Pawn Structures Explained by GM Yasser Seirawan

Pawn Structures Explained by GM Yasser Seirawan

When the first part was to get you to understand that, it’s through the control of space that we know what the material count is worth. The idea of space is this is 64 square board like the board I have in front of me, 64 square board, I own 32 squares. They are my space. You own 32 squares, they are your space. And it’s through my control of your space that my pieces become powerful. Powerful enough that they have a material value. But let me be sure I understand what I’m saying because I try to be very, very precise. Imagine, if you will, that you have a Rook. And your Rook has a value of five. The Rook has a value of five because it controls 10 squares. Just a second, let me put a Rook on the board. How sweet it is. So Rook on b1 attacks or… Here we go, I got it the wrong way, four of our opponent’s squares. Very good. And we’re gonna move this Rook. Our Rook controls 10 of our opponent’s squares from a8 to c8, b8 to e8 and so on, all the way across the board to h8. And then from b7 to b6 to b5. So because our Rook controls 10 squares, we give it a value of five. Now let’s just play a thought game with ourselves. Imagine that the Rook that we have can never go into your space. Or rather White’s Rook can never cross the equator. How powerful would White’s Rook be? And in my view, it would be great as a defensive piece it could patrol our space and protect our army. We’d be allowed to use our Rook to capture things that entered into our 32 squares, but the Rook wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as worth five if it could never cross the equator. So it’s from space that we get the idea of what the material value should be. Now quickly just to ask you the question for myself, how many of you actually watched the first class? If you were to give a value to your king, what would be the value of the king? I need a number. What would be the value of the king? Watched it twice baby. I’m seeing the number I wanna see. The value of the king that I wanted to give is four. So all of those of you who said four, thank you very, very much indeed. Okay. So one of the things I didn’t do in the first lecture that I rather regret is this idea of duplication. So in the position that I set up, the Rooks, once I put a Rook inside my opponent’s territory, it’s worth 10. And in the position that I have in front of us, the Rooks duplicate. So we say that this Rook on h7 attacks the square g7. But we say also that this Rook on b7 attacks the square g7. So we count that square g7 as being attacked twice. So once we really have this idea of space, the board, you have your 32 squares, I have my 32 squares from the board, from space, we get this idea of what the material values of the pieces are relative to one another, we start to understand certain terms. So when I was a kid, I’d go to my mom and I’d say, “Mom, I want a cookie.” And I learned very quickly that I had to be very, very precise with my mom. If I said to her, “I want a cookie,” she might give me a Fig Newton or something else when I really, really wanted was a chocolate chip cookie. So later I would say, “Mom, I want a chocolate chip cookie,” so there can be no confusion. So, very early in life to get what I wanted, I learned that I had to speak very precisely. And when I was reading a lot of chess books, man, I couldn’t help but notice I was really, really confused by huge number of terms that authors were using. For example some authors said, “Ooh, this was a strong move.” Strong move. Other authors might say, “Oh a powerful move.” Powerful move. Strong move. What was I to make of these descriptive words? How can a chess move be powerful? How can a chess move be strong? An explosive move. The move that improves the Bishop. The Knight is stronger on this square, than from wherever square it previously was. And then I realized that all of these authors, what they’re trying to say and not doing a very good job in my opinion, was they’re trying to control space. That’s exactly what they were trying to do is simply control space. And they were talking about… Bringing their Bishop to a square where it controlled more space than it previously did. And if they were just to talk in those terms, like the Bishop is strong on the e5 square. If they were just to tell me that, “Oh, on the e5 square, the Bishop controls more squares of the opponent than it did when it was on b2,” I’d really appreciate that much more than they’re telling me that the Bishop is now stronger or powerful or the move e5 is explosive. Well, let’s just attack some squares. Okay, so we now have a pretty good idea of what space is, we have a pretty good idea of what material means, and next we come to a third element, which is really, really important is pawn structure or pawn skeletons. I just set up a pawn skeleton, a pawn structure in front of me. And that you might recognize this pawn structure comes from an Exchange Slav. And when you look at pawn structures, those structures are what gives you a plan. So I got the structure in front of me, and I go, “Well, I got no plan. I just got the structure.” But by understanding the structure, it helps give you a plan. So, for example, I have a nephew, Yuri. He’s trying to become… Oops, that’s not the color I wanted. He’s trying to become a better chess player, and he wanted me to give him a lesson. I said, “Okay, Yuri, I’ll be very happy to give you a lesson,” and I set up the structure, and I set up this position. Really pretty elementary. So if we had such a situation, what would we do? What would our motivation do? Let’s imagine that we had White for a moment. Well, to me, once I start understanding space, once I start understanding the material count, well, it’s really, really clear what I wanna do. I wanna play. Oops, I did that wrong. Rook c1, Ooh la la. But now, I’ve still got this. Okay, so in this position, once I understand space, once I understand material, it’s really, really easy for me to understand what I have to do. I have to play Rook on a1 to c1, and I immediately gain a great deal of space over my opponent’s Rook. That is to say, my Rook got a clearer… How do I get rid of my arrow now? You need to draw over. Draw over. Okay, that makes sense. So Rook b8. And now, I will play King f1 and thanks to my very powerful Rook on the 7th rank which attacks this pawn, which attacks this pawn. I limit the ability of my opponent’s king to advance, and my king is going to advance up the board, and I will likely win the game. Okay. Very good. So as I was talking to Yuri about this position, I said, “Okay, Yuri,” and he fully understood that the idea of bringing the Rook to the open file made a great deal of sense to him. I presented him with another problem. Imagine… So a pawn structure immediately identifies to us that the c file is opened as Yuri realized a moment before and that there is a great deal of desire by both players to bring their Rooks to the c file. This is all very, very elementary stuff, but it helps us understand how to find a plan. And I said, “Okay, Yuri, what’s the right moves that the Black… There you go, f4 or f3, followed by Rook over. Okay. Very good. Now we’re gonna make it a little bit harder. Okay, f4 or f3 by White followed by Rook over. But now, we’ve got two obstacles in the way. E3, f3, ah, King h1. King h1 to go Rook g1 followed by Rook over. Or we have e3 and f3 followed by Rook over. Aha, two good plans. And both plans are very, very good. And because White is the first to enact a plan of King h1, Rook g1, Rook c1, Black cannot meet him, can’t… As soon as White gets the c file, as we saw earlier, White was going to have a really, really big advantage. So imagine I played King h1. On standby. Okay, good. Now, we have to imagine King h1. Well, we know that hey, from our previous example, if White gets to play Rook c7, Black’s losing, so Black has to meet the challenge that White’s plan is. And the way to do that is go f6 and e5. You would still want to take possession of the open c file that, at least in this case, Black is resisting more strongly, than by just having the Rook on c7 and the king going up. And this is the type of thing that I did, as I was studying chess, is I look at the pawn skeleton, the pawn structure. And I would imagine what would happen if I had a Rook and as we just saw, the open file dictates to me that I must put my Rook on the open file. Very good. Now, imagine each side had a Knight, a Knight and only a Knight. Where would you put that Knight? Imagine you were White and you had a Knight and you would like to put it on the board? What would be a good square for the Knight to be? E5, d6, a5, e5, e5, e5, d6. Aha I saw a c5, f4, c4, c5, 5 and 4, good, good, good, good, good, this is very, very good. So when I was growing up, I realized that Knights really were short range pieces. They were hoppers and they needed protection. So when I look at this position, and I say I have a Knight, where am I gonna put it? For me, I would take the Knight and I would literally, in my mind, I would put the Knight on e5 or I would put the Knight on c5. And for me, this pawn on d4, which protects the Knight, that would be the outpost. Okay? Knights need protected outposts. And for me, the e5 and c5 were the natural outpost. Now, if I did something kinda weird, just a second, take that off, and I just did, oops, no, let me get rid of that. Imagine I took this pawn and put it here, and I took this pawn and put it here. I’m playing with the pawn structure. I’m playing around with the pawn structure. Now I said, “You have a Knight, you’re White, you have a Knight, where would you put your Knight? Yeah, exactly, d6 and f6 instantly, to my way of thinking, become the natural places where the Knight has to go. Knight to f6, Knight to d6, Knight to c5 and those three squares would instantly be dictated to me by the pawn structure. Okay? And I really need to emphasize, it’s by the pawn structure that I started to understand what my plans should be. So, oops, I gotta put, that… Now I tell you, I got this pawn, it’s holding on… It’s hovering around my cursor, I can’t get rid of that sucker, I was trying to, trying real, real hard. Now, imagine in this position that you as White, had a light squared Bishop, a light squared Bishop, what would be a good outpost for the light squared Bishop? What would be a good outpost for the light squared Bishop? D3, b5, very good. It really, really is not that hard. These are two of your very best squares for the light squared Bishop. On d3, the Bishop… Come on you can go. On d3, this Bishop attacks three of Black squares there and it also attacks two of Black squares there. So if… If a chess author was writing an annotated game and he would say, “Bishop d3, a powerful move,” and just leave it at that, just a powerful move. I’d think to myself, well, why is it powerful until I learn that he’s talking about space. And that the Bishop increased its power by attacking the f5, g6 and h7 squares. And it was just by looking at pawn structures that I began to understand and formulate a plan. Yeah. Oh. Let me just remove this guy for a second. I just wanna remove this, move this. I’m gonna change the pawn structure just a tad. I’m gonna take this pawn, move it over here. Or should I do it that way or I’m gonna do it a different way? I’m gonna do it like this, I’m gonna put this pawn, I’m gonna take this pawn, I’m gonna put it over there. A lot of you may know this pawn structure as the Carlsbad pawn structure from a Queen’s pawn opening. When you look at the structure, it looks kind of even. The other structure was symmetrical, that Exchange Slav was symmetrical. And I began to look at what you might call pawn breaks. And I would look at this structure and I would go, aha, I could go f3 and e4. That might be a nice plan that might meet some really good ideas based on where I might have my pieces. Another plan I might have is a minority attack pushing this pawn to b5 and creating a weakness on the c6 square. And then from Black’s perspective, I might do other things. I might say, “Ooh, I can see that my opponent wants to play b5 and like… ” Oops, that was wrong. I’ll play b6 in order to meet b5 with c5.” Sorry, just a second. Another idea. If I was in Black’s shoes, I might think to myself, “Aha, I see that my opponent is trying to create a weakness with the move b5. How about something like this where I can bypass my opponent and put a passer on the board with a5.” Other ideas, and this is exactly what I would do, seriously. Is I play around with a pawn skeleton in my mind, and I would think about the various breaks the players could play. For example, a line like a5 where I purposely sacrifice a pawn, or a line like a5 where I would induce my opponent to play, oops, b5, so that I could take and take and then I would have a passer. And of course, and finally, we would take the situation. And I would say, “Aha. Oops, let me take this guy, put it here.” And I would imagine, for example, that if I was Black, maybe I can play f5 and f4 and create a weakness on the e3 square. And again, I would always, I’d be doing this from the perspective of the pawn structure, and I would think to myself, where would the pieces belong? Where would White’s pieces belong? Where would Black’s pieces belong? So if I gave you a White Rook, if I gave you a White Rook in this position, where would you put your White Rook? Where would you put your White Rook? Don’t all answer at once. C1, e1, b1 or c1? Very good. Very, very good. To my mind, I would like to put the White Rook on the c3 square, okay. So why would I want to put the White Rook on the c3 square? Well, fair enough, it is the half open c file, right? On f1 or g1, I might be supporting a pawn going forward, but on the c file, I am hitting the pawn on c6, and maybe, just maybe on a good day, I could bring the Rook over, slide the Rook over, create a weakness, maybe provoke Black into playing b6 and then slide back with my Rook. So, c3 would be my… Well, I would say my choice. Okay, now let me take this pawn back for a second. Geez, I’m terrible. Okay, there you go, you got it. And let me take this Rook off the board. Okay. Now I wanna give you a Black Rook, a Black Rook. Imagine you had a Black Rook. Where would you wanna choose your Black Rook? What’s a great square for the Black Rook? Very good. It becomes very simple, e6, you bet. Yeah, exactly. You’d want your Rook on e6 for every reason I just mentioned about the… No! What did I do? I did something wrong. Yeah, there it is, okay. I almost panicked myself. Okay, for… It would be the half open e file. You might wanna slide your Rook to the f6 square, and then back to try to create a weakness to provoke the pawn from… To weaken the pawn on e3. There we go. Great. I’m just gonna remove this Rook from the board for a moment. And this is exactly the type of thing I would do. If you had a dark squared Bishop. You were White and you had a dark squared Bishop, where would you want the dark squared Bishop to be? Imagine you had White, you had a dark squared Bishop. I just want you to plant the dark squared Bishop on the board, where you would like it to be. G3, d6, e5, e6, f6, h6, g3, g3, g3, g3, g3, f4. On the outside of the pawn chain says Railbird80, basically he’s giving you a clue. If you took a dark squared Bishop, and you put it on the d2 square, shame on you. The Bishop is actually rather passive behind this pawn on e3. If you wanted to take this dark squared Bishop and put it on this square g3, I like what you’re thinking. The Bishop’s on a very, very nice diagonal and it’s doubly protected. Not bad. If you wanted to put the dark squared Bishop on the f4 square, again, I like what you’re thinking. It’s singularly protected and that’s a good thing, I like the singular protection. But I would like to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the Bishop like the Knight is looking for a really good outpost. On the e5 square, it’s on a good diagonal h2 to b8, but it’s actually even on a better diagonal from e5 to g7, as well as h8, and it’s protected. So we’re just looking at where the pieces fit. And again and again and again, I would go right through a whole structure just like this and suggest to myself where the pieces might go. Now, what I would like to… E5, thank you very much, Elfhater. E5 is the most active square. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the most active square. So I’m gonna turn it over to you guys for a second and I’m gonna ask you for your help. I want a chess opening skeleton position. So just give me your favorite chess opening or chess defense. Just what do you like really, really a lot. What’s your favorite. Dragon… Exchange French, bleah. London System, Tarrasch, Caro Kann, Queen’s Gambit Declined, Advance Caro, Alekhine Defense, Bird’s. Look at you guys, you’re all over the map here. The English. Okay. The Grob. Catalan, French, Queen’s Gambit, English, very good. The Benoni. Okay. Because the Benoni Defense, its structure is so different and intriguing and imbalanced, I’m going to take that. I’m gonna take the Benoni structure. Okay, and I’m gonna just put a Benoni structure on the board. Excuse me, I wanna do this. Okay. So… And I’m going to do… I’m gonna be kind to Black like this. So this structure offers me all kinds of really cool insights and makes me have all kinds of exciting ideas. I see a lot of versatility of plans here for Black. The first thing I notice is that Black has a queen side majority whereas White has a center/king side majority. So immediately ideas that go through my mind is to play the move f4, then follow it up with e5 utilizing my majority. And conversely from Black’s point of view, immediately that goes through my mind is the ideas of playing b5 and c4 and c3 promoting a pawn to a queen. I also like the idea for Black of playing like f5 to try to maybe artificially isolate this pawn on f5… On d5, I apologize. Let me get that one and let me get that one and let me do this. Okay, I’m gonna get really good at this. Okay. I start to fantasize and I start to think well, where would the Knights be good? If I were Black, ooh that’s so easy. If I’m Black, I have no problems figuring out really good outpost for the Knight. Oops. Because to my mind, the Knight on d4 which is protected by the… Go away. Which is protected by the pawn on c5 and the Knight on e5 which is protected by the pawn on d6, it makes perfect sense, in my imagination, as to what would be the great squares for the Knights. And they would be d4 and e5. If I were Black and I was thinking about what… Where would be a good square for the Rook, that’s kind of easy too. I would think that one Rook would be attacking this pawn on e4 and another Rook wherever it might be, whether it be on the c8 or maybe b8 squares, would be supporting the majority, yeah? So this is how… And of course because I put the pawn on g6, I cheated a little. I had to cheat a little was where would I put the dark squared Bishop, well that’s really easy on the long diagonal. Now if I were White by the way and I start thinking about where should I put my Knights… Just a second, let me get rid of this guy. Gotcha, go away. Yeah. Finally, it went away. Second… Okay, let me ask you. Where should the White Knight go? was really fast on that one. C4. This is the Benoni pawn structure. Here, there’s a bit of a problem. The desirable squares, when I look at the pawns on e4 as well as d5 for White, when I look at those pawns, I think to myself, the outposts are simple. F5, e6 and c6 are the natural outposts for a Knight because those are the squares that the pawns protect, but the problem is those squares are all protected by Black’s pawns. So it’s not as though the Knight has an obvious outpost. As it turns out, the outpost on c4 is really, really good. It attacks this pawn on d6 which is a weakness, which kind of lends itself right to the next point or suggestion is where should White’s dark squared Bishop be? Where would be the most effective squares for the… Imagine I gave you this structure and I said, here, here’s a dark squared Bishop. Where would you like to put the dark squared Bishop? G3 looks nice. C3 looks nice. F4, excellent. C3, f4, g3. Okay, I see a lot of c4, h4, intriguing. Aah Railbird, you found the one that I wanted. If you wanted to put your Bishop on g3 or f4, take a bow ’cause the Bishop would be very effective on either one of those two squares. I do have a preference for the g3 square in the sense it’s protected. The f4 square, the Bishop’s not protected. For those of you who said the c3 square, also take a bow. I love this diagonal and I like the protection of the c3 square. I like space. I think the best square for the Bishop, everything else being equal. You just said to me here’s the structure, tell me a great square for the Bishop. I like the Bishop on f6. Why? Well, it’s deeper into Black’s territory, sure controls a lot more squares from the f6 perch and furthermore you might want to play very shortly Bishop e7 and Bishop takes d6 as well as just imagine that the Black king were sitting for example on the g8 square. That Bishop on f6, suddenly there’s all kinds of checkmating ideas. These again, this whole idea of taking a look at the pawn skeleton should help you understand where your Rooks belong, where your Bishops belong, where the Knight should go, not all pawn skeletons are that obvious. But a lot of them are, okay? Pawn skeletons help us understand where our pieces belong. And I remember that comment very nicely about Garry Kasparov as he was describing Vladimir Kramnik long before Vladimir Kramnik defeated him in the 2000 match. He said, “Vladimir just… Vladimir knows where the pieces belong.” And I thought that was a very nice complement and its very, very big insight. Everything I’ve said might sound really, really elementary but once you start really thinking about it, the pawn skeletons can really help us understand where the pieces go. It’s really that simple.

100 thoughts on “Pawn Structures Explained by GM Yasser Seirawan

  1. I love this so much! Strategy always seemed like a some sort of remote knowledge that suddenly appeared in the minds of great players, and this lessons, as basic as they are, made me really think about this concepts and start to have a glimpse on what strategy is, making me much more conscious of it! And also Yasser is just great and a pleasure to listen to. Keep'em coming brahs, I'm sure this might not be the most successful videos and people prefer when something absurd happens or high energy streams (which are great don't get me wrong), but this are to my eyes the greatest videos you have and the one's I appreciate the most.

  2. Yasser needs to teach chess 101 at the local college. He is perfect for it. I bet the class would be overfull everyday.

  3. This is meditative if it wasn't so interesting I could sleep to this stuff. Not like the other guys and that crazy music.

  4. Sometimes i dont feel like he knows how to communicate these ideas well but as i watch it becommes clear that he is so perfect at explaining these ideas that its hard to get him until he ties things together. He really breaks things down simple enough so i can fully understand his lessons.

  5. You should do some games where an additional and uncheckable king-like piece (twin) is played instead of a bishop or knight. That king has got to be at least as valuable as a rook.

  6. Thank you sincerely for sharing these. So grateful for your new content. You are US chess' best ambassador and a great teacher

  7. These lessons are awesome. When I can learn something elementary and basic, that I didn't fully understand, that's a great teacher and a great lesson. Thank you Yasser and Chessbrahs! This is brilliant free content, and this playlist is going in my bookmarks for sure! Looking forward to the next ones <3

  8. Hi grandmaster. Thank you for the video. Now, as a lowly 1450 rated player, there are literally thousands of ideas related to chess that I don't understand, and the concept of 'control' is one of them. When you say that, for example, a rook 'controls' a rank or file, what does that mean? I once played through a GM game and the annotator made this comment when white played his rook to the open e-file '….and white controls the e-file'. But, when I looked at the file, every square from e3 to e8 was covered by black pawns and pieces. The only square on the file that the rook could move to, without being captured by a lesser valued piece or pawn, was e2. So, in what sense is the rook 'controlling' the file? Lack of understanding of this point is hampering my ability to accurately assess positions. Many thanks

  9. The question of what if a piece couldn't cross the middle of the board into "enemy territory" is really interesting because that's true of almost half the pieces that aren't pawns/footsoldiers

  10. This is the most important chess lecture anyone can ever watch. Yasser explains things so well and the subject matter is so crucial.

  11. Ok. Now i'm in mood to read Kmoch – Pawn Power in Chess. Another chess book to long untouched. Thx for this intruduction Yasser!

  12. Yass, chill the fuck out, man. Your delivery is way over the top and aggressive for us, chess lovers. Stressing me out. Would hate to be around you like that

  13. 6:47 Or, to be even more exact, because it is not exactly space on the chessboard that's important as an abstract unit, but they wanted to control the squares.

  14. I remember watching Yasser explain these things ~23 years ago in chessmaster 4000 turbo teaching program. That was a huge revelation back then. Yet here I am and I still feel I can learn more. Damn need to hire him as a coach 😛

  15. Apparently, this is for beginners and novices and almost put me to sleep. My advice to beginners: NEVER fianchetto your rook.

  16. So, I came back to rewatch this and take notes because I love these videos and I looked down and I had accidentally pressed dislike the first time I watched it! I'm guessing the other 15 did the same XD.

  17. This was amazing – simple and informative. Just beat a player rated 300pts higher with relative ease focusing on these principles directly after watching

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