 Re8 14.Re1 Qd7 15.Bc5 Rac8 16.Bxe7 Qxe7 17.e3 Red8 18.Qe2 Bg4 19.f3 Bf5 20.Rcd1 Ne5 21.Nd4 Bg6 22.Bh3 Rc4 23.g4 Rb4 24.b3 Nc6 25.Qd2 Rb6 26.Nce2 Bh7 27.Bg2 Re8 28.Ng3 Nxd4 29.exd4 Re6 30.Rxe6 Qxe6 31.Rc1 Bg6 32.Bf1 Nh7 33.Qf4 Nf8 34.Rc5 Bb1 35.a4 Ng6 36.Qd2 Qf6 37.Kf2 Nf4 38.a5 Bd3! 39.Nf5 Qg5! 40.Ne3 Qh4+ 41.Kg1 Bxf1, 0-1, T. Petrosian – B. Spassky [D34] World Championship Match 1969) 12.Qa4 Bd7 13.Rad1 Nb4 14.Qb3 a5 15.Rd2 a4 16.Qd1 a3 17.Qb1 Bf8 18.bxa3 Rxa3 19.Qb2 Qa8 20.Nb3 Bc6! 21.Bd4 Ne4 22.Nxe4 dxe4 23.Ra1 Bd5 24.Qb1 b6 25.e3 Nd3 26.Rd1 b5 27.Bf1 b4 28.Bxd3 exd3 29.Qxd3 Rxa2 30.Rxa2 Qxa2 31.Nc5 Bf3 32.Ra1 Qd5 33.Qb3 Qh5 34.Nd3 Bd6 35.Ne1 Bb7 36.Rc1 Qf5 37.Rd1 Bf8 38.Qb1, 0-1, A. Beliavsky (2570) – G. Kasparov (2690) [D34], Moscow 1983.


5…a6 is a major alternative (one idea behind this move is that after White takes on c5 and Black retakes with his Bishop, the Bishop can retreat all the way back to a7). Here’s a win for White, who used a well-known strategy against black’s pawn structure:

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 c5 4.e3 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.cxd5 exd5 7.dxc5?! (Usually White waits until Black moves his dark-squared Bishop before making this capture. 7.dxc5 leads to main lines, but with a tempo less for White. Best is 7.Be2) 7…Bxc5 8.Be2 Nc6 9.0-0 0-0 10.Nd4 Ne5 11.b3 Re8 12.Bb2 Bg4 13.h3 Bxe2 14.Ndxe2 Nc6 15.Rc1 Ba7 16.Na4 Ne4 17.Nd4 Rc8 18.Nxc6 bxc6 19.Qg4 f6 20.Rc2 Qd6 21.Rfc1 Bb8 22.g3 Ng5 23.h4 Ne4 24.Bd4 h6 25.Nc5 Nxc5 26.Bxc5 Qd8 27.Bd4 Qd6 28.h5 Rc7 29.Kg2 Re4 30.Qf5 Qe6 31.Qxe6+ Rxe6 32.Rc5 Kf7 33.Ra5 Rc8 34.Rxd5 cxd5 35.Rxc8 Be5 36.Rc5 Rd6 37.Rc7+ Kg8 38.Kf3 Re6 39.Rd7 Bd6 40.Ke2 Be7 41.Rxd5 Rc6 42.Kd3 Kf7 43.Ra5 Re6 44.Ra4 Kf8 45.Rc4, 1-0, P. Tregubov (2642) – V. Akobian (2624), Khanty-Mansiysk 2009 [D30].


6.a3 is white’s main move, and 6.cxd5 is also seen a lot. Your 6.Bd3, though not as popular as the other two moves, is still perfectly playable (though it gives Black some options that White didn’t need to offer). 

Here’s a taste of what might occur after 6.cxd5:

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c5 5.e3 Nc6 6.cxd5 Nxd5 (6…exd5 7.Be2 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Bd6 9.0-0 0-0 10.b3 Nxd4 11.Qxd4 Re8 12.Bb2 Be5 13.Qd2 d4 14.Rad1 Ng4 15.h3 Qh4 16.exd4 Bh2+ 17.Kh1 Bd6 18.Bb5 Re3 19.f4 a6 20.Bc4 b5 21.Bd5 Bf5 22.Kg1 Rd3 23.Qe1 Rg3 24.Ne2, 1-0, D. Khismatullin (2657) – S. Ionov (2548), 17th Russian Team Ch. 2010) 7.Bd3 cxd4 8.exd4 Be7 (This exact position also occurs in the Caro-Kann, Panov Botvinnik Variation via 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4 Nf6 5.Nf3 Be7 6.cxd5 Nxd5 7.Bd3 Nc6) 9.0-0 0-0 10.Re1 Nf6 11.Bg5 b6 12.a3 Bb7 13.Bc2 Rc8 14.Qd3 g6 15.Rad1 Nd5 16.Bh6 Re8 17.Ba4 Nxc3 18.bxc3 Qd6 19.c4 Red8 20.d5 exd5 21.cxd5 Na5 22.Qe2 Bf6 23.Ng5 Bg7 24.Bxg7 Kxg7 25.Ne6+ fxe6 26.dxe6 Qe7 27.Qe5+ Kh6 28.Rxd8 Qxd8 29.e7 Qd3 30.e8Q Rxe8 31.Bxe8 Qxa3 32.h4, 1-0, E. Safarli (2607) – D. Semerene (2318) [B14], 39th Olympiad Khanty-Mansiysk 2010.

As you can see, this opening is all about isolated d-pawns. After 6.cxd5 Nxd5 White will be the one that ends up with an isolated d-pawn, though he’ll get good attacking chances as compensation.  After 6.cxd5 exd5 Black will get the isolated d-pawn, which will give him fluid piece play as comp. Playing this opening as either side will eventually make you very knowledgeable in the ins and outs of this kind of pawn structure. 


Mahto_Man said: “As soon as I moved the piece I realized how annoying …Nb4 would be. I didn’t like retreating it to b1 and undeveloping, and I didn’t like losing the bishop pair when the position could quickly open up. I spent a lot of time musing here, probably too much.

In general, 6.Bd3 is met by 6…Be7 or 6…dxc4. 6…Nb4 isn’t very well thought of, and thus shouldn’t be feared after 6.Bd3. White should answer with 7.Be2, retaining the Bishop and leaving the b4-Knight floating, though your 7.cxd5 is okay too. After 7.Be2 we end up back in a tense isolated d-pawn position after 7…dxc4 8.Bxc4 cxd4 9.exd4 Be7 10.0-0 0-0.

Since this kind of position occurs a lot, let’s discuss some mutual ideas:


* Will use e5 as a home for his f3-Knight.

* Will usually strive for a kingside attack.

* White’s Rooks usually move to e1 and d1, preparing a d4-d5 push if the opportunity arises. The Rooks can sometimes life themselves to d3 or e3 and onwards to g3 or h3 where they will help smack the black King down.

* Once the b4-Knight is chased away, a death on the b1-h7 diagonal can be created by Bc4-b3-c2 followed by Qd3. When Black shuts down the diagonal with …g7-g6, White will then get up close and comfortable with the enemy King by making use of the newly created dark-square holes on f6 and h6.


* Black can put a lot of pressure against the d4-pawn by …Nc6 and eventually …Rfd8.

* Black will play …b6 followed by …Bb7, turning the Bishop into a monster on the h1-a8 diagonal, laying permanent claim to the d5-square, and forever stopping white’s dreams of a d4-d5 push.

* Black’s Knights will be quite strong on the d5 outpost. 

* Black will strive to exchange as many minor pieces as possible, since once they are all gone, the owner of the isolated pawn is bereft of dynamic compensation and is left with a long term weakness.

* Ideally, Black will have a Rook and Queen vs. Rook and Queen. Once this dream is reached, he will place the Rook on d5 (freezing the d-pawn), double against it by placing his Queen on d6, d7, or d8, and then use the pin against the pawn to win it and the game by …e6-e5.

In the diagram, Black makes use of the pin along the d-file by playing …e5 winning the pawn.

Here’s a sample of the anti-isolated d-pawn strategy in action:

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 exd5 5.Ngf3 Nc6 6.Bb5 Bd6 7.0-0 Nge7 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.Nb3 Bd6 10.c3 0-0 11.Nbd4 Bg4 12.Be2 Qd7 13.Be3 Rad8 14.Re1 Bb8 15.Ng5! (I begin to exchange as many minor pieces as possible. The main form of compensation for the isolated d-pawn is active minor pieces. To put it bluntly, if you trade the minor pieces, they can’t be active! In that case, the isolated d-pawn can easily turn out to be a pure weakness.) 15...Bxe2 16.Qxe2 Nxd4 (Apparently my opponent wasn’t aware of my boring but highly effective plan!) 17.Bxd4 Nf5 18.Qd3 h6 19.Nf3 Rfe8 20.Rad1 Rxe1+ 21.Rxe1 Ne7 22.g3 Nc6 23.Kg2 (Black’s game is uncomfortable and he has very little counterplay. As a result, I take my time and make tiny improvements in my position.) 23...Re8 24.Rd1! (The ideal position for White is Queen and Rook versus Queen and Rook. An exchange of the final pair of Rooks would result in a draw since White would not be able to bring sufficient pressure to bear against the d-pawn.) 24...Qe6 25.Re1 Qd7 26.Be3! (Once again I prevent the exchange of Rooks while simultaneously preparing to get rid of more minor pieces by Nd4.) 26...Rd8 27.Rd1 Qe7 28.Nd4 Nxd4 (Black is much too kind. He should try for as much activity as possible by 28...Ne5. Also possible is 28...Qe4+ when 29.Qxe4 dxe4 30.Nxc6 Rxd1 31.Nxb8 isn’t very good since the Knight is too far afield. Instead, 28…Qe4+ 29.f3 Qxd3 30.Rxd3 Ne5 31.Rd1 Nc4 32.Bc1 allows White to maintain a small, safe, long term plus.) 29.Qxd4! a6 30.Bf4! (The final nail in his coffin! Black was apparently unaware that his position would now become extremely depressing.) 30...Bxf4 31.Qxf4 (Computers think that black’s okay, but his position is actually a miserable defensive chore.) 31…Qc5 32.Rd4 (Now that the minor pieces are gone, I want to lead with my Rook on d4 [which also fixes his pawn in the case of a later c3-c4] as I double against his d-pawn.) 32...Qc6 33.Qd2 b5 34.Kg1 Qg6 35.a3 (A bit of cat and mouse. I intend to eventually play a3-a4, but first I want to make a few minor improvements in my position.) 35...Kf8 36.h4 (Giving my King some breathing room and avoiding 36.Rxd5?? Qb1+ 37.Kg2 Qe4+) 36...Qb1+ 37.Kg2 Qf5 38.a4! (Forcing the creation of a second weakness.) 38...Qe6 39.axb5 axb5 40.Qd3 Kg8?? (An overreaction. Correct was 40...Qc6 though 41.Rb4 would leave Black defending a thoroughly unpleasant endgame.) 41.Qxb5 Rd6 42.Qd3 g6 43.c4 (This key break, taking advantage of the pin along the d-file, often wins even if Black doesn’t start out a pawn down. The fact that he already has a material disadvantage makes his cause completely hopeless.) 43...dxc4 44.Rxd6 cxd3 45.Rxe6 fxe6 46.Kf3 e5 47.Ke3 e4 48.f3 exf3 49.Kxd3 g5 50.hxg5 hxg5 51.g4, 1-0, Silman – R. Filguth [C09], San Francisco 1977.

7.cxd5 cxd4?!

Mahto_Man said: “This caught me off guard yet again. Still, it let me keep the bishop pair and mantain a nice pawn structure. I was actually considering something crazy like dxe6, but I couldn’t find any tactics that would work and gave up shortly.

Black could have tried 7…Nxd3+ 8.Qxd3 Nxd5 (8…cxd4 9.Qxd4 Nxd5 10.Nxd5 Qxd5 11.Qxd5 exd5 12.Bd2 Bd6 13.Bc3 0-0 14.0-0 with a small but lasting plus for White; the exchanges have deprived Black of his usual dynamic counterplay, and now the isolated pawn is a pure weakness. This position is perfectly playable for Black, but not to everyone’s taste.) 9.dxc5 Qa5 10.Bd2 Qxc5 11.0-0 Be7 12.Rfd1 0-0 13.Nxd5 Qxd5 14.Qxd5 exd5 15.Bc3 and once again White has that tiny but annoying advantage in pawn structure.

8.Bb5+ Bd7


Much too soft. White needs to strike while the iron is hot! Here he has two possibilities:

* 9.Bxd7+ Nxd7 (9…Qxd7 10.dxe6 Qxe6 11.Nxd4 Qa6 12.Ncb5 Rc8 13.0-0 and white’s up a pawn) 10.exd4 Nxd5 11.Nxd5 exd5 12.0-0 Be7 13.Bf4 and White has the more pleasant position. 

* 9.dxe6!! Bxb5 (9…fxe6 10.Bxd7+ Qxd7 11.exd4 is a pawn up for White) 10.exf7+ Ke7 (10…Kxf7 11.Nxb5 dxe3 [11…Qa5 12.Qb3+ wins for White] 12.Bxe3 leaves White with a solid extra pawn) 11.Nxb5 Qa5 12.0-0 Qxb5 13.e4 Nc6 (13…Kxf7 14.Qb3+) 14.e5 Nd5 15.a4 Qb6 16.Re1 (16.e6!? is also interesting) 16…Kxf7 17.Ng5+ Ke8 18.Qf3 Nde7 19.Qf7+ Kd8 20.Bf4 and White has a winning attack.


Simplest is 9…Bxb5 10.Ndxb5 a6 11.Nd4 Nbxd5, =. 


Mahto_Man said: “Trying to maintain a lead in development and preserve my pawn structure. Not really liking the bishop stuck behind e3 though.” 

There’s development, and then there’s development. 10.Bd2 does develop a piece, but it’s on a rather sad square. In many cases a move like 10.Bd2 would be fine, but here there are all sorts of things going on, and the rather sad little 10.Bd2 just can’t be the secret key that unlocks this position’s secrets. More pointed is the straightforward 10.Nxd5 Nxd5 11.0-0 when white’s King is safe and he can consider e3-e4 next move. It’s still nothing special, but White has more of the “nothing” than Black. 

10...a6 11.Bxd7 Qxd7

Mahto_Man said: “I almost wanted to play Bc4 and work on the knight in the center, but I couldn’t really justify it after moves like …b5, where I’m just giving black space on the queenside with tempo and/or losing the bishop pair in an open position.

12.O-O Bd6 13.Qe2

Mahto_Man said: “Finishing development and trying to push forward in the center with e4 with the threat of e5. I couldn’t find a good imbalance to focus the game around, so I tried playing simple, standard moves instead.” 

13...O-O 14.e4 Nf4 

Black could have played the surprising 14…Be5! when 15.exd5 Bxd4 16.dxe6 Qxe6 17.Qxe6 fxe6 leads to a balanced position: White has the better pawn structure, and Black has the more active pieces. 


Mahto_Man said: “All of a sudden things got much more tactical, with the hanging knight on d4 and the pressure on the knight and all the other tactical elements. I’m betting that we both missed some sharp variations here, but can’t be sure.

It was probably better to bail out for equality with 15.Bxf4 Bxf4 16.Nf3, =.


A common mistake: Black defends his Knight and attacks white’s! How could it be bad? The mistaken 15…e5 carries too much baggage! It blocks black’s Bishop (which previously enjoyed control of the b8-h2 diagonal), instantly hands White the f5-square (literally chasing white’s Knight there!), and also weakens d5. Guarding something or attacking something is well and good, but make sure you understand the long-term effects that a guard or attack will have on your position. 

Black should have played 15…Ng6 when d5 and f5 are still inaccessible, black’s Bishop is still enjoying a nice view down the h2-b8 diagonal, and the g6-Knight can leap to e5 at a moment’s notice.


After being gifted to the f5-square, White’s gone from equal to clearly better in the blink of an eye!


Mahto_Man said: “Feels like a very bad move. It weakens the kingside dark squares (not to mention that unprotected f6 knight) while forcing me to take the dark square bishop, leaving mine free to exploit these weaknesses.” 

Yes, you’re right!


Not bad at all, but stronger was 17.Bxf4 exf4 18.Rad1 gxf5 19.e5 with a huge advantage for White. When you’re faced with a juicy position like this (after 16…g6), you need to get hot and bothered and do your utmost to find a way to smash your opponent.

17…Qxd6 18.Rfd1 N4h5??

Mahto_Man said: “A simple tactical blunder, the likes of which occur frequently at games of my level on both sides. I think …Qc7 is necessary to avoid losing material.

18…Qc7 doesn’t help Black due to 19.g3 N4h5 20.Rac1 and the Queen is still being hunted. Since 18…Qe6 19.Bxf4 exf4 20.Qxf4 leaves White with an extra pawn, that leaves 18…Qb8 19.g3 N4h5 20.Bg5 Kg7 21.Nd5 Nxd5 22.Rxd5 Qe8 23.Rad1 f6 (hoping for 24.Rd7+ Rf7), 24.Be3 Kh8 (24…Rf7 25.g4 Nf4 26.Bxf4 exf4 27.Qxf4) 25.Rd6 Rf7 and black’s much worse, but he’s still holding on for dear life.


Remember the old saying, “When you see a good move sit on your hands and look for a better one.” If you had done that, you would have noticed 19.g4! which wins a whole piece (19…Ng7 20.Bg5, 1-0). If you have time in such a situation, sit back, enjoy chewing on the position for a while, note that you can play 19.Bh6, and then look around for a way to win something big! 

19…Qe6 20.Bxf8 Kxf8

Mahto_Man said: “Though I wanted to keep my dark square bishop around, I couldn’t argue with winning the Exchange.” 


This is fine, but when I get this type of winning game, my first priorities are: 1) King safety (White’s King is fine), and 2) Deprive his pieces of any activity. Here I would likely play 21.g3, which kills the Knight on h5.

Another little rule is this: Two Knights usually don’t work well together. Trading your lone Knight for one of his two only eases his defensive chore. This trade also allows his sidelined h5-Knight to leap into the active f4-square with gain of tempo. None of this is a big deal, but little things like this often have a habit of coming back to bite you.

21…Nxd5 22.Rxd5? 

Mahto_Man said: “I was starting to feel the effects of time pressure and didn’t realize until afterwards how much better it would have been to take with the pawn.” 

22.exd5 was better. But you haven’t spoiled anything yet.


The despised Knight on h5 suddenly becomes active. As I said earlier, White could and should have stopped this from happening.

23.Rd2 Kg7 24.Qb3 Qg4 25.Qf3?

Now you’re panicking. When you played 24.Qb3 you had to have seen that he might respond with 24…Qg4. You could have played 25.g3 Ne2+ 26.Kg2 Nd4 27.Qe3, which is fine, but even better was 25.f3! letting the Rook defend g2 and hitting the Queen at the same time.

25…Qe6 26.b3 h5 27.h3 

Mahto_Man said: “I was trying to kick the knight out with Kh2 and g3 to follow, but I didn’t stick to it very well and kept bouncing back and forth between this idea and getting my rooks to the 7th rank, just wasting time.

Not bad, but there wasn’t any hurry to do this. Instead, 27.Rc1 would give White both open files and also prevent Black from taking the c-file himself with …Rc8.


Black could have grabbed the c-file with 27…Rc8. 

28.Rad1 Qg5 29.Rd7?

Mahto_Man said: “I think I should’ve either proceeded to kick the knight out or try to trade queens immediately with Qg3 while the deadly knight fork was still guarded. As it is, I didn’t take the mate threat seriously enough until it was too late.

Technique is a hard thing to grasp. Here you’re attacking, but have you defended all your weak points first? The idea that the Queen is acting as nursemaid to the g2-pawn would really bother me, and so I’d follow with 29.Kh2 and then 30.g3 (ending black’s dreams before he even had them). Once the Knight is chased away from f4 then and only then would I play Rd7.

29...Rc8 30.Kh2??

Mahto_Man said: “Bad blunder. Trying to get the knight out, but overlooked the following completely. I think I had about 12 minutes to his 35, so time pressure might’ve had something to do with that.

The simplest way to deal with black’s threats is 30.R1d3 Rc2 (30…Nxd3 31.Qxf7+ mates) 31.Kh2. 


31.R1d3 Rxd3 32.Rxd3 Nxd3 33.Qxd3, 1/2-1/2.

Mahto_Man said: “The game looks like it would just be a draw. ...Qf4+ is the only remaining threat that I could see, and it looks like it’s avoided easily enough with g3 or Kg1.

~ Lessons From This Game ~

* When I get a winning position my first priorities are: 1) King safety; 2) Deprive the enemy pieces of any activity.

* Two Knights usually don’t work well together. Trading your lone Knight for one of his two only eases your opponent’s defensive chore.

* Guarding something or attacking something is well and good, but make sure you understand the long-term effects that a guard or attack will have on your position.

* Remember the old saying, “When you see a good move sit on your hands and look for a better one.”

* For those that would like to study this opening, I highly recommend THE TARRASCH DEFENCE by Aagaard and Ntirlis (Quality Chess, 2011).

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