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Endgame Fundamentals: Backward Pawns

By Donny Gray

A backward pawn is one that is behind all of the other pawns that are beside it.  It does not have the support of other pawns if it advances.  It may or may not be able to physically move, but if it does, it is captured by an opposing pawn or piece.

In the following example there are 4 backward pawns:

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White has backward pawns on b3 and g4, while black has backward pawns on b6 and g7.

What makes backward pawns so bad is the fact that it cannot move without dying; it therefore becomes a target.  A good player will saddle you with one or more backward pawns, and for the rest of the game will relentlessly attack it.  Once it is captured you usually lose the game.

One of the best strategies when your opponent has a backward pawn is to first make extra sure that the pawn cannot advance without dying.  Cover the square in front of the backward pawn with many pieces if possible.  Once it is a certainty that it cannot advance without being captured, THEN start attacking it.

In our next example, black’s backward pawn on c6 allows white to win a pawn.

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Although there was no way for white to attack the weak c6 pawn anymore, he still uses its weakness to his advantage.  Now black will either lose the c pawn or the d pawn.  He cannot protect both.  For example:

If       …Kf8
2.Rd5 wins the d pawn as the c pawn is pinned.

And if    …Rd7
2.Rc6 wins the c pawn.

In either case, white is a pawn up.  Whether he can win this position or not remains to be seen, but I will take the side with the extra pawn any day.

Another drawback of the backward pawn is even if you don’t lose a pawn (like in the previous example) the square in front of it invites deadly things, like a knight outpost.

In our next example we use the same exact pawn structure as example #2, but place different pieces on the board.  Still the backward c pawn causes problems.  This time it allows a very strong knight outpost.

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Black will now be on the defensive for the rest of his life.  This is similar to the first time I ever played a master-rated player back in the 1970’s.  Marty Appleberry was my opponent and I was rated somewhere in the mid 1700’s at the time.  I “thought” the game was pretty much even until he slammed a knight down in a very secure outpost like above.  Although it did not win material it caused me such problems that I went on to lose the game.  It controlled everything!  No matter what I tried to do, that knight of his was there bothering me!

Believe it or not, there are a few openings that black, on purpose, allows a backward pawn!  For example the Sveshnikov or Pelikan variation of the Sicilian Defense does exactly this!  Evgeny Sveshnikov became a GrandMaster in 1977; Jorge Pelikan was a strong master from Argentina that played tournament chess back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

After the moves

1.  e4        c5
2. Nf3     Nc6
3. d4        cd
4. Nd4     Nf6
5. Nc3      e5

we reach the following position:

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Black has the backward pawn on d6.

If you do a search of games for this opening in a database, you will find many Grandmasters have tried it out as black, including current world champion Magnus Carlsen; however, the large majority of games are in favor of white.

Black takes on the backward pawn on purpose to try to undermine white’s center at some point and to harass white’s knights.

In closing, let’s take a look at a game between two of the best using this opening back in 2010.  Playing the white pieces is none other than current US Champ Hikaru Nakamura.  Black is the world famous attacking GM Alexei Shirov.

Nakamura, Hikaru 2708
Shirov, Alexei 2723
Corus Wijk aan Zee 2010

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5

The Pelikan has appeared on the board and so has the backward d pawn.

6.Ndb5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8.Bxf6 gxf6 9.Na3 f5 10.Nc4 Nd4 11.exf5 Bxf5 12.Ne3 Bg6 13.Ncd5 Bh6

White has blocked the backward d pawn with a knight on d5.

14.c3 Ne6 15.Bd3 Bxe3 16.Nxe3 Qb6 17.0-0! Nf4

Tempting is for black to just take the undefended pawn on b2.  However, play would probably go something like this:

17.OO Qb2?  18.Bg6 hg 19.Qd6 Qc3 20.Nd5 with 2 mate threats.  Either Qe7 or Nf6 is mate.  Black can not stop both.

Now back to the game.

18.Be2 Rg8 19.Bf3 Nh3+!?

This clever combination looks very good but it is exactly here that white gets a slight advantage.

20.Kh1 Nxf2+ 21.Rxf2 Qxe3 22.Bxb7 Rb8 23.Re2 Qb6 24.Bd5

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Let’s stop and take a look at this position.  The material is even.  However, black’s pawns are in shambles.  He has 4 pawn islands to white’s 2.  This is always a plus.  In addition he still has that backward d pawn.  Nakamura is not one to let a position like this slip away, even though he is playing a top player.  Watch as he uses these small advantages to win.

Rg7?!  Better here for black would be Kf8 but only slightly

25.Qd2 f5 26.Rf1 Kd7 27.b4 f4 28.a4 a5 29.b5 Rd8 30.g3 fxg3 31.hxg3 Kc8 32.c4 Kb8 33.Rf6 Re7 34.Kh2 e4 35.Qc3 Rc8 36.Re3 Ka7 37.Bc6

With his last move white is attacking the still backward pawn on d6.  Notice how it is still a liability to black.  And because of it, white now crashes through.

Rd8 38.c5!! dxc5 Black finally gets rid of the backward pawn.  But now it is too late!

If 38…Qxc5 39.Qxa5+ Kb8 40.Qxd8+

The game continued 39.Bxe4 Rd6 40.Rxd6 Qxd6 41.Qxa5+ 1-0



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One Response to Endgame Fundamentals: Backward Pawns

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