The Mighty Pawn: The Soul of Chess

18th Century chess player and musical composer Philidor once said that “pawns are the soul of chess.” Perhaps the most misunderstood participant in a beginner’s chess game is the mighty pawn. For the master, an extra pawn or two can mean victory in the endgame. The master knows the true value of the pawn. For the beginner, the pawn is often considered an expendable member of his or her army. Why do the views of the pawn differ so greatly between beginner and master? We have to look at the beginner’s viewpoint to answer this question. The beginner is taught that the pawn is the piece of lowest relative value (one point) and that each side starts the game with eight pawns. The pawn is also the one unit in chess that only moves forward, plodding along one square at a time (except on its first move where it can advance one or two squares). Low value plus plenty of pawns plus limited movement can equal a skewed view of the mighty pawn. While the pawn is the only unit in chess able to promote to a piece of greater value, many beginners discount this amazing ability. Their attempts at promotion are often dashed because they try to move a pawn to its promotion square early on when there are plenty of opposition pieces to capture it before it gets to promote. The pawn may be the most maligned fellow in beginner’s chess.

Most beginners send their pawns out on the board unsupported which leads to the subsequent capture of those undefended pawns. “No worries,” the beginner will say, “I still have plenty of pawns left.” This kind of thinking can lead to disaster very quickly. To remedy this problem, I devote many lessons early on to pawns, namely pawn structure. There are a few basic terms or concepts that must be understood by the beginner in regards to the mighty pawn. Grab a chessboard and pieces.

We’ll start by looking at the simplest pawn structure, the pawn chain. Place white pawns on a2, b2 and c2. These three pawns, alone on the board, are unprotected. Of course, since there are no opposing pieces on the board to attack our three pawns, we don’t have to worry. Now, let’s introduce an opposing piece into the game. Place a black Rook on b7. The Rook is attacking the pawn on b2. Place a white Rook on h1. Often, when asking the beginner to defend the pawn, he or she will move the white Rook from h1 to b1, which does defend the pawn. However, you greatly restrict the Rook when you assign it the job of babysitting a pawn. There is a better way to defend the b2 pawn. If we simply move our b2 pawn to b3, it is now protected by both the a2 and c2 pawns, leaving white’s Rook free to move elsewhere. Pawns are excellent at protecting other pawns! Let’s say the black Rook moves to c7. The white pawn on c2 is now under attack. Moving the c pawn to c3 does no good since the Rook can still capture it. However, since pawns can move one or two squares forward on their first move, pushing the c pawn to c4 allows the b3 pawn to protect it. We now have a simple pawn chain in which the pawn on a2 (remember pawns capture diagonally) protects the pawn on b3 which in turn protects the pawn on c4. However, there is one weak link in this pawn chain and that’s the a2 pawn. This pawn can be protected by moving the white Rook to a1 should black’s Rook move to a7. Therefore, when creating a pawn chain, make sure to protect the base of the chain and when attacking a pawn chain try to go after the chain’s base.

Sometimes, pawn structures are weak. Remove the pieces from the board. Place a white pawn on c4, d3 and e4. Notice that the single pawn on d3 is protecting both the c4 and e4 pawns. While these two pawns are protected by the d3 pawn, it is considered a weak spawn structure, because should the d3 pawn be captured, the remaining pawns will have no immediate protection. We call the d3 pawn a backwards pawn which is a liability. Should the d3 pawn fall, additional pawn protection will be required. By delegating the job of pawn protection to your pieces, you’re reducing the protecting piece’s power. You want to avoid backwards pawns. A black Rook on d7 will quickly take advantage of the backwards d3 pawn and there is no way to protect it using the c4 or e4 pawns. Remove the white pawns.

Set the three white pawns up on a4, c4 and e4. Now the pawns are separated from one another by an open file. This means that these pawns have no other pawns to protect them making them a target for opposition pawns and pieces. We call these pawns, isolated pawns because they’re isolated from their fellow pawns, leaving them open to attack.

Pawns work best when they work together. Pawns form clusters during the game which we refer to as pawn islands. A pawn island is a pawn or group of pawns separated by at least one file. The more pawn islands you have, the more difficult they are to defend. The fewer pawn islands, the better your position (in most cases). If you place white’s pawns on a2, b3, c4, e5 g4 and h3, you have a total of 3 pawn islands. The lone pawn on e5 is especially weak because it is isolated. Going left to right, we see that the pawns on a2, b3 and c4 protect one another in a pawn chain. The e5 pawn is isolated, requiring some form of protection. Finally the pawn on g4 is protected by the h3 pawn.

One last pawn problem occurs when pawns are doubled (or even tripled) on the same file and unable to protect one another. Often an exchange of Bishop for Knight will lead to doubled pawns during certain openings or as the result of a pin being broken.

To get used to creating pawn chains, play the pawn game. Set up only white and black’s pawns on their starting squares. Try to safely get a pawn across the board to its promotion square. When one of your pawns reaches the promotion square, promote it to a Queen. Use that Queen to eliminate the opposing pawns. The first player to eliminate all of their opponent’s pawns wins the pawn game. You can play the pawn game against other individuals or alone. Here’s a game in which the mighty pawn plays a crucial role in the mating of the opposition’s King. Next week we’ll look at the role of pawns in the endgame.

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).