"Pawns are the soul of chess." In general, I loathe chess clichés, but some statements are so true, so deep, that they defy the notion of banality. Think about it. An inveterate patron of the Café de la Régence, an eighteenth-century gentilhomme who learned the game at a time when one's respectability in the chess community hinged on his tactical prowess alone, Andre Philidor had the wherewithal to proclaim that pawns - not queens, not kings, not stunning combinations, but pawns - are the soul of chess.
François-André Danican Philidor | Image Wikipedia
More than 250 years later, his audacious proclamation still rings true. Pawn structure (along with king safety, piece placement, and material count) is one of the critical benchmarks by which a position is evaluated. As such, modern chess players (especially at the amateur and club level) are extremely wary of damaging their pawn structure in any way. The reason is simple: one such imperfection - a pair of doubled pawns, for instance - can transform a position from tenable to strategically hopeless.
To be sure, this fear is well-founded. Since you can hardly un-double or un-isolate your pawns without either immense effort or cooperation from your opponent, you must consider any potential alterations in pawn structure meticulously. However, in my opinion, one of the key abilities in a grandmaster's arsenal is his capacity to understand when he can and should damage his own pawn structure.
In my previous article, I discussed the notion that chess is a game of trade-offs: to exploit the defects in your opponent's position, you must often voluntarily damage a certain aspect of your own position. In this article, we will push this idea one step farther by examining cases in which the only way to make inroads into the opponent's position consists of irreparably spoiling one's own pawn structure.
I have seen many players complain that they were afraid to double their pawns or live with an isolani (I was intrigued to find that this word actually means "islanders" in Italian, but we will stick to the chess definition for now) because their compensation was not concrete enough. To this point, my experience has convinced me that piece placement frequently trumps pawn structure; it is often perfectly acceptable to weaken a pawn in order to penetrate weaknesses in your opponent's position or to force his pieces onto more passive squares.
My point, then, is that you must situate your pawn structure within the framework of your position; it is a defining characteristic but not the defining characteristic.
To conclude, let us quickly reiterate some of the circumstances in which it might be permissible to damage your pawn structure:
If you see a way to take advantage of a transient defect in your opponent's position.
If you can improve your piece placement or worsen your opponent's.
If you see an opportunity to change the (undesirable) course of the game.
If there is a concrete tactical justification. If you must damage your pawn structure in order to further your attacking chances (or make a combination possible), do not let positional "rules" stand in the way of an objective decision.