Doubled Pawns (1)

I’ve thought for a long time that there’s been more well-intentioned but misleading advice written about doubled pawns than about anything else in low and intermediate level chess books.

This first occurred to me in about 1970 when I first read Botvinnik’s One Hundred Selected Games and played through a couple of games that startled me because of the decisions Botvinnik made about his pawn formation. One of them concerned doubled pawns. Botvinnik enjoyed complex strategical chess and there are a number of games in the book where, playing black, he successfully fought against doubled white c-pawns in the French Winawer. In the game that particularly surprised me he was on the other side of the board, the owner of doubled c-pawns.

This game saw Botvinnik playing White against Vitaly Chekhover, best remembered now as a composer of endgame studies, but also a strong player who was awarded the IM title in 1950.

The game started with a rather unusual variation of the Nimzo-Indian Defence. Botvinnik played Queen’s Gambit type moves with White but Chekhover moved his d-pawn one square rather than two.

1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 e6
3. Nc3 Bb4
4. Nf3 O-O
5. Bg5 d6

Perhaps rather over-committal for contemporary tastes. c5 and h6 are the current master choices here.

6. e3 Qe7

6… Nbd7 is usually played here, but although both players have played perfectly reasonable moves the whole variation has never been fashionable.

7. Be2 e5
8. Qc2 Re8
9. O-O Bxc3

Botvinnik has to make his first doubled pawn decision. After 10. Qxc3 Black has the option of Ne4, when the queens will come off and White will still have doubled pawns (11. Bxe7 Nxc3 12. bxc3 Rxe7). The engines don’t seem worried, though, as they’re intending to play c5 sometime soon.

10. bxc3 h6
11. Bh4 c5
12. Rae1 Bg4

Botvinnik comments here that White wants to play around the d5 square, so he has to trade on f6.

13. Bxf6 Qxf6
14. Qe4 Bxf3

An interesting moment. Botvinnik thinks White now stands better because of his play on the central white squares, preferring 14… Bf5 15. Qxb7 Nd7 ‘and White’s pieces lose their cohesion’. The materialistic engines think Black doesn’t have enough compensation.

15. Bxf3 Nc6
16. dxc5 dxc5
17. Rd1 Rad8
18. Rd5 b6

The engines agree with Botvinnik that Black should have preferred 18… Qe7 19. Rfd1 g6 (the notation in my edition of the book gives the ambiguous ‘P-N3’ but this is clearly meant) 20. g4 when White maintains his centralised queen. Unlike Botvinnik, they think the resulting position is more or less equal, being unable to find a way for White to make significant progress.

19. Rfd1 Na5
20. h3

This passes without comment in the book, but the engines consider it too slow, preferring immediate infiltration with Rd7 when White stands better.

20… Rxd5

This was the position that interested me some 45 years ago, when I was still a pretty inexperienced player. I’d learnt that doubled pawns were bad and that passed pawns were good, so how could Botvinnik possibly consider taking with anything other than the pawn here? His only comment was that ‘Naturally, after 21. cxd5 Qd6! Black’s position would certainly be no worse’. Natural to him, maybe, but back in 1970 not so natural to me.

It’s not so natural to the engines, either, which all want to take with the pawn, just as I would have done. I rather suspect that this is just the sort of position that engines will struggle to assess correctly. As we’ll see next move, Botvinnik overlooked a defensive possibility for Black in the game, which also makes things less clear. I’d be interested to know how Magnus Carlsen, for instance, would assess and play this position.

21. Rxd5 Qe7

This may well be the losing move. The correct defence for Black, missed by Botvinnik in his analysis, was 21… g6 22. Rd7 Kh7 23. Rxa7 Rd8 when Black’s control of the d-file gives him equality.

22. Bg4 Qb7

Now it’s too late for g6: 22… g6 23. Rd7 Qf6 24. Rxa7 Rd8 25. Rd7. So White gets to establish is bishop on the vital f5 square, when he’ll force the exchange of queens and reach a highly favourable ending.

23. Bf5 Qb8

Certainly not 23… g6 24. Bxg6 fxg6 25. Qxh6+ Kf8 26. Rd6 when White will win either the queen or the king. The rest of the game was not a problem for someone with Botvinnik’s technique.

24. Rd7 Rd8
25. Qxe5 Nxc4
26. Qxb8 Rxb8
27. Be4 Na3
28. Bd5 Rf8
29. e4 a5
30. c4 b5
31. cxb5 Nxb5
32. e5 a4
33. f4 Nd4
34. Kf2 g5
35. g3 gxf4
36. gxf4 Ne6
37. Ke3 c4
38. f5 Nc5
39. Rc7 Nd3
40. e6 fxe6

White sealed 41. fxe6 and Black resigned.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.