Which Pawn Would You Rather Live Without And Why?

Recently I watched an unusual and fascinating video clip by GM Roman Dzindzichashvili about playing White while accepting move and Pawn odds. In this particular context, he was talking about playing against computers. But actually, I got to thinking, someone wanting to deepen understanding of chess could do well to seriously reflect on how this time-honored handicap variant of chess should affect both White’s play (going for the win starting with a huge advantage) and Black’s play (struggling to survive). Many of us in our chess lives slowly end up playing on autopilot, falling back on familiar openings or familiar strategic ideas. An immediate imbalance straight out of the opening might be just the thing to get us out of our comfort zone to review our understanding of the game.

Several months ago, at a party, I played a Pawn and odds game (with my f-Pawn missing as Black) against a friend rated about 400 USCF rating points below me. I was dead lost for much of the game, frankly, but managed to claw back to a draw, I think. (My memory is fuzzy: it was, after all, a party.) After that game, I marveled that players like Paul Morphy were able to play with such a disadvantage. Clearly, for Black the f-Pawn is one of the worst Pawns to be missing at the beginning of a game, primarily because of lack of King safety. I decided that in the future, I would not play my friend again at such odds! Maybe some other Pawn, but not that Pawn!

An exercise

So the exercise raised the interesting question, “How would you order, from best to worst, the loss of one of your eight Pawns as Black?”

I think this is a rather stimulating question for a chess student to work on independently (without computer aid, of course). A teacher in a group setting could even make it into a game. I have not tried this out yet, but here are some ideas:

  • ask students to come up with their rankings and compare notes and debate each other
  • assign a simpler task, picking just two missing-Pawn starting positions, and having students compare just those two
  • ask for an in-depth analysis of just one missing Pawn
  • having students actually playing out both sides against each other and then discussing the challenges faced

One great feature of this exercise is that it does not stray too far from “normal” chess (as Chess960 does), and so one good way to approach the exercise is to ask oneself how the absence of a Pawn alters what one has already learned about “normal” opening theory. Therefore, I feel the task is actually a good indirect way to improve one’s understanding of the rationale behind normal opening theory. Also, it may be good training for how to react after blundering and losing a Pawn in a game, or after winning a Pawn: or, given a choice, which to give up or which to win.

A sample analysis: missing b-Pawn

Here is a sample analysis that might give ideas into what kinds of questions to ask oneself (or a student) as a guide for study. Let’s remove Black’s b-Pawn.

Development: we note that in return for the missing Pawn, Black does potentially get a head start in development, because the light-squared Bishop is ready to be fianchettoed to b7. Also, potentially Black could use the half-open b-file to place a Rook on to attack White’s b2 Pawn. I picked this example to illustrate that missing a Pawn can actually have some advantages, despite the disadvantages. One could consider this position to be in essence a gambit (although not a good one).

Weak squares: the missing b-Pawn means that the a6 square and the c6 square are weakened. White could think about ways to exploit these weaknesses.

Pawn structure: Black is starting out with an isolated a-Pawn. This may be a liability for White to attack. Especially, in case of an endgame, Black may have a lot of trouble and lose on the Queenside if the a-Pawn is lost, and then White has an outside passed Pawn. (I have in fact lost endgames a Pawn down in Pawn structures such as these.)

Center control: Losing the b-Pawn is not as bad as losing a center Pawn, because Black can at least still fight for the center.

Loss of a counterattacking resource: In many openings, Black depends on the b-Pawn to fight back against White, whether pushing away White’s light-squared Bishop with a6/b5 or c6/b5, or advancing the b-Pawn to b4 to undermine White’s Pawn on c3 or Knight on c3.

Castling: White should probably not play some standard pet opening variation that involves castling Queen side.

Conclusion

I have found it fun, and I think instructive for myself, to actually take some serious time, for each Pawn and move odds opening position, to consider different dimensions of what White gains and what Black loses, for each position. I think this would be a great exercise for anyone wanting to remember what the basic principles of chess play are and why.

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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.