To Plan for the Middlegame, Read the Pawn Structure

One of the most underappreciated yet vital aspects of chess is how to decide on a plan for the middlegame.

It must begin by examining the pawns. Why? Because the pawns establish the terrain of the chessboard. They constrain the movements of the more mobile queen, rook, bishop and knight.

Therefore, it usually makes sense to conduct middlegame operations in a part of the board where the pawns allow your pieces greater freedom than they do the opponent's.

So how does the pawn structure determine maneuvering room? There are three basic cases:

  1. If both sides have exactly one pawn on a given file, the more advanced of the two pawns gives its owner more room on that file.
  2. If neither side has a pawn on a given file, i.e., it's an open file, then neither side's pieces are necessarily restricted.
  3. If just one side has no pawns on a given file, i.e., it's a half open file, then a player's operating room on that file is determined by the number of ranks from that player's first rank up to the pawn(s).

Let's apply this technique for judging maneuvering room, to the following position from the game Levin-West (New Jersey Open, 1995). Black has just played 13...Nc6.

To focus on the pawn structure, visualize the board having been cleared of everything else:

Going file by file:

To summarize, White appears to have more space on the d- and e-files; Black seems to have the maneuvering edge on the f-, g- and h-files. Of these, the most meaningful seem to be the e-file (along which White may pressure the e-pawn) and the f-file (along which Black may pressure the knight and (indirectly) the f-pawn).

In formulating a plan, White realized that his slightly more advanced d-pawn gave him more maneuvering room on the queenside in general, and along the third rank specifically. Thus he hit upon the idea of using a rook to harass Black's queenside pawns.

Here again, is the position with the pieces restored:

The game continued: 14. Rhe1 Bd7 15. Re3 Rae8 16. Rb3 b6 17. Rc3 (Threatening to win material with 18. Bb5) 17...Re7 (To meet 18. Bb5 with 18...Nb4: 19. Bxd7 would lose to 19...Nxa2+ 20. Kb1 Nxc3+ 21. Qxc3 Rxd7; 19. Rxc7 Nxa2+ 20. Kb1 Bxb5 21. Rxe7+ Qxe7 22. Kxa2 Bc6 would be fine for Black.) 18. a3 e5 19. Bd5 Nxd4 20. Rxc7

20...Be6 (20...Nxf3 21. Bxf3 e4 22. Bxe4 Qxf2 [22...Rxe4 23. Rxd7+] 23. Bf3 (To stifle Black's play on the f-file.), and Black's pawns are a mess) 21. Rxe7+ Qxe7 22. Bxe6 Nxf3 23. Qxd6 Qxd6 24. Rxd6 Nd4 (24...Nxh2 25. Rd7+ Kh8 26. f3, and White's more active pieces should carry the day.) 25. f3 Ne2+ 26. Kd2 Nf4 27. Bd5 Nxg2 28. Rd7+ Kf6 29. Be4 (threatening 30. Rd6+ followed by the capture of the g-pawn) 29...Kg5 30. Rxa7, and White eventually won.

In the above game, White did not have need to alter the pawn structure in order to make progress. The next position, from Levin-Della Sella (U.S. Amateur Team East, 1997), differs in that respect. Black has just played 18...Rfe8.

Clearing the board except for pawns:

Going file by file:

To sum up, White has appreciably more space only on the c-file, whereas Black dominates the central files. Black's b-file space edge means little because White's b-pawn is firmly held by the a-pawn.

Here again, is the position with the pieces restored:

White decided that in order to effectively gang up on the weak c-pawn, Black's pressure on the e-pawn had to be neutralized. This led White to find 19. e3, forcing the exchange of his weak pawn and quickly giving him a winning position. For the complete score of this game, click on "Annotated Games" under this website's Main Menu, then scroll down the Sub-Menu frame until you see Levin-Della Sella.

The role of pawns in the middlegame is a subject about which many books have been written (including one by me). Still, I hope this brief excursion makes clear that this facet of chess is ignored at a player's peril.