-- Leonidas, "300"
Indeed, it is due to the uniqueness of the pawn's sideway capturing abilities that allow for such interesting phenomenon like the pawn chain! Today, I will start my discussion on how to both play with and against the pawn chain.
The diagram above represents a well-known position from the Advance variation of the French Defense. As we can see, a pawn chain is a series of pawns linked together along a diagonal, starting at the base and ending with a wedge in the central squares. Nimzowitsch wrote about pawn chains with much relish in his book "My System", and devoted an entire chapter (Chapter 9) detailing the intricacies behind it.
However, do note that the pawn chain does not appear in only the French Defence; it is also a common occurence in openings such as the King's Indian.
So let us take a look at how the chain affects the position:
- Firstly, we can see that it divides the board into 2, creating what is known as the "two theaters of war". We will discuss about this later on.
- Next, notice that the head at e5 is wedged within the enemy camp. This wedge gives White much space in the centre, especially on the kingside. If Black allows this wedge to remain intact, then he will have a very cramped game.
- However, also note that if the pawns at the base of the chain get removed, the central wedge will lose its protection and will become vulnerable to attack.
Having understood all these, how will both sides proceed with their plans? For simplicity's sake, we will define the side with the pawn chain as the "attacker" and the side against the pawn chain as the "defender".
The attacker's plan: Expansion in both the centre and kingside (the two theatres of war)
From the following position, White has a small pawn chain with the head at e5 and the base at d4. The e5 pawn wedges into the enemy camp, and divide the position into two distinct battlefields: The kingside and the centre.
First, let us take a look at the kingside. The attacker's e5 pawn denies the Black knight access to the f6 square. This makes it easier for White to bring in his pieces for the attack on the king's castled position. If Black tries to gain some counterplay by attacking the pawn chain with 1... f6, then after 2. exf6 Rxf6 the e-file is now open for White to attack the weak, backward pawn on e6. This brings us to the next theater of operation: The centre
In the centre, White's e5 pawn prevents Black's e6 pawn from advancing, making it a possible target for attack. But in such a scenario, a frontal attack by the rooks are out of the question; rather, White should rely on flank advances such as f4-f5 to put pressure on the e6 pawn. If Back replies with exf5, then his d5 pawn loses protection and becomes the next target of attack.
So we can see the general strategy for the attacker: The pawn chain gives him much space in both the centre and kingside. Thus, he should desire to attack the defender in these two theaters of war.
And while he is doing this, he must be cautious to make sure his chain is well-protected, so as not to fall for countermeasures by the defender!
The defender's countermeasures: Bombardment of the enemy pawn chain base
Similar to the King's Indian, the defender's plans for play against the pawn chain will be to create an attack of his own against the chain. This said, he should not be worrying too much about the enemy chain cramping up his position; rather, he should see it as an opportunity to destroy the chain, and thus turning it from an attacking tool into a target for attack.
But careful selection of his attack must be made. For example, after 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5, Black can choose to attack the chain with either the c or f pawns. Now if he chooses 3... f6?, the attack will not be strong, for he is merely attacking the front of the chain, which will only destroy a part of it. Better will be 3... c5!, attacking the chain at the base.
Nimzowitsch explains this with a simple analogy "If we wished to destroy a building, we would not begin with its architectural ornaments, but we would blow up its foundations, for then the destruction of the ornaments with all the rest will follow suit."
So now after 3... c5, we can continue with 4. c3 (strenghtening the chain) Nc6 5. Nf3 Qb6 6.Bd3 (D)
We see that all of Black's previous moves were directed against the d4 square (including the Qb6, which would have seemed out of place in other positions!). Now, the best continuation will be 6... cxd4 7. cxd4, and suddenly the central chain finds itself cut off from the rest of their friends and become vulnerable to attack!
That said, it is important that after undermining the chain at its base, the defender should seek to increase the pressure on the central wedge by bringing in more pieces and pawns to attack the central squares. For example, in our earlier position, after 6... cxd4 7. cxd4 Black can bring in more pieces for the attack via moves such as 7... Ne7 followed by 8... Nf4, or a fianchetto of the king's bishop. Nimzowitsch described this repeated attack on the chain as a "slow siege of the unprotected base".
Nimzowitsch drafted the following pointers for a defender's play against the pawn chain:
- The enemy base, being fixed to one spot, should be attack by several pieces
- This pressure should be maintained as long as possible until a new weakness (e.g. another weak square) appears in the enemy camp
- When this happens, the defender can then leave the pawn chain along and shift his focus of attack to the new weakness. He may return to attack the weak pawn base again in the endgame
- The weak pawn base is often regarded as an endgame weakness, due to its vulnerability of attack by the king and rooks on adjoining open files
Kamenov - Galunov
|Position after 11. Kf1|
11... O-O 12. g3 f6 13. Kg2 fxe5 14. dxe5 Bc5 15. Qe1 Ncd4 16. Bd1 Nxf3 17. Bxf3 Nd4 18. Bd1 Nxb3 19. Bxb3 Rxf2+ 20. Kh3 Rxb2 21. Qc1 Bd4 22. Nc3 Rf2 23. Qe1 Raf8 (D)
Note how Black transfers the attack from the base of the pawn chain to White's exposed kingside. White was mated a few moves later.
See the entire game here:
And to summarize Part 2, here are the general plans made while playing both and against the pawn chain:
- As the attacker, you should exploit your central space to launch attacks against either your opponent's kingside or his central pawns. As his central pawns are blockaded, they cannot be subjected to frontal attacks, but are susceptible to flanking attacks. Meanwhile, you must also make sure that your pawn chain is well supported so that it does not become vulnerable to counterattack.
- As the defender, your best plan will be to attack the base of the enemy pawn chain with as many pieces and pawns which you can throw at it. This siege can be maintained until a new weakness is opened up in the enemy camp, upon which you should seize the opportunity and transfer your forces from the pawn chain to the new weak point. Also, do bear in mind that in the endgame, an unprotected pawn base is usually a weakness.
So far, we have been looking at what are the plans for both sides while the chain is still intact. In Part 3, we will investigate what happens during the stage when the chain starts to fall apart-- how the defender can exploit this change in events, and how the attacker can salvage the position.
Part 1: http://nushsblackknights.blogspot.com/2013/07/pawn-structures-and-pawn-chains-part-1.html
"Understanding Pawn Play in chess" by Drazen Marovic
"My System, 21st Century Edition" by Aaron NImzowitsch
"Pawn structure chess" by Andrew Soltis