Pawn Checklist

Beginners have the bad habit of becoming intoxicated with the power of the Queen, bringing her out prematurely which usually leads to disaster. These same beginners often treat their pawns as expendable, considering them of little value due to their seemingly limited abilities (in the novice player’s mind). Of course, the pawn has the lowest relative material value and this causes beginners to treat their pawns with little care. In reality the pawn is extremely powerful but only when used properly. Pawns can be the glue that binds a position together and if that glue fails, the position falls apart. I have my students repeat the phrase “pawns win games” over and over until it becomes a permanently embedded mantra.

It’s no fault of the beginner to assume that pawns aren’t very valuable. After all, each player has eight of them at the game’s start and they’re the lowest valued unit in one’s army. However, it’s usually the lowly pawn that first stakes a claim in the center of the board at the game’s start. The pawn also has the unique ability to promote into a major (Queen or Rook) or minor (Knight or Bishop) piece upon crossing the board and reaching its promotion square. Even pointing these ideas out to students, they still find themselves at odds when it comes to the question of working with their pawns. This is why I created a small list of things my students should be doing with their pawns and actions they should take against opposition pawns:

Keep you pawn structures intact! The perfect pawn structure can be found in the game’s starting position with white pawns on the second rank and black pawns on the seventh rank. Of course, this perfect pawn structure is altered the moment a pawn is moved. To keep pawn structures intact, consider moves that allow your pawns to work together. Pawn chains are one of the first pawn concepts my students learn. In a pawn chain, each pawn in the chain is supported by another pawn. So, looking at a chain of white pawns, for example, you’d have a pawn on b2, a pawn on c3, a pawn on d4 and a pawn on e5. With the exception of the b2 pawn, you have pawns protecting pawns. The point here is to make sure that you have at least one pawn on an adjacent file to lend support when needed. A pawn with no support pawns on either adjacent file is a pawn not long for this world. Try to develop pawns chains. This way, you don’t have to use your pieces to protect your pawns.

Your opponent will try to create pawn chains as well. These chains often control key squares in the center of the board. This means you’ll have to try to break those chains up. To do so, you’ll want to attack the base of the chain. In the above example, the base pawn is the b2 pawn. If you remove that pawn, the c3 pawn now has no support, making it vulnerable.

Create as few pawn islands as possible. Pawn islands are groups of pawns separated from one another by empty files. The more pawn islands you have, the greater the the number of resources or pieces you’ll have to employ in their defense. Imagine having a single piece to protect to defend your pawn islands. While that piece might be able to defend a single pawn island, defending two or three pawn islands would overload that piece (giving it too many jobs to do at once). Overloaded pieces are not participating fully in the game.

When advancing pawns, try to protect them with other pawns. If you’re thinking of advancing a pawn, make sure you can protect that pawn with another pawn on an adjacent file if possible. Of course, you can’t always do this, which means you may have to protect that pawn with a piece, but try to use pawns to protect or back up pawn advances. This is another reason why pawn chains are so important.

If you pawns are locked in place (they cannot move forward due to a material obstruction), try to use other pawns to free those locked pawns. Using pieces to do this job means you may have to give up extremely useful material to unlock the position. Pieces should be used for control of space rather than unlocking pawns. If you don’t see an immediate way to unlock your pawns using additional pawns, be patient. Remember, positions can change greatly within a few moves. If you cannot immediately unlock locked pawns with your own pawns, continue with active development, holding off on unlocking your pawns until you can do so with a pawn. Sometimes you can’t but again, be patient before giving up more valuable material to unlock your pawns.

Ending up with an isolated pawn is an occupational hazard for the average chess player (especially if you’re me). This means that sooner or later you’ll end up with one. An isolated pawn is one that has no fellow pawns on either adjacent file to help protect it. This is why pawn structure is so important! If you have an isolated pawn, consider keeping it mobile, moving forward towards its promotion square and protect it. Of course, having to protect it with a piece means that piece isn’t really working at its full potential. Therefore, avoid the isolated pawn! Examine your pawn structure before making any move and ask the question, “what does this do to my pawn structure and will this result in an isolated pawn?”

Create passed pawns when given the opportunity to do so. A passed pawn has no opposition pawns on adjacent files to stop its promotion. This means your opponent is going to have to use a piece to stop the passed pawn’s progress. So, if you create a passed pawn, push that pawn towards promotion, using a piece, such as a Rook to protect that pawn. Of course, if your opponent has a passed pawn, you must stop it, blockading it with a piece. While a passed pawn doesn’t always make it to its promotion square, it can tie up opposition pieces trying to stop its progress and that can be good for you if it’s your passed pawn!

On the other side of the coin, if your opponent has a passed pawn, you have to stop it. Try to use pieces of the least value to blockade the opposition’s passed pawn. The reasoning is simple: Pieces of greater value, such as the Rooks and Queen normally control more space on the board. In the end game, these pieces can be decisive because of their power. Beginners who know basic checkmating patterns can deliver mate with Queens and Rooks much easier than when using minor pieces. Therefore, you should use your minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops for blockading passed pawns. Of the two minor pieces, the Knight is a better choice for blockading because the Bishop is a good long distance attacker.

When down to a King and pawn against a lone King in the endgame, keep the King in front of the pawn (in opposition) rather than the pawn in front of the King until you can ensure its promotion (see my earlier article about pawn promotion for a full description of how to do this). Use you King as an active piece in the endgame to protect pawns heading toward their promotion squares. The King has to work in pawn endgames. If you have the lone King against an opposition King and pawn, do your best to use your King to control the enemy pawn’s promotion square.

Play the pawn game in which both players have only pawns. You have to get at least one pawn to its promotion square, promote that pawn into a Queen and capture all your opponent’s pawns to win. It’s a great way to learn about pawn structures, etc.

This is only a smattering of pawn concepts or ideas I present my students. However, I try to get them to grasp these basic ideas first, only later working on multiple pawn endgames (two or three pawns and their respective Kings for both players). Pawns are so important in chess that volume after volume has been written about working with pawns. However, I don’t expect my students to delve into these texts until they’ve played for a while. Be kind to your pawns because they often save the day! 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).