Pawning to Victory

Pawns have come a long way since the development of the game of chess. For all purposes, we may consider that Chess became the way it is today in the 15th century. By that time the world had reached a consensus on the rules and invention of the printing press increased its reach to a much wider audience. However, we may notice a lot of differences if we were to compare a chess game of the 15th or 16th century and if we were to consider a chess game of today.

In the early phases of the game, in what is knows as the Romantic era among the chess scholars, a lot of focus was given to attacks and pawns were considered a piece built for sacrifice, not for winning. One of the primary reasons for this was the lack of study and accumulation of knowledge when it comes to chess. This is one aspect where every new generation of players will have an advantage over the previous generation. With over 500 years of chess history at our disposal, we have had the opportunity to learn about tactics and study situations which once seemed hopeless. One such situation is the endgame with pawns. Take the following image as an example.

This example represents a glaring example of what is called a pawn break. For someone who is new to this stuff, a pawn break simply means trading/exchanging your pawns with the other side in order to open up positions for your other pieces to move forward.

The situation presented above is a very popular example of an endgame puzzle taught to beginners. One wrong move could result in a victory turning into a draw or even a loss. Those who are reading this article, if you want to try out this puzzle yourself once before seeing the logic behind this, stop here, take a moment and write down your solution for this. Once you have done that, we will embark on a journey to see if you were right and if not, what was the point where you made the mistake.

Suppose it is black’s turn to move. They make the move b6, attacking the pawns on a5 and c5 simultaneously. A natural instinct among beginner players in such situations is to take black upon the exchange with any one of the pawns, say a5 pawn. Now, black takes back with say its a7 pawn. Now white takes with c5 and in return, black takes with the other pawn, in this case, c7. So the moves look like this:

2…b6 3.axb6 axb6 4. cxb6 cxb6. Now there is a white pawn on b5 and a black pawn on b6. These two pawns block each other. In such a situation, the one whose king is nearer to the other becomes important.
At this point, you might ask, what if black recaptured with the pawn on c7 instead of a7? That is a blunder which people unaware of this little puzzle often commit. This just hands white a victory. We will readdress this point when we discuss winning positions for white.

What if it was White’s turn to move? Due to the symmetrical position of pawns for both sides, it is easy to figure out that if white plays b6, black could recapture with a7 or c7 and if white recaptures with the piece on the same file, then eventually a similar situation will arise and stalemate will be a very likely option. Clearly, if it is black’s turn to move, as long as black follows white symmetrically, the game is headed towards a stalemate. So what is the right move here? Answering this question is easy right? We just have to see the various possibilities here. Thankfully, since it is pawns, there are not many possibilities here. This is a very famous puzzle. Maybe in the earlier days, people did not have an answer to this, but with the accumulation of knowledge, we definitely have an answer now.

Sherlock Holmes once said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Let us follow this simple idea and try to figure out a solution. If you already did, great job. Now follow with us and verify your solutions.

There is one very important thing to notice here before we attempt to solve this puzzle. White is much closer than black when it comes to promoting a pawn to a queen. This gives white a huge advantage. If it can just get even one of its pawns to move 2 squares ahead, white will be able to promote to a queen and win. This means that in such a situation, a sacrifice might not be the worst option since it is very easy to checkmate with a king and a queen. It is one of the first things people learn about endgames. Black is still quite far from promoting its pawns to a queen. This means that we should think of a tactic to allow a white pawn to pass. How do we do that? We have to force black to move his pawns in such a manner that white pawns can reach the 7th rank. They are safe if they do that because pawns do not capture sideways.

So far, we have seen that if both sides follow on with the idea of capturing symmetrically, it ends in a stalemate. If Black tried to move past a pawn without capturing, white wins. However, what if white tried the same thing? Could we force the black pawns to move in a way that would give white an opportunity to promote a pawn to a queen? Take a break here and try to figure out this part before reading how white can win?

Imagine if it is black’s turn. It makes the move b6. You recapture with say, c pawn. If black moves his/her a pawn forward, you just capture with your b pawn and if you set up the pieces on the board, you will see that at least one pawn will get promoted to a queen. White is going to win the game. If black follows you and uses his c pawn, as we have discussed before, it ends in a draw. If it is black’s turn, these are the ways in which white could win and black could draw the game.

Now imagine if it is white’s turn. White goes forward with b6. Black captures. Now regardless of whether the capture was with a pawn or c pawn. White is bound to get a queen. Why? Take a closer look at the possible moveset.

2. b6 cxb6(or axb6. Doesn’t really matter which way black captures) 3. a6.(threatening the b7 pawn of black. That pawn cannot move forward and if it captures white’s a pawn, white’s c pawn will have space to move freely. If it does not capture, white captures and gets a queen. Either way, white gets a queen) bxa6 3. c6. If black captures with a pawn, a similar move set emerges. Can you, the readers trace it?

Now that we have deliberated on the strategy and possible moves, it is about time we address the final element of importance here. Whose turn was it to move? If it was White’s turn, white wins for sure. If it was black’s turn, it depends on whether your opponent sees the tactic.

Do you have any other ideas in mind to deal with such situations? If yes, please let us know. We will be happy to select the best tactics suggested and discuss them in a future article. If you have any doubts, let us know. We will be sure to clarify all doubts. Most importantly, if you liked the idea and its explanation, stay tuned for further discussion of such ideas.

International women Grandmaster and National Master. Bronze medals in Ukraine championships - U20 and rapid among women. Current national Ukrainian rating is 2283.

Master's degree in English language, of University, foreign languages faculty. I speak Ukrainian, Russian, English, Spanish and Catalan languages.

Coming from Ukrainian resort city of Morshyn, Lvov region.

Professional chess coach, and now also a streamer, blogger and vlogger.

If you are interested in chess lessons - I can help you!

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