When Pawn Moves Do NOT Work
With the past two articles we looked at the importance of passed pawns in endgames. We looked at pawn breaks and piece sacrifices to achieve positions with passed pawns. Those positions were mostly winning for the side that had a passed pawn. Today I will look at positions where pawn breaks or creation of passed pawns might not be the best solutions. The first position is fairly simple but the first move is not that obvious and might be counter-intuitive. The second position that we will look at is very complex and requires time and commitment to follow through. It shows how tricky positions with passed pawns can be.
There is material equality on the board but white is clearly much better due to the passed f–pawn. White's king is more active than black's and is about to pick up black pawns on the queenside. However, taking on b5 does not work right away yet due to the pawn break c4-c3. White has an interesting option of breaking through with a4, creating a weakness on c4. The move is risky because we have limited material on the board and any pawn elimination can result in a drawish position. But a4 is so tempting and it appears that after it all the black queenside pawns will fall. In situations like these it might be helpful to ask yourself whether black has a clear plan to play. It turns out that b4 is not a threat as white can take the pawn and win the c4-pawn without much difficulty. White cannot make a completely random move because two white pieces perform particular functions. The king controls the b4- square and prevents the pawn break, while the bishop controls the important f7- square preventing the black king from taking the f6-pawn.
The above example is a good illustration of whether the pawn break is necessary to achieve the goal. If you asked yourself what is black’s next move and did not find an adequate answer, then the Bc6 move would come as a natural candidate move. It is easy to miss that after a4 white no longer wins because of the simple solution, c3-break for black. The example also shows the danger of limited material in the endgame: having an extra pawn when there is only one pawn on the board might not be enough for a win because the defending side can give up one of the pieces for the pawn to achieve a drawn position.
In the next example both sides already have passed pawns. At first it looks like white with the help of the knight on f6 will have no problems pushing the h- pawn. However, things are not as simple as they seem. Suppose black gives up the knight for the h- pawn, then it is a question of whether white has enough time to stop the a- pawn with the knight. We already know from the previous articles that the knight is a horrible piece when it comes to stopping the passed pawns supported by a king. Therefore, it is unlikely that white will make it back with the knight in time, especially considering the fact that the passed pawn is the a-pawn. There is the other plan for white. He can give up the knight for the a- pawn and promote one of his three extra pawns on the kingside. The knight stands no chance in fighting against the three pawns. Let us proceed to the game.
It looks like white is in control and after the pawn push there will be a knight sacrifice. It might look unclear as the black king has some time to get to the kingside. However, three pawns that go forward are better than the knight and it would take tremendous effort to stop them. Black is a very resourceful player and finds a way to hold on.
The first moves that I would consider in this position are g3 with the idea of f4 or f4 right away. It just looks like the knight from d5 will stop the a- pawn while white pawns on the kingside will go through. Once again the position proved to be more complex than initially thought. Nether g3 nor f4 leads to a win, in fact there is at most one move in this position that leads to a win.
What a battle! After this game one has to believe in tenacious defense. In the game you could see a thin line between the defense and attack. White pushed the h- pawn only on the 4th move, while I suspect most of the players would push it on the first move. White also brought the king just in time to stop the a- pawn. He didn’t follow through to the end with the king activation and ended up in a position that was very hard to win. Placing pieces on active positions where they can multitask is almost always a good thing to do. Pawn breaks are not necessary when there are simpler solutions, like the first example shows. And finally, one should push passed pawns forward with extreme care, especially if the opponent is also in possession of a passed pawn.