Pawn Types and Pawn Structure

The pawn has the lowest relative value and because of this, it can keep a piece off of any square the pawn controls. Pawns also have the ability to promote into a piece when reaching the other side of the board. These two factors make the pawn a valuable asset. However, pawns cannot move backwards, have a limited attacking range and are easily subject to capture if not protected, which can make them a liability. Whether a pawn is an asset or a liability depends on what type of pawn it is. While pawns share the same relative value, some pawns are stronger than others. A pawn’s strength or weakness depends on its relationship to other pawns in your army.

When pawns are on their starting squares at the beginning of the game, they’re equal in both relative value and strength. However, to give your pieces mobility, you have to move a few of those pawns. When you move a pawn, it’s strength changes in value because it’s relationship to the other pawns in your army changes. Whether or not a pawn is protected determines it’s strength. Unprotected pawns are weak because they need to be defended. While pieces can be used to defend pawns, those pieces become tied down to defensive duties and cannot participate in any attacks. With a few exceptions, when a piece is tied down to the defense of a pawn it’s lost it’s power. The best way to defend a pawn is with another pawn using pawn chains. Before we examine pawn chains, let’s explore pawn strengths and weaknesses based on pawn type.

Doubled Pawns

Doubled pawns are two friendly pawns ( belonging to the same army) who occupy the same file, leaving them unable to defend one another. In the diagram below, white has doubled pawns on the “c” file and no pawns on the “b” or “d” files to defend them. If it’s black to move, the Bishop could capture the c3 pawn. If it’s white’s turn, white would have to move either the c3 pawn to c4 or the Knight to a4 to defend the c3 pawn. Doubled pawns occur after an exchange of material in which one player is forced to capture back using a pawn adjacent to another pawn. Doubling your opponent’s pawn is a good way to weaken their position.

Isolated Pawns

An isolated pawn, is a pawn with no friendly pawns on the adjacent files. Without friendly pawns on the files immediately to the left and right of the isolated pawn, it will have to be defended by a piece should an attack occur. In the diagram above, the c3 pawn is isolated. Isolated pawns are considered extremely weak. Often, players will turn one of their opponent’s pawns into an isolated pawn and attack it, forcing an enemy piece to be tied down to it’s defense.

Backwards Pawns

A backwards pawn is one whose neighboring friendly pawns have moved too far ahead of it along the adjacent files to defend it should an attack occur. If a backwards pawn is attacked, a piece will have to come to its defense. As with doubled and isolated pawns, your opponent will always try to attack the pawn, forcing you to use piece to defend it. Backwards pawns are weak.

In the above diagram, the c4 pawn is the backwards pawn. White’s “b” and “d” pawns are ahead of the\is backwards pawn and cannot defend it. Meanwhile, the black Knight is attacking the c4 and b5 pawns. White has no piece that can immediately defend the attacked pawns, so black will win one of them. If white leaves the pawn on c4 the Knight will capture it. If white moves the c4 pawn to c5, the Knight will capture the b5 pawn because the c4 pawn is no longer protecting it.

Passed Pawns

The pawns we’ve looked at have all been weak and can thus damage an otherwise good position. However, there is a type of pawn that’s extremely powerful, so much so, that an opponent facing this type of pawn will do anything to stop it. This is the passed pawn. A passed pawn is one that can reach it’s promotion square because they’re no enemy pawns that can block it or capture it on adjacent squares. Therefore, a piece will have to be used stop this dangerous pawn. While having isolated, backwards or doubled pawns forces you to use a piece for defensive purposes, the passed pawn forces your opponent to stop the promotion by tying up one of their pieces!

In the above diagram, white has a passed “d” pawn. Black’s Rook is going to have to stop the promotion by moving to d8. Black won’t be able to use the Rook for attacking puposes until the passed pawn is dealt with. To make matters worse, both the c2 pawn and white Rook can help the passed pawn reach its destination square. There’s a saying, “Rooks belong behind passed pawns”, and doing just that will help white win the game! Strive to create a passed pawn because you’ll either promote the pawn, which adds to your material or tie up one or more of your opponent’s pieces.

Pawn Structure and Pawn Formations

Pawn structure is the geometric relationship of pawns to one another. Certain geometric arrangements strengthen pawns associated with those arrangements while others weaken them. We call these arrangements pawn formations. The weak pawn types we’ve looked at result from poor pawn structure. Therefore, when moving a pawn, always consider the outcome of your actions in terms of it’s effect on your pawn structure. The same holds true when capturing with a pawn.

Pawn Islands

A pawn island is a pawn or group of pawns separated from other pawns or groups of pawns by at least one file. Pawn islands can be strong or weak, depending on how the pawns within each island are structured. The more pawn islands you have, the more difficult it is to defend them simultaneously. Conversely, the fewer pawn islands you have, the easier their overall defense.

In the above diagram, white has two pawn islands while black has four. In addition to having fewer pawn islands, white’s two pawn islands are strong. The white King protects the three pawns on f2, g2 and h2. The pawns on the “a,” “b” and “c” files form a pawn chain in which the pawns protect one another (we’ll look at pawn chains next). What about black’s pawn islands? They’re weak. While the King protects the h7 pawn who is otherwise isolated, black has doubled pawns on the “f” file, another isolated pawn on the “d” file and two pawns that will have little chance of moving past white’s three Queen-side pawns. Black has a number of pawn problems, while white has none.

Pawn Chains

A pawn chain is a group of pawns that are lined up along a diagonal with each pawn supporting the one in front of it. Pawn chains have a starting and ending point, the base and head. The base of a pawn chain is the pawn at the bottom of the chain closest to the player. The head of the pawn chain is the pawn that is furthest out on the board, away from the player. Pawn chains typically range in size from two to four pawns in length. In the above diagram, white’s pawn chain is three pawns in length. The chain’s base is the a2 pawn while the head is the c4 pawn.

Pawn chains provide an excellent way to strengthen your centrally located pawns. It’s a good idea to create pawn chains early in the game. However, piece mobility is crucial during the opening. Thus, before creating a pawn chain, make sure doing so doesn’t block your piece’s ability to enter the game.

Pawn Barrier

A pawn barrier is a wall of three pawns along the same file that shield the King after castling. The barrier provides the King both safety and defensive options for preventing potential checkmates. However, when any of these pawns are moved off of their shared rank, the barrier can be weakened and King safety declines.

Pawn Storm

A pawn storm is a coordinated grouping of pawns, often sharing the same rank. Pawn storms are used to open lines that lead to the enemy King. Pawns in this type of formation can bulldoze their way across the board, pushing pieces out of their way due to the pawn’s low relative value . The only drawback to a pawn storm is having to maintain the protection of the pawns in this formation, primarily by using using pieces.

Pawn Duo

A pawn duo is a pair of pawns aligned on adjacent files. Their strength lies in their ability to protect one another as they move across the board.

In the above diagram, white’s f2, g2 and h2 pawns form a pawn barrier, while the b3 and c3 pawns make up a pawn duo. Black has a pawn storm along the sixth rank. However, black’s Queen has to protect the “c,” “d” and “e” pawns while the Bishop protects the f6 pawn. Both black pieces are tied down to defending these pawns.
There you have a brief introduction to pawn type and structure. Strong pawns and pawn structure must be maintained throughout the game from start to finish. Remember, the weaker your pawns, the weaker your position. A healthy pawn is a winning pawn.

Now that we have a better understanding of pawn types and structures, we can better determine the course we must take in order to have a winning middle-game. As with the other phases of the game, we have to create a plan that allows us to successfully launch attacks and gain a material advantage. Having a material advantage, having more material than your opponent, helps greatly going into the endgame! To create a strong plan, you first have to evaluate the position which we’ll look at next!

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).