Chess Strategy: Pawn Power

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Today we examine various elements of chess strategy, specifically those utilising pawn power and the art of fixing the opponent’s pawns.

Yesterday we quoted Philidor, who said of the pawns:

‘They are the soul of chess: it is they alone that determine the attack and the defence, and the winning or losing of the game depends entirely on their good or bad arrangement.’

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Fixing the Pawns

Pawn Power

Black to play

This position shows Black caught up in an apparently hopeless situation. Two pawns down, lacking in space and with a knight that looks completely without prospects, the position appears to be on the point of collapse.

Yet one simple move changes everything – and it is by a humble, unmoved pawn.

1 …e6

Fixing the Pawns

This simple move prevents White’s pawn breaks on f5 and d5. It also fixes the white pawns and prepares to reactive the knight with 2 …Ne7 and then either 3 …Nf5 or 3 …Nd5.

The strategy of fixing the white pawns is suddenly very clear. Despite all of the disadvantages mentioned earlier, Black is fine here.

Knowing the basics of the strategical ideas behind the simple pawn move in the previous example will help find the move in more complicated positions.

Strategy in Action

This position is from a high-level encounter, featuring a dangerous attacker as White and a master of strategy as Black.

Seirawan Caro Kann

John Van der Wiel vs. Yasser Seirawan

Baden, 1980

Black to play

White is shaping up to play f4-f5. This liberates his bishop and gives the knight on e2 more scope too. Additionally, a pawn on f5 will attack Black’s pawn structure.

Knowing White’s plan allows Black to respond strategically. f4-f5 must be stopped, which leads us to the move …g7-g6.

Fixing Pawns

This move would have been very difficult to find without a significant assessment of the strategical aspects of the position.

A Deeper Look

Normally, playing …g6 would ring a number of alarm bells. Isn’t it weakening the dark squares in Black’s position? How is it contributing to Black’s development?

A deeper look reveals that the dark squares are not weak, as White cannot attack them. It is going to be very difficult to active the bishop, the white knights are lacking improvement squares. The position is closed and Black can take more time to complete his development as White has no way of launching a successful attack.

Seirawan understood he had to prevent f4-f5 and after that White lacked a smooth a logical plan. Black won in 31 moves.

The Pawns Inform the Moves

Pawn Power

How to assess this unusual position? What is White hoping to achieve and how do we stop it?

Jan Timman vs. Yasser Seirawan

Lone Pine, 1978

Black to play

White’s e-pawn is acting as a spearhead for the rest of the forces. If allowed, White will follow up with f2-f4, g2-g4 and f4-f5.

Black has less space and the protected, passed pawn on d4 is unlikely to advance any further for some time to come. There is also an unfavourable comparison to be made in terms of development. Black still needs four unopposed moves to bring out the remaining minor pieces and to castle.

Given that Seirawan cannot do anything productive at this moment, it is time to consider ways to stop White from putting his strategic plan into operation.

Without a calm appraisal of the position and understanding the correct strategy the next move would look ridiculous.

1 …h5!

Seirawan Strategy

This move is based on a standard idea from the French Defense. White’s intended kingside pawn expansion is stopped before it even starts. the f5-square is secured for the black knight. As in the previous example, it is very important that the position is closed, otherwise White would be able to attack the black king very quickly.

Successful Strategy

Fast forward a few moves and it is clear that Seirawan’s strategy is a success.

Fixing the Pawns

The white minor pieces will struggle to make any significant impact. Black’s have much more potential. White’s pawns have been fixed and will become targets.

Seirawan excels in such positions and he duly converted his advantage into an impressive victory. (0-1, 42)

We will have more articles on strategy soon. Meanwhile, if you enjoyed this one on Chess Strategy: Pawn Power head for our related free course on Strategy and Pawn Play.

Incidentally, if the name of Yasser Seirawan sounds familiar, it is possibly because you caught some of his expert commentary during the Grand Final of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour. He sparkling explanations showed he has definitely not lost his strategic touch!

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The Woodpecker Method

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