The Winning Academy 24: The most suitable moment for a pawn break

by Jan Markos
10/2/2023 – How do you win a stage of the Tour de France? As well as endurance and cycling skills, a rider needs to be able to think strategically. It is an art to choose the right moment to break away from the peloton. If you break too early, you may lose your energy before the finish. If you wait too long, someone else might take the chance instead of you. Timing is also very important in chess, for example when planning a pawn move. | Photo: Hilmar Buschow, Pixabay

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Most club players think that you should make a pawn break immediately, at the first possible moment. This is simply not true. You should not look for the first moment, but for the most suitable moment. How do you do this? Let me give you a few examples.

The first one is quite simple:

Svidler-Malaniuk, Russian Championship 1998, White to move:

White’s advantage is obvious. Svidler enjoys a notable space advantage, and his pieces are nicely coordinated, while the black knight on a6 is out of play. Also, Malaniuk’s king is severely weakened.

The first rule on pawn breaks is no brainer: When your pieces are much better prepared for opening the position, just go on!

And Svidler did not hesitate. He played 18.f4! gxf4 19.Nxf4, sacrificing the knight. However, accepting the sacrifice would be suicidal. After 19...exf4 20.Bxf4 followed by another pawn break e4-e5 the black monarch would be doomed.

Therefore, Black played 19…Rh8, but he was strategically lost anyway.

Here's the complete game:

Capablanca once said that 90 percent of positions that seem to be blocked can be opened one way or another. Therefore, you should always take care that your pieces are coordinated, even if the pawn chain in the centre seems to be impregnable.


However, sometimes it might be difficult to assess whose army is better prepared for an open fight. Even such a great player as Anish Giri sometimes goes wrong. Let us see:

Giri-Dominguez Perez, FIDE Grand Prix 2015, White to move:

The Dutch super-GM played 14.e6?!, hoping to benefit from the pawn break. But it soon transpired that the black pieces are happier in the newly open space. After 14...fxe6 15.Rxe6 Nf6 the white rook needs to return all the way to e1 and Black has gained the initiative.

Please, glance at the diagrammed position once again. As you can see, the e5-pawn restricts the activity of many black pieces. Therefore, it should be kept where it is. The way to a slight advantage for White therefore lies in stabilizing the centre, e.g. by 14.Nb3! c4 15.Nbd2. Although the black queenside majority might seem threatening, White gets more than enough counterplay on the kingside.

Here's the complete game:

Please, remember rule no. 2: The side with more space usually loses the space advantage after a pawn break.


The following example is a great display of chess patience. Mikhail Botvinnik had a deep understanding of the royal game, and of course he understood that there are many situations when it makes no sense to hurry with a pawn break.

Sokolsky-Botvinnik, Soviet Championship 1938, Black to move:

Many of us would automatically play 10…c5, the seemingly most active move in the position. However, Botvinnik knew better. He understood that …c7-c5 would open the position for both sides, not only for Black. Especially the white b2-bishop would be overwhelmed with joy.

Also, Black understood that White has no good plan at his disposal. That is the result of a very passive opening set-up. On the contrary, Black has things to do. The Patriarch therefore played several patient and calm moves:

10...Nbd7 11.Qc2 a6 12.Rac1 Rc8 13.Rfd1 Qe7 14.Qb1 Rfd8 15.Bf1

Did you notice? The last two white moves (Qc2-b1 and Be2-f1) were already semi-waiting moves. A clear sign that Sokolsky did not quite know what to do. And now, fully developed, Black strikes:

15...c5 After 16.dxc5 bxc5 17.Ne2 a typical position with hanging pawns arose:

I like to show this position to my students. Most of them try to make 17…d4?! work, somehow automatically assuming that this is what a good player should do. However, that would be premature. After 18.exd4 Bxf3 19.gxf3 White is a pawn up. Black’s compensation against the White king is insufficient, as White has got the strong defensive manoeuvre Ne2-g3 at his disposal.

Botvinnik was patient again. Instead of sacrificing material, he decided to make use of his space advantage. He played 17…Bh6!!, threatening …Nf6-g4 and …d5-d4. Sokolsky soon found out that defending his kingside is going to be a very gruesome task.

Here's the complete game:

Here is our rule no. 3: If you can improve your pieces in the present structure, and your opponent can not, it makes a lot of sense to delay the pawn break.


Occasionally, a peculiar situation arises: the most suitable moment for a pawn break does not come at all!

Karjakin-Radjabov, Vugar Gashimov Memorial 2016, White to move:

In this closed position, so typical for the Winawer line of the French defence, White only has one viable plan: trying to push the f- and g-pawns. However, such a plan can easily backfire, as it weakens the king. Black is prepared to react with a timely …f7-f6 or …g7-g6, organising dangerous counterplay.

Similarly, Black’s only viable plan in the diagrammed position is to play ..f7-f6 or …g7-g6, as …b7-b5-b4 would be suicidal with the king on a8. But Radjabov does not want to open the kingside right away, before white weakens his monarch. Why? With his king safe, White is better prepared for an open fight on the kingside. And therefore, Black waits, hoping to provoke White to play with his kingside pawns first…

You have probably already guessed how the game ended. After a several dull manoeuvring moves, the players agreed on a draw.

Here's the complete game:


I hope that after reading this article you will be more careful about timing your pawn breaks. Please, resist the temptation to execute them on the first possible occasion. Instead, use our three rules to find the most suitable moment. Here they are:

  1. With a significantly better prepared army there is no reason to hesitate. Play the pawn break at once!
  2. With a space advantage you might want to wait with the pawn break, as you might lose your space advantage as the position opens.
  3. If you have more things to do in the present structure than your opponent, you might want to wait with the break and improve your position first.


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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.