What Not To Do If You Have The Isolated Pawn

A typical introduction to positional principles in chess covers the advantages and disadvantages of having an isolated Pawn, a Pawn that has no Pawns on the files adjacent to it and therefore cannot be protected by another Pawn. (In particular, the most common isolated Pawn is the isolated d-Pawn.) Since it is easiest to understand why an isolated Pawn might be a long-term static disadvantage, many players reflexively go out of their way to avoid ending up with one. The situation is not helped by the use of illustrative games in which one side has an isolated Pawn and suffers quite a bit before losing the Pawn and the game.

But as a student of mine pointed out while studying such games, the situation is not actually that simple. Yes, it can be frustrating defending a position in which you have an isolated Pawn without any of the benefits (not discussed here) of having one, but that does not mean the position is actually lost. Whether your opponent can actually make any progress is another matter. It is instructive to know how to play for a draw in an unpleasant defensive position. Much chess instruction focuses on how to win, but ignores questions of how to avoid losing.

Here’s a classic isolated-Pawn game that ended poorly for the defender.

Korchnoi-Karpov, World Championship in Merano, 1981

Sliding from an advantage to equality

In the opening, Korchnoi as White accepted an isolated d-Pawn position. Karpov responded with a “Knight on the rim” move 11…Nh5 to trade off dark-squared Bishops. This wasn’t actually very good. It potentially gave White precious time to create a thematic good position: White could have played Re1, Ne5 with pressure against Black’s f7 and e6 Pawns, then begun a thematic attack on Black’s King side (especially with the h6 advance weakening the King side already), either through a Qd3/Bc2 lineup and/or a Rook lift with Re3/Rg3, something like that. (Full discussion of how to attack if you have an isolated d-Pawn is outside the scope of this article.)

White dawdled with 13 Bb3 and then 15 Qe2, which did nothing to create threats against Black’s position. And then White played 16 Ne4? which resulted in a simplification that left White fighting for a draw.

Simplifying trades are what you do if you are playing for a draw with an isolated Pawn, to reduce the other side’s attacking possibilities.

Refusing to accept that the goal should be to defend a draw

On move 19, White had the opportunity to trade Rooks and practically guarantee a draw. The fewer the pieces, especially powerful long-ranging major pieces, Rooks and Queens, the fewer opportunities for the opposing side to win the Pawn and still have a middlegame initiative to win the game. So White should have simplified here. The task of drawing would still have been slightly tricky, but doable, requiring keeping track of Black’s Queen, Rook, and Knight activity.

On move 22, White made another mistake and played the backward-moving 22 Qe1? It was best to simply wait around and do nothing, after having everything well-defended: White’s Queen was centralized at e4, protecting the d4 Pawn and exerting pressure on the d5 square.

Often, in a defensive position, the best thing to do is to wait for the draw to happen. Trying a funny plan when there is nothing really going for you can backfire badly. White has no winning chances in this position.

Unnecessary passivity

On move 23, White played 23 Rcd3? which just turned a fine Rook (on the open c-file) into a purely defensive piece. OK, the idea may have been to dissolve the isolated Pawn by playing d5, but this was easily parried by 23…Rd6.

Final simplification

On move 27, White traded the Bishop for the Knight on d5. Objectively this is OK, actually, if the goal is to draw. But the followup shows that was apparently not the goal. So the real problem is a mismatch between an idea and what is consistent with that idea.

Own pieces in disarray

28 Rb3? was a terrible move that took a defensive Rook and removed it from its defensive function, and also exposed the White Queen to a pin of the d-Pawn, in case Black ever got in …e5. 29 Qc3? compounded the problem by leaving the Rook on d1 completely undefended.

33 Qa3? removed the Queen from the action in the center and King side after White had already weakened his King’s position with the necessary 30 f4 earlier.

Now all that was needed for Black to win was to tactically take advantage of White’s uncoordinated pieces and unprotected King, and Karpov did that precisely.

An important note about how to draw

Sometimes the easiest way to draw is to just give up the weak isolated Pawn without a fight, in exchange for activity and simplification. Instead of risking King unsafety with 30 f4, White could have decided to just lose the d-Pawn but keep King safety intact and Rooks and Queen active, say with 30 Qf3. I will confess that I have been held to a draw a couple of times in games in which I expended effort to win an isolated Pawn but at the cost of massive simplification and could not win the ending.

Summary

To answer my student’s question about this game: yes, there were multiple turning points in the game at which White could have held still and played for a draw. Especially in the case of an isolated Pawn and much piece simplification, there is often no way to win the Pawn or force some other concession somewhere else, if one just puts pieces on good defensive squares and then just waits. The only way for the other side to win is to break through by distracting the defensive pieces and taking advantage of pins and the single possible Pawn break (…e5 here) to create threats elsewhere on the board (such as on an exposed King). Note that the game was not lost because of losing the isolated Pawn: the game was lost by trying too hard to hang on to it.

The complete annotated game

Franklin Chen

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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.