Backward Pawn

Backward Pawn image Chess terms

A vital stride toward chess mastery involves a profound comprehension of positional play and the unique features of a given position. A keen understanding of these characteristics facilitates a more precise evaluation, revealing the challenges to address or exploit. Essentially, the distinct aspects of a position often provide clues about the required course of action, guiding the formulation of plans in chess. A significant portion of the strategic analysis revolves around pawn structures, making it imperative to grasp the intricacies and attributes of various pawn formations. In this article, we will explore one of the frequently encountered pawn structures, specifically the backward pawn, with the goal of delving into its nature and gaining a deeper insight.

Quick Summary

  • A backward pawn in chess is one that falls behind its neighboring pawns and lacks immediate support, making it a target. It can’t easily advance and is usually behind pawns on adjacent files of the same color.
  • Its weaknesses include being exposed without pawn support, requiring defense from other pieces, limiting their freedom. This can lead to passivity and vulnerability to attacks, especially under the principle of two weaknesses.
  • The square in front of a backward pawn is often uncontrollable by allied pawns, adding to its disadvantages.
  • Backward pawns can form at any stage, often due to unwise pawn advances or as a result of strategic plans like the ‘Minority Attack’ in the Carlsbad Pawn Structure.
  • Against a backward pawn, it’s effective to trade minor pieces, pressure with heavy pieces, and use the square in front of the pawn as an outpost.
  • When possessing a backward pawn, it’s advisable to seek opportunities for a pawn break to eliminate this weakness.

What is a Backward Pawn in chess?

Commonly, in chess a pawn is referred as backward pawn when it has fallen behind its neighboring pawns, lacking immediate pawn support and becoming a potential target for the opponent. Due to the absence of support from its neighboring pawns, a backward pawn cannot also easily advance and as per definition, it stays behind of all the neighboring pawns, which are usually on the same color on the adjacent files.


backward pawn

In the diagram above, we can see an example of a backward pawn on the d6 square, which is also highlighted. This pawn formation from the example above is typically formed when black plays the Sicilian Defense. The defining characteristics of the backward pawn on d6 can be seen in the example as the absence of pawns on c7 and e7 squares to support it. Instead, the c-pawn is traded, and the remaining neighbouring pawn, the e-pawn, has advanced to the e5 square. A typical feature of a backward pawn is that it usually protects the neighbouring pawn, but this relationship is only one sided, meaning the pawn itself has no support from other pawns.

What are the weaknesses of Backward Pawn?

When a pawn has no pawns from the same file or adjacent files to support its advance, this situation often leaves it exposed and potentially weak. The absence of defensive potential from allied pawns turns the backward pawn into a liability and a potential target. This implies that the defense of such a pawn necessitates the involvement of another piece, thereby restricting the freedom of that piece to engage in alternative activities, such as launching attacks.

backward pawn is a weakness

One of the main drawbacks of a backward pawn, forcing its allied pieces to be tied to its defense of it, is highlighted in the diagram above. White is attacking black’s backward pawn on c6 with three pieces, which then forces black to defend the pawn with at least three other pieces. As long as white keeps the pressure on the c6 pawn, black’s pieces are restricted and cannot leave their defensive duty. As a result, white’s pieces have much more freedom in activity, switching sides of the board or creating threats, whereas black’s pieces are likely to suffer from passivity.

The attacking side can also easily create another weakness, e.g. on the kingside to exploit black’s passive situation. This technique is called the principle of two weaknesses. It is a frequently employed strategy by skilled players to overwhelm opponents with defensive responsibilities, ultimately resulting in a material loss due to insufficient defensive resources.

Another significant disadvantage of a backward pawn is associated with its impact on the control of the square in front of it. The square in front of it cannot be controlled by any allied pawns because, by definition, a backward pawn refers to a situation where the pawn on the neighbouring files has advanced beyond the rank of the backward pawn.

backward pawn is a weakness 1

Having a backward pawn on e6 as in the diagram above means that there is a hole on the e5 square because the d- and f-pawns have advanced beyond the 6th rank. Such squares, called holes, make a great outpost for enemy pieces. If white were to have a bishop or a knight on e5, black could not chase the piece away by playing a move like ..d6 or …f6. The same cannot be said for white’s pawn structure, because if black had a knight on e4, white could drive the knight away by playing f3.

backward pawn is a weakness 2

The position above illustrates a typical scenario where white’s knight, placed on the hole on the e5-square, cannot be challenged by any of the black’s pawns or even by the bishop. Therefore, white’s knight dominates black’s position and controls many critical squares in black’s camp, such as the g6, f7 and d7 squares.

How a backward pawn is formed during a game

A backward pawn can emerge at any stage of the game, spanning from the opening to the endgame. It is imperative to carefully consider pawn advances, as they cannot retreat, and it is advisable to assess whether they result in any weaknesses or the creation of a backward pawn. Sometimes backward pawns may be formed as a result of a well-executed plan. One typical middlegame plan, where a side aims to induce a backward pawn for the opponent, is known as the ‘Minority Attack.’ The position below shows a typical pawn structure called the Carlsbad Pawn Structure, which usually arises from the Queen’s Gambit Declined Exchange Variation.

backward pawn

White has 3 pawns vs. black’s 4 pawns on the queenside. In the minority attack, white advances the b-pawn to b5, with the support of a2-a4, with the aim of exchanging pawns on c6 square to create a backward pawn on c6. In the position below, from the game played between Geller and Novotelnov in Moscow, 1951, we can see that white has already advanced the a- and b-pawns, supported by the rooks and the queen on c2.

How a backward pawn is formed during a game

Here, the game continued 1.b5 axb5 2.axb5 Bg4 3.bxc6 bxc6 and black ended up having a backward pawn on c6.

How a backward pawn is formed during a game - 1

4.Nh2, not to allow …Bxf3, 4…Be6 5.Rb6 and white will keep targeting the weak pawn on c6. Another example of this common theme is observed in the game between Timman and Spassky, Tilburg 1979:

How a backward pawn is formed during a game 3

White would like to launch the Minority Attack by playing b4 but black’s bishop on e7 is controlling the b4 square at the moment. Therefore, white has started executing their plan with 1.Bxf6 first and after 1…Bxf6, followed by 2.b4 a6 3.a4 g6 4.b5 a5 5.bxc6 bxc6, resulting in the weak backward pawn on c6.

How a backward pawn is formed during a game

How to play with / against a Backward Pawn

When you find yourself in a position playing against a pawn structure involving a backward pawn, it is usually a good idea to trade minor pieces and put pressure on the pawn with heavy pieces (rooks and the queen). The second rule of thumb is to place a piece in front of a backward pawn, exploiting the hole as an outpost for the piece, which then also blocks the pawn from advancing. Fixing the weakness is a good step in taking advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses.

If you are on the side with a backward pawn, try to seek opportunities for a pawn break, allowing you to get rid of the pawn.

How to play with and against a Backward Pawn

With black to move in the position above, 1…d5 would let black exchange the backward pawn with white’s central pawn on e4. After 2.exd5 3.Rxd5, black has not only improved their pawn structure, but also activated the rook, controlling the d-file.

How to play with and against a Backward Pawn 1

Famous Game with Backward Pawn

An exemplary technique for exploiting the weakness of a backward pawn was demonstrated by Akiba Rubinstein against Georg Salwe in 1908.

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.g3 Nc6 7.Bg2 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Qb6 9.Nxc6! bxc6 black got a backward pawn on c6 as a result of this trade, since 9…Qxc6 would lead to loss of the d5-pawn.

Famous Games with Backward Pawn

10.O-O Be7 11.Na4! white starts with the plan of controlling the c5 square and targeting the backward pawn on the c6 square 11…Qb5 12.Be3 O-O 13.Rc1 Bg4 14.f3 Be6 15.Bc5 white is not only fixing the weakness on c6 with the minor pieces on a4 and c5, but also preparing to trade minor pieces. 15…Rfe8 16.Rf2 Nd7 17.Bxe7 Rxe7 18.Qd4 Ree8 19.Bf1 Rec8 20.e3 Qb7 21.Nc5! offering another piece trade, simplifying the position in favor of the attacking side. 21…Nxc5 22.Rxc5 white has now gained full control of the c5, which cannot be challenged by any of black’s pieces or pawns. 22…Rc7 23.Rfc2 Qb6 24.b4! Securing the control of the c5 square but also threatening 24…a6 25. Ra5 Rb8 26. a3

Famous Games with Backward Pawn 1

Black is struggling to defend both targets on a6 and c6, and finally, white is ready to gain material with a simple tactic.

27.Rxc6! Qxc6 28.Qxa7 Ra8 29.Qc5 Qb7 30.Kf2 h5 31.Be2 g6 32.Qd6 Qc8 33.Rc5 Qb7 34.h4 a5 35.Rc7 Qb8 36.b5 a4 37.b6 Ra5 38.b7 1-0

Deniz’s thoughts on Backward Pawn

The backward pawn is an essential strategic element in the game of chess to be mindful of. Since such pawns pose defensive challenges and are therefore regarded as weaknesses, it is better to avoid obtaining a backward pawn whenever it is possible. Deliberately allowing a backward pawn should only be done under special circumstances when there is a concrete justification for it, e.g., as in the Sveshnikov Variation in the Sicilian Defense.

Written by
Deniz Tasdelen, National Master
National Master with over 20 years of experience. He has participated in many prestigious tournaments, including the European and World Youth Chess Championships.
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What is the difference between backward pawn and isolated pawn?

An isolated pawn stands alone without adjacent pawns, while a backward pawn is a pawn that has no pawns from the same file or adjacent files to support its advance. - Your One Stop Chess Resource
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