Your Pawn Is Threatened: Do You Defend, Advance, Or Trade?

In a chess game, both sides start out with a complete front line of Pawns, which means that to make progress, you have to break through that front line somehow. The only way to break through is to advance your own Pawns and bring out your pieces to attack your opponent’s front line. At some point, a head-to-head clash occurs in which one side’s Pawn is attacked by a Pawn from the other side. The question then is always:

  • Do I advance my Pawn past the attacking Pawn (if not otherwise blocked)?
  • Do I capture my opponent’s Pawn with mine (usually meaning a trade, unless it was a deflecting gambit)?
  • Do I defend my Pawn (or overprotected it, if it was already defended)?

This question pops up early in the opening in particularly interesting fashion in the King’s Indian Defense, in which Black challenges White’s d4 Pawn with a Pawn to e5 that “threatens” the d4 Pawn.

At club level, I see players respond in each of the different ways, and sometimes I get asked “what is best?” The truth is, despite the particular popularity of certain responses at elite level, all three are definitely valid reactions at club level; in fact, I see White winning many games playing each way. The important thing is to know the reason behind each valid choice.

Even if you don’t play the King’s Indian Defense for either color, the strategic ideas are extremely interesting and worth studying, and can pop up in many openings.

Here is a typical decision point (I have chosen the “old main line” rather than the modern main line because it illustrates the themes more clearly). I want to discuss the fundamental ideas, not go into detailed opening variations: for that, you can consult an appropriate opening manual.

Closing the center

At club level, it is very common to see White immediately close the center by advancing d5, avoiding a trade of the d4 Pawn. Why would you want to do that?

Pros

  • Forever avoid any threats against the d4 Pawn, especially in light of Black’s fianchettoed Bishop on g7.
  • Forever avoid having an e4 Pawn exposed on a half-open e-file (if Black chose to capture with …exd4).
  • Gain space on the Queen side.

Cons

  • Black’s Knight gets a great outpost at c5, which is now a hole no longer covered by White’s d4 Pawn.
  • Black can plan to maneuver to get in an …f5 Pawn break attacking White’s e4 Pawn and gaining space on the King side.

If you play this as White, you have committed to trying to win on the Queen side, by somehow advancing b4 to dislodge the Black Knight and somehow getting the c5 Pawn break in or taking control of the a-file or something. You are not going to win on the King side.

Exchanging Pawns

Also popular at club level is immediately exchanging Pawns.

Pros

  • As with closing the center, you no longer have to worry about the d4 Pawn.
    As with closing the center, your e4 Pawn is safe and Black’s fianchettoed Bishop is blocked in.

  • You retain a space advantage because of the c4 Pawn controlling d5 and possibly having plans to get to c5.

Cons

  • Giving up control of the c5 square.
  • The resulting Pawn structure leaves White with no immediate Pawn break but Black may have plans to maneuver to enable …f5.

If you play this as White, you have committed to trying to win on the Queen side, by somehow advancing b4, c5, b5, something like that. You are not going to win on the King side.

Holding the center

Finally, the most interesting option for White is to hold the center. I think it’s useful to gain experience with the first two approaches above in order to appreciate why it might be beneficial but also risky to hold the center.

Pros

  • White continues to develop.
  • Black is denied the c5 square.
  • Black remains cramped, because the Knight on d7 has no place to go.
  • White keeps the option of advancing or trading any time in the future as desired, if Black does not capture first. In the case of Be3, White has a possible plan of preparing d5 followed immediately by Nd2 to protect the e4 Pawn.

Cons

  • Black may capture on d4, freeing up c5 for the Knight, opening the dark diagonal, and half-opening the e-file.

Be3 is one of three common ways to continue developing while “waiting” for Black to do something, and the most subtle. It protects the d4 Pawn more, in anticipation of Black capturing it.

Now Black is the one with a choice: take up the challenge or put pressure on White’s e4 Pawn to force White to make a decision about advancing or trading. Many variations are possible, and I’m not discussing them here, but the point is that both sides are subtly fighting over what to do and what to encourage the other side to do. Note that if Black plays the waiting move …c6, White’s d5 suddenly has a lot more effect than when Black’s Pawn was on c7. Also, if Black plays …Re8, again, White can play d5 making Black’s Rook look funny on the closed e-file. Finally, after …Ng4, White can argue that this does nothing other than misplace the Knight.

Another way to hold the center

Qc2 is another way to hold the center, with a double purpose:

  • Overprotect the e4 Pawn.
  • Prepare to play Rd1 protecting the d4 Pawn and also threatening to capture on e5 with a discovered pin.

A third way to hold the center

Finally, Re1 is also another way to hold the center. It may look mysterious, but the point is to play Bf1 to “discover” overprotection of the e4 Pawn.

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.