Beware of Trying to Win Poisoned Pawns

An important and advanced theme in chess openings is that of the “poisoned” Pawn belonging to one’s opponent, a Pawn that is unprotected and may be attacked with hope of winning it. I like to call “poisoned” the specific Pawn on one of four squares, directly diagonal to the opponent’s Rook in the initial position, that is often tempting to try to win using one’s Queen when the protecting Bishop is away:

  • White’s Pawn on b2 (which Black can try to win with a move like …Qb6)
  • Black’s Pawn on b7 (which White can try to win with a move like Qb3)
  • White’s Pawn on g2 (which Black can try to win with a move like …Qg5)
  • Black’s Pawn on g7 (which White can try to win with a move like Qg4)

A paradox in pedagogy

An important part of one’s chess education is understanding the value of material, of trying to keep one’s Pawns and pieces protected and finding opportunities to win material by capturing the opponent’s Pawns and pieces, either for free or for an advantageous trade according to a heuristic formula of worth (such as taking a Rook, worth 5 points, in return for giving up one’s Knight, worth 3 points).

The paradox is that once one has absorbed this lesson, at some point one must learn to balance the hard-earned attention to material with more nuanced attention to other factors in a game. On general principles, as the next step after internalizing the value of material, I advise against club players trying to play opening variations involving winning a poisoned Pawn, because the effort to win it usually requires wasting three moves:

  1. Moving the Queen to attack the Pawn.
  2. Capturing the Pawn.
  3. Retreating the Queen to avoid getting captured or trapped.

Three moves is quite a lot of time to lose for the sake of winning a Pawn in the opening, when development and one’s own King safety are critical and can be compromised. Granted, there are some very popular opening variations that involve taking the risk and winning such a Pawn, but they require absolute precision to even be able to defend a draw against a fierce attack coming from falling so behind in development.

At some point after one’s tactical and defensive strength has improved enough, it may be worth trying these risky ideas, but I have seen too many instances of a club player moving a Queen out early in the game to win material and then failing to consolidate well. This is a habit that, although it sometimes works against weak competition, results in postponing one’s development as a more principled middle game player.

Some concrete examples of disaster

Quick one

Here is a brutal example of punishing an early Queen excursion.

More subtle one

The following is a more subtle win in which Black, a world-class defender, won 2 Pawns at the expense of a whopping 9 Queen moves in the opening and middle game, and finally lost after hardly developing any pieces.

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.