Pawn and Minor Piece Workouts

Beginners tend to employ major pieces for early attacks when they first start learning to play chess. We’ve all brought our Queen out early when we first learned the game only to watch her be captured by our opponent. The same holds true for the Rook. Beginners tend to think about using their minor pieces in limited terms, especially the Knight because of its strange way of moving. Pawns are expendable to the beginner because he or she has eight of them at the game’s start and they’re the lowest valued material in their arsenal (or so the beginner thinks). This often leads to a lack of game skill regarding pawns and minor pieces.

I’ve been trying a number of training exercises to get my students up and running when it comes to employing pawns and minor pieces in their games. Of course, there’s the old standby, the pawn game, used to introduce beginners to pawn movement. However, it only introduces the beginner to pawns interacting with pawns. In the pawn game, both players have only pawns that are lined up on their starting ranks. White moves first. The goal of the game is to get one pawn (or more) to the other side of the board to its promotion square, promote that pawn into a Queen and then capture the opposition’s pawns. The first player to capture all of the opposition’s pawns wins. This is a great way to learn about pawn structure and pawn coordination.

I’ve altered this game a bit to help students learn about the mighty pawn and minor pieces at the same time. It’s very simple. The student playing white will have the pawns and the student playing black will start with a single Knight on the a8 or h8 square (it doesn’t matter which corner square the Knight starts on). The goal for white is to get one pawn to its promotion square, promote it into a Queen and then capture the opposing Knight. The goal for black is to stop the pawns, namely by attacking the base of any pawn chain white creates as well as capturing any lone or unsupported pawns.

While it’s a tough challenge for the player with the lone Knight, it can be done, especially if the pawns are not well structured. If white doesn’t progress across the board with his or her pawns working together, black can pick off any lone pawns with ease. The student who has the black Knight will learn a great deal about moving the Knight, a piece often difficult for beginners to master. When a student says “I don’t think this is fair since my opponent has eight pawns and I only have a single minor piece,” I remind them that those eight pawns are going to have to work extremely closely with one another to avoid capture. I also mention that the Knight has a power no other piece has, the ability to jump over (and behind) any pawn or piece on the board. This means you can’t block an attack by a Knight. Once the game concludes, the students switch sides and start a new game. After that game, they switch sides again and we add a second Knight to the black side. Now the third game starts with all the white pawns again on their starting rank (the second rank) and a black Knight on a8 and h8. Things become a lot tougher for white facing two Knights. At the conclusion of game three, the players switch sides and a fourth game is played.

I use the same idea with the Bishop. White starts the game with eight pawns on the second rank and black starts with a Bishop on either a8 or h8. The goal is the same, with white aiming for a pawn promotion and capture of the enemy Bishop. Because the Bishop is a long distance attacker with a greater board range than the Knight, white has to be extremely careful with their pawn structure. Lone pawns without supporting pawns will be picked off in no time. However, the single Bishop can only attack pawns on the same color square it’s on. After game one is concluded, the players switch sides and play again.

As with the first example employing the Knight, we add a second black Bishop to a corner square for game three. This means you have a black Bishop on a8 and h8 for game three. Now the player with the pawns has to think very carefully about pawn structure. Remember, with one Bishop on the board, your pawns will always be safe if they’re on a square of the opposite color of the square the opposing Bishop is on. With two Bishops, no square is safe. Only careful coordination and pawn structure will allow a pawn to be promoted. Game four finds our players switching sides one last time.

I use this training idea in my classes as well as a warm up exercise for my students at tournaments. What they get from this is twofold. First, they learn a lot about pawn structure, which is critical to good play, especially when they start to get into real endgame positions. Secondly, they learn to master those minor pieces they tend to ignore early on in their careers. When playing with two minor pieces students start to develop coordination between pieces, something sorely lacking when they first learn the game. So there’s a simple exercise you can use to develop some basic chess skills that’s fun but not easy. Getting good at something is never really easy (except in movies and works of fiction) but the reward for mastering it is priceless. Try this and you’ll see. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).