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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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.