“Pawns are the soul of the game”

The great French chess master François-André Danican Philidor once proclaimed, “pawns are the soul of the game”.

At first, that might strike you as being odd. Anybody who is even a little familiar with chess knows how the pieces – the sprightly knights, the incisive bishops, the formidable rooks, the majestic queen and even the king are all more powerful than the lowly pawn. The very name “pawn” hints at something that maybe staked for the greater good.

Pawns are not the soul of beginner’s chess though. In those games, the powerful pieces usually take center stage, for neither player is able to plan a few moves in advance. They often make the move that would yield the best position immediately, and pieces are able to do this more easily than slow and slumbering pawns.

But that doesn’t work with a player who has some foresight. The moment you play with an expert, she has already foreseen how you could make those elaborate moves with the pieces, and has either defended against them or laid a trap for them. When two experts are at play, both of them can see these obvious lines play out in their mind. Therefore, they are likely to avoid them. Instead, they make pawn moves that are small, subtle and stealthy. While a single pawn move in isolation may not seem significant, how the pawns sit together on the board has a large influence on the position. It is this tension between the subtlety of single pawn moves and the synergy that they achieve together that makes experts mindful about how the soul of your game play lies in how you handle your pawns.

This is true not just of chess, but of any endeavour. In football, the best player among beginners is one who can dribble his way past novice defenders. But masters of the game are well versed in the subtle movements and stealthy passes of positional play. With programming, while a beginner and an expert might have code that looks similar at a glance, the way the expert handles unforeseen exceptions sets her code apart. The difference between an ordinary writer and a great writer isn’t their choice of words, but the more subtle elements of their writing such as word order, cadence and the structure of their sentences.

Identifying the pawns of your art, for they are its soul.

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