Too Many Pawn Moves

One mistake beginners make is using their pawns too much during the opening phase of the game. While experienced players know the pitfalls of making too many pawn moves, the beginner reasons that the pawn is the unit of least value and is therefore expendable (after all, each player starts the game with eight of them). Unfortunately, the novice player quickly finds out that misplaced pawns can have a disastrous effect on their game! Before condemning the beginner for making too many pawn moves early in the game, let’s try to look at his or her viewpoint and reasoning!
The beginning player is taught to open the game up (start the game) with a central pawn push, either the moving the d or e pawn two squares forward. The beginner is also taught that the pawn is the unit of least value (the pawn’s relative value = 1 point). Each player starts the game with eight pawns. Novice players are also taught that it is normally better to start an exchange of material with the unit of least value. When these ideas are put together by the beginner, we can start to see the novice’s reasoning for bringing too many pawns out during the opening game. It is extremely important that chess teachers and coaches discover the reasons behind their student’s actions on the chessboard, especially actions that lead to lost games. Knowing why the mistake is made is just as important as correcting that mistake!

The biggest problem with making too many pawn moves early on is that the player making those excess pawn moves is giving the opposition a chance to gain greater control of the board as well as blocking in his or her own pieces. To explain these two problems, let’s look at a quick example (set up a chessboard and pieces to the starting position). A pawn moved from c2 to c3 controls two squares, b4 and d4. The c3 square is one on which the Queen-side Knight likes to reside. Unfortunately, with a pawn on c3, our Knight can no longer occupy that square until the pawn is moved. On the other hand, A Knight on c3 controls an impressive eight squares including two key central squares, d5 and e4. While, there are very good openings that rely on the c pawn being played from the start (The English Opening), beginners should push one of their two central pawns (the d or e pawns) into the board’s center, then concentrate on developing their minor pieces. If White had played 1.c3, Black would be able the simply play 1…e5, gaining control of the center. Black could also have played 1…Nf6, allowing the Knight control of eight squares including two central squares.

After telling my students that you shouldn’t make too many pawn moves, one of them will always ask “how many pawn moves is too many?” A good question! While an absolute answer would depend on the position at hand, there are a few guiding principles the beginner can use to navigate through this dilemma. First off, your goal in the opening is to control the center. This means that you need to make at least one pawn move, say 1.e4 or 1.d4 for White (1…e5 or 1…d5 for Black). One pawn gains a foothold in the center. Now, if (as White) you play 1.e4 and your opponent plays 1…c6, by all means bring a second pawn into the center with 2.d4. If your opponent gives you the opportunity to control the center with a pair of pawns go for it. However, it’s at this point that you have to develop your minor pieces. If you look at the position after 1.e4…c6, 2.d4, you’ll see that White has an ideal pawn center and can bring out all four of his minor pieces to powerful squares. White has options and with it flexibility. No pawns are blocking in his minor pieces! More importantly, White’s two pawn moves serve a real purpose as opposed to simply thrusting pawns out onto to the board because they’re expendable! So we can safely say that two pawn moves that control central squares without blocking in any minor pieces is acceptable during the first few moves. Black might play 2…d5, making another pawn move but one with a purpose. Please note that there are many excellent openings, such as the Queen’s Gambit Declined, that depend on making more than two pawn moves early in the game. However, this is not a beginner’s opening and is best left until student’s have a better grasp on opening principles. What about during the rest of the opening?

Once you have a pawn foothold in the center (remember, we’re talking about beginner’s chess here so we’re keeping the ideas simple in nature), it’s time to bring our minor pieces out onto the board. As mentioned earlier, pawns have limited control of the board which is why is it important to introduce the minor pieces once we have a centrally positioned pawn or two. A pawn, all alone on a central square, cannot hold down the center unless it is reinforced. This is where the minor pieces come to the rescue. The beginner is tempted to push another pawn forward to protect the suddenly harassed central pawn. However, that pawn who comes to the rescue has limited control over the board. Therefore, it is better to develop a minor piece to aid our troubled pawn if possible. After 1.e4…c6, 2.d4…d5, we see that the White pawn on e4 is under attack. Pushing the f2 pawn to p3 would be a mistake. While the f3 pawn protects his e4 brother, White’s King-side Knight can no longer move to f3 (unless the pawn on f3 is moved). Better is to simply develop the Queen-side Knight to c3 where it protects the e4 pawn. White is able to develop a minor piece and protect its attacked e4 pawn. White’s Knight on c3 controls eight squares as opposed to a pawn on f3 that controls two squares. The opening is about the control of real estate on the chess board and the player that controls the most is in charge! Develop your minors after gaining a pawn foothold in the center. Then consider additional pawn moves.

Of course, there comes a time when we want to use our pawns in supporting roles during the opening. After you’ve gotten you’re minors out onto the board, it’s time to start thinking about additional pawn moves. The key is to use your pawns carefully. Remember pawns can only move forward so they’re committed once they start moving. Pawns are best used in a supporting role in the opening. For example, let’s say the opposition attacks one of our Knights with a Bishop. The position is such that the Knight cannot escape the attack. Do we simply give up the Knight? Not if we can protect that Knight with a pawn. By using a pawn to protect our Knight, we are able to trade Knight for Bishop rather than losing the Knight.

The idea is to use pawns when the serve a purpose. A good general rule of thumb for beginners is to make no more than two pawn moves during the few moves, developing minor pieces instead. After at least two or three minor pieces are moved to active squares, then we can consider additional pawn moves. Of course, position dictates what to move on the chessboard. 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).