Playing with an Isolated Pawn

Playing with an Isolated Pawn

Feb 9, 2016, 4:12 PM |

Many up and coming players who learn the game of chess learn effectively how to play against isolated pawns. They learn things such as to blockade the pawn with their knight, and to pile up their rooks on the weak pawn, until the pawn collapses from the pressure. However, because of such an emphasis placed on how to play against the isolated pawn, many players often freak out when they are dealing with the pawn. They worry that they are already worse, and that the game is lost. Because of this, they decide to try to play for a draw and play very quietly, hoping to draw the endgame a pawn down.

However, this is actually the exact opposite of how you should be playing when you are the player with the isolated pawn. Often times, since your center is weak, it is important to go for play on either flank to try to obtain some advantage as fast as possible. The longer the game goes, and the more trades that occur, the bigger the advantage your opponent has. Here are 5 rules of what you typically want to do when you are the player with the isolated pawn:

1) Avoid Trades (especially minor pieces) - These trades will only help your opponent consolidate his advantage. You want to keep pieces on the board to create complications. 

2) Attack a flank - This often means that you should launch a kingside attack. Your opponent is significantly better positionally, and it is thus in your best interest to aim for a tactical bloodbath.

3) Open up files - This might seem counterintuitive, but it is important not to leave only one semi-open file. Inevitably, your opponent will begin to use this file to attack your isolated pawn, and thus to create more complications you should bust open the position.

4) Find a plan - Often times, the toughest part of playing with the isolated pawn is finding a plan. Your opponent's moves are easy because all he has to do is blockade and eventually try to win your isolated pawn. In the meanwhile, you need to try to aim for some objective by attacking a flank. What is that objective?

5) Focus on piece activity - You should only enter an isolated pawn situation when your piece activity gives you compensation for it. Otherwise, you are simply entering a worse position. Development is key! The more active your pieces become, the less of an influence your isolated pawn will have on the result of the game.

Here is an instructional example of how you should follow these 5 rules to win with your isolated pawn. In this game, Lasker masterfully demonstrated the full effectiveness of these 5 rules, lays siege on his opponent's kingside, and eventually exploits his opponent's weaknesses to win the game. Instead of annotating the game, I encourage you to go through the game, and from move 14 onwards, try to label Lasker's move with 1 of the 5 rules that I mentioned. This will help you become more accommodated with the way to play with the isolated pawn.

It is important not to panic if you find yourself in a situation where you have to play with the isolated pawn. Many grandmasters have been able to use the space advantage that comes with having the isolated pawn to win the game. Rather than seeing the isolated pawn as a weakness that will cost you the game, work around it with your space advantage and reap the benefits.