The Nerd Club - Pawn Structure

Jan 20, 2016, 12:04 PM |

Hi all,

This is the blog for the CMT-group chess club. The idea is to teach a bunch of theoretical phycisists how to play chess.

Now, so far I have actually taught you about a lot of things. Let's recap here:

  • Basic opening strategy (control the center, develop your pieces, get your king to safety)
  • Basic Tactics (pins, double attacks, discovered attacks, the importance of the 'check' ('skak'), intermezzo, etc.)
  • Strategy with regards to knights, for example the importance of holes/weak squares, the strength of having a knight near the enemy camp (i.e. 5th or 6th rank) and the weakness of a knights since they have difficulty moving, etc.
  • Strategy with regards to bishops, for example the three kinds of bishops (i.e. the active bishop, useful bishop and 'tall-pawn'), importance of not putting all your pawns on the same color as your bishop so that it is trapped by its pawns, etc.
  • Strategy with regards to rooks, i.e. the importance of open (or half-open) files for rooks, the possible tactics with rooks on the 7th or 8th ranks, etc.
  • Attacking chess, i.e. how to punish an uncastled king, the importance of opening up lines and diagonals for the attack against a castled king, etc.
  • Phsychology in chess, i.e. the importance of not believing your opponents threats before you have verified that they are real yourself, fear of playing strong opponents, the importance of dictating the game and having a 'macho' attitude, etc.

I think we should stop for a minute and consider that so far we have actually learned a great deal! And I think that it is quite clear that you have all improved over the last months, so I would like to applaud that - well done!

Now, when you browse through the above bullet points you will notice that when it comes to strategy, it actually has a great deal to do with pawn structure. Knights love holes/supported, advanced outposts, bishops like unblocked diagonals and rooks thrive on files that are open (or half-open). Furthermore the pawns are important in the defense of the king in shielding it from the attack of enemy pieces, and it is equally important for the attacking player to try (sometimes desperately) to remove those shielding pawns to create open files or diagonals for the attacking pieces. So pawn structure is an important concept which seems to dictate whether your pieces are good or bad, have potential or are stuck without being able to show their true worth. There are many layers and nuances that one can learn about pawn structures, and I don't pretend to know it all, but I think we have progressed far enough that we can look into this now.

Targeting weak pawns:

For today's session I will focus on pawns when they are a weakness more than they are a strength. Sometimes pawns have the opposite effect, but we will have to learn about that in another week.
The Isolated Pawn (IP):
An isolated pawn is by definition a pawn which does not have any friendly pawns on its adjacent files (and we are only interested in isolated pawns which are on open files). It is always a debate whether such a pawn is a weakness or a strength. The weakness lies in that an isolated pawn can never be defended by another pawn, and is therefore a possible target for attack. On the other hand it generally holds that if the side with the isolated pawn has active pieces, often he has good compensation for the possible pawn weakness.

Jeremy Silman has made a cookbook too for targeting isolated pawns:

  • Trade off minor pieces! This will limit enemy counterplay and activity so that you can more easily attack the pawn.
  • A queen and a rook is best at targeting an IP. Two rooks+queen give a little more counterplay for the side with the IP. With only one queen or rook for each side, the king can often come in and help the side with the IP (with both rook and queen this is too dangerous).
  • Optimally, you place your rook in front of the pawn blocking its advance, with the queen behind so that they have a joint attack. (Having the queen in front is not best since you can then not take the pawn if it is defended by a rook only).
Of course if you are the side with the IP, you should strive to combat the above plans.

The Backward Pawn:

Many of the same ideas that apply to IP's apply to backward pawns as well. Of course the attacking side should make sure that the pawn remains backward, either by firmly controlling the square in front of it or by planting a piece in front of it, but otherwise much of the same applies. Let us see an example:

Doubled pawns:

Doubled pawns can indeed be a weakness, but that depends on whether they are active or not, and sometimes they can even be an asset. Let's take a look at a typical opening game:

So doubled pawns are not always a liability, but if they find themselves on an open file they usually are. Jeremy Silman has a nice example which I will present here:

Combining the above knowledge (and the other knowledge you have), try and evaluate the following positions, both with Black to play. Who is better? How should Black play?

Creating prefarable pawn structures

I will just give you a couple of examples I thought of that demonstrate typical opening plans where the above pawn structures can occur.

It is a very typical theme in the Sicilian Defense that the d5-square is of great importance. That is why there is a saying that goes: If Black can succesfully play d5, he will have a good game. So both sides of the Sicilian generally try to fight for the d5 square.

An example of the IP can be seen in the Queens Gambit Declined:

Minority attack
A very typical plan in many kinds of positions is the following: If you have a pawn-minority on one flank, you try to advance that pawn minority towards the opponent's pawn majority, and trade off some of your pawns. For each trade of pawns, the opponent's pawns will be more exposed. Let's see an example:
In the final position, Na4 heading for c5 and making sure that the c6-pawn remains backward is a very good idea.