Pawns are the soul of chess. Basics of pawn structures. Part 1

Pawns are the soul of chess. Basics of pawn structures. Part 1

Aug 9, 2017, 11:35 PM |

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The french composer and chess player François-André Philidor allegedly said in the 18th century that 'pawns are the soul of chess'. While many chess players has heard of this famous quote, only a few know that the full quote of the great Philidor was actually as follow: ''My main purpose is to gain recognition for myself by means of a new idea of which no one has conceived, or perhaps has been unable to practice; that is, good play of the pawns; they are the soul of chess: it is they alone that determine the attack and the defense, and the winning or losing of the game depends entirely on their good or bad arrangement''.

Many beginners may know that the arrangement of pawns or pawn structure determines whether the game is open, closed or semi-closed and that it also determines whether the position is cramped or spacious for the pieces. But for many beginners it will take some time before they really understand the importance of pawn structure and the different strategies to carry out depending on the specific pawn structure. 

In order to help beginners to understand the basics of pawn structures, my colleagues instructors of the Curacao Chess Academy and I have been using the following introductory system for the last years.

Our students are thought in the beginning to recognize two types of basic pawn structures. Namely: 'Good pawn structures' and 'Bad pawn structures'.

The beginner is first thought to distinguish three 'Good pawn structures'.

1 Two pawns in the center.

2 Pawn chains.

3 Passed pawns.

1. Two pawns in the center.

The center is the most important area of the board and consists of the four squares d4, e4, d5 and e5. Two white pawns in the center on the fourth row (or two black pawns on d5 and e5) are considered an advantage mainly because they control four squares in the opponent's territory.

 The player who controls the center generally has the better chances to initiate an attack.

In the above position white has two pawns in the center on the fourth row. By advancing one or both pawns to the fifth row white can obtain even more space for his pieces and can get closer to the black King. But advancement of pawn(s) deeper in enemy territory should be well planned and calculated for they can also become more difficult to defend. Every evaluation depends on the specific position, but generally speaking we consider two pawns in the center as an asset. 

2. Pawn chains.

Another good pawn structure are pawn chains. Pawn chains are a set of pawns that are diagonally connected to each other.

In the above diagram white has a pawn chain from the b2-square to the e5-square. A pawn chain is considered a strong pawn structure because it controls a lot of space and the pawns protect each other. The pawn on b2 is bottom of the chain and the most vulnerable, because it is not protected by other pawns. The pawn on e5 is the top of the chain and is considered the strongest or most important pawn in the chain, because he is the furthest in the enemy position. 

3. Passed pawns.

The final good pawn structure in the introduction to beginners is the passed pawn. A passed pawn is a pawn that has passed all adjacent enemy pawns by which it can be captured. In the diagram below, the white pawn on e5 is a passed pawn. 

A passed pawn is considered an advantage because it is heading to promotion. The player with a passed pawn must find the right timing to run for promotion to avoid losing this pawn. As mentioned earlier the pawn may become difficult to defend as it enters deeper into the enemy territory.  

After introducing these three 'Good pawn structures' to the beginner, we consider our first goal as accomplished.

Then the beginner is thought to distinguish the three following 'Bad pawn structures'.

1 Isolated pawns.

2 Doubled pawns

3 Backward pawns

1. Isolated pawns. 

A pawn that doesn't have an adjacent pawn to protect it, is called an isolated pawn. See white pawns in the diagram below. 

Since isolated pawns can't be defended by other pawns, they can become easy targets for an attack. Isolated pawns are also considered a weakness because you may have to occupy your minor or major pieces (or sometimes even your King) with their defense. And of course you prefer your pieces in an active role instead of baby-sitting your own pawns.

2. Doubled pawns.

Another bad pawn structure are doubled pawns. Doubled pawns are pawns of the same color that are in the same file. They are weak in the sense that they can't defend each other. In the following diagram white has doubled pawns that are isolated and doubled pawns with an adjacent pawn. 

The doubled pawns in the c-file is defended by the b-pawn, but the doubled pawns on the f-file are very weak because they are also isolated.

A set of pawns that are adjacently connected is called an island. In our diagram white has three (pawn)islands, while black has two islands.
Generally speaking it is good to keep the pawns connected in order to have as few islands as possible.

3. Backward pawns.

The last bad pawn structure in this series is the backward pawn. Backward pawns are pawns that are in a row behind all adjacent friendly pawns. They are considered weakness because they can't be protected by adjacent pawns and they are difficult to advance. 

Backward pawns occurs in some variation of the Sicilian opening as illustrated in the following game. 

In this illustration the d6-pawn is the backward pawn. It became backward on the 8th move when black played 8 ...... e5.

A backward pawn is especially weak if it's in a half-open file, because it can be pressured by major pieces. The square in front of the backward pawn can often be used as an outpost.


There are many more known pawn structures, but with these six basic pawn structures the explanation of our introductory system is completed.  

These six basic structures and order has been thought by our instructors at the Curacao Chess Academy for many years now and this simple introductory system has been working pretty well for us so far.

Of course it's up to each chess instructor to apply what's working best for them. But if you're not getting the desired results as an instructor or don't have your own introductory system for basic knowledge of pawn structures, feel free to try ours.

In a future Blog I will inform about some other pawn structures. I will also expand a little deeper on how to deal with different pawn structures on both sides of the board.

A deeper explanation will definitely help even an intermediate chess player better understand why 'pawns are the soul of chess'.

Keep moving forward and till next time.

CM Jimmy Izijk