Pawn Structure 101: Panov Formation

Welcome to yet another pawn structure article! In this ride through one of the most essential parts of chess strategy, we have reached yet another stop, this time the Panov Formation pawn structure.

Not being as commonly played as many of the structures we have covered before, it is not less important. Keep in mind that in each of the seventeen pawn structures that exist in chess, you will find valuable lessons that will allow you to know how to play any given position in the world, and significantly increase your strategic knowledge.

If you are familiar with chess openings, the name Panov might strike you as familiar. It actually refers to the Soviet chess player Vasily Panov, who greatly contributed to chess opening theory by developing the well-known Panov variation of the Caro-Kann defense.

As you might be able to guess, this opening variation and the structure we are about to dive into are related.

However, as usually happens, this structure is not exclusive of this chess opening, and can be found in different types of positions – including with colors reversed, as you will soon learn.

If you are ready to take another step further towards mastering chess strategy, it’s time to get started!

 

What does the Panov Formation pawn structure look like?

Diagram 1a: The Panov Formation pawn structure.

This is our starting position. You are recommended to watch it closely for a while, so that you can identify it on any chess board in the world, and instantly know how to approach it.

By taking a close look at it, you will be able to identify that it is not a symmetrical pawn structure: White doesn’t have his e-pawn anymore, whereas Black is lacking his c-pawn.

This imbalance is due to an early exchange that took place on the board, precisely Black’s c-pawn being exchanged for White’s e-pawn.

Another close look will make you conclude that White has a space advantage in this pawn structure.

This space advantage comes from the fact that the c-pawn stands on c5, further than any of his mates and than any pawn in Black’s army.

Together with a natural lead in development, due to White having the first move, one might be inclined to think that this structure is simply better for White, but you already know that things are not always so easy.

As you will see throughout the next few sections, the fact that White’s pawn is quite advanced at an early stage of the game also gives Black something to play against, and can become a potential weakness if exploited correctly.

One interesting detail about this structure is that, similarly to the Isolani structure and the Hanging Pawns structure that we have covered before, it can occur with reversed colors, as shown in diagram 1b.

Diagram 1b: The Panov Formation pawn structure – colors reversed.

In this position, Black would be the one who has a space advantage, and White would be the one looking to exploit the further advanced pawn, in order to turn it into a severe weakness.

However, it should be noted that, even though the position in diagram 1b does come up on the board every now and then, this structure is much more likely to be found with the White pieces.

Therefore, throughout this article we will refer to the position in diagram 1a as our foundation, White being the one with the further advanced pawn on c5.

At the most basic of levels, it can be said that the Panov formation pawn structure is a semi-open game, as the centre is not entirely blocked. Black can breakthrough and open the centre with two major breakthroughs, as diagram 1c comes to show.

Diagram 1c: Black’s breakthroughs.

Exactly: Black can play either b7-b6 or e6-e5 (who knows, even both!) in order to challenge White’s d4-c5 pawn formation, and that’s what characterizes this position as semi-open instead of closed, where the centre would be blocked with no opportunities for breakthroughs.

By reading this section, you already have some basic knowledge about the Panov Formation pawn structure, but it is time to take it to another level.

 

What are the characteristics of this pawn structure?

In this section, we dare to take one step further into the Panov formation pawn structure, by covering its most important characteristics and features.

By now, you already know a few things that are not to be neglected: that the Panov formation has a critical imbalance, between White’s c-pawn and Black’s e-pawn; that White (if the position is not with colors reversed) has a space advantage due to the pawn on c5, and that the position is semi-open, as breakthroughs can still occur to break White’s pawns apart.

A semi-open position with a potential for breakthroughs might remind you of something from our previous articles: it is, indeed, another pawn chain.

If you have read our articles on the e5 chain and d5 chain structures, you certainly are familiar with this concept.

If not, you are about to learn: a pawn chain is a set of pawns on adjacent files that protect one another.

In this situation, clearly, White’s pawn chain is the d4-c5 chain, as diagram 1d shows.

Diagram 1d: White’s pawn chain.

However, one thing is for sure: White’s pawn chain is not very long, which also means it is not very solid.

The more pawns there are in a chain, the strongest it is; simply because the pawns do a great job of protecting one another, and can’t be broken apart as easily as short chains.

In this situation, the chain would have a potential to become more solid if White had, let’s say, a pawn on e2, that could be pushed to e3 and offer some safety to the d4 pawn.

However, this pawn is not on the board anymore. That means that the d4-c5 pawn chain, as much as it brings White a space advantage and a stronger control of central squares, is also a potential weakness in itself.

A concept that you are also familiar with if you have read our previous articles concerning pawn chains, is that of the base of the pawn chain.

A given chain always has a base – and it always is the pawn that is further backwards in the position.

Well, if you think about it carefully, the pawn that is further backwards in a pawn chain is always undefended by a pawn. In addition to this, it is the one pawn that has the tough task of supporting all of the other members of the chain.

Due to these two reasons, a crucial concept of chess strategy that you should keep in mind at all times, is that when there is a pawn chain on the board, you must aim to attack the base of the chain.

It is not terribly difficult to conclude which pawn stands as a base on the Panov formation’s pawn chain.

Diagram 1e: Base of White’s pawn chain.

It surely is the d4 pawn that acts as a base, even if only for the c5 pawn.

Therefore, you can deduce Black’s main idea in this position rather naturally: he will try to put pressure on d4, with the aim of breaking the pawn chain apart and generating a weakness.

If you scroll back to diagram 1c, you will find that we had already given you a hint with one of those arrows: the e6-e5 push is the move that aims to attack the pawn chain in the most direct and straightforward way possible.

If this move is played under the right circumstances, and if Black has managed to maneuver his pieces correctly – as we will learn on the next section – it can be very powerful.

However, another good look at diagram 1c will tell you that this is not the only breakthrough that Black often plays in this position.

The b7-b6 push is also an excellent resource that Black has up his sleeve.

Although it might seem senseless to attack the head of the pawn chain (c5) instead of destabilizing the base (d4), there is a logical reasoning behind this idea.

The idea behind attacking the head of the pawn chain is to diminish White’s space advantage, by trading off the most dangerous and further advanced element in his position.

This is a good moment to roughly introduce what White’s idea will be in this position. He will want to expand on the Queenside, by pushing b2-b4-b5 and trying to create a passed pawn.

If this plan is carried out under good conditions, White will, most likely, find himself with a big advantage.

Diagram 1f: White’s ideas in the Panov Formation pawn structure.

On the other hand, if White’s c-pawn is exchanged by Black, this threat will lose its danger, and White will be left without his main plan – which is surely something that Black aims to do.

This is one of the most important strategic battles that will happen on the board. Black will be trying to destabilize White’s pawn chain at all times, while White will have his eyes on expanding towards the creation of a dangerous passed pawn on the Queenside, enjoying his space advantage.

Now that you are aware of the features that shape the Panov formation pawn structure, let’s go ahead and put them to the practical test.

 

How do you play in this pawn structure?

As usual, this is the section of the article that will truly teach you how to master the pawn structure we are discussing.

If you want to outplay your opponent whenever a Panov formation pawn structure comes up on the board, you will need to be focused and do your best to carry out the plans you are about to learn.

It is time to give the article your full attention, since you are about to find out which concrete ways of playing can lead both sides to triumph in this structure.

The best way to learn all the intricacies of a given structure is to watch how the experts play it. Once again, you are going to be presented with a selection of games by many strong chess players, and those games will teach you how to develop your own plan and fight against your opponent’s plan, in return.

Let’s start by taking a look at White’s plans in this structure.

 

White’s plans

To be fair, it can be said that White has only one main goal to strive for in this position: to create a passed pawn on the Queenside.

Therefore, his plans will naturally develop keeping this idea in sight.

In order to illustrate how this can be efficiently done, let’s analyze a game played in the 2008 European Club Cup between Alexey Dreev and Ivan Galic.

Diagram 1g: Dreev – Galic, 2008; Position after 13.c5.

In this position, White has just pushed c4-c5, aiming to reach the Panov formation pawn structure.

It was a wise decision to do so, since this position is a great version of this structure. You can look at the diagram to see it for yourself, but here are a few reasons why this position offers White an advantage:

  • White has a Bishop on b2 and Knight on f3 that offer a big control over the e5 square, making the e6-e5 push harder to happen for Black;
  • White is ready to protect the c5 pawn by pushing b2-b4, expanding on the Queenside and making the b7-b6 push less effective, as the c5 pawn will not be exchanged as easily;
  • In addition to this, if Black really played b7-b6, the Queen on c2 effectively supports the c5-c6 push, placing the passed pawn further down the file and creating serious threats;
  • White has a good control of the e4 square, with the d3 Bishop and d2 Knight, which means that Black will not easily place a Knight there, which would then free the f6 square for the Bishop to put pressure on the d4 pawn, the base of the chain;

All of this being true, White still has to be accurate in order to turn an advantageous position into the full point, and that’s what we see in the next moves of the game.

  1. c5 Bh5
  2. b4 Bg6
  3. Bxg6 hxg6
  4. Rfe1 Nh5
  5. Nf1 g5
Diagram 1h: Dreev – Galic, 2008; Position after 17…g5.

The last move that Black played clearly shows how desperate he is starting to become in this position. He knows he is lacking a clear plan, while White is preparing to launch the Queenside pawns forward to create a passed one.

g5 clearly weakens Black’s Kingside, instead of creating the counterplay that Galic was hoping for with this push.

The game went on:

  1. Ne3 Rfe8
  2. Qb3 g6
  3. b5 Kg7
  4. Rac1
Diagram 1i: Dreev – Galic, 2008; Position after 21.Rac1.

At this point, White has the full control of the position, being able to prepare the position in order to create the passed pawn with c5-c6 under the best conditions.

In fact, Alexey Dreev ended up not even creating this passed pawn – but only because Black weakened himself so severely on the Kingside, that checkmate arrived first!

In any way, this game is a great example of how White can dominate the position and leave Black without useful moves.

However, this can only happen if the pieces are well-placed, leading to a favourable version of the structure, and if the chess player who has the White pieces knows what to do in order to carry out his plan.

Let’s take a look at another game, this time to see how the passed pawn can really march forward.

This game was played in 2010, in the European Championship, between Evgeny Postny and Mustafa Yilmaz.


Diagram 1j: Postny – Yilmaz, 2010; Position after 12…Ne4.

At first sight, this position might look like an improvement for Black compared to the last game we’ve seen.

Black has already managed to get in the b7-b6 push, and the Knight stands in the central e4 square, freeing f6 for the Bishop.

However, a closer look will make you notice that the position is actually not good at all for Black. The Knight on e4 is not there for a long time, as three pieces are threatening to take it.

The b7-b6 push is not worth much for Black in this position, because White is already very well organised, and the pawns are prepared to advance, namely to b5 and c6.

In fact, White ignores the e4 Knight and goes directly for what he wants:

  1. b5 Nxd4
  2. Nxd4 Nxc3
  3. Bxh7+ Kh8
  4. Qxc3 Kxh7
  5. c6
Diagram 1k: Postny – Yilmaz, 2010; Position after 17.c6.

White’s domination is simply outstanding in this position, and he has an enormous advantage already.

The supported passed pawn on c6 manages to tie all of Black’s pieces down, especially the b7 Bishop – which ended up having to be sacrificed, though to no avail, as White’s position was tremendous until the very end of the game.

In addition to this, Black’s King is terribly exposed, and White has a free hand to attack it with Queen, Knight, Bishop and Rook.

All in all, a position with these two passed pawns fully controlling all around them, and such an exposed King, bears no hope of survival for Black. A few maneuvering moves later, White came to a well-deserved triumph.

These two games demonstrate how White can create an unbearable position for his opponent; for that, he must be active and precise, launching his pawns forward and preventing Black’s counterplay.

If you feel slightly worried about the protected passed pawn coming up the c-file and threatening to turn into a Queen, let’s allow Black to put in a word for himself and turn his own ideas into plans.

 

Black’s plans

If you have carefully read the article up to this point, you already know that Black’s idea is to break apart White’s pawn chain, by attacking either its base or its head – or both at the same time.

In order to do so, Black must be dynamic and accurate at all times. It is important to be aware of how the position can become dangerous (as we have seen in the section about White’s plans) and actively create counterplay in order to avoid a bad position, in which White might make use of the space advantage and create a passed pawn.

Let’s start by analyzing how Black can get in the b7-b6 push effectively, challenging White’s c5 pawn and, consequently, the whole pawn chain.

In the game played between Klundt and Dautov in the Bad Wiessee tournament of 2001, the position on diagram 1l was reached.

Diagram 1l: Klundt – Dautov, 2001; Position after 12.Bd3.

Black has tried to be active from early on, placing the Queen on a5 and Knight on e4, with eyes on the pinned c3 Knight.

White has just moved the Bishop to d3, in order to challenge the strong central Knight – and at first sight, it might look like a good thing for White if Black exchanges Knights, because the pawn moving from b2 to c3 offers more stability to the structure, namely to the d4 pawn.

However, some weaknesses are also created in White’s Queenside, and the b7-b6 push gains even more strength in this situation.

The game went on naturally:

  1. Bd3 Nxc3
  2. bxc3 h6
  3. 0-0 b6
Diagram 1m: Klundt – Dautov, 2001: Position after 14…b6.

This is the key move in this position. Black gets rid of a potential weakness, the b7 pawn, that could be attacked along White’s open b-file, and threatens to expose White’s weaknesses even more.

If White takes on b6, he will be left with a backward pawn on c3 – the pawn that supposedly added more stability to the chain becomes a weakness. If he doesn’t take, Black will take on c5 himself, and the outcome will be disastrous.

A few moves later:

  1. Rfb1 Ba6
  2. Bxa6 Qxa6
  3. cxb6 axb6
  4. Qb3 Rfc8
Diagram 1n: Klundt – Dautov, 2001: Position after 18…Rfc8.

The position on the above diagram is the perfect example of how Black can turn White’s majority on the Queenside into a group of weaknesses, with a timely b7-b6 push.

A close look at the position in diagram 1n will tell you that both the a2 and c3 pawns are weaknesses, and Black’s major pieces on the a and c files are perfectly placed to put as much pressure as possible.

When playing this idea of attacking the head of the chain, this type of position is exactly what Black strives for – he has a great advantage in this position, and went on to win the game.

Moving on to the e6-e5 push, aimed at attacking the base of the pawn chain, we are going to analyze the game Blatny – Adams, played in 1990. After thirteen moves, the position on diagram 1o was reached:

Diagram 1o: Blatny – Adams, 1990: Position after 13…e5.

After having already challenged the head of the chain with b7-b6, and the b4 pawn with a7-a5, the English Grandmaster Michael Adams decided it was not enough, and decided to launch forward with e6-e5 as well.

At first sight, it might seem dangerous. White has a Rook on the g-file looking at the King, and the Bishop pair looking forward to sacrificing or threatening dangerous ideas.

However, another basic principle of chess strategy is that when you are being attacked in one of the wings (Queenside or Kingside), breaking the centre open is always a good idea.

That is mainly due to the activity you gain with such a move, and the fact that your opponent’s pieces can quickly become disconnected.

Therefore, this e6-e5 idea is strong by two reasons for Black in this position: it challenges White’s structure, and threatens to gain an enormous amount of activity in the centre.

The game went on:

  1. Bxh6 e4
  2. Ng5 exd3
  3. Qxd3 Re8+
  4. Kd2 Nf8
Diagram 1p: Blatny – Adams, 1990: Position after 17…Nf8.

Black plays one last defensive move: the Knight on f8 covers any threat on the h7 square, and White can’t do anything else.

Therefore, being a piece up, this position is just a tremendous advantage for Black – and the lesson to be extracted from this game is that even when your opponent is threatening a strong attack, being active is something you must take into consideration.

In this game, Black fearlessly carried out his plan, and it paid off, as with some precise moves, he reached an advantage and went on to win the game with relative ease, in about 15 moves’ time.

The e6-e5 push can come in all sort of shapes, and one of them is as a sacrifice. The idea behind sacrificing a central pawn in this structure is to gain quick activity for the pieces, and some dynamic possibilities.

In the game Seirawan – Sunye Neto, from the 1986 Dubai Olympiad, Black found an extremely creative way of sacrificing this pawn.

Diagram 1q: Seirawan – Sunye Neto, 1986: Position after 13…e5.

This is one of those moves that any chess player with a good intuition will see in a matter of milliseconds. All of Black’s pieces are where they should be: the Queen on f6, etc.

However, only after precise calculation and having a great feel for dynamic positions will you be able to grab an advantage, and that’s what Black did:

  1. dxe5 d4
  2. 0-0-0 Rxe5
Diagram 1r: Seirawan – Sunye Neto, 1986: Position after 15…Rxe5.

Obviously, White can’t take the Rook as his Queen is under attack. It is impressive to see how all of Black’s pieces become so beautifully coordinated and active with the e6-e5 sacrifice.

  1. Qc2 Bf5
  2. Bd3 Bxd3
  3. Rxd3 Rd5
Diagram 1s: Seirawan – Sunye Neto, 1986: Position after 18…Rd5.

Black has the better chances in this position – the only piece that is not active yet, the a8 Rook, is coming into play via either d8 or e8, and the pawn on d4 is now passed.

White was in trouble, but actually managed to squeeze a draw later on due to precise defense and a few inaccuracies by Black.

 

And those are the plans!

Now that you know exactly what to do with both the White and Black pieces, it is time to write down a few notes about all we have just learned, so that you can easily remember how to play in the Panov formation pawn structure.

 

White’s plans

  • Essentially, White has one main plan: to create a passed pawn on the Queenside, by pushing b2-b4-b5 and c5-c6.

 

Black’s plans

  • Attack the head of White’s pawn chain (the c5 pawn) by pushing b7-b6 and with the idea of taking this pawn, in order to eliminate White’s stronger threat.
  • Attack the base of White’s pawn chain (the d4 pawn) by placing a Knight on c6 and Bishop on f6, often combined with placing a Knight on the e4 square.
  • Aim for the active e6-e5 push, also with the idea of challenging the d4 pawn. This can happen as a sacrifice that offers Black many interesting dynamic possibilities.

 

There is only one thing left for you to know before you can consider yourself a master of the Panov formation pawn structure, and the next section will tell you exactly what it is.

 

How do you reach this pawn structure?

The final thing you need to know before applying all the knowledge you’ve just acquired in your games, is how you will actually find a position that features the Panov formation pawn structure on the board.

Of course, there are many ways to reach this structure, but let’s start by covering the most common of them all, as its name gives away: the Panov variation of the Caro-Kann Defense, also known as the Panov-Botvinnik Attack.

The Panov variation is reached by these moves:

  1. e4 c6
  2. d4 d5
  3. exd5 cxd5
  4. c4
Diagram 1t: The Panov Variation of the Caro-Kann Defense.

We find our well-known structure on the board once White pushes c4-c5, which does not always happen, as sometimes White goes for cxd5 and an Isolated Queen’s Pawn position (more on this structure on our article).

However, there are many lines in which White goes for c4-c5, otherwise this structure would not be named after this variation. One of them goes as follows:

  1. e4 c6
  2. d4 d5
  3. exd5 cxd5
  4. c4 Nf6
  5. Nc3 e6
  6. Nf3 Be7
  7. c5
Diagram 1u: The Panov Variation of the Caro-Kann Defense: Position after 7.c5.

However, this structure is a versatile one, and you can come to find it on a Queen’s Indian Defense / Nimzo-Indian Defense. Since these two openings are played against 1.d4, it comes to show that this structure is important, as it can happen in many different types of games, for instance, both closed and open ones.

  1. d4 Nf6
  2. c4 e6
  3. Nc3 Bb4
  4. Qc2 0-0
  5. Bg5 c5
  6. e3 cxd4
  7. exd4 d5
  8. Nf3 Nc6
  9. a3 Bxc3+
  10. Qxc3 Re8
  11. c5
Diagram 1v: The Nimzo-Indian Defense; Position after 11.c5.

A rather rare, but possible way of finding this structure is with the Scandinavian Opening, after the following moves:

  1. e4 d5
  2. exd5 Nf6
  3. c4 c6
  4. d4 cxd5
  5. Nc3 e6
  6. c5
Diagram 1w: The Scandinavian Opening: Position after 6.c5.

And those are some ways of reaching this pawn structure. As you can see, there many different openings via which you can find it on the board, so be aware of this possibility of showing off all of what you’ve just learned!

Let’s now take a moment to briefly conclude this article, so that you know what to keep in mind.

 

Conclusions

Reaching the end of a pawn structure article must always be a delightful feeling – you are one step closer to mastering all kinds of positions there are in chess, by studying each of the seventeen pawn structures there are.

The Panov formation pawn structure might not be as universal as many of the structures we have looked at on our previous articles.

However, it not only offers chances for interesting play for both sides, but also can happen rather frequently, out of many distinct openings, as you have seen in the previous section.

It is time to draw a few conclusions about this structure:

  • The Panov formation is characterized for an imbalance: White’s e-pawn has been exchanged for Black’s c-pawn.
  • White has a space advantage in this structure, due to the further advanced c5 pawn.
  • White has a pawn chain in the dark squares: c5 and d4. However, this pawn chain is rather short and, therefore, not very solid.
  • Black can try to break the pawn chain apart with the moves b7-b6, attacking the head of the structure, or e6-e5, attacking the base of the structure.
  • White will try to push his Queenside pawns further, expanding his space advantage and trying to create a dangerous passed pawn.
  • Black will try to weaken White’s structure, sometimes sacrificing a pawn to open up the centre.
  • This position can happen out of many openings, though mainly through the Panov Variation of the Caro-Kann defense.

Congratulations on reaching the end of this article!

You are now ready to take all of what you have learned and apply it in your games – we wish you the best of luck, and don’t forget to check out other articles on pawn structures, so that you can become a master of chess strategy in no time.

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