The Art and Science of the Isolated d-Pawn

| 35 | Strategy

The Art and Science of the Isolated d-Pawn

Madhacker asked:

I’d like to ask about the correct handling of positions where White has an isolated queen’s pawn. The question was raised in my head by the following game I played in a local league match, against a significantly stronger opponent.

Madhacker (1950) - Maria Ignacz (2200) (Cardiff vs. Caerphilly)

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 b6 5.Bd3 Bb7 6.f3 (Is this okay?) 6…c5 7.Ne2 0-0 8.0-0 d5 9.Qc2 cxd4 10.exd4 dxc4 11.Bxc4 Nc6 12.Rd1 h6 13.d5 Bc5+ 14.Kh1 exd5 15.a3 Ne5 16.Bxd5 Nxd5 17.Nxd5 Bxd5 18.Nc3 Qh4 19.Nxd5 Rfd8 20.Ne3 Rxd1+ 21.Qxd1 Rd8 22.Qe2 Nd3 23.b4 Nf2+ 24.Kg1 Rd1+ 25.Nxd1 Ng4+ 26.Kf1 Nxh2 mate.


My conclusion after the game was something like, “I played d5 too early, if I had played a3 first and kicked the bishop away from b4, then played d5, it would have been much stronger because all her tactics involving …Nb4 would have been taken away, and I would have had a good game.”

However, on examination by Fritz it turns out that this was not the case and I would have been at least slightly worse no matter what I did. I understand that White should try to liquidate the IQP by playing d5, but I never seem to get it quite right. I’d like to be able to play these positions better, so is there any advice you could give me?


Dear Madhacker,

A very good question, which was extensively explained in How to Reassess Your Chess 3rd Edition and will be discussed in even more detail in the all new How to Reassess Your Chess 4th Edition (due out in April, 2010).

Your problem is that you view the isolated d-pawn as a weakness that needs to be swapped off by a quick d4-d5. However, though this pawn is a potential static weakness, it’s also a dynamic tower of strength. If you are going to enter these kinds of positions, you need to adjust your mindset to the “It’s strong!” view rather than your negative “I have to trade the sucker off fast!” association.

In your game, 6.Nf3 is the main line, but 6.f3 (played way back in 1914) and even 6.Nge2!? Bxg2 7.Rg1 are also fairly common.

White (from a number of different openings!) usually gets the isolated d-pawn with a Knight on f3. In that case, the d-pawn gives White control over the e5-square (his f3-Knight will eventually hop there) and also gives White a central space advantage. These things, combined with moves like Rfe1 and Bc2 followed by Qd3 give White serious chances of a kingside attack. And yes, the move d4-d5 is always on the table, but it tends to be part of white’s attacking scheme and not, as you seem to imply, a try at trading and fighting for equality. 



In general, White wants to retain as much tension as possible, avoid minor piece exchanges, and either make use of his space or go directly for a kingside wipeout.

Black needs to fix the d-pawn on d4 by controlling and occupying the d5-square. He has two basic ways to handle the position after this:

1) He can bring pressure to bear against d4 in an effort to tie White down to its defense.

2) He can seek soothing minor piece exchanges. This gets rid of all white’s dynamic compensation and turns the pawn into a long-term static weakness.

Black’s ideal position is a Rook and Queen vs. a Rook and Queen (retaining the Queens prevents White from using his King to defend the pawn). Black will place a Rook on d5 (blocking the pawn) and put his Queen behind it – this leaves the d-pawn under enormous pressure, and often a pawn advance like …c5 or …e5 (whichever pawn he has) wins the pawn since the mutually doubled heavy pieces on either side of the d-pawn creates a pin. See the Silman-Filguth game for an example of this.

If things go bad for White (i.e., all the minor pieces are gone), he does best to exchange all the Rooks. Then the lone Queen vs. Queen situation will be drawable since a defending Queen on c3 or e3 won’t be susceptible to pins on the d-file.

First, let’s look at a game with a structure that was similar to the one you got in your game:

Korchnoi - Karpov, Baguio City World Championship Match 1978

1.c4 Nf6 2.d4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Ne2 d5 6.a3 Bxc3+ 7.Nxc3 cxd4 8.exd4 dxc4 9.Bxc4 Nc6 10.Be3 0–0 11.0–0 b6 12.Qd3 Bb7 13.Rad1 h6 14.f3 Ne7 15.Bf2

Though White can’t get a Knight to e5 like he does in most isolated d-pawn positions, he can still keep Black under pressure by retaining tension, avoiding minor piece exchanges, and aiming his guys at black’s King.

15…Nfd5 16.Ba2 Nf4 17.Qd2 Nfg6 18.Bb1 Qd7 19.h4 Rfd8 20.h5 Nf8 21.Bh4 f6 22.Ne4 Nd5 23.g4 Rac8 24.Bg3 Ba6 25.Rfe1 Rc6 26.Rc1 Ne7 27.Rxc6 Qxc6 28.Ba2 Qd7 29.Nd6 Bb7 30.Nxb7 Qxb7 31.Qe3 and the two Bishop vs. two Knight battle is obviously good for White, but (after White missed a forced win) the game was eventually drawn in an exhausting 124 moves (and Black suffered every bit of the way)!




As mentioned earlier, usually White has a Knight on f3, which allows Ne5 and serious chances against the enemy King. This kingside attack has left countless victims laying in their own entrails over the years. Here are a few examples:

Mark Hebden - John Littlewood, England 1981

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.c4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nf3 Be7 7.cxd5 Nxd5 8.Bd3 Nc6 9.O-O O-O 10.Re1 Bf6

* 10…Nf6 11.Be3 b6 12.Rc1 Nb4 13.Bb1 Nbd5 14.Bg5 Bb7 15.Ne5 Rc8 16.Qd3 g6 17.Bh6 Re8 18.Qh3 Bf8 19.Bg5 Qd6 20.Nxd5 Nxd5 21.Nxf7 Kxf7 22.Qxh7+ Bg7 23.Bxg6+ Kf8 24.Bh6, 1-0, Jacobo Bolbochan - R.Garcia Vera, Mar del Plata 1952;

* 10…Ncb4 11.Bb1 Nf6 12.a3 Nbd5 13.Qd3 g6 14.Ba2 b6 15.Ne5 Bb7 16.Bh6 Re8 17.Qh3 Bf8 18.Bg5 Be7 19.Rad1 (19.Nxf7! Kxf7 20.Rxe6 Kg7 21.Rae1 gives White a crushing attack) 19...a6 20.Rd3 Rc8 21.Rf3 Nxc3, J.Mason - A.Burn, Hastings 1895, and now White could have shredded his opponent by 22.Nxf7! Kxf7 23.Qxh7+ Kf8 24.Bh6 mate.

11.Be4 Nce7 12.Ne5 Bd7

12…g6 13.Bh6 Bg7 14.Bxg7 Kxg7 15.Qf3 Rb8 16.Qg3 Qd6 17.Bxd5 exd5 18.Rad1 Nf5 19.Qf4 Be6 20.g4 Nh4 21.Rd3 Qd8 22.g5 Nf5 23.Ng4 Qd6 24.Re5 Rbd8 25.Ne2 Bd7 26.Nf6 h6 27.Ng3 hxg5 28.Ngh5+ Kh6 29.Ng4+ Kh7 30.Qxg5 gxh5 31.Nf6+ Qxf6 32.Qxf6 Rg8+ 33.Kf1 Ng7 34.Rg3, 1-0, D.King - S.Conquest, England 1985.

13.Qd3 g6 14.Bh6 Re8 15.Qf3 Bc6 16.Bxd5 Nxd5 17.Ne4 Rc8 18.Rac1 Qe7 19.Rc5 Bg7 20.Bxg7 Kxg7 21.Nd6 Qxd6 22.Qxf7+ Kh6

Better was 22...Kh8 23.Rxc6 bxc6 24.Qxe8+ Rxe8 25.Nf7+ when White’s a pawn up.

 23.Ng4+, 1-0.




The isolated d-pawn is a common visitor for both White and Black. Here’s an example of Black accepting the isolated d-pawn for active piece play, only to fall victim to the anti-isolated pawn “trade the minor pieces” strategy.

Silman – R.Filguth, San Francisco 1977

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 exd5 5.Ngf3 Nc6 6.Bb5 Bd6 7.O-O Nge7 8.dxc5 Bxc5 9.Nb3 Bd6 10.c3 O-O 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 simplistically, 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. At that time, I was thinking of answering 28...Qe4+ by 29.Qxe4 dxe4 30.Nxc6 Rxd1 31.Nxb8. Now I would be highly doubtful about this line, and would instead grab a slight but lasting endgame edge via 29.f3 Qxd3 30.Rxd3.

29.Qxd4 a6 30.Bf4

The final nail in his coffin! Black’s position now becomes extremely depressing.

30…Bxf4 31.Qxf4 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 (creating a second weakness), 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, but 40...Qc6 41.Qh7 (41.Rb4 is probably even stronger) 41…Qg6 42.Qxg6 led to a thoroughly miserable Rook 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.


Mr. Madhacker, in future treat the isolated d-pawn as a hero (and avoid the trade of minor pieces!) and you’ll be rewarded with many nice victories.

RainbowRising asked:

I’ve heard a lot of talk about pawn structure dominating the strategical plans of a position. For example, in some Queen’s Gambit lines white plays with an isolated d pawn, and the game becomes a fight for control of the square in front of the pawn. Why is this so? And secondly, what other kinds of pawn structure are there that lead to a situation where play becomes almost solely centered around them? 

Dear RainbowRising,

If you are in a fist-fight, it would be wonderful if you’re opponent wasn’t able to move. Then you could hit him at will. One fights for control of the square in front of the isolated d-pawn for this reason -- by freezing the pawn, you can attack it without worry about it stepping up. Another reason that the square in front of the pawn is so valuable is that it makes a great home for a piece. If the side without the d-pawn controls it, then the square turns into a permanent support point for (ideally) a Knight. However, if the side with the pawn can control it, then it deprives an enemy piece of a great square, and it also allows the pawn to advance at will.

Concerning the degree pawn structure affects the general nature of the play, structure almost always dictates the general play ... ALL structure! If it’s a closed position, that structure will tell you to make use of a pawn break to gain extra space (the break also allows your Rooks to get into the game), or to (perhaps) favor Knights over Bishops, which tend to revel in locked situations. If the structure creates a wide open position, piece play and quick development is called for. If there are structural anomalies like an isolated pawn or doubled pawns, you should go into hyper-drive and try to take advantage of these imbalances. Structure tells you if there’s a pawn that’s worth attacking. It tells you to play fast or slow. It can whisper that a central King is okay (closed position), or that a central King is suicide (open position).

If you don’t take the structure into account when making a move or coming up with some kind of plan, you are essentially playing blind!

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