Pawn Structures: Glue That Holds Your Position Together

Pawn Structures: Glue That Holds Your Position Together

CM Chessdemon2019

Hello pawn pushers! The game of chess starts with 32 pieces on the board, 16 of which are pawns. Pawns are the weakest yet one of the most important pieces in chess. Having a good pawn structure means that your pawns are able to support one another and thus repel the enemy's attacks.

I focused on pawn structures in most of my games, mainly because it is so important. Without a good pawn structure, you can easily lose games or lose material. There is a reason behind why chess has 16 pawns and 16 other pieces. Pawns are the weakest piece, but you need to use them well in order to win. Otherwise, your position will crumble. Pawns glue your pieces together and protect your king. Here are a few cases of pawn structures and why they are so important.

1. Endgames

Endgames are an important part of chess. A bad pawn structure could result in a loss because pawns are extremely important in endgames; one pawn down could lose the game. There are many features of different endgames that are iconic and the methods of winning occur over and over again.

Isolated Pawns

White has a worse pawn structure than black. White's isolated pawn becomes a target and black's king cannot be pushed back by the opponent. Thus, black is basically winning. An isolated pawn cannot be protected by other pawns, only by pieces. When an isolated pawn is born, it is a fragile thing that has to be protected many times and is a big liability.

Also, note that the black king is on e4, the square right above the isolated pawn. Notice that nothing can attack it. Squares above isolated pawns are weak. Remember this because isolated pawns are the key weak points in a bad pawn structure.

Pawn Island

A pawn island is a group of pawns that can protect one another. The more pawn islands you have (usually), the worse your pawn structure is.

As you can see, white starts off with 4 pawn islands (a3 isolated, c3 isolated, e3 isolated, h2 and g3), while black starts off with only 2 pawn islands (b5 and c5, f5 and g6 and h5). The reason why they are called pawn islands is because the pawns are islands that can't communicate/protect each other. Make sure to minimize the amount of pawn islands you have, this will include isolated pawns as isolated pawns are islands with only one pawn.

Backward Pawns

These pawns are pawns that cannot be moved or they will be captured. They are backward pawns because they are (usually) on the home rank (2nd rank for white, 7th rank for black).

White dominates the position because black has a backward pawn on c7. Because of the en passant rule in chess, c5 is impossible. Backward pawns are also known as crippled pawns because the backward pawn is crippled and cannot move. White is practically up a pawn for nothing in the position above, and even though he can't win, he can still press.

Backward pawns are most effective in rook and knight endgames, however, take this bishop endgame for an example.

White is still better of course, but with bishops only the backward pawn is not a target anymore and the passed h-pawn is easily stopped.

Doubled Pawns

Doubled pawns are usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of pawn structures. Doubled pawns are ugly and are not much better than one pawn. So much so that rook endgames with doubled pawns are usually drawn also. Take this position, where black has a choice to make about his position down a pawn.

Easy, black sacrifices his pawn so white will have two doubled rooks-pawns. Even though white is up 2 pawns, there is simply no way to win.

Doubled pawns are also targets, they are easy to attack and win. However, the majority of doubled pawns are protected doubled pawns, which look something like this.

Now the doubled pawns are not weak whatsoever. In fact, they are quite strong. In a rook endgame, the f4 pawn in this setup shields the f2 pawn from being attacked. The f2 pawn protects e3 which protects f4, thus making a stable pawn structure. However, isolated doubled pawns are a different world.

Isolated doubled pawns are a lot worse than normal isolated pawns because it is so much harder to protect them, much less having TWO weak pawns. The position above is a Nimzo-Indian player's (like me) dream. In an endgame, isolated doubled pawns decide the game easily.

Pawn structures have so much importance in endgames that I am constantly learning new motifs about them. But for now, let's take a look at a few openings.

2. The Nimzo-Indian

The Nimzo-Indian is one of the sharpest lines for black against 1.d4, but also one of the most sound. The Dutch and Kings Indian defenses both are risky but offer higher winning chances because they focus on tactics and calculation, while the Nimzo-Indian is a lot more positional.

This was my analysis on one of my games I played recently. It was not the best Nimzo-Indian; it did not have any doubled c-pawns, but this game still emphasized the importance of pawn structures. Normally 2 bishops are a lot stronger than 2 knights, but this game was not the case.

3. The French Defense

Many players know the power of the French. Black seems to get a cramped position on purpose, but actually black is trying to get an extremely stable pawn structure. Here is a position that could arise from the French.

The position above does not come from a game, but it shows key points of why the French Defense is so popular. It is a position arising from black successfully trading his light-square bishop, his only weak piece, with white's extremely strong bishop. Almost all endgames in the French Defense are better for black. Notice that black has solid pawn island while white has 2 at the end.

The pride and joy of the French Defense is the f7-e6-d5 pawn chain, which offers black security and activity. If black did not have to pay the price of a bad light-squared bishop, everyone would start playing the French. If you are a positional player and think the example above suits you, start playing the French!

4. Isolated Queen Pawn Middlegames

Finally, I want to talk about the biggest pawn structure imbalances in the middlegames, Isolated Queen Pawn positions (IQP's). Isolated Queen Pawn Positions are worth studying as the side attacking the isolated pawn (usually black), needs to give up space and activity to do so. This means the side with the IQP needs to attack extremely quickly. If the attack breaks through, the side with the IQP will win. If the attack doesn't, the side attacking the IQP will win the pawn and then the game. 

This was one of Anatoly Karpov's many games against the IQP. Karpov is known to be an extremely good player against the IQP, and the game above shows how he beat Boris Spassky. IQPs are so complicated this game is worth analysing thoroughly.

With these 4 examples of pawn structures and how important they are, I hope you have learned something and maybe change your opinion on the game of chess. Pawn structures are extremely important in every game you play, so pay attention to your pawns, even if they if they are extremely weak. They are the shell that protects your pieces, the glue that holds your position!

Thanks for reading!

CM Chessdemon2019

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