Two Positional Pawn Sacrifices: One Accidental, One Missed

In the fifth (of six) round of the Pittsburgh Chess Championship, I had an interesting game as White in which there were bouts of material inequality.

The accidental sacrifice

Out of the opening, my opponent lost a Pawn that I went hunting for.

In retrospect, I should have chosen not to go hunting for that Pawn in the first place: it was a doubled c-Pawn on c5 that was not worth the trouble of going into contortions to win. It turns out that winning the Pawn did leave me with a large advantage, but one that required alert play to maintain.

What happened was that my opponent tried to get long-term defensive chances by forcing a trade of his Bishop for my Knight on c3 resulting in my having an isolated a-Pawn as well as isolated, doubled c-Pawns on c2 and c3, so that basically, I won a doubled c-Pawn at the cost of having my own doubled c-Pawn.

Objectively, I had a large advantage and there were many ways for me to proceed, but I faltered, became passive, and Black ended up getting huge compensation, pressuring both my a-Pawn as well as my terrible c-Pawn on c3, that made the initial Pawn loss almost feel like an accidental positional sacrifice! In fact, Black could have regained the Pawn with a great game, but also faltered, resulting in a time-scramble of a scrappy ending that led to my swindling a winning ending but then not having enough mental reserves left to finish the job (that ending may be the subject of a separate post).

The unplayed sacrifice

The interesting thing is that after the game, we both agreed that I missed a great chance to immediately sacrifice a Pawn back for a huge advantage. I had definitely considered it during the game, but in a turn of mental passivity I had thought that I might as well play more quietly (which could have sufficed, but I made further errors). It was a psychological as well as technical error.

The sacrifice c4 would have been very strong. Here’s why, in terms of general principles as well as the concrete situation on the board:

  • Whether Black takes the Pawn with the Queen or the b5 Pawn, the result (after a Queen trade if appropriate) is that Black’s retaking Pawn on b5 would have been diverted into a weak doubled c-Pawn on c4, and also give White a very strong outside passed a-Pawn.
  • Giving up the useless c-Pawn on c3 would have opened up lines for White’s dark-squared Bishop, especially important since Black no longer had any Bishops.
  • Opening up the b-file would also have been advantageous to White, who was well ahead in development and ready to swing the King Rook over to the Queen side if appropriate.
  • If Black did not take with the Queen, the situation is even worse for Black, because with the Queens still on the board, Black’s Queen becomes tied to defending the regained c-Pawn while the Black King remains in danger, uncastled and unable to castle.
  • Since it’s just giving a Pawn back, it’s not even “really” a sacrifice anyway.
  • It’s almost certain that White will regain this weak Pawn on c4 anyway that is either unprotected (in the case of a Queen trade) or barely protected (by just the Queen).

There was only up side, no down side, to this sacrifice.

It is unfortunate to report that despite knowing all this, I did not play this positional Pawn sacrifice that was crying out to be played, but chess life goes on. I hope that if you encounter a position like this in one of your own games, and consider the points made above, you will not think twice before happily giving up a terrible Pawn for a great position!

The annotated game

Franklin Chen

This entry was posted in Annotated Games, Articles, Franklin Chen on by .

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.