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Chess 101: What Is a Poisoned Pawn? Learn What Makes the Poisoned Pawn So Tricky in Chess and a Step-by-Step Guide to Using Poisoned Pawn in the Najdorf Variation

Written by MasterClass

Jun 21, 2019 • 4 min read

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A favorite tactic of many grandmasters, the poisoned pawn is one of the trickiest moves in chess, with potential peril on both sides of the bargain. While not recommended for beginners, it can be a fascinating and entertaining situation to watch players grapple with, as many of the best chess players in the world have done.

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What Is a Poisoned Pawn in Chess?

A “poisoned” pawn or piece is one that looks like it can be won freely, but in fact cannot be captured without suffering consequences. There is even a famous line in Garry Kasparov’s beloved Najdorf Sicilian Defense called the “Poisoned Pawn Variation,” popularized by American World Champion Bobby Fischer.

You can consider a poisoned pawn a particularly devious kind of gambit. Remember, a gambit can be considered any move that offers a piece in exchange for some positional (or future material) advantage. What sets poisoned pawn variations apart is their complexity for both sides.

The major variations of poisoned pawns—particularly the poisoned pawn line of the Najdorf Variation of the popular Sicilian Defense—are some of the most heavily studied lines in the game of chess, which makes them especially hazardous for beginners.

What Is the History of the Poisoned Pawn?

The idea of the poisoned pawn is relatively recent in chess terms. It dates back to the 1950s, when the Soviet style of chess was in its heyday. Its development is often credited to the Soviet grandmaster David Bronstein, who used it with great success and inspired a number of future grandmasters and World Champions to take it up, including Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, Viswanathan Anand, and Garry Kasparov.

The poisoned pawn figured prominently in a couple of games played by Spassky and Fischer during the 1972 World Championship match. Though the tactic is frequently associated with Fischer, in these cases it was his opponent, Spassky, who offered the pawn, which Fischer accepted both times, leading to a draw and a loss, illustrating the danger of this tactic for even those who know it best.

What Makes the Poisoned Pawn So Tricky?

Why, exactly, is “drinking the poison” so dangerous? At a basic level, taking the b2 violates several time-honored pieces of advice for beginning chess players. First, don’t bring your queen out too soon. Second, don’t move the same piece multiple times in a row. Accepting the poisoned pawn violates both of these general maxims, leaving black’s pieces dangerously underdeveloped while white gets to enjoy a wide-open position.

The Poisoned Pawn in the Najdorf Variation (Step-by-Step)

Despite its relatively recent development, variations involving poisoned pawns have become very popular at high levels of chess play. That popularity, paired with the rise of chess computers, has made the major poisoned pawn variations some of the most intensely studied lines in the game, with the theory often extending for dozens of moves.

For that reason, the poisoned pawn isn’t recommended for beginners or casual players, especially against more experienced opponents. That said, it might be useful to look at the most popular poisoned pawn, if only so that you can recognize it when playing against the Sicilian Defense.

If you’re familiar with the Sicilian Defense, you know that the typical opening goes something like this:

1. e4 c5
2. Nf3 d6
3. d4 cxd4
4. Nxd4 Nf6
5. Nc3

In the Najdorf Variation, black continues with 5. … a6, which neatly defuses white’s knights and light-squared bishop, which could otherwise check from b5.

6. Bg5 e6
7. f4 Qb6

At this point black’s queen is prepared to capture the “poisoned” b2 pawn, which at first glance appears to be defenseless. White now has the opportunity to offer the pawn, or protect it. Offering the pawn is usually signified by 8. Qd2. To accept the poisoned pawn, black plays 8. … Qxb2, with white typically responding 9. Rb1.

At this point the black queen has a problem: it’s threatened by the rook on b1, but it can’t capture the rook without being taken by the white knight on c3. From here black’s best move is to retreat her queen, typically to a3, which allows white to begin advancing pawns to e5 or f5.

3 Games That Best Utilize the Poisoned Pawn Variation in Action

The poisoned pawn variation may be extremely difficult to play well in practice, but it can be extremely entertaining and instructive to watch grandmasters wrestle with it. Here are a few famous games to check out where the poisoned pawn was used to great effect, records of which are available online.

  1. Boris Spassky vs. Bobby Fischer, 1972. Though the move is known as a favorite tactic of Fischers, in two games of this match Spassky turned the tables as white by offering the pawn twice, leading to a loss and a draw for black.
  2. Nigel Short vs. Garry Kasparov, 1993. Short plays to win in a bold, aggressive game but is coolly dismembered by Kasparov, who accepts the poisoned pawn.
  3. Georgi Tringov vs. Bobby Fischer, 1965. The game that launched the poisoned pawn to its modern popularity. Fischer takes the poison, but his intensely sharp play turns what looks like a terrible position around so that he wins just over ten turns later.

Learn more chess tactics and techniques in Garry Kasparov’s MasterClass.