Metamorphosis: The promotion of passed pawns

by Jonathan Speelman
6/21/2020 – Jonathan Speelman explores an overriding aim in most endgames — the promotion of passed pawns. He explains: “One could see this as a form of parthenogenesis, as the piece (like Athena from Zeus's head) springs fully formed onto the board, sadly and inevitably killing the pawn in the process”.

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A case of parthenogenesis

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

After two weeks of death in the form of Reginacide we move on this week to rebirth: the promotion of passed pawns.

As far as I know, pawns have no sexual organs so one could see this as a form of parthenogenesis, as the piece (like Athena from Zeus’s head) springs fully formed onto the board, sadly and inevitably killing the pawn in the process: though perhaps metamorphosis would be a better metaphor.  

Either way, the promotion of passed pawns is the overriding aim in most endgames and also features very heavily in some middlegames, endgame studies and problems.

Every experienced chess player must at one time or another have suffered at the hands of a vicious passed pawn which totally changed the course of the game. This can lead to scarring and I’m beginning in a moment with a game which made me very wary of enemy infantry.

In a perfect world, it shouldn’t have had any long term effects, but even today, nearly 50 years later, I feel that I remain slightly over-concerned about enemy passers, and this can have an effect both on your level of risk-taking in the middlegame and endgame and choice of openings. For instance, I’ve hardly ever played the Grünfeld, a lovely opening but one which invites White to set up a passed d-pawn. Of course this can be weak or strong, but in the abstract it tends to give me mild conniptions as I imagine a vile late middlegame with a queen and rook each and the d-pawn deep in my guts — rather than a delightful ending in which my king in Venus-Flytrap mode digests the delicious morsel.  

In any case, here first is a cautionary tale which begins with trapping the enemy queen but ends in disaster. I included it in my Best Games book (since it had such a formative effect) and I’m reproducing the notes here with just a couple of additions. (I have a feeling I may have used it in this column before but can’t find it in my list.)

 

There are any number of examples of rampaging passed pawns and rather than take them too seriously I searched the MegaBase for positions with black pawns on d2 and e2. Those suffering from the relevant unnamed phobia (any suggestions for a new coinage readers?) should look away.

The most famous of all of course is this one:

 

But I also found several hundred more, including one real game (a couple of kids played a game in a world under-16 championship where both sides got connected centre pawns on the seventh rank, but they were messing around) in which Black got pawns on e2 and d2 and resigned after White got passers on d6 and e6!

 

Of the divers endgame studies featuring passed pawns here is one of my own.

 

To conclude, a lovely study by the Polish mathematician and study composer Jan Rusinek.

 

Apparently (after consulting a glossary) this is an example of an Allumwandlung — a problem or study in which there is promotion to all possible pieces (in fairy chess there would be more than the standard four).



Endgames for experts

If you want to play successful chess you must pay great attention to the endgame. On this DVD, Rustam Kasimdzhanov analyses the type of practical endgames which tournament players encounter on a daily basis. He explains what has to be known in order to make the correct strategic decisions and to find the correct plan in such endings. Kasimdzhanov’s outstanding and easily understandable explanations will certainly help you to substantially improve your own performance in the endgame.


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Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.

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