Improve Your Chess!


Isolated Pawns: The Good and the Bad


Understanding pawn play is one of the most important and often most difficult aspects of chess. Consequently, I must leave this subject to someone much more qualified than myself. I am paraphrasing Drazen Marovic's wonderful book "Understanding Pawn Play in Chess", GAMBIT Publishing, 2000.

I encourage everyone interested in this subject to buy it and study it. His presentation on this subject is easy to understand and well illustrated in the games he has chosen.

... We have learnt what an uncertain life an isolated pawn leads. The centre characterized by such a pawn-formation, therefore, requires sober evaluation and careful treatment. The position is so sensitive that even small errors, imperceptible to an inexperienced eye, cause grave difficulties. ... each of these central situations, no matter how similar they may seem, is different. A pawn advance on the wing or one piece placed at a different position can change everything. Strict, constantly valid rules how to play these positions remain ... out of reach, no matter how many examples we examine.

However ... some general guidance can be applied, covering a very large number of possible cases. These general maxims are the only directions we can depend upon. If we absorb them by studying typical cases, if they are a fruit of our analytical work, all the better. So in order to formulate some general advice we can trust ... our simple, practical observations.

... there exist two types of central isolated pawns: one movable, aggressive; the other immovable, controlled and blockaded. These cases result in utterly different situations.

If the breakthrough us possible, as a rule, it releases a remarkable amount of energy, which is manifested in several typical cases:

a) Attack on the opponent's castled position, carried out after direct, combined threats on the diagonals b1- h7 and a2-g8, and often supported by threats on the open e-file;

b) Penetration of the king's knight in the footsteps of advancing isolated pawn;

c) Transformation of the initiative into a strong, active centralized piece;

d) Transformation of the initiative into a better endgame.

In all these cases, and the record does not leave room for any doubt, the side which successfully prepares and carries out a central thrust achieves a very high percentage of wins. The conclusion is self-evident: a central isolated pawn must be blockaded.

We have seen that it takes patience, precision in the choice of the move order and sometimes cunning, too, if we wish to be successful. The counter measures against an isolated pawn are concentrated on the full domination over the square in front of the pawn. If such a balance of power is reached in the centre, the side with the isolated pawn will create activity based on his mobile pieces: in the first place a dominant centralized knight, supported by the isolated pawn, or a rook maneuver on the third rank, coupled with bishops exerting pressure on the diagonals towards the opponent's castled position. Note, however, that such activity does not come of itself. As a rule, it is a fruit of better development, a spatial advantage and actively posted pieces.

The side fighting against an isolated pawn ... must ... simplify the position through exchanges constantly watching that no central thrust is possible. Unquestionable authority over the square in front of the pawn is an imperative.

Taking all this into consideration, one can ... emphasize ... two crucial maxims.

1) As the side with the isolated pawn, save your pieces; do not exchange them lightly, because an isolated pawn needs company badly. At the same time stay alert to all the possible tactical blows inspired by the breakthrough, even at the cost of making a sacrifice.

2) When playing against the isolated pawn, try to blockade the isolated pawn, concentrating your effort on the strong square in front of it, reduce material (most exchanges are welcome) and try to reach an endgame, because it is not a natural habitat for an isolated pawn and because in endgames, as a rule, it becomes a lame duck, an immovable target.

And finally, White or Black, when playing a position characterized by an isolated pawn in the centre, should after each move ask the essential question: can the pawn advance or not? And the next question: what can I do to prepare the breakthrough? Or vice versa, what can I do to stop it for good or make it innocuous?

During a game much will depend on how seriously you ask these questions and how responsible your answers are.

Since buying this book 4 months ago, I read his summaries as a montra towards middlegame success. Again, his work is excellent and his examples eye-opening. I will try and add more of his work to this site so that you and I can benefit from his insight into pawn play.

Written by: Kevin Monte de Ramos

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Last Update: July 18, 2002