Beating the Isolated Pawn: Playing Against the Isolani

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An isolated pawn is a pawn that has no friendly pawn on an adjacent file. Isolated pawns are usually considered a weakness because they cannot be protected by other pawns. The square in front of the pawn may become a good outpost or otherwise a good square for the opponent to anchor pieces. They can, however, provide improved development and opportunities for counterplay that offset or even outweigh their weaknesses. The files adjacent to the isolated pawn are either open or half-open, providing two lanes of attack for the rooks and the queen.

An isolated pawn on the d-file, i.e. an isolated queen-pawn, or simply an isolani, provide a good outpost on the c- and e-file squares diagonally forward of the pawn, which are especially favorable for the player’s knights. The isolated queen-pawn position favors a kingside attack, freeing both the light and dark-squared bishops due to the absence of friendly pawns on the c- and e-files. However, they suffer from the same weaknesses as other isolated pawns.

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Today our guest coach, IM Larry Evans, who also wrote the article Planning Ahead in Chess, has written a very instructive article on this topic. He explains the pros and cons of the isolated queen-pawn (isolani) and how to play against and around it, with the example games of Botvinnik and Kan. You can read his article now:


This diagram depicts the pawn structure of a very important middlegame position:

Black’s isolated d-pawn, nicknamed the isolani, usually exerts a profound influence on any reasonable strategical plan. Sometimes, the pawn is a tower of strength, and Black wins the game not in spite of it, but because of it. In this article, however, I would like to examine those cases where the pawn signifies more of a liability than an asset.

Although the structure in the diagram is not really representative of every middlegame involving an isolani (White’s pawn can be on the e-file rather than the c-file, and in either case the colors may be reversed), it is useful for our purposes because experience has shown it to be one of the least favourable circumstances under which the isolani is created. The position arises from the Tarrasch variation of the French Defense, and it is the opinion of theory that White is able to keep the initial minimal opening advantage.

So, what are the drawbacks of the famous isolani? There are two, first of all, the absence of neighboring pawns means that the isolani itself is a worthy target, so White can develop a plan to play around the isolani. Second, the squares surrounding the pawn are vulnerable, and White is able to play around the isolani. Since these two plans are fundamentally different, we shall consider them more closely under separate headings.

Playing Against the Isolani

Here the strategy is directed against the target itself. Not that White really expects to win the pawn, after all, Black has as many defenders as White has attackers. But White does intend to tie up Black’s pieces in the defense of the isolani. As we shall see, in chess it is better to be the tier than the tiee.

1. d4 e6 2. e4 d5 3. Nd2 c5 4. exd5 exd5 5. Bb5+ Bd7 6. Qe2+Qe7 7. Bxd7+ Nxd7 8. dxc5 Qxe2+ 9. Nxe2 Bxc5 10. Nb3 Bb611. Nbd4 Ngf6 12. Bg5 O-O 13. O-O-O Ng4 14. Bh4 Bd8 15. Bg3 Bf6

At first glance, it may look fruitless for White to organize a direct assault against Black’s isolani. If White wants to attack the pawn with his knight, then Black must defend the pawn with his knight. If White wants to double his rooks in front of the pawn, then Black must double his rooks behind the pawn. Ah me. But there is a difference! It’s what White wants to do as opposed to what Black has to do. This gives White one of the great positional advantages in chess. He is in control of the course of the game.

If Kan wants to attack the isolani, the decision is entirely his. If he prefers instead to shift his attention over to the kingside or queenside, who is going to stop him? Bondarevsky, on the other hand, is only free to shift his attention where Kan tells him to shift his attention.

Black, undoubtably, has sufficient resources to defend his isolani, kingside or queenside, or queenside individually. But White’s ability to bounce his attack from one front to the other will tax Black’s resources well beyond endurance. 16. Nf3 Bondarevsky would love to bring his stray horse back into the center with 16…Nge5, but White has spoken “Defend your d-pawn,” so 16…Nb6 17. h3 Nh6

Pressure against the isolani has yielded White his first advantage on the kingside: the pathetic placement of the knight on h6. Now Black is ready to repair his kingside with 18…Nf5, so Kan throws a little more weight around the center. 18. Nf4 Rfd8 19. Rd3 Rd7 20. Rhd1 Rad8

Having defended against the assault on his d-pawn, Bondarevsky again hopes for a breather to play 21…Nf5. Kan, therefore, shifts his attention back to the kingside. 21. Bh2 White prepares 21…Nf5 with 22. g4. Meanwhile, Black is faced with a new problem: the threat of 22.g4 followed by 23. g5 21…g6 22. g4 Bg7

Whew! Bondarevsky has barely managed to hold his kingside together, but not without paying a price in the center. Black’s bishop has forfeited the h4-d8 diagonal, so: 23. Bg3! Kan intends 24. Bh4 to drive one of Black’s rooks from the defense of the isolani.

23…f6 Forced sooner or later, both to blunt Bh4 and to provide an escape route for Black’s knight on g6. But now there is a new weakness on e6 (this just isn’t Black’s day). 24. Nd4! Nf7 25. Nde6 Ne526. Nxd8 Nxd3+ 27. Nxd3!

What’s this? White chooses to release the pressure against the isolani. 27… Rxd8 28. Nc5 The point! The Boss has created a third field of action, and this is the front that breaks the back of Bondarevsky’s resistance. Black must lose a pawn on the queenside.

Continue reading the second part of this article: “Playing Around the Isolani“.


Author Information

IM Larry Evans founded Mountain Lake Chess Camp  in 1992 to help train his own son (Cory, who would go on to be a US scholastic Chess Champion). Since then, the company has grown to include a weeklong overnight camp and summer day camps, which have been attended by some of the best players in the world. They also teach afterschool chess classes in over 60 schools in the San Diego area, organize local scholastic chess tournaments and offer private chess lessons for all levels. You can find more details about IM Larry Evan’s overnight camp here.

Did you like his article? What are your takeaways from this article? Please feel free to write in the comments below. Would you like to see more articles from IM Evans?

7 Best Chess Opening Traps

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