Pawns vs. minor piece

Here we go again! Material imbalances. The amount of articles about material imbalances seems never ending… don’t worry, there’s only a finite amount of material combinations to write about! Anyway, this time we’ll be taking a look at the pawns versus minor piece imbalance.

On the material scale a minor piece is worth 3 pawns, right? That is true, but don’t assume that three pawns are worth a minor piece! A couple of factors…

  • The number of pieces on the board – with the help of a few cronies, the minor piece can be a lot more effective than the three pawns. The more pieces, the better for the side with the piece.
  • The number of pawns on the board – the more pawns there are on the board means that there is a larger chance that the side with the piece will queen one in the endgame.

A simple example to illustrate point #2: say black has an extra piece and white has pawns on f2, g2, and h2 (original, I know)! If that’s it on the board, then white has all the winning chances, though it is objectively drawn. However, if you add some extra pawns on the queenside, far away from the white king, white is going to be in trouble, if he isn’t lost already.

Of course, other factors in the position should not be ignored, but those two are fairly logical rules that I’ll try to apply to the following three examples from my games.

A “normal” example

Jacobson, Brandon (2316 USCF) — Brodsky, David (2350 USCF) Marshall FIDE Weekend Feb. 2016

Let’s not go to any extremes early….

Brandon 1

This position is unusual. Black is temporarily a pawn up, but the pawn structure is plain bizarre. I could have gone 31… Qe8, but I didn’t like the prospect of dealing with white’s central pawn mass and my shaky g-pawn. However, my silicon friend says black is perfectly fine….

Instead, I went for another option by playing 31… Bxe5+!? 32.dxe5 Qxe5+ 33.Kh1 Rxf1+ 34.Qxf1 Qxe4+ 35.Kh2 b6

Brandon 2

Black temporarily has four pawns for the piece. The g7-pawn is going to fall next move, but the other three pawns are fairly secure. Black’s king will be safe hiding on a6, while white’s king is exposed and could be the victim of a perpetual. There aren’t enough pieces or pawns on the board for white to be better – the position is objectively equal.

The game went 36.Qf8+ Kb7 37.Qxg7+ Ka6 38.Qf6 Qc2+ 39.Kh3 Qf5+

Brandon 3

After the queen trade, white will win black’s remaining pawns on the queenside, but his king is too far away from the queenside. Black will make a draw by getting all the pawns off (he actually only needs to get the c-pawn off because the a-pawn is of the wrong color…). After 40.Kxh4 Qxf6 41.Bxf6 Kb5 42.Kg5 we agreed to a draw.

That part of the game was fairly typical. I sacrificed a piece to get three pawns and equality. However, not all games with this imbalance are typical…

A mess

Breckenridge, Steven (2399 USCF) — Brodsky, David (2300 USCF) UT Brownsville IM Norm Tournament 2015

Yes, this game was a mess. It’s in the databases, you can replay it here. My opponent sacrificed a piece for an attack, but nothing much came out of it. Queens were soon traded, and I had a piece for three pawns. It was a situation where I, with the piece, was on top. Things soon went haywire in time trouble, and after missing a couple wins, I reached this position.

Breckenridge 1

With my last two moves, I decided to bring my king into the game. However, I began to regret that after seeing the strength of the white bishops. Basically I didn’t want to get mated. Therefore, I played 38… Bb3? allowing a rook trade that favors white. Instead, I should have just gone 38… Ra2! where white has no mate (or any trace of mate for that matter). I needed to keep the rooks on, and had I done that, I would have been much better.

White should go 39.Bxa6 Bxd1 40.Bc4+ to get a tempo up version of the game (more about that later). Instead, my opponent played 39.Bc8+?. I should have gone 39… Ke5! 40.Bxa6 Bxd1 41.Bc4 Nd4!, stopping the b-pawn from advancing. Black retains a sizeable advantage there. Instead, I went 39… Kf6? 40.Bxa6 Bxd1 41.Bc4

Breckenridge 2

After reaching the time control, I realized that black doesn’t have much, because the white b-pawn is running fast and will tie up the black pieces. With the king on e5, I could go Nd4 here which would make for a totally different story. Later on, I declined two draw offers in a dead drawn position and tried playing for a win, getting myself in trouble in the process. Fortunately, it wasn’t anything serious, and we made a draw.

What’s the moral of the story? Passed pawns without any heavy pieces on can be annoying and hard to deal with! However, I can’t talk about annoying passed pawns without mentioning the next game.

An absurd situation

Gorti, Akshita (2315 USCF) — Brodsky, David (2430 USCF) Eastern Chess Congress 2016

In this game, I tried some “fake grinding” (aka trying to win an objectively equal/slightly worse position). Everything was within reasonable bounds of equality until I blundered an exchange. Oooooops…. However, I managed to get some noise going, and we reached this position

Akshita 1

White has four (!) connected passed pawns on the kingside, in exchange for a knight that is stuck on the other side of the board. I was really worried here…

Now, how should white win? Let’s first get one thing clear: all four passers will not go marching down the board side by side until the finish line. No, no, no! We’re being realistic here… a fast passer or two should do the job. Black’s hope to survive here is to make noise with the rook + knight combo. In light of that, white’s best move here is 47.Rf5!, giving up the e3-pawn. However, after 47… Rxe3+ 48.Kf6, white can push his g-pawn, and all noise is too late. White is just winning.

Instead, Akshita played 47.Kf4? protecting the e3-pawn. However, after 47… Nc1!, I got the noise I wanted. As crazy as it may seem, white may no longer be winning here! Akshita decided to give up the e3-pawn by playing 48.Rd5 Ne2+ 49.Kg5 Rxe3 50.h4

Akshita 2

The f3-pawn is obviously taboo on account of Rd2+, winning the knight. Now it’s time to bring my king back to civilization with 50… Kc3 and after 51.f4 I played 51… Re8!, harassing the white king. White’s best try is 52.Rd6, with the idea of blocking on g6. However, after 52… Ng3!, threatening a fork on e4, white should go 53.Rc6+ Kd4 54.f5 Ke5

Akshita 3

Black is now fine!

Instead, Akshita gave up yet another pawn with 52.h5 Rg8+ 53.Kh4 Nxf4. White doesn’t have enough to win, and we soon drew.

Conclusion

What’s the overall conclusion? First of all, the power of the pawns should not be underestimated in the endgame, especially with no rooks on the board. In light of that, the side with the piece should, in general, try to keep the remaining pawns on the board, and the side with the pawns should trade pawns – with caution, of course! Blindly following principles is never a good idea!

The pawns vs. minor piece imbalance is a fascinating one and isn’t easy to figure out. Anyway, I hope what I’ve said in this article makes sense, or that at least it’s made you think about it. Until next time!

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