Dear parents and coaches,
I got the following question from Amy, a chess mom in Ohio:
“I have heard about doubled pawns. What are they, and why are they bad?”
Nice question. Actually, this is a very complicated matter, since in fact doubled pawns are not always bad. Often they are, but sometimes they can even be good!
First, let’s see what doubled pawns are:
In this position black has a pair of doubled pawns on c6 and c7; and another pair on f7 and f6. White has no doubled pawns. So, as you can see, doubled pawns are when one side’s pawns stand with two on the same file. At the start of the game, both players have one pawn on each file (i.e. neither side has any doubled pawns). Since pawns always move forward, but capture diagonally, the only way to have doubled pawns is by making a capture with a pawn.
Why might doubled pawns be bad? If you look above, you can see that there are a couple of problems. The pawns stand in each other’s way. This means that doubled pawns have less “mobility”. It is harder for them to move. This might or might not be a problem, depending on whether or not you want to actually move those pawns! But in general, it is better to have more mobility.
Another problem is that the pawns cannot protect each other. At the start of the game, when all pawns stand side-by-side, they can all protect each other. But when pawns are doubled, those pawns cannot. This is especially a problem for the black pawns on f6 and f7, which are also isolated. If White can manage to attack them, they will have to be protected by pieces, which is not an ideal situation.
What kind of advantages can doubled pawns give? It doesn’t seem like there could be very many. After all, how could it be an advantage to have pawns standing in front of each other, blocking each other and also unable to protect each other? But there is one very important advantage.
In the above position, how many open files does White have for his rooks? That’s right, only one. But how many does Black have? He has three! So, one advantage that doubled pawns can give is that by having two pawns on one file, you have no pawns on some other file, which means an open line for a rook! In the above position, however, that is not very important, since there is not much that Black can do with his open files. In fact, White has a small but clear advantage, entirely due to the doubled pawns.
On the other hand, here is an example of doubled pawns being a clear advantage:
Here, White has doubled pawns on b2 and b4. But can they really be attacked? I don't think so. On the other hand, because of the doubled pawns, White has a very nice open file for his rook on a1. And here, the doubled pawns have very good mobility, and can even be used to attack Black's pawns. White plans to play b4-b5, trade that pawn off on c6, and then even use the other pawn to attack by b4-b5 again!
Nevertheless, doubled pawns can often be a serious weakness. Check out the following position:
In the finish to this game, you could see how White’s pawn on c4 was really weak, exactly because it was doubled, so no pawn could protect it. As a result, White’s pieces ended up struggling to defend it, and Black took over control of the game and won quickly.
Doubled pawns are a complicated subject. Often they are a real weakness or disadvantage in the position, but sometimes they actually help their owner! Even chess masters can sometimes evaluate them wrong. But I hope that this article has helped to clarify it a little bit. It takes a lot of practice to avoid getting into "double trouble" though!
Thanks for reading, and you can send in questions about your "Chess Kid" to Questions@ChessKid.com