The Winning Academy 22: The Restless Knight

by Jan Markos
8/15/2023 – Structures with "Hanging Pawns" can occur in many openings and it helps to know how to play these structures. In the following article Jan Markos gives some general guidelines, but focuses on one piece in particular: the "Restless Knight".

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I am sure that you know what the "hanging pawns structure" is. Two pawns, isolated from the rest of their colleagues, are bravely standing in the centre (usually occupying the c- and d-file). And the opponent usually wants to weaken them, separate them and – eventually – consume them.

However, to successfully play with or against the hanging pawns, we need some additional knowledge. We need to know where to put the pieces, which pieces to exchange and which to keep, and many more strategical rules.

In this article, I would like to show you one interesting rule concerning the hanging pawns, namely the rule of the restless knight. To illustrate it with a simple example, let us have a look at the diagrammed position:

Gulko-Shabalov, US Championship, 1994, White to move:

Please, focus your attention on the f3-knight. Although it is seemingly well developed, in fact it is quite useless. Why? Firstly, it is too far away from the black hanging pawns. White would love to attack the pawns with all his minor pieces, but for the white king's knight they are simply out of reach. Secondly, the knight also stands in the way of the g2-bishop.

Therefore, the rule follows: In the hanging pawns structure, the f3-knight is usually very restless and tries to get to a better square as soon as possible.

In fact, Gulko jumped with the knight right away, playing 12.Nh4! The knight aims for f5 without any loss of time, as the black d5-pawn is now attacked. Shabalov tried to get away with tactical means, but his idea backfired:

12...Nh5? 13.Nf5 (Even better was 13.Nxd5 Bxh4 14.Bc7!, but Gulko's move is more thematic, stressing the importance of the h4-knight.)13…Nxf4 14.gxf4 Nb6 15.Nxd5! Bxd5 16.Qxd5 and Black can't retake the queen because of the fork on e7. The f3-knight has indeed made a career!

Here's the complete game:


In some positions the f3-knight becomes restless even before the hanging pawns structure even exists. That was the case in Vaganian-Timman, Amsterdam 1986, White to move:

Of course, White can play b2-b3 and Bc1-b2, finishing the development. However, that would be a very modest approach to the position.  Why? The hanging pawn structure costs some time to form itself (you need moves like …b7-b6, …e7-e6 and two pawn captures on c5 and d5), and therefore the side with hanging pawns is often behind in developed. This means that often it is good to try to attack the hanging pawns immediately, before the opponent fully finishes his development. And to do that, we need to move the awkward f3-knight!

That is why Vaganian played 10.Ne5!. After 10…c5 11.dxc5 bxc5 the hanging pawns appeared on the board. And White was fully prepared to make use of the strength of the g2-bishop, playing the lovely 12.Ndc4!. Black covered the b7-bishop with 12…Qc8, but after 13.Na5 White had the upper hand.

His knights circumnavigated the hanging pawns and (similarly to Hannibal crossing the Alps) they directly attacked the vulnerable rear of Black's position. Vaganian won quickly.

Here's the complete game:


Sometimes the inner discomfort of the f3-knight is so intensive that it is willing to take basically any route that gets him away from the cursed square. That was the case in Lputian-Dorfman, Tashkent 1984, White to move:

It seems that the weakest pawns on the board are White's doubled b-pawns. However, they are very safe, as Black has can't attack them along the b-file. The h4-bishop is prepared to keep an eye on the dark b8-square.

On the contrary, the black d5-pawn is rather vulnerable. But how to increase the pressure against this pawn? Lputian played 17.Ne1 with ideas Ne1-d3-f4 and Be2-f3. In just a couple of moves, two additional pieces are threatening to attack the d5-pawn, and therefore Black must be very careful not to end in a much worse position.

Here's the complete game:


Seeing all these troubles of the f3-knight, a very logical question might jump into your head: "Why are white players developing it to f3 in the first place? Don't they know that it will be poorly placed there?" Well, the answer lies in timing: usually White develops this knight very early to prepare castling, earlier than Black shows his intentions to form the hanging pawns structure.

However, in some cases the g1-knight waits on its initial square a little bit longer, until the structure clarifies, and then takes another route. Let us have a look at Yakovenko-Jobava, Poikovsky GM 2010, White to move:

In the diagrammed position, Black has little choice as of which pawn structure to choose. Either his c7-pawn will remain backward, or Jobava pushes …c7-c5, forming the hanging pawns.

Yakovenko is far too strong and smart to be fully aware of that. Therefore, he tries to put his pieces is such a way that they would be most suitable to fight the hanging pawns. And, of course, that means refraining from Ng1-f3.

Yakovenko played 11.Be2!?, and after 11…Rd8 12.Bf3. This manoeuvre might feel a bit artificial on the first glance, but we know already how effective the light-squared bishop on the long diagonal in the hanging pawns structure is.

Jobava played 12…c5 and White developed the knight to a more suitable square: 13.Ne2. Please, be sure that Black will have a lot to do to safely cover the weak d5-pawn.

Here's the complete game:


In the hanging pawns structure, the f3-knight needs to be relocated to some more suitable square. However, many club players simply don’t know that, and the result is that they are unable to attack the hanging pawns with sufficient vigour and intensity.

In chess, understanding often makes the difference. It is usually much easier (and safer) to win because of superior understanding than in a sharp tactical battle. Often your opponent don’t even know where he or she have made a mistake. They say: "I did all the logical moves, and now I am lost. How come?"

Well, the answer is simple: you need to deeply understand the structures you are playing. Therefore, it is usually much better to study the games of strong players in a specific structure, than learning tons of theory by hearth.

Chess is a game of understanding. And that is exactly the reason why I like it so much.


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Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.
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