Pawn Structure Strategy

The importance of pawn structure in chess can’t be overstated. Your strategy in all three phases of a chess game is heavily reliant on the pawn structure.

The 3 Pawn Structures You Need to Know

Understanding which positions you enjoy playing in the middlegame has a significant impact on your opening choices. There is little point in playing an opening if you reach a middlegame you don’t enjoy.

On the other hand, if you know how to play with the resulting middlegame pawn structure in chess, you can recover from a misplayed opening.

Former world champion Anatoly Karpov once calmly agreed that his opponent achieved a better position in the opening. However, he pointed out that a few moves into the middlegame, he had the better position.

Common Pawn Structures

There are three common pawn structures in chess you need to know:

  • Hanging Pawns.
  • Doubled Pawns.
  • Backward Pawns.

Hanging Pawn Structure in Chess

Take a look at how World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca makes use of hanging pawns.

The hanging pawn structure in chess is defined as two pawns unsupported by pawns on either side. This usually happens when an exchange takes place alongside an isolated pawn.

In this position, if White defends his queen with Bxc4 and black recaptures with the b-pawn, then we have hanging pawns on d5 and c4.

Hanging pawns are a common pawn structure in chess
After Bxc4 bxc4 we have hanging pawns on d5 and c4

When you are playing with the hanging pawn structure in chess, you must ensure they remain mobile. On the other hand, you want to use a blockade when playing against the hanging pawns.

Because the pawns must advance one at a time, one will be a backward pawn and provide a blockading square. For example, the c5-square is a weakness if Black has hanging pawns on c6 and d5.

A typical way of playing for White is Na4, Be3, and bringing the major pieces to the c and d-files. Thus, making the c5-square is an ideal outpost because a piece on c5 can’t be attacked by a pawn.

The Doubled Pawn Structure in Chess

Similar to the hanging pawn structure in chess, doubled pawns become weak as they advance. That’s not to say the double-pawn is always a weakness.

In the Petrov Defense, a popular line for White involves allowing Black to play …Nxc3. After dxc3, White has doubled-pawns on the c-file.

However, the extra pawn can prove very useful as an extra defender when White castles on the queenside. Similarly, Black can do the same in the Caro-Kann Korchnoi Variation, except Black castles on the kingside.

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6 exf6

Caro Kann Korchnoi Variation starting position
Caro Kann Korchnoi Variation starting position

The doubled f-pawns control the central e6 and e5 squares, and the pawn on f6 prevents White from playing Ng5 to attack h7.

Of course, the doubled pawn structure in chess often becomes a weakness in the endgame.

Nevertheless, as Siegbert Tarrasch famously said, “Before the endgame, the gods have placed the middlegame.”

Provided you take time to prepare the advance of the doubled-pawns and support them with your pieces. They can be a formidable weapon or stout defenders as in the next game.

Paul Saladin Leonhardt – Oldrich Duras, Vienna, March 27, 1908, 0-1

Pawn Chain Structures in Chess

One of the most well-known pawn structures in chess is the pawn chain in the French Defense Advance Variation.

french defense advance variation
The French Defense Advance Variation

The pawn chain points you towards the side of the board, where you should create play. In this example, the White pawn chain points towards the kingside. 

This is why the White bishop on d3 is a potent attacking piece!

There are two ways to attack a pawn chain:

  • at the base or
  • from the front.

In the French Defense, the attack on the d4-e5 pawn chain usually begins with …c5. Additionally, the move …f6 will attack the front of the pawn chain. 

White can reinforce his center with c3, and f4 or he can seek to establish a blockade with his pieces.

Although the structure on the board might be rigid and locked, it’s vital to keep a flexible mindset. Replacing the pawns with pieces can open new avenues of attack.

Sometimes we must be alert to the opportunity to exchange one advantage for another.

In the French Defense and Caro-Kann Advance Variation, the pawn-chain directs White’s attack towards the kingside. However, in the King’s Indian Defense, the pawn structure of these chess middlegames leads White’s attention to the queenside.

White often advances his pawn to d5, establishing an e4-d5 pawn chain. The pawns on d6 and e5 indicate Black will attempt to launch a kingside attack.

Black must not underestimate the danger of White’s queenside play.

Watch as two former World Chess Champions do battle in the King’s Indian Defense. Kramnik manages to get Kasparov’s rook stuck on a7 with no way to enter the game. 

In Conclusion

By first studying the pawn structure in chess middlegames, you reduce the number of openings you have to choose from. 

Almost every mainline opening is playable now, thanks to chess engines. That gives you a lot to choose from.

Nowadays, it’s possible to search for games based on typical middlegame positions. Despite how it might seem, you can shorten your opening study time by starting with the middlegame.

Best of all, by familiarizing yourself with the pawn structure in chess middlegames, you will reach positions you are comfortable playing.

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