Overextending Your Pawns

Overextending Your Pawns

IM Silman
Mar 24, 2016, 12:00 AM |
29 | Strategy

The Chess.com member JN wrote:

I took up chess about a year ago when a friend introduced me to the game. Since then, he and I have taken to playing quite often; we typically play about four or five days a week, two or three games in a sitting.

I’m not a competitive tournament player (at least yet) but my friend and I have developed a good little rivalry; the stakes may be low, but we take it seriously.

My opponent is fond of pushing his pawns deep into my camp, and is willing to invest the time to accomplish this at a very early stage of the game. To that end, whenever I reply with …c5 against 1.e4, intending to play the Sicilian, my opponent simply plays 2.e5.

These games of ours typically follow:

2...d5 3.d4 e6 4.Bb5+

For some reason, I’m struggling to crack this opening. His e5-pawn makes developing my king’s knight and bishop somewhat difficult. Castling short also becomes a challenge, while castling long in these positions seems dubious; the king often lands on an open c-file, and my queen’s rook on a relatively inactive square.

To combat his cramping pawn at e5, I’ve focused on challenging it with my f-pawn, but the harm this causes my kingside pawn structure has given me issues as well.

Are there ideas is this opening that I’m clearly missing? As a frequent Sicilian player yourself, have you encountered 2.e5 with any frequency in your career? Your thoughts on this matter would be greatly appreciated. There’s something terribly frustrating about my opponent pushing his pawns so aggressively in the opening.

ANSWER: The one master-level player that I could find who actually tried out 1.e4 c5 2.e5 was Sergey Bogachev, and the only two games of his in the database where he tossed out 2.e5 ended in defeats against far weaker opposition. Here’s the final position in the game Sergey Bogachev (2327) - Vladislav Mukhlisov (2134), [A35] St Petersburg 2008:

So, why don’t masters (with the exception of poor Bogachev) use 2.e5? The answer is that (though the pawn gains space and prevents Black’s thematic ...Nf6 move) the pawn (which is overextended) becomes a target on e5. Also, since White chose to move a pawn instead of developing a piece, he might find that Black has more units in play than White.

Let’s explore this:

Take a look at 1.e4 Nf6

Why would anyone play this move? Why are they allowing White to hit the enemy knight with the obvious 2.e5? The logic is that after 2.e5 Nd5 White has overextended his e-pawn. Black intends to kick it with ...d6 and the battle is on!

I should add that once in a while a strong player will give 2...Ng8 a shot, though it’s usually used against far weaker opponents. Here’s a rare grandmaster vs. grandmaster game (with 2...Ng8):

Of course, 2...Ng8 can’t be recommended, but 2...Nd5 leads to very interesting chess. For example, the following game shows White marching his center pawns forward, grabbing space, and... getting nothing:

In any case, the whole “push your pawn(s) and, since they are close to my army, I’ll attack them!” strategy can be seen in many openings.

The Grunfeld Defense is a case in point:

White pushes his pawns, hits the enemy knight, gains space, and builds a powerful pawn center. How could this be good for Black? Indeed, why do most of the world’s best players use this opening for Black?

By now you should know the answer: White’s center is great, but Black intends to beat it down by moves like ...c5 (hitting d4), ...Nc6 (hitting d4 again), ...Bg7 (hitting d4 again), ...Qc7 followed by ...Rd8 (hitting d4 again), and on and on it goes. Two different views of what’s happening, with either side having chances to win.

However, the Alekhine Defense and the Grunfeld Defense are sound openings. But sometimes one side pushes a little too fast.

By castling here, Black is saying, “I dare you to kick my f6-knight with e4-e5!” It says a lot that the vast majority of White players, when facing 4...0-0, simply continue with whatever anti-KID system they intended to use in the first place. Thus, 5.Nf3 or 5.Be2 or 5.f3 tell Black, “I’m not taking the bait since the pawn on e5 will be overextended!”

Bobby Fischer had two games where his opponent took the bait:

NOW we can discuss your opponent’s 1.e4 c5 2.e5?!

Your reaction 2...d5 3.d4 e6 is perfectly playable (3...Nc6 is more challenging, when 4.c3 Bf5 is very comfortable for Black.), though you have inadvertently transposed into the French Defense (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5). White’s 4.Bb5+ isn’t very good (4.c3 is correct, giving support to d4) since after 4...Bd7 White will either have to trade off his “good” bishop for Black’s “bad” one with 5.Bxd7+, or run away, thereby losing time for no reason whatsoever.

Nevertheless, I would be much happier if a student noticed the weakness of e5 and tried to capitalize on it by moves like 2...Nc6 (developing and hitting e5) or 2...d6 (freeing the c8-bishop and once again hitting e5). This doesn’t mean that 2...d5 is worse, just that you decided to take advantage of a move that’s clearly sub-par.

Here’s an example of what might occur if you tried either of those (“hit the e5-pawn!”) moves:

In a nutshell, sometimes an advanced pawn can be overextended, or an annoying knife in the enemy position (many battles are about this difference of opinion). However, rushing the pawn forward for no reason like 1.e4 c5 2.e5 is nothing more than a misguided overextension. It’s up to you to view it as such and then, if possible, find a way to milk as much from your opponent’s dubious choice as you can. In this case hitting it with 2...Nc6 followed by ...Qc7 is a logical and strong reaction.

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