Sunday, February 5, 2017

Weak squares, or doubled pawns?

While I was halfway through writing my Doubled Pawns series I played an interesting game in November's Carinhill tournament. What struck me were the opportunities which the opponent had to ruin my pawn structure and give me doubled pawns, but whether they were really weaknesses were something that could be questioned. Since we have been learning so much about doubled pawns, this is a good time to look at how they can make or break your position, as I found out in this game.

My opponent's first chance came after move 12:

Position after 12... Ne4

Black has just sunk a knight into the inviting outpost on e4. Now White could give Black doubled pawns after 13. Bxe4 dxe4, but then the offending knight would be replaced with a passed pawn that is no less accommodating. Meanwhile, the pawn's rear counterpart on e6 keeps watch over the central squares. Such doubled pawns, far from being a weakness, actually help Black in this position.

Fast forward to move 19:

Position after 19... fxe5

Again, White can damage his opponent's pawn structure with 20. Bxh6 gxh6. This time the doubled pawns are located at the edge of the world, where they offer no help in centre control as compared to our first position.

Because they're too busy trying not to fall off the edge

Does Black get any compensation, then? Well yes: By trading off White's dark-squared bishop, he gains control over the weak dark squares around White's kingside. With a correct coloured bishop and queen to exploit these squares, he gains very good attacking chances against the enemy king.

Opponent vs Checkerboard 5
Cairnhill Chess Festival 2016 Open (Round 2)

1. e4 c6
2. d4 d5
3. exd5 cxd5
4. Bd3 Nf6
5. Ne2 e6
6. O-O Bd6
7. f4

To discourage Black from any ideas of ... Bxh7+. But there were better ways to defend that did not involve a weakening of the e4 square. A simple 7. h3 could solve the problem too.

7... O-O
8. Nd2

Keeping open the option of pushing c3/c4.

8... Nc6
9. c3 b6
10. Nf3 Bb7
11. h3 Ne7

The knight wasn't doing much on e7, so better to relocate it to the other wing.

12. Ne5 Ne4

Settling into the e4 outpost. Black's plan is to push ...f6 followed by ... e5, kicking the e5 knight and advancing in the centre, while his centralized knight interferes with White's attempts to counterattack.

13. Be3

Can White be rid of the offending knight? it seems that after 13. Bxe4 dxe4 Black has ruined his own pawn structure. But notice the doubled pawns here aren't weak: The forward pawn is a passer protected by the the b7 bishop, while his rear counterpart assists in looking after the d5 and f5 squares. Now White has to deal with the trouble of the e4 pawn interfering in his operations. So this is a case of doubled pawns offering an advantage by controlling more squares in the centre!

13... Nf5
14. Bf2 f6
15. Nf3 Qc7
16. g4 Nh6

It would not benefit Black to trade off his centralized knight, which is his key advantage: 16... Nxf2 after which White can set a trap: 17. Rxf2 (even 17. Kxf2 Nh6 puts White in a slightly better position.) 17... Ne3? while it looks like Black will win the f4 pawn, White calls the bluff with a powerful combination 18. Bxh7+! Kxh7 19. Qd3+ Nf5 20. gxf5 exf5 21. Qxf5+ Kg8 leaving White a pawn up. Black's two bishops will not offer much compensation in the closed position.

17. Be3 Rae8
18. Rc1 e5
19. fxe5 fxe5
20. Bxh6 gxh6

Uh-oh. For all his efforts in breaking open the centre Black has gained isolated doubled pawns in return. Furthermore, these doubled pawns are located at the side and don't help much in controlling central squares. Does Black get any compensation for this? Well yes: By trading off his dark-squared bishop, White has weakened the dark squares around his kingside. And Black has a bishop and queen which can perfectly exploit this weakness!

21. Qe1 Qe7

With the latest development Black modifies his plans: Invade the kingside via the dark squares.

22. dxe5 Bxe5
23. Nfd4?

Getting rid of Black's dark-squared bishop was a priority, otherwise the pressure against White's exposed king becomes too much. 23. Nxe5 Qxe5 While Black still poses a threat with his queen + knight duo, at least his firepower along the dark squares is not as strong.

23... Qg5

Destination: The e3 square.

24. Rxf8+

White spots a tactical combination, but it is not strong enough.

24... Rxf8
25. Ne6??

It looks like Black will lose material. But White severely underestimates the vulnerability of the dark squares around his king. 25. Bxe4 was the best response, taking out one of the king's attackers. After 25... Qe3+ 26. Kh1 Qxe4+ 27. Kg1 Black has no good way to continue the attack (Qe3+ is met with Kh1 and no progress can be made other than a forced perpetual). White can then consolidate with  moves like Nf5, closing off the file and getting his pieces out into the game.

25... Qe3+!

Now Black has a forced mating line.

26. Kg2

26. Kh1 Qxh3+ 27. Kg1 Qh2#

26... Rf2+
27. Kg1

27. Kh1 Qxh3+ 28. Kg1 Qh2#

27... Rxe2+
28. Kf1 Qf3+
29. Kg1 Qg2# (D)

Position after 29... Qg2#

White had no chance to exploit the doubled pawns he created, and his dark-squared weaknesses proved to be his downfall. What can we learn from this game?

  1. Doubled pawns aren't always bad; sometimes they come with valuable compensation, such as good piece activity or greater centre control.
  2. Don't leave your king exposed especially when you have weak squares around him, and the enemy has a correct coloured bishop that can exploit these weaknesses!
  3. Avoid trading off any active pieces that can aid you in the attack. Conversely, when defending it is best to get rid of the opponent's firepower by exchanging off his more active pieces.


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