Pawn structure

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In chess, the pawn structure (sometimes known as the pawn skeleton) is the configuration of pawns on the chessboard. Since pawns are the least mobile of the chess pieces, the pawn structure is relatively static and thus largely determines the strategic nature of the position.


General observations[edit]

Weaknesses in the pawn structure, such as isolated, doubled or backward pawns and holes, once created, are usually permanent. Care must therefore be taken to avoid them (but there are exceptions — for instance see Boleslavsky hole below). In the absence of these structural weaknesses, it is not possible to classify a pawn formation as good or bad — much depends on the positions of the pieces. However, the pawn formation does determine the overall strategies of the players to a large extent, even if arising from unrelated openings. Pawn formations symmetrical about a vertical line (such as the e5 Chain and the d5 Chain) can be deceptively similar, but they tend to have entirely different characteristics because of the propensity of the kings to castle on the kingside.

Pawn structures often transpose into one another, such as the Isolani into the Hanging Pawns and vice versa. Such transpositions must be considered carefully and often mark shifts in game strategy.

The major pawn formations[edit]

Andrew Soltis, in his book Pawn Structure Chess, classifies the major pawn formations into 16 categories, discussed below. It is to be noted that for a formation to fall into a particular category, it need not have a pawn position identical to the corresponding diagram, but only close enough that the character of the game and the major themes are unchanged. It is typically the center pawns whose position influences the nature of the game the most.

Structures with mutually attacking pawns are said to have tension. They are ordinarily unstable and tend to transpose into a stable formation with a pawn push or exchange. Play often revolves around making the transposition happen under favorable circumstances. For instance, in the Queen's Gambit Declined, Black waits until White develops the king's bishop to make the d5xc4 capture, transposing to the Slav formation (see below).

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a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
c6 black pawn
e6 black pawn
d4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
c2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Caro formation

Caro formation[edit]

Openings: Primary: Caro-Kann. Other: French, Scandinavian, QGD.

Character: Slow-paced game.

Themes for White: Outpost on e5, kingside space advantage, d4-d5 break, possibility of queenside majority in the endgame (typically after the exchange of White's d pawn for Black's c pawn).

Themes for Black: Weakness of the d4 pawn, c6-c5 and e6-e5 breaks. The latter break is usually preferable, but harder for Black to achieve.

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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
c6 black pawn
e6 black pawn
d4 white pawn
e3 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Slav formation

Slav formation[edit]

Openings: Primary: Slav. Other: Catalan, Grunfeld, Colle system (with colors reversed).

Character: Slow-paced game.

Themes for White: Pressure on the c file, weakness of Black's c pawn (either after Black's b7-b5 or after d4-d5xc6 in response to e6-e5), the d4-d5 break.

Themes for Black: e6-e5 and c6-c5 breaks.

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a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
d6 black pawn
e6 black pawn
e4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
c2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Scheveningen formation

Sicilian – Scheveningen[edit]

Openings: Primary: Sicilian (Najdorf, Richter-Rauzer and Sozin variations), Sicilian Scheveningen, and several other Sicilian variations.

Character: Complex, dynamic, sharp middlegame.

Themes for White: Pressure on the d file, space advantage, e4-e5 break (often prepared with f2-f4), f2-f4-f5 push, g2-g4-g5 blitz (see Keres attack).

Themes for Black: Pressure on the c file, minority attack (and counterplay in general) on the queenside, pressure on White's pawn on e4 or e5, d6-d5 break, e6-e5 transposing into the Boleslavsky hole (see below).

It is often unwise for White to exchange a piece on c6 allowing the recapture bxc6, because the phalanx of Black's center pawns becomes very strong.

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a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
e7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
d6 black pawn
g6 black pawn
e4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
c2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Dragon formation

Sicilian – Dragon[edit]

Openings: Primary: Sicilian Dragon. Other: English Opening (with colours reversed).

Character: Either a razor sharp middlegame with opposite side castling or a moderately sharp game with same side castling. The Sicilian Dragon requires a high level of opening memorization to play properly. This is especially true when it comes to the Yugoslav Attack in which White plays the moves Be3, f3, Qd2 and 0-0-0. Other variations are: The Classical Dragon where White plays Be2 and 0-0; The Tal attack is defined by Bc4 and 0-0, and the Fianchetto Defense where White plays g3, Bg2 and 0-0. These less common variations lead to less tactical positions, with a potentially technical endgame.

Themes for White: Outpost on d5, kingside attack (either f2-f4-f5 with kingside castling or h2-h4-h5) with queenside castling, weakness of Black's queenside minority (of pawns) in the endgame.

Themes for Black: Pressure on the long diagonal, queenside counterplay, exploiting White's often overextended kingside pawns in the endgame.

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a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
e7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
d6 black pawn
c4 white pawn
e4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Maróczy bind formation

Sicilian – Maróczy bind[edit]

Openings: Primary: Sicilian.

Character: Semi-open game.

Themes for White: Nd4-c2-e3, Fianchettoing one or both Bishops, the Maróczy hop (Nc3-d5 followed by e4xd5 with terrific pressure on the e-file), kingside attack, c4-c5 and e4-e5 breaks.

Themes for Black: b7-b5 break, f7-f5 break (especially with a fianchettoed King bishop), d6-d5 break (prepared with e7-e6).

The Maróczy bind, named after Géza Maróczy, has a fearsome reputation. Chess masters once believed that allowing the bind as Black always gave White a significant advantage. Indeed, if Black does not quickly make a pawn break, his pieces will suffocate to death. Conversely, the formation takes time to set up and limits the activity of White's light-squared bishop, which can buy Black some breathing room to accomplish this break.

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f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
a6 black pawn
b6 black pawn
d6 black pawn
e6 black pawn
c4 white pawn
e4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
8
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The Hedgehog formation

Hedgehog[edit]

Openings: Primary: English Opening (symmetrical), Sicilian.

Character: Closed, Semi-open game.

The Hedgehog is a formation similar to the Maróczy bind, and shares the strategic ideas with that formation.

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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
d6 black pawn
e5 black pawn
e4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
c2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
8
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The Boleslavsky hole formation

Sicilian – Boleslavsky hole[edit]

Openings: Primary: Sicilian Najdorf, Classical, Sveshnikov, Kalashnikov. Other: Sicilian O'Kelly (2... a6).

Character: Open, dynamic game.

Themes for White: taking control the d5 hole, exploiting the backward d6 pawn, f2-f4 break.

Themes for Black: d6-d5 break, queenside minority attack, the c4 square.

It is a paradoxical idea that Black can strive for equality by voluntarily creating a hole on d5. The entire game revolves around control of the d5 square. Black must play very carefully or White will place a knight on d5 and obtain a commanding positional advantage. Black almost always equalizes, and might even obtain a slight edge, if the d6-d5 break can be made. Black has two options for his queen bishop: on e6 and on b7 (after a7-a6 and b7-b5). Unusually for an open formation, bishops become inferior to knights because of the overarching importance of d5: White will often exchange Bg5xf6, and Black usually prefers to give up his queen bishop rather than a knight in exchange for a white knight if it gets to d5.

When white castles queenside, Black often delays castling because his king is quite safe in the center.

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a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
c7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
d6 black pawn
d5 white pawn
e5 black pawn
e4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
c2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The d5 chain formation

d5 chain[edit]

Openings: Primary: King's Indian. Other – Benoni, Ruy Lopez (Spanish).

Character: Closed game with opposite side activity.

Themes for White: Massive queenside space advantage, c2-c4-c5 break (optionally prepared with b2-b4), prophylaxis with g2-g4 (after f2-f3), f2-f4 break.

Themes for Black: kingside attack, f7-f5 break, g7-g5-g4 break (after f2-f3), c7-c6 break, prophylaxis with c6-c5 or c7-c5 transposing to a Full Benoni formation.

The chain arises from a variety of openings but most commonly in the heavily analyzed King's Indian Classical variation. The theme is a race for a breakthrough on opposite flanks – Black must try to whip up a kingside attack before White's heavy pieces penetrate with devastating effect on the c file. The position was thought to strongly favour White until a seminal game (Taimanov-Najdorf 1953) where Black introduced the maneuver Rf8-f7, Bg7-f8, Rf7-g7. When the chain arises in the Ruy Lopez, play is much slower with tempo being of little value and featuring piece maneuvering by both sides, Black focusing on the c7-c6 break and White often trying to play on the kingside with the f2-f4 break.

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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
c7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
e6 black pawn
d5 black pawn
e5 white pawn
d4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
c2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The e5 chain formation

e5 chain[edit]

Openings: Primary: French.

Character: Closed/semi-open but sharp game.

Themes for White: kingside mating attack, f2-f4-f5 break.

Themes for Black: Exchanging the hemmed-in QB, c7-c5 and f7-f6 breaks.

Due to White's kingside space advantage and development advantage, Black must generate counterplay or be mated. Novices often lose to the sparkling Greek gift sacrifice. Attacking the head of the pawn chain with f7-f6 is seen as frequently as attacking its base, because it is harder for white to defend the head of the chain than in the d5 chain. In response to exf6, Black accepts a backward e6 pawn in exchange for freeing his position (the b8-h2 diagonal and the semi-open f-file) and the possibility of a further e6-e5 break. If White exchanges with d4xc5 it is called the Wedge formation. White gets an outpost on d4 and the possibility of exploiting the dark squares while Black gets an overextended e5 pawn to work on.

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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
c6 black pawn
e5 black pawn
c4 white pawn
e4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Rauzer formation (colors reversed)

King's Indian – Rauzer formation[edit]

Openings: Primary: King's Indian, Old Indian (colors reversed), Ruy Lopez. Other: Ruy Lopez (colors reversed). The notation in the rest of this section refers to the colors reversed version.

Character: Semi-open game.

Themes for White: d6 weakness, c4-c5 push, a3-f8 diagonal, queenside pawn storm.

Themes for Black: d4 weakness, a1-h8 diagonal, f4 square, kingside attack, trading pieces for a superior endgame.

The Rauzer formation is named after Rauzer who introduced it in the Ruy Lopez. It can also rarely occur in the Ruy Lopez with colors reversed.

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a8 black rook
c8 black bishop
e8 black rook
g8 black king
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
d7 black knight
f7 black pawn
g7 black bishop
h7 black pawn
c6 black pawn
d6 white rook
f6 black knight
g6 black pawn
e5 black pawn
c4 white pawn
e4 white pawn
c3 white knight
e3 white bishop
f3 white knight
h3 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
c1 white king
f1 white bishop
h1 white rook
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Tarrasch – Euwe, Pistyan 1922

It is considered to give Black excellent chances because d6 is much less of a hole than White's d4. If the black king's bishop is fianchettoed it is common to see it undeveloped to f8 to control the vital c5 and d6 squares, or remove White's dark-squared bishop, the guardian of the hole.

The Rauzer formation is often misjudged by beginners. In the position on the left, White appears to have a development lead while Black's position appears to be riddled with holes. In reality, it is Black who stands clearly better, because White has no real way to improve his position while Black can improve by exploiting the d4 square (see complete game on Java (Applet) board).

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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
c6 black pawn
d6 black pawn
c4 white pawn
e4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Boleslavsky Wall formation

King's Indian – Boleslavsky Wall[edit]

Openings: Primary: King's Indian. Other: English, Pirc, Ruy Lopez.

Character: Semi-open game, slow buildup.

Themes for White: exploitation of d6 weakness, e4-e5 and c4-c5 breaks, minority attack with b2-b4-b5.

Themes for Black: attacking the e4 and c4 pawns, d6-d5 and f7-f5 breaks, queenside play with a7-a5-a4.

The wall is yet another structure that leaves Black with a d-pawn weakness, but prevents White from taking control of the center and gives Black active piece play and an opportunity to play on either side of the board.

abcdefgh
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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
e6 black pawn
d4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Isolani formation

Queen's Gambit – Isolani[edit]

Openings: Primary: Queen's Gambit. Other: French.

Character: Open game.

Themes for White: d4-d5 break, sacrifice of the isolani, outpost on e5, kingside attack.

Themes for Black: Blockading the isolani, trading pieces for a favorable endgame.

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Chessboard480.svg
c8 black rook
d8 black queen
e8 black king
f8 black bishop
h8 black rook
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
c6 black knight
e6 black bishop
f6 black knight
h6 black pawn
d5 black pawn
d4 black pawn
b3 white pawn
c3 white knight
f3 white knight
g3 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white bishop
e2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white bishop
h2 white pawn
a1 white rook
d1 white queen
f1 white rook
g1 white king
8
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abcdefgh
Bogolyubov – Rosenthal, St. Petersburg 1914. White achieved a blockade with 11. Nb5!
abcdefgh
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Chessboard480.svg
a8 black rook
d8 black queen
f8 black rook
g8 black king
a7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
b6 black pawn
c6 black bishop
e6 black knight
h6 black pawn
d5 black pawn
c3 white knight
e3 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
d2 white rook
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
d1 white queen
e1 white king
f1 white bishop
h1 white rook
8
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abcdefgh
Magerramov – Kasparov, Baku 1977. Black obtained a devastating attack with 17...d4!

The isolani leads to lively play revolving around the d5 square. If Black can clamp down on the pawn, her positional strengths and threat of exchanges give her the advantage. If not, the threat of the d4-d5 break is ever present, and the isolani can sometimes be sacrificed to unleash the potential of White's pieces, enabling White to whip up a whirlwind attack. Kasparov is famous for the speculative d4-d5 sacrifice.

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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
e6 black pawn
c4 white pawn
d4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Hanging Pawns formation

Queen's Gambit – hanging pawns[edit]

Openings: Primary: Queen's Gambit Declined. Other: Queen's Indian Defense.

Character: Open game.

Themes for White: Line opening advance in the center, kingside attack.

Themes for Black: Forcing a pawn advance and blockading the pair, conversion to isolani.

Like the isolani, the hanging pawns are a structural weakness and must not be entered into unless the piece position offers some compensation. The play revolves around Black trying to force one of the pawns to advance. If Black can establish a permanent blockade the game is positionally won. On the other hand, White aims to keep the pawns hanging, trying to generate a kingside attack leveraging off of their superior center control. Other themes for White include tactical possibilities and line opening breaks in the center.

abcdefgh
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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
c6 black pawn
d5 black pawn
d4 white pawn
e3 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
8
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The Orthodox Exchange formation

Queen's Gambit – Orthodox Exchange[edit]

Openings: Primary: Queen's Gambit Declined. Other: Caro-Kann (colors reversed).

Character: Semi-open game.

Themes for White: Minority attack, e3-e4 break.

Themes for Black: e4 outpost, kingside attack.

abcdefgh
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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
e6 black pawn
c5 white pawn
d5 black pawn
d4 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
8
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The Panov formation

Panov formation[edit]

Openings: Primary: Queen's Gambit Declined, Caro-Kann. Other: Alekhine Defense, QGD Tarrasch Defense (colors reversed).

Character: Semi-open, dynamic game.

Themes for White: Exploiting the dark squares, d6 outpost; queenside majority in the endgame, with an advanced pawn.

Themes for Black: e4 outpost, kingside attack, White's overextended pawn, e6-e5 and b7-b5 breaks.

abcdefgh
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Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
c7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
e6 black pawn
d5 black pawn
f5 black pawn
d4 white pawn
f4 white pawn
e3 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
c2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
8
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The Stonewall formation

Stonewall formation[edit]

Openings: Primary: Dutch Defense. Other: Colle system, English.

Character: Closed game, uncomplicated strategy.

Themes: Exchanging the bad bishop, e4/e5 outposts, breaks on the c and g files.

Players must carefully consider how to recapture on the e4/e5 square, since it alters the symmetric pawn formation and creates strategic subtleties. This structure also appears in one of Botvinnik's treatments of the English. Adding the typical White fianchetto of the king's bishop to this structure provides significant pressure along the long diagonal, and usually prepares the f2-f4-f5 break.

abcdefgh
8
Chessboard480.svg
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
e7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
g7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
d6 black pawn
c5 black pawn
e4 white pawn
d3 white pawn
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
c2 white pawn
f2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
h2 white pawn
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The Closed Sicilian formation

Closed Sicilian formation[edit]

Openings: Primary: Closed Sicilian, Closed English (colors reversed).

Character: Closed, complicated position.

Themes for White: kingside pawn storm, c2-c3 and d3-d4 break.

Themes for Black: queenside pawn storm, a1-h8 diagonal

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]