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Objectives in Chess: Keep a strong pawn-structure

The 5th objective: Keep a strong pawn-structure

pawn-structure objective
pawn structures 1

Imagine if you would remove all the pieces and leave only the pawns on the board. What you would see is the pawn-structure.

The pawn-structure affects the position in 3 important ways:

  1. The pawns restricts the movements of the pieces,
  2. the weak pawns are important targets to the pieces and
  3. the pawn-structure determines which squares are weak.

Weak squares are squares that cannot be attacked by a pawn. This means it will be much easier for a piece to use that square as an access-point into the opponent’s territory.

The pawn-structure objective can be stated as:

Keep your pawn-structure strong and try to weaken your opponent’s pawn-structure because the pawn-structure affects the development of the pieces and determines which squares are weak.

Now we will study the 3 important ways how the pawn-structure affects the position.

1. Pawns restrict the movement of the pieces

Back in the 18th century, Philidor understood the impact that the pawns have on the rest of the pieces.

Pawns affect the movement and mobility of the pieces in two important ways:

  1. Pawns act as obstacles that block files and diagonals
  2. Pawns can control many squares to keep enemy pieces out of their territory

The main purpose of this lesson is to illustrate that the pawn-structure has a significant effect on the movement and roles of the pieces. In other words, the pawn-structure has a big impact on the development, center-control and king-safety objectives.

The position below is a simple example to illustrate how the movement of the pieces can be affected by the pawn-structures. Note how the pawns restrict the movements of the bishops by blocking the diagonals and controlling various squares:

Note how the pawn-structures affect the mobility and roles of the bishops. The white Bd3 cannot move on the b1-h7 diagonal at all since he is blocked by his own pawns. He also can’t move to b5 or a6 without being captured. Similarly the movements of the black Bc8 is also restricted by the pawn-structures, however to a lesser extent than the white bishop.

Since the pawn-structure have such a significant effect on the other objectives you should always give careful consideration to the pawn-structures. For example, moving a wrong pawn might give your opponent’s pieces the chance to enter your territory.

2. Weak pawns are vulnerable targets

A weak pawn is usually a pawn that can’t be defended by other pawns.

Here we will look at 3 cases where pawns are weak and cannot defend themselves: We don’t want to give our valuable pieces the role of protecting pawns – the pawns should be able to protect themselves, and if they can’t they are weak.

  1. Isolated pawns
  2. Doubled-pawns
  3. Backward pawns

1. Isolated pawns

Isolated pawns are pawns that don’t have any pawns on either side of them. Therefore they don’t have support from other pawns and if they are attacked they will require support from their pieces.

The example diagram illustrates isolated pawns. White have two isolated pawns (on a2 and c3). Black has one isolated pawn (on a7):

pawn structures 3

Keep in mind that although isolated pawns are generally weak, the open files next to them increases the mobility of your pieces, particularly for the rooks that enjoy open files.

2. Doubled-pawns

Doubled-pawns are 2 pawns behind one another. The main weakness of doubled-pawns lies in the fact that the rear pawn is restricted in its movement and also cannot defend the pawn in front of him.

pawn structures 4
Black has a doubled-pawn on c7-c6

As is the case with isolated pawns, doubled-pawns also come with some potential advantages in regard to an extra open file. In some situations doubled-pawns can even work together in controlling important squares.

3. Backward pawns

a Backward pawn is a pawn that:

  1. Cannot be protected by other pawns since he is further back than the other pawns and
  2. The square right in front of him is controlled by the opponent which means he can’t move forward without being captured
pawn structures 5
Backward pawns are usually easy targets to the enemy rooks if they are on half-open files.

In the diagram above both players have a backward pawn. However, black’s backward pawn is much weaker since white can easily protect his backward pawn by playing Kf2. White should now play Rc1 to force the black rook into a defensive role.

A backward pawn is usually a weak pawn because it can be attacked on the file by enemy pieces and it cannot be defended by other pawns.

3. The pawn-structure determines which squares are weak

When a square cannot be attacked by a pawn anymore, that square becomes viable to the pieces – giving them entry-points into the opponent’s territory.

a Square that cannot be defended by a pawn can more easily be occupied by a piece. Therefore weak squares are often an opportunity to further improve the development of your pieces. Naturally it should also be noted that weak squares near or in the center are usually more useful than the weak squares on the sides.

pawn structures 6
Weak squares refer to squares on the 5th or 6th rank (inside enemy territory) that cannot be defended by pawns.

Weak squares provide excellent opportunities to improve the development of your pieces. The example diagram above comes from a game played between Magnus Carlsen and Judith Polgar. Note how well-developed the knight on d5 is – since no pawns can chase him away from this square. Carlsen used these weak squares as entry-points for his pieces and won the game in the end.

Pawn-structures can usually be identified as either open or closed. In the last part of this lesson we study the difference between open and closed pawn-structures.

Open vs Closed pawn-structures

The pawn-structure has such a big impact on the development of your pieces because:

  1. Pieces cannot jump over pawns that block them (except the knights)
  2. Pawns control many squares that prevent enemy pieces from moving to those squares

Closed (left diagram) vs open (right diagram) pawn-structures. Whether a pawn-structure is identified as open or closed depend on the situation in the centre.
Closed (left) vs open (right) pawn-structures. A pawn-structure is identified as open or closed depending on the situation in the centre. The more locked the central pawns are, the more closed the pawn-structure will be an the bigger their effect on the rest of the pieces will be.

The nature of the pawn-structure (open or closed) determines how big the effect is that the pawns have on the development of the pieces. The type of pawn-structure refers more specifically to the situation in the center of the board.

Closed pawn-structures

Closed pawn-structure.
Closed pawn-structure

In the above example we see a closed pawn-structure where the center is blocked by the pawns and thus the players will try to either make advances on the flanks (sides) or try to open the center by initiating some pawn-exchanges.

Open pawn-structures

pawn structures 7
Open pawn-structure

In the above example we see an open pawn-structure where the pieces are free to move through the center since the pawns are not blocking everything. However, even in open pawn-structures it may be difficult for the pieces to occupy the center if the enemy pawns can still control those squares.

Next Lesson – Why a strong pawn-structure is a valuable asset

Previous Lesson – 5 Ways to achieve your king-safety objective in chess

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