Best Chess Formations to Win Games Consistently

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Chess Formations
Table of Contents

Quick summary

  • This article will discuss common formations, often referred to as pawn structures.
  • This article summarizes some advanced pawn structures that are thematic in many openings.
  • Pawn breaks and outposts are common themes in such pawn formations.
  • If you are unfamiliar with basic pawn structure terminology, e.g. pawn breaks, pawn islands, doubled pawns, etc., it would be a good idea to first check out our article on Chess Pawn Moves and Structures.

Introduction

If you are already familiar with basic pawn terminology and pawn formations, you may be curious as to what structures and formations arise from common openings, and the ideas behind such structures.

A lot of these structures will look familiar, even if you had no idea they had a name.

This article analyzes 15 common pawn formations and the common themes in them. These formations arise from common openings, and are structures you are probably familiar with.

In all likelihood, you have been encountering these structures, and if you’re a player who just simply develops and looks for tactics, you might not know that from these structures, you can develop your entire middlegame strategy.

Knowing what these structures are will help you know how to play them (and thus win games), e.g. where to make a pawn break to make your opponents pawns a liability, where an optimal outpost is for a piece, and how to use or fight against space advantages.

Simply knowing the basic themes for each side can take you very far in your middlegame strategy.

As the late, great François-André Danican Phillidor once said, “pawns are the soul of chess”.

The Maroczy Bind

The Maroczy Bind most commonly arises from the Sicilian Defense, but may also arise from the King’s Indian and common variations of the English Opening. It may also arise from the Queen’s Indian Defense and Nimzo-Indian Defense.

A typical Maroczy Bind scenario where White has pawns on e4 and c4, cramping the position. The following position is a Maroczy bind in the Dragon arising after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.c4

Maroczy Bind

You can observe the hold or bind White’s c- and e-pawns have on the position. They create an effective grip on the important d5 square. Black cannot make a break with d5.

This structure can really cause some headaches for Black. White controls so much central space with those two pesky pawns.

You can learn about how Black can fight against the Maroczy Bind in our article on the Accelerated Dragon.

White’s ideas may include a c4-c5 break or an e4-e5 break, and they may fianchetto one or both bishops. White many times launches a kingside attack.

Black’s plans include a break of their own to free the position, usually with f7-f5 or b7-b5. Black should break quickly so their minor pieces are not suffocated.

The Hedgehog

The Hedgehog may arise from several openings, the most common being the English and the Sicilian.

It is similar in structure to the Maroczy Bind and often arises from the Maroczy Bind.

This is what the Hedgehog structure looks like for Black.

Hedgehog Formation

Black has a really cramped looking position. But there is lots of pent up potential energy here. Once Black makes a pawn break on b5 or d5, the position can open up and Black can decide how to maneuver their pieces.

The following position is an example of the Hedgehog pawn structure from a 1979 game played between Ulf Anderson and Nona Gaprindashvili.

Hedgehog structure, Nona Gaprindashvili, Ulf Anderson, 1979

For White, they must also decide when to make a pawn break. If not, how do you ever penetrate such a cramped position for Black? In this position, White played 18.e5, a thematic break in Hedgehog/Maroczy formations. Black had to take and this gave White a queenside majority.

The Stonewall Formation

The Stonewall Formation is a type of pawn formation known as a “prison”. Stonewalls are formations usually preferred by players looking for a closed center and with not a lot of opening theory.

As each side has their pawns on one color of squares, they each have a bad bishop and usually seek to trade off this bad bishop.

Stonewall formation

The above position is the Stonewall Formation. You can see how pawns have encircled the e4 and e5 squares creating a “prison”-like structure. White now has a good outpost for a knight on e5 whereas Black has a similar outpost on e5.

The Stonewall Formation most often arises from the Dutch Defense, but may also arise from the Colle System and Bird’s Opening (with colors reversed).

The Panov Formation

Stonewall Formation

The Panov Formation is a pawn structure commonly arising from the Caro-Kann Defense and the Queen’s Gambit Declined. It may also arise from the Alekhine Defense, the Symmetrical English, and the Queen’s Gambit Declined Tarrasch Defense with colors reversed.

White usually exploits the dark squares in this formation and usually tries to turn their advanced queen’s bishop pawn into a passed pawn.

Black has a thematic break with e6-e5, striking at the heart of White’s pawn chain.

Black has an outpost on e4, while White has often has one on d6.

The Carlsbad Formation

The Carlsbad Formation usually arises from the Queen’s Gambit Declined but can also arise from the Caro-Kann, London System, and Colle System, all with the colors reversed.

In the Carlsbad Formation, White is usually seeking out a minority attack by launching their b-pawn to attack c6. A capture by the c6 pawn creates an isolated pawn on d5, whereas allowing White to capture on c6 would create a backward pawn on c6, An e3-e4 break is also thematic for White.

Knowing this, Black will try for a kingside expansion, while trying to keep their king safe.

Carlsbad Formation

The Caro Formation

This formation primarily arises from the Caro-Kann, but may arise from the French Defense, and the Queen’s Gambit Declined, among others.

Caro Formation

Themes for White in the Caro Formation include a strong outpost on e5 and a kingside spatial advantage. Black will usually try to gang up on the isolated queen’s pawn on d4, and a c6-c5 break or an e6-e5 break is also common.

In the following game, we see all the hallmarks for successfully taking advantage of the Caro Formation for White. The kingside spatial advantage is huge, allowing white to launch a kingside attack, propped by the knight on e5, which had remained there from move 15 until Black resigned on move 23.

The Slav Formation

The Slav Formation looks very similar to the Caro Formation. The Slav Formation generally results in slow-paced games. As you may infer, the Slav Formation arises from the Slav Defense, but may also arise from the Catalan, the Colle System, and the Grunfeld, among others.

Slav Formation

White usually places a heavy amount of pressure on the c-file, normally placing a rook on c1. The d4-d5 break is thematic for white in this formation.

Black will usually try to open up the center with an e6-e5 or c6-c5 break, going after the central d4 pawn.

Boleslavsky Hole

The Boleslavsky Hole refers to a hole left on d5 by black due to the advance of their e-pawn. It primarily arises from the Sicilian Defense, chiefly the Najdorf, Classical, Sveshnikov and Kalashnikov. It may also arise from a King’s English with colors reversed, the Ruy Lopez, Philidor, and the Italian, among others.

Boleslavsky Hole

Games with such a structure tend to revolve around the Boleslavsky Hole, and if Black can control this hole, they are fighting for an advantage and can win the game.

White will invariably want to target the backward weak d6 pawn. In addition, an f2-f4 pawn break targeting the central e5 pawn is thematic for White.

Black’s themes include a d6-d5 pawn break and a queenside minority attack. Black will also usually attempt to control the c4 square.

However, if Black fails to really control the hole, White will have an incredibly powerful outpost, as we can see from the following position from this game from Boleslavsky, for whom this pawn formation was named!

Maximum knight control, Boleslavsky Hole

20.Nd5. It is hard to imagine a more powerful outpost for the knight to be placed on, especially considering Black’s total lack of control of d5.

Closed Sicilian

Closed Sicilian Formation

In this pawn formation no pawns have been traded, so we get a closed and complicated position. It arises from a Closed Sicilian and a Closed English with colors reversed.

Black has good pressure on the dark squares, particularly d4. Also, controlling the a1-h8 diagonal is important for black.

As you can probably infer from the way the formations are shaped for each side, each side will be attacking opposite sides. Black usually attacks on the queenside with a queenside pawn storm, whereas White does the opposite.

White also many times will look for a d3-d4 pawn break that is first propped up by c2-c3.

The Dragon Formation

The Dragon Formation is a formation that primarily arises from the Sicilian Dragon but may also arise from the Pirc and the King’s English with reversed colors.

The Dragon Formation is a tactically sharp formation, especially if there is opposite-side castling.

Dragon Formation

White’s themes include an outpost on d5 and some pawn breaks, which depend on which side has decided to castle. For kingside castling, White usually goes f2-f4-f5 to hit at the g6 square, while if castled queenside, they will go h2–h4–h5. White can also target Black’s weak queenside minority.

Black with its dark square bishop fianchettoed, aims to exert pressure over the a1-h8 diagonal. Black can go for queenside counterplay as White’s attempts at a kingside pawn storm can result in their pawns being overextended.

The d5 Pawn Chain Formation

The d5 pawn chain formation is characterized as a closed game with opposite-side activity. It arises from many openings, but primarily from the Pirc, the King’s Indian Defense (Classical Variation) and the Phillidor.

d5 Pawn Formation

White has a very large queenside advantage, while Black of course has a large advantage of the kingside.

White has thematic pawn breaks with c2-c4-c5 and f2-f4. Black’s thematic pawn breaks are f7-f5, g7-g5-g4 and c7-c6.

The e5 Pawn Chain Formation

e5 pawn formation

This pawn formation is most often seen in the French Defense, Advance Variation and the Caro-Kann Advance. This can be particularly frustrating for Black, as they now cannot post to their knight to its most natural square on f6.

White’s main theme is launching a kingside attack via a f2-f4-f5 pawn break.The spatial advantage is quite large on the kingside for White, and this can really leave Black’s king vulnerable.

Black ideally wants to distract White from launching a kingside attack, and the best attempt to do so is attacking the base of White’s pawn chain with a c7-c5 break. Black may also play f7-f6 to relieve some of the cramping they experience on the kingside, which also undermines White’s center, and can speed up their own piece development, (e.g. exf6 Nxf6).

The Hanging Pawns Formation

Hanging Pawns Formation

The Hanging Pawns Formation usually arises from the Queen’s Gambit Declined, though it may arise from other openings.

The hanging pawns it refers to are the pawns on the c and d files, who have no “neighbors” so to speak because the b- and e-pawns have been exchanged. They are on their own.

It can also occur with reversed colors, with Black having the same hanging pawns but on the 5th rank.

This structure often leads to the Isolani Pawn Formation (which is covered ahead).

Hanging pawns tend to be a weakness as their neighboring pawns may no longer advance to defend them. Active piece play here is key to defend these pawns, and if White’s pieces are positioned correctly, they are not necessarily weak.

What can Black do to undermine this? A b7-b5 break and a subsequent capture by White would leave White with an isolated (Isolani) pawn. Also, the side with the hanging pawns will have to use pieces to defend them, so the opposite side will often try to attack and exchange pieces. This is because if there are fewer pieces on the board, the pieces remaining often have to defend the hanging pawns, which means they are not as free to launch an attack.

That said, if the side with hanging pawns has a lead in development and active piece play, the position is not so bad. Rooks can be placed on the b- and e-files, where they are well positioned to launch an attack. Also, the e5 and b5 squares in the position above are a great place to outpost a knight.

The Isolani Formation

The Isolani formation arises from the Queen’s Gambit or the Giuoco Piano, along with a handful of other openings.

In essence, the structure revolves around an isolated queen’s pawn for white. Black usually attempts to blockade it, trade pieces and go to an endgame where it becomes a liability for White.

An effective way to blockade an isolani pawn is to put a piece right in front of it, and knights are a great piece to use for this.

However, as with the Hanging Pawns Formation, if the side with the isolani pawn has sufficient piece activity, the pawn can become an asset. The open files and diagonals benefit the side with the isolani pawn in the middle game, as an attack can be launched with long-range pieces. Also, a well-placed active knight can be used to defend it.

In the endgame though, a piece (often a precious major piece) must be devoted to its defense, which makes it a weakness.

Isolani Formation

The Isolani Formation in the Queen’s Gambit.

White will often try to make a quick d4-d5 break, or could even use the isolated pawn to their advantage with an outpost on e5.

The Rauzer Formation

The Rauzer Formation arises most typically from the King’s Indian Defense, the Old Indian and may also arise from the Ruy Lopez.

Rauzer Formation

Black’s c-pawn is still part of a pawn chain, while White’s is not. This makes the White c-pawn generally weaker, as it does not control the crucial d4 square. Black’s c-pawn however helps to control the important d5 square, which is as important for Black as the c4 square is for White.

Black generally has a very strong dark-squared bishop that controls the a3-f8 diagonal.

White however enjoys a space advantage and can make a thematic c4-c5 pawn break to gain more space, while Black can open things up with an f7-f5 pawn break. White can also control the d-file with one of their rooks.

Summary

While these are certainly not all the pawn formations you will encounter in your games, they should serve as a brief overview of what you will find and have probably already seen in your games. Knowing where to make a thematic pawn break based on the above should give you some ideas where your attack should begin. Identifying key outposts in these structures should also be of great help. Similarly, seeing where your opponent plans to make a break or their potential outposts should help you in your strategic planning.

If you would like to go deeper into the strategic motifs of pawn formations, you should check out our Chess Structures – A Grandmaster Guide course, which is useful for all levels from beginner to expert.

FAQs

What is the best formation in chess?

It is hard to pick one formation and say it is the best due to the fact that each formation is dependent on the position. That said, the Maroczy Bind is thought to be a very solid formation that is hard for Black to break through.

What is the best opening move in chess?

The top four moves played by GMs are 1.e4 1.d4 1.c4 and 1.Nf3. These four are generally considered the best. What is best for you will depend on your playing style.

What is the strongest pawn structure?

Each pawn structure presents different strengths and weaknesses, and therefore it is hard to choose one best one. Piece activity and development are very important factors when considering if a pawn structure is good or not.

What is a weak pawn structure?

A weak pawn structure is one that contains weak pawns, such as isolated pawns, doubled pawns or backward pawns.

What is a weak pawn?

Weak pawns are pawns that may be attacked easily and are not easily defended. Examples include isolated double pawns (and triple pawns), as well as backward pawns and pawn islands.

How do you master pawn structures?

You may master pawn structures by studying them and identifying their themes for both colors. A good way to do this is studying GM games and how they deal with the pawn structures in them. The best way to master pawn structures though is to learn the pawn structures along with your openings and the themes such structures entail. This will help you develop a strategy for the rest of the game.

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