Category Archives: Annotated Games

What Not To Do If You Have The Isolated Pawn

A typical introduction to positional principles in chess covers the advantages and disadvantages of having an isolated Pawn, a Pawn that has no Pawns on the files adjacent to it and therefore cannot be protected by another Pawn. (In particular, the most common isolated Pawn is the isolated d-Pawn.) Since it is easiest to understand why an isolated Pawn might be a long-term static disadvantage, many players reflexively go out of their way to avoid ending up with one. The situation is not helped by the use of illustrative games in which one side has an isolated Pawn and suffers quite a bit before losing the Pawn and the game.

But as a student of mine pointed out while studying such games, the situation is not actually that simple. Yes, it can be frustrating defending a position in which you have an isolated Pawn without any of the benefits (not discussed here) of having one, but that does not mean the position is actually lost. Whether your opponent can actually make any progress is another matter. It is instructive to know how to play for a draw in an unpleasant defensive position. Much chess instruction focuses on how to win, but ignores questions of how to avoid losing.

Here’s a classic isolated-Pawn game that ended poorly for the defender.

Korchnoi-Karpov, World Championship in Merano, 1981

Sliding from an advantage to equality

In the opening, Korchnoi as White accepted an isolated d-Pawn position. Karpov responded with a “Knight on the rim” move 11…Nh5 to trade off dark-squared Bishops. This wasn’t actually very good. It potentially gave White precious time to create a thematic good position: White could have played Re1, Ne5 with pressure against Black’s f7 and e6 Pawns, then begun a thematic attack on Black’s King side (especially with the h6 advance weakening the King side already), either through a Qd3/Bc2 lineup and/or a Rook lift with Re3/Rg3, something like that. (Full discussion of how to attack if you have an isolated d-Pawn is outside the scope of this article.)

White dawdled with 13 Bb3 and then 15 Qe2, which did nothing to create threats against Black’s position. And then White played 16 Ne4? which resulted in a simplification that left White fighting for a draw.

Simplifying trades are what you do if you are playing for a draw with an isolated Pawn, to reduce the other side’s attacking possibilities.

Refusing to accept that the goal should be to defend a draw

On move 19, White had the opportunity to trade Rooks and practically guarantee a draw. The fewer the pieces, especially powerful long-ranging major pieces, Rooks and Queens, the fewer opportunities for the opposing side to win the Pawn and still have a middlegame initiative to win the game. So White should have simplified here. The task of drawing would still have been slightly tricky, but doable, requiring keeping track of Black’s Queen, Rook, and Knight activity.

On move 22, White made another mistake and played the backward-moving 22 Qe1? It was best to simply wait around and do nothing, after having everything well-defended: White’s Queen was centralized at e4, protecting the d4 Pawn and exerting pressure on the d5 square.

Often, in a defensive position, the best thing to do is to wait for the draw to happen. Trying a funny plan when there is nothing really going for you can backfire badly. White has no winning chances in this position.

Unnecessary passivity

On move 23, White played 23 Rcd3? which just turned a fine Rook (on the open c-file) into a purely defensive piece. OK, the idea may have been to dissolve the isolated Pawn by playing d5, but this was easily parried by 23…Rd6.

Final simplification

On move 27, White traded the Bishop for the Knight on d5. Objectively this is OK, actually, if the goal is to draw. But the followup shows that was apparently not the goal. So the real problem is a mismatch between an idea and what is consistent with that idea.

Own pieces in disarray

28 Rb3? was a terrible move that took a defensive Rook and removed it from its defensive function, and also exposed the White Queen to a pin of the d-Pawn, in case Black ever got in …e5. 29 Qc3? compounded the problem by leaving the Rook on d1 completely undefended.

33 Qa3? removed the Queen from the action in the center and King side after White had already weakened his King’s position with the necessary 30 f4 earlier.

Now all that was needed for Black to win was to tactically take advantage of White’s uncoordinated pieces and unprotected King, and Karpov did that precisely.

An important note about how to draw

Sometimes the easiest way to draw is to just give up the weak isolated Pawn without a fight, in exchange for activity and simplification. Instead of risking King unsafety with 30 f4, White could have decided to just lose the d-Pawn but keep King safety intact and Rooks and Queen active, say with 30 Qf3. I will confess that I have been held to a draw a couple of times in games in which I expended effort to win an isolated Pawn but at the cost of massive simplification and could not win the ending.

Summary

To answer my student’s question about this game: yes, there were multiple turning points in the game at which White could have held still and played for a draw. Especially in the case of an isolated Pawn and much piece simplification, there is often no way to win the Pawn or force some other concession somewhere else, if one just puts pieces on good defensive squares and then just waits. The only way for the other side to win is to break through by distracting the defensive pieces and taking advantage of pins and the single possible Pawn break (…e5 here) to create threats elsewhere on the board (such as on an exposed King). Note that the game was not lost because of losing the isolated Pawn: the game was lost by trying too hard to hang on to it.

The complete annotated game

Franklin Chen

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For the Love of Doubled Pawns

Having doubled Pawns in a chess game is rightfully taught as being potentially disadvantageous, and a vital step toward improvement in chess understanding comes from learning how to play against them as a static positional weakness in one’s opponent’s position that has ramifications in the middlegame as well as in the endgame. However, to dive into deeper into the subtlety of chess, it is important to also know of the potential dynamic strengths of owning the doubled Pawns.

For example:

  • If you get doubled Pawns from recapturing toward the center, that may increase central control, which could be very important in the middlegame.
  • If you have doubled Pawns, you have an at least half-open file that you can potentially use for attack by putting Rooks on the file.
  • The front Pawn of the doubled Pawn pair can be used for attack, while the back Pawn of the pair can be used to defend the squares that were otherwise abandoned when the front Pawn moved forward.

Examples of the power of doubled Pawns

Bent Larsen was a great chess player who was famous for playing in unusual styles. One thing that he seemed to do often was invite having doubled Pawns and then making use of them effectively. Here are two games showing off how to make doubled Pawns effective. Notice that the doubled Pawns enabled setting up a “wall” behind which gradual positional maneuvering and improvement of pieces was possible while waiting for the opponent to go astray. Playing with doubled Pawns often takes patient regrouping.

Franklin Chen

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Attack on Godzilla

My opponent is from Japan, which is why I used the Godzilla reference in my title. The only other Asian player that I have faced on ICCF was Graeme Hall in Hong Kong.

This win gives me three wins, two losses and six draws in this section. That temporarily puts me back into fourth place out of thirteen players. I need a second place finish in order to advance to the next round. I have one game remaining in this section and I have Black in it. In that game I have even material. If I can win that game I may get my second-place finish.

Initially, I started off with a queenside attack while my opponent played a kingside attack. My opponent’s attack stalled out while I switched my attack over to the Kingside. Like many of my opponents on ICCF, once he started losing he slowed the game down big time and he had only 3 days of reflection time left when he resigned. At the point in which my opponent resigned he was down 6 passed pawns and was four moves away from getting checkmated. I have no clue why people play out hopelessly lost endgames in correspondence chess!

Mike Serovey

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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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Playing Chess in a Modern Age

Here is a game from the first international event that I played on the ICCF server. Both of us had provisional ratings of 1800 points at the start of this. Now, my established rating on ICCF is 2027. My opponent’s established rating is now 2192. 

The opening that I played is known as both the Modern Defense and the Robatsch Defense. I usually call it the Modern Defense , even if I start off with a different move order. In chess openings there are two schools of thought. The first one is called the Classical School and it teaches players to occupy the Center with pieces and pawns. The second one was developed by Aron Nimzowitsch and Richard Réti and is called the Hypermodern School of thought. This school of thought teaches players to not occupy the Center but to attack it from the wings instead. I have played both styles and which one I will use in a particular game depends on my mood and what my opponent is rated. Also, if I know or suspect that my opponent is going to play some kind of anti Sicilian opening I will play the Pirc or Modern Defense.

Although we both played a couple of second-best moves there were no outright blunders until I decided to trade queens on move number 20. That lead to the loss of a Bishop for a pawn and then I resigned. I can’t explain that kind of a blunder in a correspondence chess game! At the time that I played this game I did not know that ICCF rules allowed me to use chess engines. If I had used an engine in this game I would not have made that blunder.

Mike Serovey

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When Weaknesses Didn’t Matter (And When They Did)

When one first begins learning about “positional chess”, one quickly learns concepts such as “weaknesses”, such as

  • weak square in your territory (a square you don’t have much control over, especially if you cannot protect it with one of your own Pawns)
  • backward Pawn (a Pawn that is behind its neighbor Pawn(s) and therefore cannot be protected by another Pawn)
  • weakness on a half-open file (such that the opponent can multiply attack your Pawns and pieces by means of a battery of Rooks and a Queen)

These are very important concepts, and one is taught to recognize these patterns and avoid weaknesses. One is often also shown instructive games in which one side had these weaknesses and eventually lost. This is all well and good, and an important step in chess improvement is to understand these structural weaknesses and to try to avoid them for one’s own setup as well as try to induce them and exploit them in one’s opponent’s setup.

However, time and again, when I work with chess players to help them improve, I get asked some very good questions:

  • “The position looks bad, but is it really that bad?”
  • “What do I do if I end up in one of these positions with weaknesses?”

In other words, many chess books geared at improvement present a biased view of the game, showing “how to plan an attack” and “how to punish weaknesses”, rather than “how to defend” and “how to deal with having weaknesses”. They present exciting games where somebody wins. Well, today I present a “boring” game where nobody wins, despite Black having all three of the example weaknesses I mentioned at the beginning of this article! And in fact, nobody was really ever in danger of losing. I think boring, “correct” games have much to teach as well as the exciting, flawed ones.

Summary of the game Baramidze-Leko, Dortmund 2014

I saw this game while following the Dortmund 2014 tournament earlier. Nobody annotated it, because it was so boring. But I thought it would be a great illustration of when “weaknesses” don’t matter, and why.

At move 12 in an Open Catalan, a characteristic Pawn structure arose, in which Black can be considered to have certain weaknesses: the backward c-Pawn on c7 cannot advance to c5, because of White’s bind with the Pawns on b4 and d4 controlling c5, and White has the half-open c-file. Also, White has the extra center Pawn (d-Pawn) vs. Black’s c-Pawn. So it could be considered that Black might be in trouble.

But a “weakness” is a problem only if it can be exploited. In this kind of position, White usually tries some combination of these ideas (see the game Kramnik-Carlsen, Dortmund 2007 at the end of this article, for example):

  • plant a Knight on c5 or a5
  • plant a piece on c6 to constrict Black
  • double Rooks on the half-open c-file
  • win Black’s c-Pawn
  • advance e4 to get the big Pawn center

However, Black in this game basically thwarted all of these ideas:

  • Move 13: maneuvered the Queen to a8, controlling not only c6 but the long diagonal and prevented e4
  • Move 15: advanced with c6 after the light-squared Bishops were traded off, so even though the c-Pawn is still backward, it is defensible; also, this prepared for a5 counterplay
  • Move 16: White, under danger of a5 counterplay against the b-Pawn, decided to trade Knights to allow the dark-squared Bishop to protect b4.
  • Move 17: maneuvered a Knight to b6, noting that White’s attempt to bind the c5 square had the side effect of creating a White weak square at c4
  • Move 19: a5 created counterplay against White’s b-Pawn and ensured that White would end up with an isolated Queen side Pawn
  • Move 20: Nc4 put the Knight on a great outpost in White’s weak c4 square
  • Move 23: White could not bear to leave Black’s Knight on c4 and forced a trade

After the final simplification on move 23, the game could have been called a draw already. Each side had a Queen, two Rooks, and a dark-squared Bishop.

White still had a bind on c5, but so what? In the rest of the game, he tried putting a Bishop there, then a Queen, then a Rook, but to no avail. That “outpost” did not help with any further penetration. If White had a Knight to put on c5, the story could have been very different, but note how in the game, Black virtually forced two Knight trades. Every trade brought Black closer to a comfortable position, because Knights are the best pieces to use against weaknesses, since if they can reach a good outpost, they can attack effectively from there.

All of Black’s most important Pawns (b5, c6, e6) were on light squares, which meant they were immune from attack by White’s only remaining minor piece, the dark-squared Bishop. Meanwhile, White had an isolated a-Pawn on a dark square to attend to on a3. Given this situation, and no Pawn breaks on the King side, the inevitable conclusion to the game was a draw, and it was agreed so after almost thirty more moves of shuffling around.

What conclusions can we draw from this game? One is that it is quite feasible to attempt to defend a position with weaknesses, if you play actively and force simplification in your favor so that your weaknesses do not matter. Another conclusion, unfortunately, might be that this main line opening variation of the Catalan, in which Black willingly plays dxc4 and then goes for counterplay with b5, allowing White to create a bind on c5, is drawish for both sides when each plays correctly.

However, there was once a time when this plan by White was very powerful, in the hands of Vladimir Kramnik, against those who did not adopt the right defensive plan as Black. In fact, 7 years ago at Dortmund 2007, Kramnik beat Magnus Carlsen with the Catalan. I have attached this game below so that you can see what it looks like when White’s idea works perfectly! Make note of every mistake that Carlsen made as Black, allowing White to execute his plan cleanly.

The complete game Baramidze-Leko, Dortmund 2014

Kramnik-Carlsen, Dortmund 2007

Franklin Chen

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Why I Like Being Part of a Chess Team

Here is a recent win in Team League Chess. I played on Board 4 in all five of the games in which I was paired by the team captain of HappyFun. I won all five of those games and I had White in four of them. Most of my opponents blundered in the openings or early middle games and I didn’t really get into any endgames. HappyFun won the Kasparov Section of league play and I took second place individual in that section.

I first started playing for chess teams back in my Junior year of high school. Because I was new to serious chess and thus I was relatively weak at chess, I started off on Board Nine out of ten. By the time that I was a Senior in high school I had worked  my way up to Board One on the H. B. Plant High School Chess Team. Even so, my USCF standard rating was under 1400 points the entire time that I was at Plant. During my Junior year most of the strong players at Plant were seniors. One of the seniors was still in the 1300 range and he was the most arrogant of them all! However, he had a good sense of humor and thus I liked him anyway. His nickname was “Ace”. His brother’s nickname was “Speed”.

During the Southeastern (Region IV) High School chess championships “Ace” played in both the Open and the Under 1400 sections. Every round “Ace” had two games to play! He had the TD have his opponents sit next to each other during each round so that he could play both games simultaneously without having to move around much. The players in the Open section were saying, “What a fool!” while the players in the Under 1400 section were saying, “What a stud!”. I think that “Ace” was a little of both! I don’t remember how well “Ace” scored in either section, but the team won the Open section.

After I got out of the US Army I was the lowest board on a team that included two masters. I can remember there being only three members on my team but most chess teams have at least four members. One of the masters, Ron, was known to smoke Marijuana before playing chess and the other one, Tom, chewed him out if Ron lost a team game due to being high. What irritated me is that Tom and Ron played better chess drunk or stoned than I did completely sober! One good thing about having two masters on my team is the my team could win even if I lost my individual match. This was a team that played in Central Florida and I don’t remember it or the league having a name.

With HappyFun I helped the team out when the captain lost his individual matches. Sometimes it is nice to be the hero!

Mike Serovey

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An Instructive Ending With Bishop Up For A Pawn

My student Eric (currently rated USCF 15xx) showed me a recent tournament game of his in which a rather fascinating ending came up. As Black, he had a Bishop and four Pawns versus White’s five Pawns. At first it seemed obvious that this ending should clearly be a win, but actually, it is not so obvious, because the semi-blocked nature of the position meant that it was not completely trivial for Black to break through White’s wall of Pawns. It turned out that he did come up with a very clever idea that is part of a good winning plan, but he did not manage to follow up on it, and seeing no way to make progress, accepted a draw with his opponent.

Winning an ending given a material advantage is very important, because at some point during one’s chess development, one plays well enough in the middlegame to get a material advantage, but if one is not able to convert in the endgame, it is a shame. In particular, when up more than two Pawns, there is usually a way to win, by taking advantage of imbalances on the board appropriately.

Looking at the game position carefully, we worked out a winning plan for Black. I think it is instructive because it brings together many important principles in endgame play. There are not any forced variations until the key transformative positions are reached. There may be other ways to win than the method I explain below; I would welcome feedback on other ways to win!

Initial position

First, let’s look at the initial position. The fundamental material imbalance:

  • Black has an extra light-squared Bishop.
  • White has an extra King-side Pawn, a g-Pawn that therefore could potentially be converted to a passed Pawn. However, Black is not in any danger of losing, because Black’s Bishop can easily sacrifice itself if necessary to prevent successful Queening.

Other interesting features:

  • White is lucky to have most Pawns on dark squares, out of attack from Black’s light-squared Bishop.
  • Black’s Pawns are currently all blocked up and therefore Black can win only by using an active King somehow to penetrate White’s position and either win some more Pawns or transform the position in order to create a passed Pawn.
  • But while activating the King, Black has to be careful about not letting White’s g-Pawn Queen. However, note that Black’s Bishop control’s the g8 Queening square.

An active King

The single most important lesson in endings is that an active King is critical. Where can Black’s King go? I think Eric was led astray because he was looking for a way to use the Black King to get through on White’s King side, but that is where White is actually strongest and has an extra Pawn. But if we look at the whole board, we see that Black can try to reach c4 or a4 in White’s position, to attack the d-Pawn or the b-Pawn with the King. Granted, White’s King could move over to the Queen side to defend the Pawns, and at least prevent Black from getting to c4. Black could get to a4, but then White can protect the b-Pawn with a3 and protected the a3-Pawn with a King shuffling between a2 and b2. These static considerations make it look like Black’s King cannot make progress.

Eric was also worried about how to get the Bishop involved in case of going over to the Queen side, because what if the Bishop got too far and White played g6 and then g7? We’ll see later how to address this concern.

Notice a Pawn asymmetry

However, Black has another imbalance to use: the Pawn situation on the Queen side is not symmetric. This is important. White has a b-Pawn while Black has an a-Pawn. This means that if Black can prepare the Pawn break …a5, if White ever trades the b-Pawn for Black’s a-Pawn, then White ends up with a passed a-Pawn but Black can then use the second Pawn break …c5 to create either a passed c-Pawn or passed d-Pawn. In an even-material ending, the “outside” passed Pawn (White’s a-Pawn in this situation) is advantageous, but with Black having an extra Bishop, there is no advantage to having the outside passed Pawn, because Black’s Bishop can cover it while Black’s King is free to press on with its own “inside” passed Pawn.

If White protects the b4-Pawn with a3, then Black can just trade Pawns, leaving White with a weak b4-Pawn. In that case, the ending is easy to win for Black, because Black can simply gain the opposition (using waiting moves with the Bishop) to break through and win either the b-Pawn or the d-Pawn.

Therefore, our conclusion is that if Black can safely manage to get the King to b6 or b5 in order to prepare a5, the game is a win. Note that no calculation of sequences of moves is necessary to come to this conclusion: all that is needed is

  • Fundamental understanding of Pawn breaks and passed Pawns
  • Understanding how to win by “taking the opposition” (in a King and Pawn setting)

The final question then is, how to perform this King manoeuvre while preventing White from trying to Queen the g-Pawn?

A clever Bishop manoeuvre

Eric hit upon a clever Bishop manoeuvre that, if followed up, would have worked great.

First, he played …f5 to force White to play g5. Then he moved his Bishop to d3, a6, c8, e6, and finally f7, in order to protect the g6 and h5 squares from White’s King invasion. This was a fine creative plan.

Unfortunately, he agreed to a draw shortly after this manoeuvre, not being able to find the winning plan that involved activating the King and using two Pawn breaks. He saw that after getting the King around, if he ever tried to bring the Bishop around, that would risk White’s g-Pawn advancing. This is in fact a valid concern, but the missing part of the picture was the importance of the …a5 Pawn break and the subsequent follow up. It turns out that there is something very subtle for Black black needs to do to time that Pawn break just properly, to avoid a draw.

Triangulation

The concept of triangulation is very important in endings. The main idea is to “waste time” in order to force the weaker side to reach a position on the move from a position in which the stronger side is on the move (but does not want to be on the move). In the analysis below, a critical position arises in which Black needs to prevent White’s King from becoming too active after a planned Pawn break. By triangulation, Black forces White’s King to the rim at a3 before playing the Pawn break …c5.

Control of the Queening square

It is also important to note that Black can wander just far enough with the Bishop to win White’s a4-Pawn, because of the control of White’s Queening square g8. Black’s Bishop has enough time to make it back to d5 after White plays g6 and g7, to stop White from Queening on g8. Whew!

Conclusion

I thought this was an instructive ending to work out, because of the many themes necessary to understand and integrate in order to create a winning plan.

Full analysis

Franklin Chen

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Blind In One Eye And Can’t See Out The Other One

The game below is from the second round of my most recent event that I played in Colorado Springs. This game was a comedy of errors. I lost the first round and I think that my opponent did too, but I am not sure of that. Roger appears to be about ten years older than I am and I think that fatigue may have played a part in the way that he played this game. I took a lunch break between the first round and the second round and thus I arrived about five minutes late for the start of this game. That lost time may have hurt me in the endgame when we had a time scramble.

I was disappointed with a draw in this game because I thought that I was winning the endgame. We were the last game to finish that round and we got only 15 minutes to recover before the start of the third and final round. I ended up drawing my third round as well due to fatigue from this round. However, when I played over this game with a chess engine I became grateful for the draw because it was then that I realized that Roger let me get away with some horrendous blunders!

The first eight moves was pretty much what I wanted to play as White. Black’s ninth move pretty much started to mess up my plans because I had never seen that kind of setup against the Botvinnik System before. I misplayed the next ten moves or so and I ended up in an inferior position that Roger eventually let me out of.

On move number 16 I had achieved equality only to give Black a slight edge on move number 17. I outright blundered on move number 19, but Roger failed to take advantage of that. Judging by his facial expressions at a couple of points in this game Roger was actually impressed by some of my blunders!

I blundered again on move number 21. At move number 23 Black was clearly winning. Black missed a winning move on move number 24. I blundered again on move number 26 and Black let me get away with it. My moves number 27 and 28 were again blunders. Black finally finds a winning idea on move number 28. Black gives back part of his advantage on move number 31. Once again, I blundered on move number 35. Black blunders on move number 36 and allows me to regain equality. Black plays some inferior moves on numbers 44, 45, and 46 inclusive that allow me the opportunity to win, but I failed to take advantage of that. It seems that from this point on, every time that one of us made a weak move the other one matched it. I gave away my passed d pawn in the time scramble and then agreed to a draw.

Mike Serovey

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Pawn Moves in Front of Black’s Castled King: Looking at h6 and f5

I stopped by the Pittsburgh Chess Club recently, met someone new, and played a couple of quick casual games with him. I felt that one of the games we played was instructive, illustrating the theme of king safety in the middlegame (and by extension, thinking about this straight from the opening).

King safety and Pawn advances

One important theme when paying attention to King safety in the middlegame is sometimes expressed, too simplistically, as “don’t move Pawns in front of your castled King”. Let’s focus, for this article, on so-called classical development, versus modern development: we mean by “classical” that Bishops are developed toward the center rather than fianchettoed away from the center onto diagonals.

Taking the side of Black developing “classically” as an example, the maxim “don’t move Pawns in front of your castled King” means not moving the f, g, or h Pawns unless necessary. The tricky part of interpreting this advice is understanding what “necessary” really means, and also an advanced player will want to know not only when to do something when it is necessary, but when it is not necessary but nevertheless advantageous. I will ignore the advanced case in this post.

I would like to begin a series of articles on concrete guidelines for when it is good or bad to move a Pawn in front of one’s castled King. The quick game I just played illustrates two of the easiest considerations starkly.

Black’s h6 when White may create a diagonal threat on h7

In the game, Black made a serious error by playing an unnecessary 11…h6. First of all, White had no real threat to place a piece on g5. But more generally, even if there is such a threat, the cure may be worse than letting it happen.

Here is a rule of thumb: in classical positions where Black no longer has a Knight (usually on f6) protecting the King side, h6 is often a serious weakening move. This is because it prevents Black from being able to solidly playing the “other” defensive Pawn move in the future, g6. Being able to play g6 is often very important to block White from delivering a mating attack on the light-squared diagonal from b1 to h7. The move h6 weakens not only the h6 Pawn (if White has a dark-squared Bishop aiming at h6), but also weakens h7 light-colored square and the g6 light-colored square, making defense of the King much more difficult. For example, with only the f7 Pawn protecting the g6 square, if Black ever needs to put either a Pawn or a piece on g6 to block any attack, White can potentially attack that square with multiple pieces, outnumbering Black. This is the kind of forward looking that a chess player must attend to when creating a defensive middlegame plan out of the opening, especially as Black.

In the game, you can see each of these dire predictions come true. Being on the other side of the board, knowing about these weaknesses around you opponent’s King, you can often create a lethal attack very quickly!

In the annotations, note that if Black had just castled, and then defended with g6 only when forced to, the resulting position if White tried the same brute force mating plan against h7 would have been quite acceptable and solid for Black, with Pawns on f7, g6, and h7 blocking any quick mate. As White, I would therefore have refrained from the committal e5 advance, which has the disadvantage of ceding control of the d5 light-colored square and opened up the diagonal from a8 to h1 to my own King!

Black’s f5 to block a diagonal threat on h7

The final error by Black was that of not cutting losses by pushing back and at least blocking White’s powerful King side attack by fighting with well-timed f5. f5 looks very ugly, because White can take the f-Pawn en passant and leave Black with an isolated e-Pawn. For this reason, I have seen that many club players avoid playing such a move until it is too late to make maximum use of this blocking attempt/counterpunch.

When you are on the defensive, you have to ask yourself: what is the lesser evil, getting a weak Pawn and a King side that looks like Swiss cheese because of holes on g6 and h7, or getting mated through too-passive defense? If it seems that all other defenses will fail, choose to avoid getting mated, and choose to fight on even with an ugly-looking position. In fact, 13…f5 results in a position that, while rather unpleasant, at least offers opportunities for Black counterplay. Black does get rid of White’s powerful e5 Pawn, open up the f-file, and develop the Queen, all while fighting White’s center and avoiding getting suffocated to death.

The complete annotated game

Franklin Chen

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