The Pawn Game

The pawn is the most misunderstood member of the beginner’s army. While the experienced player knows just how valuable an asset pawns are during all phases of the game, the novice player views them as expendable. In the eyes of an inexperienced player, pawns are on the bottom rung of the chess ladder for a number of reasons. First off, pawns are the lowest valued unit according to the relative value system employed in learning chess. A pawn is worth one point while the Queen is worth nine. Beginner’s tend to view comparisons such as the relative value system as absolute. If the Queen is at the top of the value system, the pawn is at the bottom. Adding to this conceptual problem is the fact that players starts the game with eight pawns each. Beginner’s often think that having so many pawns, combined with their low relative value, means that they’re expendable. After all, you have eight pawns at the game’s start. Certainly you can afford to lose a few? Absolutely not! You’ll have to give up pawns to move forward in the game but they must be given up for the right reasons.

Another problem with pawns, in the eyes of the novice player, is that they are unidirectional. Pawns move in one direction only, forward, while pieces move in multiple directions. White’s pawns march towards Black’s pawns along a single file and Black’s pawns march towards White’s pawns along a single file. The exception to this rule is when a pawn captures another pawn or piece, in which case it captures diagonally, meaning that the pawn doing the capturing moves to a new file (the file the captured pawn or piece was on). This means pawn moves are absolutely committal. Move a pawn forward and there’s no going back!

Then there’s that special pawn rule, pawn promotion. Tell a beginner that they can promote a pawn into a Queen if it safely moves to the other side of the board and that beginner will envision winning the game because they have multiple Queens. Suddenly, pawns are being pushed towards their promotion squares with complete disregard of anything else, such as a good position.

Pawns play different roles during the game’s three phases which means there’s a lot to learn about the pawn. Countless books have been written solely about pawns during the opening, middle and endgames as well as pawn structure. There is a great deal of pawn theory for the beginner to learn. I use the term pawn theory as an umbrella phrase to cover all pawn related concepts. One method I employ to teach pawn theory is the pawn game. This starts as a “pawn only” game that allows students to learn how to work with their pawns.

To play the first phase of the pawn game, both players set up only their pawns, White’s pawns on the second rank and Black’s pawns on the seventh rank. Pawns adhere to the standard rules of the game such as being able to move one or two squares forward on their first move and then one square only after that. The goal of this game phase is to get a pawn to the other side of the board, promote it into a Queen and use that Queen to capture the remaining enemy pawns. After this game phase is finished, the student’s play phase two. In phase two, when a pawn reaches it’s promotion square, it promotes not into a Queen but a Rook. The Rook is used to capture any remaining enemy pawns. The game is played again, phase three, but upon reaching a promotion square, the pawn is promoted to a Bishop, then a Knight in the following game phase (phase four). The idea here is to have players learn how to use different pieces (upon promotion) in conjunction with pawns to win the game. Of course both players can promote pawns during the same phase which makes the game a bit harder.

Prior to playing the pawn game, my students and I discuss pawn structure. The first concept we discuss is pawn cooperation or pawns working together. Beginner’s have a habit of thrusting lone pawns out onto the board and leaving them unprotected. To avoid this problem, we discuss the pawn chain. A pawn chain is simply a group of pawns connected to one another so that each pawn defends the pawn ahead of it diagonally. An example of a White pawn chain would be a pawn on b2, c3, d4 and e5. The base of the pawn chain is the b2 pawn while the head of the chain is the e5 pawn. In this pawn chain, pawns protect one another leaving the major and minor pieces free to partake in more important tasks. This is a case in which the pawn’s low relative value works to an advantage in that most players will not trade a minor or major piece (of greater value) for the lowly one point pawn!

Then we look at pawn islands. A pawn island is a pawn or group of pawns separated from one another by a file. The rule of thumb here is that the more pawn islands you have, the harder it is to defend your pawns. Therefore, the fewer pawn islands you have the better off you are. Other key concepts covered before starting the pawn game are isolated pawns, a pawn who has no friendly pawns to defend him on adjacent files and backwards pawns, pawns whose fellow adjacent file friendly pawns have advanced past the point of protecting him. An example of this (for White) would be pawns on b5, c4 and d5, the c4 pawn being the backwards pawn. Then there’s the passed pawn, a pawn able to promote because there are no enemy pawns on adjacent files to stop him nor is there an enemy pawn on the same file to block his promotion. Always try to created a passed pawn or two!

I have my students write these definitions down on a sheet of paper they will refer to as they play the pawn game. After the first run through of the pawn game (four phases), I have my students add Kings to the board (on their starting squares). The objective is now to checkmate the enemy King using a pawn promoted to a Queen and any remaining friendly pawns. The game is repeated, with the promoting pawn promoting into a Rook (phase two), then a Bishop (phase three) and finally a Knight (phase four). As students complete a full promotion cycle of the pawn game, promoting to Queen, Rook, Bishop and finally Knight, a new piece is added to the board. After the King, a Queen is added followed by a Bishop, etc (one minor/major piece at a time). Pawns are promoted as in the previous phases.

By the time my students have gone through these numerous phases, they’ve developed some basic pawn skills. Only then do we start our study of pawn endgames. I use the pawn game first because it allows students to study the interactions between pawns and pieces in a simplified scenario. I have my more advanced students do these exercises as well because you cannot spend too much time studying pawn theory. Remember the pawn’s motto, “we may be small but we do big things.” However, those big things can only happen when you know a bit about pawns. 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).