The Significance of Pawn Exchanges in the Center

I’m working my way through “How to Play Better Chess” (Fred Reinfeld, 1948), an old book that focuses on chess strategy and tactics by analyzing games of chess masters. The book has five sections focusing on opening strategy, middlegame strategy, middlegame tactics, middlegame defensive play, and endgame techniques.


This post will focus on a part of the opening strategy section: “The Significance of Pawn Exchanges in the Center”.


Pawns are often ignored by beginner and improving players, but their early interactions in the opening will shape the middlegame, constrain the strategies the players use, and often determine who is going to win (based on having the stronger position).


This is because of a several reasons:

  • Pawn exchanges can positions determine where there is freedom of movement on a board and how certain pieces can control large parts of the board by having open lines of attack.
  • Pawn exchanges, either from matter of course, or because a player is using pawn breaks to break out of a cramped position, leads to weaknesses in pawn structure that an opponent can target with multiple pieces.
  • Positions on the board become stronger for one side, because they can use those positions as an advanced outpost, which is protected from afar.


A great piece of advice from this book: “One of the best possible ways to improve your play is to set up positions at about the tenth move and see what you can forecast about the future course of the game.”


Below are 4 openings that have resulted in pawn exchanges (the first game also continues after the analysis of the opening). In each, take a moment to look at what possibilities exist for White and Black.


Pawn Exchanges Resulting in an Open File

While beginners might see the game below as an even game, you can tell after move 11 that White will win this game because of the following reasons:

  • Black’s bishops are passive. The black bishop is stuck behind a wall and can’t easily get to the queen side where the battle will happen. The white bishop is stuck protecting the middle pawn.
  • White’s bishops are active. The black bishop is aimed at the queen side where the battle will happen. The white bishop is aimed at a vulnerable pawn and generally towards the queen side.
  • Black is behind on development. White’s bishops are better developed. Black’s knight is still on the back row. White can occupy the open file first.
  • Black’s pawns are weak. The advanced queen pawn is vulnerable and able to be attacked. The knight pawn is far advanced and vulnerable. The spot between these two advanced pawns is a hole for White, because pawns can’t dislodge a piece there.


Pawn Exchanges Resulting in Weaknesses

Because Black was cramped, he attacked out of the position and has created a weakness – a backwards pawn on e6.


Pawn Exchanges has left Black with a weakness of an isolated Queen’s pawn, which White can attack.

Pawn Exchanges Resulting in Half-open Files

Pawn Exchanges resulting in outpost possibilities for Black and White. White will try to get to the outpost on c5 and Black will try to get to the outpost on e4. White will attack on the Queen side and Black on the King side.