Classic Pawn Structure, Part 1a

Classic Pawn Structure, Part 1a

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A reader recently recommended a game where White (a 2700 grandmaster) made use of an interesting maneuver he (the reader) had never seen before.

After seeing the sequence below, many questions may arise, and one might be left wondering if this was original (perhaps Ding Liren found something totally new), seen before, or actually common:

And thus starts a new series (on top of all the other series I do!) that explores pawn structure. In general, chess professionals know the ins and outs of every structure, non-titled experienced/strong players (2100 and up) know a lot of structures, and amateurs are, in most instances, clueless (with the occasional exception of structures that occur in their own openings). This series should be both eye-opening for amateurs and also of interest to the 2100 and up group.

Before starting on this journey, one might ask, “How does one learn about the mysteries of pawn structure? And how does one come to know how to make maximum use of every pawn structure?”

Though articles like this one can give you serious insight into a particular structure, to master all structures is one of the many highlights of pattern recognition (Ahhh!!! I can hear the couch potatoes screaming in horror at the most hated term in chess). Lazy folk don’t wish to look at tons of games (and swear that it’s a lie perpetrated by Satan himself) and insist they can become strong players without it (usually remaining with a low rating for life). However, hard work, as in all sciences and sports, is the only way to excel.

Ding Liren | Image Wikipedia

On the other hand, many people just want to enjoy playing chess and don’t have the time or energy to study the game. That is completely valid. One can watch me play golf to see my agreement with the “I want to have fun, and don’t want to work!” group. After nine shots I’m 40 yards away from the green, then I pull out my driver - a brilliant choice! - and wonder why the ball flew over my target and ended up in the lake. I actually enjoy being the worst golfer on Earth since my opponent is the second worst. If I studied, the game wouldn’t be fun anymore, so I do my best to keep the status quo by avoiding golf lessons!

This article is for those that want to look at a few structures (quick and easy), those that are interested in the specific structure I’m making use of, and for those that want to learn how to seriously study the subject.

One last mention of pattern recognition: If you fire up your database and, pressing keys to make the moves quickly and fluidly, play through one master game in 1 to 4 minutes (no notes – looking at games with notes is quite a different matter), you’ll subconsciously see pawn structures unfold. You'll see various opening systems and where the pieces usually go in those systems.  You'll see tactics appearing here and there, and how pieces and structure become a single unit pushing home a plan.  You'll see mating and attacking motifs, and (if the game lasts that long) easy or hard endgames.

All that information is subconsciously absorbed into a brain that, once you look at enough examples (many thousands), will suddenly light up and announce that it groks what it never understood before. [Grok is a term used by Robert A. Heinlein in his famous novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. It means you have learned something beyond the normal threshold of understanding. Instead of just reciting what something is, you become part of that thing, “knowing” it on many different levels… even “being” it!].

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein | Image Penguin

Enough philosophy, it’s time to leap into our structure of the day! The first order of business is to assure you that Ding Liren’s pawn sacrifice is not original. In fact, it’s a very well known idea.

Here’s a common series of moves (though there are quite a few move orders that also reach the promised land) that take us to the basic position:

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 d5 3.c4 e6 4.Nc3 c5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 Bxd2+ 10.Qxd2 0-0 11.Bc4 Nd7 (11...Nc6 used to be the main move, but now 11...Nd7 tends to be preferred) 12.0-0 b6 13.Rad1 Bb7 14.Rfe1 Rc8 15.Bb3 (15.Bd3 is an alternative) 

This structure’s basics are easy to list:

  • White has more central pawns (central pawns are considered to be superior to wing pawns, especially in the middlegame).
  • Black has a queenside pawn majority (he hopes they will prove to be advantageous in the endgame).
  • White has more central space.
  • White can create a passed d-pawn by d4-d5. If that occurs, Black will try to attack it or block and freeze it. White’s goal will be to break the blockade and ram it all the way home.
  • White can (at some point) play for a kingside attack by e4-e5 (especially if White’s light-squared bishop is on d3). In many cases, the attack can be intensified by Qf4, h2-h4-h5-h6 followed by Nf3-h2-g4 or simply h2-h3, Nh2-g4 and swinging a rook over to that wing by Re1-e3-f3/g3.
  • Black can consider a well-timed …e6-e5 push when d4-d5 blocks the b3-bishop and also hands the c5-square to Black’s knight.
  • Black can get his queenside majority rolling by …b6-b5 (with …a6 or …a5, depending on the situation) when the d7-knight can then move to b6 and c4.
  • Finally, the most interesting of all White’s ideas is the sacrifice we saw Ding Liren use, which gives up a pawn but blocks the b7-Bishop, makes the e5-pawn mobile, and gives White’s knight total access to the juicy d4-square (with a possible Nd4-f5 leap being a serious kingside threat).

All this will zip through a titled player’s mind in a flash (it’s in the blood!), and both sides will try to find a way to make the plusses/ideas that are native to this structure work to their advantage. But imagine having to play against an opponent that knows all this, while you know none of it (or very little). Your chances for victory would be close to nil.

The beauty of chess is that all of these “structural basics” can (and do) lead to a myriad of other things, such as a passed pawn theory and tactical motifs like the Classic Bishop Sacrifice.

I could write a book just on this one structure, but instead (whew!) I’ll keep things as simple as possible, and I’ll also just deal with White’s side of the equation. When it’s over, you should have a solid grasp of the ABCs of this structure.


Ding Liren (2717) – O. Jovanic (2526)
Cappelle-la-Grande 2014

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Bb4 9.Bd2 Bxd2 10.Qxd2 0-0 11.Bc4 Nd7 12.0-0 b6 13.Rad1 Bb7 14.Rfe1 Rc8 15.Bb3 Qf6


It’s not clear if this is the best move, but it’s certainly a thematic one. A good alternative is the calm 16.Qe3, staying flexible. Dmitry Jakovenko (2753) – Arkadij Naiditsch (2700), Ukraine 2009 continued: 16...Rfd8 17.h3 Nf8 18.d5 exd5 19.exd5 Ng6 20.Ng5 h6 and now we’ll test you with a puzzle.

Puzzle 1:

Back to the actual game!

16.d5!? exd5

Also possible is 16...Nc5 when 17.Nd4 Nxb3 18.axb3 exd5 19.e5 gives White the kind of position he wanted (mobile e-pawn, powerful knight, kingside attacking chances, and a blocked enemy bishop).

17.e5! Qg6 18.Nd4 Nc5 19.Bc2 Ne4 20.Qf4 f6?

Black had to play 20...Rxc2! 21.Nxc2 Nc5 22.Ne3 Nd3 23.Rxd3 Qxd3 24.Nf5 Bc8! 25.Ne7+ Kh8 26.Nxc8 Rxc8 27.Qxf7 Qe4 28.Rd1 Qxe5 29.Qd7 Re8 30.h3 followed by chopping on d5 with a draw.

After 20...f6 we’ll once again descend into puzzleville.

Puzzle 2:

Paul Keres – Reuben Fine
Ostend 1937

1.Nf3 d5 2.d4 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.Nc3 c5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 Bxd2+ 10.Qxd2 0-0 11.Bc4 Nd7 12.0-0 b6 13.Rad1 Bb7 14.Rfe1 Rc8 15.Bb3 Nf6 16.Qf4 Qc7 17.Qh4 Rfd8 18.Re3 b5 19.Rde1 a5 20.a4 b4

Black has many advantages here, and White would be worse if it wasn’t for one move:

21.d5! exd5 22.e5! Nd7? (22...Ne4! would have equalized) and now (after 22...Nd7) you’re on your own.

Puzzle 3:

Here’s another (less drastic) example of our pawn sacrifice theme:

One of the fun things about the pawn sacrifice is that many positions allow the Classic Bishop Sacrifice. Perhaps the most famous game using that theme occurred in the following position:

1.c4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.d4 c5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 Bb4+ 9.Bd2 Bxd2+ 10.Qxd2 0-0 11.Bc4 Nc6 12.0-0 b6 13.Rad1 Bb7 14.Rfe1 Na5 15.Bd3 Rc8 16.d5 exd5 17.e5! Nc4 18.Qf4 which was thought to be more than fine for Black due to 18...Nb2.

However, that view fell apart in the following classic game:

After this game, the floodgates opened and everyone was splattering Black with this sacrifice!

Puzzle 4:


All that violence was a bit too much for many players who liked the Black side, so a logical solution is to exchange the queens (even if it seems to destroy Black’s kingside pawn structure) and end the mating attacks before they appeared!

With the queens gone, Black’s king is safe (the cost was a slight rupture in his kingside pawn structure) and he can now try and make use of the c-file and his queenside pawn majority.

Of course, most players with White won’t allow their queen to leave the board!

Puzzle 5:

17.Nc7 Bc5 18.Nxa8 Bxa8 

Not done solving puzzles? Tactics Trainer is waiting!

Next week we'll finish our exploration of this structure by looking at a calmer approach for White and the march of the d-pawn.


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