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Positional Theme: Pawn Chains

Positional Concepts: Pawn Chains

A pawn chain is two or more diagonally linked pawns. A line of pawns in a chain has the advantage that all of its units are defended by other pawns, with the exception of the rear most pawn, the pawn that lies at the base. As the old clich goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link holds true in chess. Nimzovich taught that a pawn chain should be attacked at its weakest point, that is the base of the pawn chain.

Black (above) will attack the enemy pawn chain at its base by playing b7-b5-b4 and b4xc3.

In this opening position (above) from a French Defense after 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 cxd4 5. cxd4 Qb6 7. Be2 Nge7 8. Na3 Nf5 blacks pieces are working together nicely to attack the base of the pawn chain at d4. Black may not win this pawn but he has it under pressure and forces white pieces to passive positions to defend it.

Pawn Chains Forward and Reverse

The above position shows a forward and reverse pawn chain. Because whites pawn chain is more advanced he will find it easier to attack e7 than black will b3.

Our first example demonstrates, in a simple game, how black assaults a pawn chain at its base.

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Qb6 6. Bd3 cxd4 7. cxd4 Bd7 8. Be2 Nge7 9. b3 Nf5 10. Bb2 Bb4+ 11. Kf1 forced otherwise the d-pawn falls 11Be7 12. g3 a5 13. a4 Rc8 14. Bb5 Nb4 15. Bxd7+? Kxd7 16. Nc3 Nc6 17. Nb5 Na7 18. Nxa7? white should not have relinquished his b5 knight in this manner, better was 18. Qd3 Nxb5 19. axb5 18Qxa7 19. Qd3 Qa6! Now whites weakened base is a target in the ending 20. Qxa6 bxa6 21. Kg2 Rc2 22. Bc1 Rb8 23. Rb1 Rc3 24. Bd2 Rcxb3 25. Rxb3 Rxb3 26. Bxa5 Rb2 27. Bd2 Bb4 28. Bf4 h6 29. g4 Ne7 30. Ra1 Nc6 31. Bc1 Rc2 32. Ba3 Rc4 33. Bb2 Bc3 34. Bxc3 Rxc3 35. Rb1 Kc7 36. g5 Rc4 37. gxh6 gxh6 38. a5 Ra4 39. Kg3 Rxa5 40. Kg4 Ra3 41. Rd1 Rb3 42. h4 Ne7 43. Ne1 Nf5 44. Nd3 a5 45. Nc5 Rc3 46. Rb1 Nxd4 47. Na6+ Kd8 48. Rb8+ Rc8 49. Rb7 Ke8 50. Nc7+ Kf8 51. Nb5 Nxb5 52. Rxb5 Ra8 0-1 Paulsen-Tarrasch, 1888

In an analogous game Nimzovich surrenders the pawn chain and uses the central squares as a base for his pieces, achieving a centralized position.

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Qb6 6. Bd3 cxd4 7. cxd4 Bd7 8. Be2 Nge7 9. b3 Nf5 10. Bb2 Bb4+ 11. Kf1 Be7 12. g3 a5 13. a4 Rc8 14. Bb5 Nb4 the first 14 moves as the previous game 15. Nc3! [ the tactical point is 15Bxb5+ 16. Nxb5 Nc2 17. Rc1 Nce3+ 18. fxe3 Nxe3+ 19. Ke2 Nxd1 20. Rxc8+ Kd7 21. Rxh8 Nxb2 22. Rc1 and white wins ] 15 Na6 16. Kg2 Nc7 17. Be2 Bb4 18. Na2 Na6 19. Bd3 Ne7 20. Rc1 Nc6 21. Nxb4 Naxb4 22. Bb1 White has overcome all the difficulties in development and the base d4 is thoroughly protected. 22h6 23. g4 Ne7 24. Rxc8+ Bxc8 25. Ne1 Rf8 26. Nd3 f6 27. Nxb4 Qxb4 28. exf6 Rxf6 29. Bc1 Nc6 30. g5 hxg5 31. Bxg5 Rf8 32. Be3 Qe7 33. Qg4 Qf6 34. Rg1 Rh8 35. Kh1 Rh4 36. Qg3 Rxd4 Despair! Both 37. Qxg7 and 37. Bg5 were threatened 37. Bxd4 Nxd4 38. Qxg7 Qf3+ 39. Qg2 Qxg2+ 40. Rxg2 Nxb3 41. h4 1-0 Nimzovich-Tarrasch, San Sebastian 1912

In the following game white demonstrates how to use a strong pawn chain and space to obtain an advantage

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Nbd7 5. e3 Be7 6. Nf3 O-O 7. Qc2 c6 8. a3 Nh5 9. h4 f5 10. Be2 Ndf6 11. Ne5 Bd7 12. Qd1 Be8 13. c5! weaving the chain 13Qc7 14. b4 a5 15. g3! preventing the freeing f4 15axb4 16. axb4 Rxa1 17. Qxa1 Ne4 18. g4 Nxc3 19. Qxc3 Nf6 20. Bf4! Threatens 21. Ng6 therefore gaining time for the advance g5. 20Qc8 21. g5 Nd7 22. Nd3! The exchange would make it more difficult to break through 22Bf7 23. Kd2 Bd8 24. Ra1 Bc7 25. Ra7 Re8 26. Bxc7 Qxc7 27. f4 stops all attempts to break through by e5 27Rb8 28. b5! Qc8 29. b6 white has transferred the attack to the new base of b7 29Be8 30. Nc1 Nf8 31. Nb3 e5! The only way of saving the b-pawn, otherwise comes Na5, Nxb7 and if Rxb7, then Ba6 32. dxe5 Ne6 33. Bd3 g6 34. h5 Bf7 35. Na5 Nd8 36. e6! By sacrificing the advanced unblocked passed pawn the pieces in the rear now come to life. 36Qxe6 37. h6 d4 38. Qxd4 Qa2+ 39. Ke1 Ne6 40. Qe5 Re8 41. Nxb7 Qb3 42. Be2 Qb1+ 43. Kf2 Qh1 44. Nd6 Qh4+ 45. Kg2 Nxf4+ 46. Qxf4 Bd5+ 47. Bf3 Bxf3+ 48. Kxf3 1-0 Maroczy-Shuchting, Barmen 1905

In the next game we see a fine example of attacking a pawn chain at its base:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bb5 Bb4 Four Knights Opening 5.O-O O-O 6.d3 Bxc3 7.bxc3 d6 8.Bg5 Qe7 9.Re1 Nd8 10.d4 Ne6 11.Bc1 c5 12.Bf1 Qc7 13.d5 establishing a pawn chain. The game will now evolve around a fight over these respective pawn chains 13Nd8 14.Nh4 Ne8 15.g3 Qe7 16.Nf5 Bxf5 17.exf5 Qf6 18.Qg4 Qe7 19.Bg5 Qd7 20.a4 f6 21.Bd2 g6 22.Bh3 Qxf5 23.Qxf5 gxf5 24.Bxf5 Ng7 25.Bd3 f5 26.f4 e4 now black has an advanced pawn chain which white seeks to undermine 27.Be2 Rc8 28.c4 Ne8 29.h3 Nf6 30.g4! Attacking the chain at its base 30fxg4 31.hxg4 Rc7 32.Kf2 h6 33.Rh1 white threatens to envelop the e-pawn with by Bc3 and Ke3, and then go after the weak h-pawn with Rh4 and Rah1 so black decides to sacrifice it in order to chase whites bishop to an inactive square 33e3 34.Bxe3 Ne4+ 35.Kg2 Nf7 36.Bd3 Now whites other bishop suddenly springs to life. White now demonstrates the superiority of his bishops over the opposing knights in the opened position 36Re7 37.Rae1 Rfe8 38.Bc1 Nc3 39.Rxe7 Rxe7 40.a5 b6 41.axb6 axb6 42.Bd2 Ne2 43.c3 b5 44.Kf3 1-0 Petrosian-Lilienthal, Moscow 1949

In our final example on pawn chains we look at a game arising from a modern Kings Indian

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be2 e5 7. O-O Nc6 8. d5 Ne7 9. Nd2 a5 10. a3 Nd7 11. Rb1 f5 12. b4 Kh8 13. Qc2 b6 14. f3 f4

Here we have the "two theatres of war" designated by the dividing central pawn chains. Black will attack on the Kingside whereas white has Queenside activity.

15. Nb3 axb4 16. axb4 g5 17. c5 Nf6 18. Nb5 g4 the correct strategy if black instead plays 18...Ne8? he is doomed to passivity 19. cxd6 cxd6 20. Qc7 gxf3 21. gxf3 (on 21. Qxd8 exchanging Queens black has the intermezzo 21...f2+! 22. Rxf2 Rxd8 23. Nd2 Ra2! 24. Bc4 Rxd2! and 25...Nxe4 or in this line 23. Bf3 Nfxd5 24. exd5 Bf5 with the complications favoring black in either case) 21...Qe8 22. Kh1 Nh5! 23. Rb2 Bh3 24. Re1 Qg6 25. Bf1 Ng3+! by demolishing whites castled position black has decisive threats 26. hxg3 Qxg3 27. Qc3 Rac8 28. Qd2 Bxf1 29. Rxf1 Qh3+ 30. Kg1 Bf6 31. Qg2 Rg8 black now only has a few technical difficulties to overcome 32. Nxd6 Rcf8 33. Re2 Qd7 34. Nc4 Rxg2+ 35. Rxg2 Ng6 36. Bb2 Nh4 37. Rh2 Qc7 38. Nbd2 b5 39. Na5 Qc2 40. Ba1 Rg8+ 41. Kh1 Rg2 42. Rxg2 Nxg2 43. Kxg2 Qxd2+ 44. Rf2 Qe1 45. Rf1 Qg3+ 46. Kh1 h5 0-1 Gavrikov-Smirin, Klaipeda 1988

10 Rules of Pawn Chains

  1. The pawn chain will often divide the chess board into two theaters of war. For example, Black plays on the Q-side in an advance-variation French, while White will try for an attack on the K-side. Play is defined.
  2. Following our French-advance example, it is important to note that the White e5-pawn cramps Black's kingside, rendering it vulnerable to attack. If Black tries f6 or f5, White can play exf6 and the attack is continued and he has a nice e-file to operate on.
  3. Another idea in our example would be for White to play f4-f5 attacking the Black pawn chain at its base: e6. If Black responds by exf5, then he has surrendered his base. If not, White can play either f6 (in attacking style) or play fxe6 and rendering the new e6 pawn vulnerable to an enveloping attack.
  4. The most important aspect of a pawn chain for the attacker is that the enemy pawns remain fixed, even if he supplants one of his pieces (say a Knight) for a pawn to maintain the cramping effect.
  5. The pawn chain should always be attacked at it's base first. In our example, Black should play 3...c5 to attack White's d4 base rather than to play f6 to attack e5. Later f6 may be effective. Freeing operations such as 3...c5 should generally be done without delay.
  6. It is often profitable to force your opponent to substitute a Queen or a Rook at the base of his pawn chain, as it is easily attacked. This is similar to the Blockade exchanging protocol.
  7. Nimzovitch's contribution was to state that pieces may occupy positions in the pawn chain as long as they cannot be driven away (such as in the note above). These pieces then take on characteristics of blockaders.
  8. Capitulation of the base (exf5 for black) is the ideal. However, if this does not occur, then White should capture fxe6 and proceed and view e6 as a target of attack for pieces. This will yield an advantage of attacking pieces vs. passive/defending pieces. This pressure may cause other weaknesses (based upon the lack of mobility of the defending pieces for example) which can then be the focus of the attack. The weak base may then become a later endgame weakness.
  9. When attacking your opponents base, remember you have your own base to defend!
  10. Often one must choose which base to attack. For example, in a typical Classical King's Indian Defense, Black will play ...f5 to attack e4. But often e4 is well protected (by Bd3, Nc3, Qc2, etc.) so he will often push ...f4! choosing to use f3 as the base. This also renders White's King more vulnerable.

The rules on pawn chains was taken from: The Chess Haven