Positional Chess: Powerful Pawn Play Is Crucial for Success

In chess, positional play is closely linked to the different pawn structures that commonly arise. Although most often associated with the opening, the pawn structure in chess greatly influences the middlegame and endgame.

Positional Chess Master 4 Common Pawn Structures in Chess

As Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch said, “Before the endgame, the gods have placed the middlegame.” Obviously, we must not neglect to consider how the pawn structure affects chess endgames.

However, because there is a middlegame to play, it is possible to accept a pawn weakness in exchange for other dynamic compensation.

The isolated queen’s pawn is a structure offering dynamic play and easy development in chess middlegames but can put you at a disadvantage in the endgame. Knowing how to take advantage of the benefits an isolated queen’s pawn offers in the middlegame makes it much less of a liability.

Four common pawn structures in chess are:

  1. the isolated queen’s pawn,
  2. doubled pawns,
  3. central pawn majority, and
  4. Benoni structures.

1.) Isolated Queen’s Pawn Structure in Chess Middlegames

The isolated queen’s pawn (IQP) is an attacking pawn structure in chess, where one vital element of your middlegame strategy is to avoid exchanges. Please take a look at how Kaidanov made good use of the IQP in his game against Kudrin, with this video by Grandmaster Damian Lemos.

Learning how to play a particular pawn structure in chess middlegames allows you to create the perfect chess opening repertoire. You can reach IQP structures in chess with either color.

Typical Isolated Queens Pawn Middlegame
Typical Isolated Queens Pawn Middlegame

One of the excellent advantages given to you by the IQP is extra space. The extra space allows you to position your pieces for an attack easily.

In this game between two grandmasters rated over 2600 Elo, Kamsky gets four pawns for his sacrificed minor piece and wins the game.

Kamsky, Gata (2695) – Beliavsky, Alexander G (2650), 1994, 1-0, Linares 12th Round 2, Linares

There’s no doubt the isolated queen’s pawn is one of the best pawn structures for attacking players.

2.) The Doubled-Pawn Structure in Chess Middlegames

When a player has a double-pawn structure combined with a large center in chess, it is crucial to keep the pawn structure flexible. Once the pawn structure becomes locked, it is easier to reposition pieces to attack the pawn weakness.

The forward doubled-pawn is often the pawn that comes under attack. If White has doubled-pawns on c3 and c4, black will often attack c4 with …Na5 and …Ba6.

Black must not rush these moves because he is placing two of his minor pieces on the side of the board.

Before placing your pieces on the edge of the board, it is essential to make sure your opponent cannot advance in the center or on the opposite side of the board.

One of the most well-known openings that leads to the doubled-pawn structure in chess is the Nimzo-Indian Defense. The following middlegame position is from the Nimzo-Indian Hubner Variation.

Nimzo Indian Hubner Variation typical middlegame position
Nimzo Indian Hubner Variation typical middlegame position

Because White has the doubled-pawn, keeping the pawn center mobile is vital.

In contrast, Black will attempt to create a static center where he has two very effective strategies:

  1. attack the doubled-pawn structure with thematic …Na5 and …Ba6, or
  2. take advantage of the locked center to attack on the kingside.

Nigel Short chose the second approach in his game against Rafael Vaganian.

Vaganian, Rafael A – Short, Nigel D, 2017.02.19, 0-1

Advance Your Doubled Pawns With Caution

When playing with doubled pawns, it is important to remember that they are solid and useful in their initial position. The reason for this is advancing them creates weak squares.

Before advancing doubled-pawns, it is vital to prepare their advance by covering weak squares or keeping your opponent from using these squares as outposts.

This position occurred in a game between Sergey Karjakin and Alexander Grischuk

Ruy Lopez Modern Steinitz Defense
Ruy Lopez Modern Steinitz Defense

In this position, it’s clear to see that advancing the c6-pawn will create a weakness on d5. Leaving the doubled pawns in their original position helps black control important central squares.

When the game ended thirty-two moves after the doubled pawns got created, they were still on their original squares – c6 and c7.

Karjakin, Sergey – Grischuk, Alexander, 2016.08.02, 0-1

If you are hesitant to accept a middlegame pawn weakness because of the endgame challenges, here is Capablanca showing that having the doubled pawns in an endgame is not always a bad thing.

Rather than have his pieces tied down to defend an isolated a-pawn, Capablanca sacrificed the pawn. This sacrifice allowed him to make excellent use of his rooks on the semi-open a-file and b-file.

As in the Karjakin versus Grischuk game, the doubled pawns were on their original squares when the game ended.

Nimzowitsch, Aron – Capablanca, Jose Raul, 1914.04.21, 0-1, St Petersburg preliminary Round 1, St Petersburg

3.) Central Pawn Majority: Using the Space Advantage

The King's Gambit Accepted
The King’s Gambit Accepted gives white a pawn center majority with pawns on e4 and d4.

Many openings leave White with a space advantage, for example, the French Defense, Grunfeld Defense, Queen’s Indian Defense, and the Queen’s Gambit. 

Often this is due to his 2-1 central pawn majority, where White has pawns on d4 and e4 or d4 and e5. The King’s Gambit is one of the most aggressive openings to play if you want to get the e4 and d4 center.

In return for giving White a space advantage, Black gets a cramped but solid position with good counter-attacking potential.

A central pawn majority is excellent in the middlegame because a passed central pawn can tie down your opponent’s pieces.

Remember, passed central pawns are strong in the middlegame but not as strong as an outside passed pawn in the endgame.

This is because an outside passed pawn is further away from the centralized king in endgames. During the middlegame, the king is likely to be castled, which places it further away from the central passed pawn.

The next position arises from the Queen’s Gambit Declined when Black recaptures on d5 with a knight instead of …exd5.

A central pawn majority is a pawn structure
Queens Gambit Declined with …Nxe5

White will use his extra space to develop behind the e4 and d4 pawns. His rooks will usually get developed to e1 and d1, leaving Black’s rook on c8 unopposed- White is in no hurry to challenge the file if it leads to exchanges.

Exchanging pieces favor Black because of his lack of space.

Black will usually develop the bishop on b7 and bring his knight to either d7 or c6. When it develops to d7, White can place the pawns on d4 and e5 to restrict the knight.

Look at how Magnus Carlsen made excellent use of the space provided by his central pawn majority.

Carlsen, M. – Kramnik, Vladimir, 2017.05.20, 1-0

4.) Benoni Pawn Structures In Chess

The Benoni Defense is an excellent option for players looking to win with Black. From the start, Black creates an asymmetrical position with chances for both sides.

The starting position of the Modern Benoni is reached after 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 e6 4.Nc3 exd5 5.cxd5 d6. In this position, the imbalances are easy to see.

Modern Benoni Starting Position
Modern Benoni Starting Position

White has a kingside pawn majority, and Black has a queenside majority.

White will seek to use this kingside majority by playing the e5-advance supported by well-centralized pieces.

Black, in turn, will seek to undermine the white center with …f5 and …b5-b4. Advancing the pawn to b4 will attack the white knight which supports e4 and d5.

Activating Black’s pieces often involves playing …b5 even if it means sacrificing the pawn!

White usually plays a4 to prevent b5 and not only to stop ..,b4. If the b5-advance gets blocked, then c4 becomes a perfect square for a knight.

Black’s d6-pawn is a weakness, but it can usually only get attacked by a bishop on f4. A knight on c4 will give White a second piece attacking the d6-pawn.

Of course, the pawn structure in a chess position is what guides us in the correct placement of our pieces.

Combine Your Pieces With Each Other and the Pawn Structure in Chess

A knight on f3 combines well with a bishop on f4 to support the e5 advance. White often plays h3 to prevent …Bg4, allowing black to exchange his inactive bishop, but h3 also gives the f4-bishop a safe square on h2.

Black has a dual-purpose move of his own in …Re8. This move helps prevent White from playing e5 and frees up f8 for the bishop to defend d6.

However, Black shouldn’t rush to move his bishop away from g7, where it is a potent piece. After the knight moves from f6, the bishop puts a lot of pressure on the white queenside and supports Black’s queenside expansion.

Black will place the queen on either e7 (defending e5) or c7 (supporting the c4-advance) depending on White’s strategy.

Because the Benoni Defense is such a dynamic opening, it is unsurprising one of the greatest attacking players of all time, Mikhail Tal, chose to play it.

Bukhuti Gurgenidze – Mikhail Tal, 1957.02.16, 0-1, USSR Championship Round 18, Moscow URS

In Conclusion

Pawn structures are vital ingredients in any chess position and have a significant say in what tactical blows you can expect to play. The isolated queen’s pawn positions make sacrifices on g6 or h7 an option.

These tactical blows are unlikely to occur in the Benoni Defense because of the fianchettoed bishop on g7. If you enjoy playing with a bishop on g7 but prefer a more open position, then you could consider playing the Benko Gambit.

Switching from the Benoni Defense to the Benko is made easier due to the similarities in the pawn structure. The similar pawn structure also lends itself to similar piece placement and queenside play for black.

Knowing how to make the most of the strengths in a pawn structure and minimize the weaknesses will help you become a stronger player. Finding the right move is easier if you know which strategy to adopt in a pawn structure.

Pawn structures play a pivotal role in many chess positions but they are only one element of positional play. Get over 9 hours of grandmaster coaching from GM Damian Lemos and improve your positional play.

Working on tactics will help you in positions where the pieces are engaged. By improving your positional play you will learn what strategies to adopt when there is no contact between the pieces.

Learn how to improve your pieces, take advantage of over-extended pawns, and other weaknesses.

Get instant access and 50% Off today! Take the next step to improving your positional skills and purchase a copy of GM Damian Lemos’ Positional Chess Masterclass now!

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