Pawn Structures in Chess: Pawn Chains

The pawn chain is one of the most common pawn structures in chess. They are a vital part of semi-closed and closed openings, and knowing how to play these common chess pawn structures is crucial.

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The challenges begin when you pass the opening stage and have to play with or against a pawn chain. How do you play after you’ve gotten your pawn breaks in?

A strong player who knew how to restrain pawns was Aron Nimzowitsch. In this video, taken from FM Alisa Melekhina’s Master Method course, you can enjoy learning how to get the most from your pawns while controlling your opponent’s pawns.

How to Blockade a Pawn Chain

Pawn chains are pawn structures in chess that often need restraining. Learning how to blockade a pawn chain is an essential chess skill.

When it comes to blockading a single pawn, the minor pieces, bishops and knights, are better than using the major pieces, queens, and rooks. However, against a pawn chain, the bishop is undoubtedly the preferred blockader against this pawn structure in chess because it can control more squares than the knight.

The bishop is an excellent blockader of a pawn chain because it controls a number of squares on the diagonal.

Of course, you need not use only a single piece as your blockader. If you choose to use a bishop and a knight, make sure the knight does not limit the range of the bishop.

For example, instead of a bishop on d6 and a knight on c5, place the knight on d6 and the bishop on c5. This allows the minor pieces to work together within the pawn structure without limiting each other.

Bishop-and-knight-blockaders

In this position, the black knight can go to e7 via c8, and the bishop will cover d6 while supporting the b5-b4 pawn advance.

Your opponent’s pawns can work for you by providing the best protection for your blockading pieces in pawn structures in chess. When your pawns shelter your pieces, these pawns become objects for an attack.

This does not mean letting your opponent establish a pawn chain is good. Yes, you can blockade it, but the pawn chain becomes extremely powerful if your blockaders get exchanged.

Aron Nimzowitsch was a great believer in establishing a blockade. In this game, he uses his pieces to establish a blockade against the e6 and d5 pawn chain.

Aron Nimzowitsch – Georg Salwe, 1911.09.09, 1-0, Karlsbad Round 15, Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) AUH

Breaking Up a Pawn Chain

Because a pawn chain can become a dangerous weapon if the blockaders get exchanged, it is good to know how to break up this pawn structure. Breaking up the pawn chain will also give your pieces more freedom as they won’t be tied down in a blockading role.

There are two ways to attack a pawn chain:

  1. At the base of the pawn chain, or
  2. At the front of the pawn chain.

Sometimes the base of the pawn chain is difficult to reach because it is deep in your opponent’s position. For example, in the French Defense Advance Variation, White establishes a pawn chain stretching from b2 to e5.

Breaking up a pawn chain is so important that in the Caro-Kann Defense, Black will give up a tempo and advance the c-pawn from c6 to c5 – 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5. Because White has only played pawn moves, Black can afford to lose a tempo.

Caro Kann Advance 3...c5

There is also a tendency to think that pawn chains run along a diagonal. For example, c3, d4, e5, or f7-g6-h5. Sometimes the links in the pawn structures in chess are not so obvious.

Beliavsky reached this position in his game against Yusupov. The white pawn chain is not that obvious.

Pawn chains are one of the most common pawn structures in chess. However, they don't always appear in a straight line.

In this position, the white pawn chain is e3-f4-e5, and Black can only attack the base with his bishop and queen on the a7-g1 diagonal. White will easily defend the pawn with the king and queen since Black cannot prevent Kf3.

Instead of attacking the base, Beliavsky decided to attack the pawn structure from the front and played 28…g5. This pawn advance leads to the temporary sacrifice of a pawn, but it activates Black’s queen and bishop.

Piece activity in the endgame is often worth much more than a pawn.

Between the pawn on e3 and the light-squared bishop, Beliavsky couldn’t centralize his pieces. He went from being a pawn down to winning the light-squared bishop in only a few moves.

Artur Yusupov – Alexander Beliavsky, 1998.06.17, 0-1, Chess Classics Masters Round 1, Frankfurt GER

Pawn Structures in Chess: French Defense Pawn Chains

In many instances, pawn chains dovetail and point to opposite sides of the board. In the French Defense, the white pawn chain points towards the kingside, and Black’s pawn chain towards the queenside.

Exchanging on d4 with …cxd4 will often leave white with a d4 and e5 pawn chain. In return, the c-file is open, and Black can attack the d4 pawn, which a pawn can no longer defend.

French Defense Advance Variation pawn chain

Obviously, attacking b2 or c3 will require lots of time to push pawns up the board, and once the pawn gets to a4, all it takes is a3 to stop the pawn. That is why Black often breaks the pawn chain into smaller pieces by attacking it with …c5 and from the front with ….f6.

One way of gaining time for Black to advance pawns on the queenside is to extend the black pawn chain with …c4. Instead of the usual e6 and d5 pawn chain, Black now has the e6, d5, and c4 chain.

Black can look to exchange on c3 with …bxc3 and then infiltrate on the b-file.

However, do not rush to lock pawn structures in chess. If you are considering playing …c4 with Black in the French Defense, be sure you gain active counterplay for creating this closed pawn structure.

In keeping with attacking the pawn chain at the base, White will usually play for the f4-f5 pawn advance or exchange on f6 and seek to control the d4 and e5 squares with pieces.

French Defense Advance Variation 6...f6
French Defense Advance Variation 6…f6

Exchanging on f6 leaves black with a backward pawn on e6, which can get attacked by a rook on the semi-open e-file. In light of this, Black will seek to advance the e-pawn, which resolves the weakness of the pawn structure and allows the light-squared bishop into the game.

As we saw in the Nimzowitsch game, White can restrict the pawns with well-coordinated pieces. Controlling the center with pieces was a principle of the Hypermodern chess school.

In this game between Michael Adams and Vladimir Epishin, both sides got their chance to attack the opponent’s pawn chain. Epishin won the game with a thematic exchange sacrifice on f3.

Michael Adams – Vladimir Viktorovich Epishin, 1992.03.11, 0-1, Klooster Tournament 5th Round 3, Ter Apel NED

Pawn Structures in Chess: King’s Indian Defense Pawn Chains

The pawn chains arising in chess openings are not restricted to the king’s pawn openings. The King’s Indian Defense pawn chains offer a distinctive pawn structure and strategy.

KID Samisch Pawn Sac f4

Here, the black pawn chain points towards the kingside, and White seeks to play on the queenside. This means Black is playing for a faster victory than White because he is attacking the white king.

Because the pawn chain points toward one side of the board don’t mean you are restricted from playing on the other side of the board. Although it is not as common, there are times in the King’s Indian Defense when Black seeks to play on the queenside.

White’s attack on the queenside involves advancing a pawn to c5 and exchanges on d6. This exchange fixes the base of Black’s pawn structure on d6, where it can get attacked by White’s minor pieces.

The knights can attack d6 from b5 and c4, and the bishop can attack d6 from a3. White will also play to infiltrate the black position on the c-file.

On the other side of the board, Black will seek to attack the white pawn chain with f7-f5, and if White defends with f3, Black can consider fixing the kingside pawn structure with f4. Fixing the pawns with …f4 is not the only option since exchanging with …fxe4 leaves the e4 pawn weak.

Black gets an open f-file, which can prove dangerous for White if the king castles short.

The dynamic play of the King’s Indian Defense stems in no small part from the pawn structure in this chess opening. No matter what color you find yourself playing, understanding the pawn chains in this chess opening is vital to your success.

Enjoy this exceptional game in the King’s Indian Defense where Black got in just ahead of White thanks to a queen sacrifice and the threat of delivering checkmate on g2 with a pawn!

Lubomir Ftacnik – Ognjen Cvitan, 1997, 0-1, Bundesliga 1997/98 Round 2, GER

In Conclusion

Playing with and against pawn chains will help you improve your piece play. The more you learn about pawn structures in chess, the easier it becomes to find the right strategy.

Since pawn chains have such an enormous impact on the opening and shape of the middlegame strategy, learning how to get the most from them will help you become a stronger chess player.

You will learn a lot about good and bad pieces and that overprotecting a square does not apply only to an occupied square.

No matter how important pawn chains are, they are not the only pawn structure in chess. There are many more pawn structures in chess for you to study and incorporate into your games.

FM Alisa Melekhina has created an excellent course that explains many of the common pawn structures in chess. learn the common strategies and attacking plans associated with each one.

Also, discover which chess players of the past more closely resemble your style of play and become inspired by their games.

Improve your resourcefulness when things do not go the way you intended in the opening. Grab your copy of the Melekhina Method and bonuses today! Get instant access and save 50%!

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