Are Pawns The Soul Of Chess?

Are Pawns The Soul Of Chess?

| 35 | Strategy

In last week's column we talked about the chess heritage of Francois Andre Danican Philidor. While his three endgame positions are truly a cornerstone of the endgame play, Philidor's most quoted saying that pawns are the soul of chess is not indisputable.  

Wikipedia gives the full quote translated from French: "My main purpose is to gain recognition for myself by means of a new idea of which no one has conceived, or perhaps has been unable to practice; that is, good play of the pawns; they are the soul of chess: it is they alone that determine the attack and the defense, and the winning or losing of the game depends entirely on their good or bad arrangement." 

So, the winning or losing the game depends entirely on the good or bad arrangement of pawns? Really? I am not going to give you some obvious examples where a great pawn structure doesn't help much against a direct attack against your king, or doesn't provide a good compensation for an extra rook.  

Instead, look at the following position from the famous super tournament in Karlsbad:

The material is even, Black has a much better pawn structure and his king is safer at least at this moment. Black is about to start a direct attack against white king by the march of his h7 pawn.
Also notice that Black is GM Nimzowitsch, whose famous book "My System" highlighted the importance of a pawn structure (remember the chapters on double pawns and blockade?) Now look at the result of the game. Surprise, surprise, White won!
Obviously there is something in chess besides a good pawn structure. 
Moreover, there is an opening where a broken pawn structure is the name of the game! Double pawns there are given and triple pawns are common occurrence!
I am talking about the French Winawer.  
Look at the next position:
Again while the material is even, and White's queenside is completely ruined with a bunch of isolated and tripled pawns. Meanwhile Black has a monstrous center. You might think that GM Uhlmann, who was probably the biggest expert of the French Defense in history, won the game.
Well, check the game  to see one more time that a good pawn structure is just one of many elements of chess.  A very important one of course, but not the decisive one for sure!
Uhlmann via Wikipedia
Moreover, Philidor's own attempts to prove his claim are questionable at best. His opening line (1.e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 f5?!), which implemented his idea of a flexible pawn chain, is considered dubious by the modern theory. His most famous game, which was supposed to demonstrate the power of the pawn play, is flawed as well (also the game was probably never played and was just composed by Philidor himself). 
Personally I think Philidor deliberately exaggerated the importance of the pawns.  As a great chess player (and a teacher!) he could see that the little guys of chess were completely neglected at that time, so by making his outrageous claim, he tried to change the situation. I think he succeed since his words "pawns are the soul of chess" slowly became a cliche.  
There are many examples of a good pawn play in the spirit of Philidor.  I really like the following game by Capablanca.  Even though White lost the game, he had a huge advantage in the middlegame (we discussed the game in this article).
Notice White's beautiful pawn chain and pieces-behind-pawns concept like Philidor! Here is a similar game which, unlike Capablanca game, had the logical finish:
Here is a very recent example of a similar pattern:
I really doubt that David Berczes' play was inspired by this article, but he definitely passed the test on his knowledge of Philidor's principles of the pawn's play.
In conclusion let me reiterate that while Philidor exaggerated the importance of pawns, it is impossible to imagine a modern master who wouldn't care about his pawns!
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