Give Muscles to Your Game!
cartoon B. Leonov©

Give Muscles to Your Game!


Be that as it may, at the risk of being subjective (er, I'm a pawn myself, after all), I do feel that the pawn play is probably the most important element in chess — ok, after tactics.

Building up thicker pawn biceps could then make your game much, much stronger. No doubt that mastering pawn play would tremendously pay off in your results, too.

There is a special relationship between us the pawns and other men in chess. The pieces can do only as much as a pawn structure we are weaving on the board allows them to. The higher chess ranks exist and operate in this complex infantry-created landscape that represents a framework for what they (can) do.

Our deeply-hidden relations with pieces condition almost everything that goes on on the board. Hardly any major changes and transformations in position can happen without the participation of us, the chess infantry. We the pawns, the boots on the ground are the backbone of any plan laid out on the battleboard. Formulating an effective and successful strategy, to help you choose the right path in your games, requires a deeper understanding of this piece-pawns interaction.

All things considered, mastering the pawn play, a critical chess skill, is an imperative for any developing player. It will adjust your chess lenses to operate from the perspective of pawns' interplay and coordination with pieces.

Saúl Nagelberg Los peones van al cielo (2019) Saúl Nagelberg (Argentinian), Los peones van al cielo/The pawns go to Heaven (2019) 


In a few recent articles, I shared my view on how to improve in chess, a game of ideas and concepts, not moves (see also Improve Your Chess with Pawns Adventures). The moves are just the embodiment of these ideas. To become applicable and actionable in your games, any specific knowledge on openings, endgame, tactics, positional play, etc. have to get conceptualized, generalized and structured within a relatively small repository of elementary chess concepts (lying below the level of consciousness) that you have adopted during your chess life. These foundational concepts and habits of mind determine, for good or bad, your performance through your (mostly) intuitive responses to new experiences that you are facing in your games.

I have stored little in my memory, but I can apply that little, and it is of use in many and varied emergencies..."— Dr Emanuel Lasker

Your progress and improvement in chess is neither continuous nor cumulative based on the amount of time and effort you spend on studying openings, endgames, strategic factors, etc. or any other specific particular chess knowledge. You may devote lots of time to it and yet see no substantial progress.

Improvement in your way of thinking can only happen when you add a new chess concept, one by one at a time, to that subconscious repository of ideas I mentioned above. The walls of this reservoir — the frame of reference into which new raw data is poured — are only then expanding, curving this way or that, with, possibly, new pipes built to connect with other concepts and/or other reservoirs of knowledge. Only then you can say I have mastered a new skill and I have improved my game.

Saúl Nagelberg. Escapan para otra batalla (2012) Saúl Nagelberg, Escapan para otra batalla/Escaping for another battle (2012) 


OK, you have decided to get better at chess and invest time in studying one important concept to improve your game. I am glad I hear you have chosen the pawn play. But how should you best go about it?

One of the most effective approaches would be to go over the well-annotated games played and commented by renowned Grandmasters. Try to understand ideas behind the pawn moves. Focus on the pawn play, its methods and meanings. In particular, on how pawns and pieces coordinate their action; on the consequences of every pawn move; on the changes in activity, mobility and effectiveness of pieces; on those deeply-hidden relations that influence everything that goes on on the board.

I chose the topic of pawn play because I have always struggled to explain the nature of good pawn play to my students, and struggled to make sense when it came up in interviews. I noticed that even when I would rate a pawn move as poor, or criticize someone for not making a pawn move they should have made, I had a hard time explaining why. —GM Sam Shankland, in the Preface of Small Steps to Giant Improvement: Master Pawn Play in Chess

Today, in another installment of Pawns Adventures, I'm going to go over a game to show how, in my view, one should be studying the pawn play. What to look for. Where to focus your attention. No endless lines of calculation every move. Mostly ideas

Viktor Korchnoi

I again picked a game by Viktor the Terrible. He played the greatest German chess legend after Emanuel Lasker and Siegbert Tarrasch, Grossmeister and papyrologist (scholar of ancient writings on papyrus) Robert Huebner. He is also famous for the utmost disregard for the Weltmaster Alekhine. One would think the World champion was a patzer after reading the snippets about Alekhine's game from Huebner.Among other things Huebner claims Alekhine was often "ruining his own pawn structure." We see that pawn play is a tricky subject, sometimes posing problems even to Grandmasters of highest rank (to Alekhine, as per Huebner, Shankland, or, Korchnoi whom we saw in (W)Ulf at Korchnoi's Door! play a lousy 60.h4?, for instance, after (W)Ulf used two hefty levers on moves 44 and 45 that actually won the game).


Viktor KORCHNOI (URS)- Robert HUEBNER (GER), Leningrad 1973

1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 c5 3. Nf3 g6 4. e4 Bg7 5. d4 cxd4 6. Nxd4 Nc6 7. Nc2 d6 8. Be2 Nd7

The pawn formation you see on the board is known as the Maroczy bind after the great Hungarian player Geza Maroczy. White's army vanguard consists of two advanced pawns, the Pc4 and Pe4. They established full control over the important central square d5 and tie Black down, creating the bind; they also grant White a space advantage and, seemingly, a long lasting positional advantage.

Yet things are not that clear. Advancing the two pawns is not without its drawbacks. The obvious one is the weak d4-square that lost protection from the c- and e-pawns after they moved forward. Actually, Black is controlling the entire central black-square complex.

Another important consideration here. Black's position is full of latent energy, he plans to play actively and by moving the b-, d-, or f-pawn two squares up he may be able to create a dangerous counterplay and challenge the pride of White's position, the c- and e-pawns. Generally, any pawn that has advanced offers the other side opportunity to contest it by creating a lever (lever what?), that is a situation when a pawn offers to trade itself to an enemy pawn. Thus created tension is called pawn lever, or pawn break, or hook. ("the pawns' mutual efforts are comparable to the stress of power and load on a lever," hence the term coined by Hans Kmoch in Pawn Power in Chess.)

Advanced pawns can become a hook.

This is a critical concept for understanding and mastering pawn play. If pawn play is ranked that high as far as good play and ways of improving it are concerned, the lever seems the key element of successful management of my fellow pawns. A lever, if played correctly, may lead to an ultimate improvement in the pawn structure of the side playing it; and/or damage to the opponent's pawn structure. The net result is an improved position, something we are striving all the time, every move.

In fact, your positions is as healthy and solid as it is able to create levers, over and over. Effective use of levers determines the strategic course of the entire game. Both attack and counterattack ultimately depend on it.

In the current position after 8...Nd7, Black threatens Bxc3 to damage White's pawn structure on the Q-wing and start the siege of White's weak double pawns along the open c-file.

9. Bd2 Nc5

Another possibility was a pawn move 9...a5 to first secure the position of Black's Knight. 

10. b4

The Knight on c5 was threatening the e-pawn, so White drives it away from its dominant position. The knight moves to e6 furthering control over d4. On the other hand, the text move advances the b-pawn and makes it a candidate to challenge with the a7-a5 lever.

the German Dr. Robert Hübner

Opponent: "Draw?"
Hübner: "Too early"
A few moves later:
Opponent: "Now a draw?"
Hübner: "Too late!"


10...Ne6 11. Rc1 O-O 12. Nd5


Now and on the previous move Black could have played ...a5 with the idea to create a lever, possibly open the a-file and activate Ra8. This is a typical sequence of pawn play, Lever -> Line opening -> Piece activation.

True, Black gets control over d4 but, as Korchnoi explains in My 55 Victories as White, it will soon show that one well-placed piece is still not sufficient to secure equality.  

13. Nxd4 Nxd4 14. Bg5 Re8 15. O-O


Again, 15...a5 was a good move. Either after 16.c5 Be6!, or 16.a3 axb4 17.axb4 Ra2 Black's pieces become active.

16. Re1 Nxe2+ 17. Rxe2 Qd7 18. Rd2

White has an obvious space advantage. Now he is threatening c4-c5 (a lever!). Taking the c-pawn would lead to the opening of the d-file, or, after the trade on d6 to creation of a weak pawn in Black's camp.


Now how should White respond? If 19.cxd5 (releasing the lever tension), then after 19...h6 20.Be3 a5! Black opens the a-file for his Rooks, equalizing soon.

And the standard 19.exd5 allows White to pressure along the open e-file with some advantage (but it closes the d-file!).

19. Rxd5!?

An unexpected retort! A rook move with profound consequences for further pawn play and the overall strategic direction of the game. It keeps possible two pawn breaks (c4-c5 and e4-e5) to further the pressure on d6 along the half-open d-file. Not only 19.Rxd5!? offers White active possibilities, it denies them for Black! Namely, after Knights and the light-squared Bishop are gone, the Rook firmly establishes itself on d5, foiling Black's attempts to relieve the pressure. It creates serious difficulties for Black to free his game via a) the ...Pa7-a5 lever, b) the ...Pf7-f5 lever, or c) ...Pe7-e6! 

Korchnoi and Huebner at the chess table


19...Qe6 20. Qd3 Rac8 21. Be3 a6 22. h3

Before going on with his main plan that implements a breakthrough along the d-file using two powerful levers, Korchnoi follows the advice of Sun Tsu, "the best strategy is to fight the enemy's strategy." Once Black's counter chances are nullified, White gets back to the main strategic idea down the d-file. 22.h3 is preparing 23.g4 


23. g4

As said before, prevents ...f7-f5 (a lever!) and plans for an offensive on the K-side. White has weakened the pawn structure there and has to play actively now so the weakness doesn't show up. 

23...Qf6 24. Bg5 Qb2

On 24...Qe6 White planned to continue with f2-f4-f5. The Queen on b2 disrupts the coordination of white pieces somewhat. On the other hand, the Queen stays far from the main theater of action and it is soon going to feel very real. 

25. a3 Rc7

26. c5

A lever that ultimately leads to the opening of the d-file with a profound effect!


26...dxc5 27.Rcxc5 Rxc5 28.Rxc5 wouldn't have solved Black's problems. Huebner hopes to make use of the pin along the c-file, but it fails due to the weakness of his back rank.

27. Kg2 Bf8

After 27...h6 28.Rc2! Qb1 29.Bxe7! Rxe7 30.cxd6 Ree8 31.d7 White wins immediately. In this line we see how pawns become a powerful, disruptive force when they have survived storming the barricades and broken into the enemy territory up and kicking. Typically it is pawns sacrificing themselves for pieces' activation. In a dramatic plot twist, the roles reversed. Pieces now sacrifice themselves (29.Bxe7! and then later, Rc1 also offers itself on move 30) to make the d-pawn, by reaching the 7th, the main protagonist of a thriller.   

28. cxd6! exd6

Again, we see a piece being sacked to help the pawn advance to the 7th. If 28...Rxc1, then 29.Bxc1 Qxc1 30.d7 Rd8 31.Rc5 followed by Rc8. 

29. Rxc7 Rxc7

30. e5!

Without this lever at White's disposal, it would still not be that clear who is going to prevail. One thing is for sure, Black can't allow the creation of a formidable passed pawn on the d-file.


After 30...Rc3 31.Qd4 dxe5 32.Qxe5 Rc2 33.Qxb2 Rxb2, White doesn't play 34.Rd8 Kg7 35.Be3 Ra2 36.Bd4+ f6 37.Rd7+ Kg8 which doesn't mean the end of game, but 34.Bf6! Re2 35.Rd8 Re6 36.g5 and the pin along the back rank decides. 36.g5 shows another vital role of pawns in setting up an outpost for the Bishop which effectively stops Black from playing ...f7-f6. This move would have helped Black cope with the pin along the 8th (as shown in the 34.Rd8 line above).  

31. Bd2 dxe5 32. Rd8

The next diagram shows the end result of a courageous pawn play and a mission accomplished. The pawns can now leave the scene (actually the Queen would still need the service of the c-pawn to deliver a coup de grace on the last move). They get all preparatory work for White's army, now activated to the fullest degree possible thanks to the infantry. The Rook has penetrated deep into the enemy territory, while Q and B will soon create a deadly battery to assault Black's King. 

32...Kg7 33. Qe3 Be7 34. Qh6+ Kf6 35. Qh4+ Ke6 36. Re8 Rxd2 37. Qxe7+ Kd5 38. Rd8+ Kc6 1-0

Long live the Pawns!




1)A few snippets about Alekhine's game from Huebner: 'gross tactical inaccuracy during liquidation-sloppy calculation-underestimating the defense', 'strategical misjudgments; overestimating the own possibilities (blatantly)-a lot of mistakes in detail-bad technique in a won position', ' strategical deficiencies of the highest order in the opening and in the middlegame', 'lack of strategical understanding-ruining the own pawn structure-inappropriate play for the attack; impatience-premature breakdown', ' playing for traps; addiction to combinations-lack of interest and feeling for positional subtleties; impatience-destruction of the own pawn structure-overestimating the initiative-lack of precision in calculating variations-tirelessness-unperturbed by changes of fortune', ' -sloppiness-chess blindness.'