IntroductionI want to share with you all some tips that boosted my rating from USCF1800 to 2000. First, let me ask you about your chess games:
- Do you get bad positions from the opening? (I did!)
- Do you have trouble finding a plan in the middlegame? (Yep!)
- Does it seem that your pieces don't work together as well as your opponent's? (This drove me crazy!)
- Do you lose many of your endgames? (Very frustrating!)
Let's dive in!
A pawn structure, or just "structure", is the arrangement of pawns in a given position. There are many great books written about this topic, as well as many good articles. I will give some references at the end of this article. One of the best that I found was "Pawn Structure Chess" by GM Andy Soltis. IMHO the newest edition is not as good as the original; many of the examples have typos. If you can get past the atrocious terminology, "Pawn Power in Chess" by Hans Kmoch is a classic. I believe there is a jargon-free translation somewhere.
In this article, we will start by talking about pawn structures as they result from the opening. In fact, what I am going to advocate here is that you approach the study of any opening from the point of view of its pawn structure first. Once you have mastered all the basic themes and ideas of the structure, you will be able to understand and appreciate the opening's different variations.
Moving Pawns is a Trade-Off
The late great Bobby Fischer noted that you "have to give some squares to get some squares."
- When you move pawns, more squares in your territory will be left unprotected.
- The squares that you "get" should be worth more than the ones you "give" potentially to your opponent.
- Your pieces should be positioned to defend the squares not covered by your pawns.
- Each opening can be categorized by the squares that it forsakes versus the ones it tries to acquire.
- The relative value of any given piece is largely a function of how it coordinates with the given pawn structure. This is particularly true of bishops and knights.
Don't Memorize Openings
I learned (the hard way!) that memorizing opening variations without first understanding an opening's pawn structure is a complete waste of time. When studying a new opening, the first thing I look at is the resulting pawn structure. This will tell you where the best squares for each piece should be. The opening structure forms a skeleton or framework for the middlegame. By understanding what features and actions a given structure provides, we can understand how to play the resulting middlegames (from both sides!). In fact, different openings can result in the same pawn structure. Masters use knowledge of pawn structures to determine what the best plans are for any given position.
Move Order Matters
The term transposition is used to describe the situation where one structure changes into another, particularly in the opening. Let's see how this works in the diagram below.
This position started from a French Defense (1. e4 e6), but after the moves 2. d4 c5 3. Nf3 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6, we have a Kan Variation of the Sicilian Defense. Had white opted for 3. d5, the structure would have been more favorable to white, so the order of the pawn moves matters. If black really wanted to play the Kan, he should use the order 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6, which avoids losing space in the center to white's d5 thrust.
Don't Fight the Structure
One of the most important lessons that I learned when I was USCF 1800 or so was not to fight the structure. By this I mean don't play pawn moves that are not strategically in accord with the structure. Doing so is a sure way to come to grief against a stronger player who will seize immediately on your errors. Unlike inferior piece moves which are often recoverable, bad pawn moves are irrevocable. Once made, they can permanently damage your game, often irreparably. Therefore, you should make only the minimum number of pawn moves to achieve your opening objectives of control of an equal portion of the center and to complete your piece development -- nothing more.
Opening Types vs. Pawn Structures
Chess openings fall into one of three main categories according to pawn structure:
- Open games
- Semi-open games
- Closed games
In closed game pawn structures, there is at least one pair of pawns facing each other in the center, usually but not always pawns at d4 and d5. Hence, games that begin 1. d4 d5 usually lead to closed positions where the center is blocked with pawns and there are few if any completely open files and diagonals. These games tend to be much slower paced, with more maneuvering.
Semi-open games result from asymmetrical replies to 1.e4, where the distribution of central pawns and half-open files becomes unbalanced. Examples of such openings are the ever popular Sicilian Defense (1. e4 c5), the Caro-Kan (1. e4 c6), and the Center Counter (Scandinavian) Defense (1 e4 d5). Such openings can result in opposite-side castling and pawn storms.
Pawn Structure Terminology
Here are some basic concepts about pawn structures. Mastering these will help you (a) evaluate positions to know who stands better and (b) to help you analyze and understand all chess openings.
SummaryChess openings should be studied from the point of view of the resulting pawn structure. If you understand the resulting structure in terms of its strengths and weaknesses, then you will understand how to play the resulting position, both as white and as black. The pawn structure dictates where the most effective squares are for your pieces and your opponents'.
- Holes in your opponents pawn structure should be exploited by posting a piece on that square. The best piece to post is often a knight.
- Backward pawns on open files should be attacked by doubling and even tripling major pieces (rooks and queens) against them.
- Make pawn exchanges that isolate, double, or otherwise expose your opponents pawns to attack.
- Make piece exchanges that create pawn weaknesses in your opponent's camp.
- Whenever you make pawn moves, ask yourself "How does this impact my endgame? What squares am I getting and what squares am I weakening?"
- When you make pawn moves (particularly near your king), always consider how you will cover the resulting weakness(es) and anticipate how your opponent will respond. (e.g., what lines and diagonals am I opening? Am I creating invasion points for my opponent's pieces or targets for my opponent's pawn advances?)