Chess Pawns

“Chess is a war over the board. The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.” – Bobby Fischer

Historically, the pawn represents soldiers or infantry, or more particularly, armed peasants or pikemen (individuals carrying very long spears). In chess, they are the most numerous and weakest pieces on the board.

Chess began as a game of Indian origin called Chaturanga. The game, played on an 8×8 board, was a simulation of war, in which each arm of the military was represented, these being chariots, cavalry, elephants, and infantry. Besides these, there was a king and his advisor.

Sometimes a Pawn is enough to change the whole game and those who ignore the importance of it, are liable to lose their Queen

Sandeep Sharma (from his book “Let The Game Begin”)

In the Chaturanga game, like the pawn in chess, the foot-soldier (called Padāti), moves one space forward without capturing or one space diagonally forward to capture. Unlike the pawn, it does not have a double move, and when it reaches the last rank, it promotes to minister (bishop).

In chess, there are 8 pawns per side, and they can only move forward. They always start the game on the second row of the board. On their initial move, they can choose to move 1 or 2 squares. When a pawn reaches a promotion square, that is, a square on the last row of the board at the opponent’s side, it promotes. The player can choose for the pawn to promote to a Queen, Knight, Bishop, or Rook. It is possible to promote a piece that is not lost, so for instance, by promotion, a player could have two or more queens on the board in standard chess.

…to play the pawns well; they are the soul of chess: it is they which uniquely determine the attack and the defense, and on their good or bad arrangement depends entirely the winning or losing of the game.

 François-André Danican Philidor[1]

If the square immediately in front of the pawn contains another piece then the pawn is unable to move forward. It is blocked. Although a pawn moves straight forward it captures by taking one square diagonally forward. If two pawns end up in the same file (column), they are said to be “doubled”.

To ensure that a pawn cannot use its two-square move to safely skip past an enemy pawn there is the En passant rule. The conditions for a pawn to capture an enemy pawn en passant are as follows: the enemy pawn advanced two squares on the previous move; the capturing pawn attacks the square that the enemy pawn passed over.

In medieval chess, as an attempt to make the pieces more interesting, each pawn was given the name of a commoner’s occupation
  • Gambler and other “lowlifes,” also messengers (in the left-most file, that direction being literally sinister)
  • City guard or policeman (in front of the left-side knight, as knights trained city guards in real life)
  • Innkeeper (in front of the left-side bishop)
  • Doctor (in front of the queen)
  • Merchant/money changer (in front of the king)
  • Weaver/clerk (in front of the right-side bishop, as they worked for bishops)
  • Blacksmith (in front of the right-side knight, as they cared for the horses)
  • Worker/farmer (in front of the right-side rook, as they worked for castles)

At the start of a new game, all the pawns are connected, but as the game continues and some exchanges are made, the pawns may become disconnected. When a group of pawns gets disconnected from the rest of the pawn structure they become a pawn island. Generally, the more pawn islands you have, the harder it is to defend them all. Therefore, more pawn island usually implies a weaker pawn structure.

An isolated pawn is a pawn that does not have a pawn on either side of it. Generally, an isolated pawn can be a weakness in your position but on the other hand, it also means that your pieces will have better mobility around an isolated pawn since their movements aren’t restricted as much. For this reason, an isolated pawn is not weak in the middle game as it is in the endgame stage.

Other Pawn Terms
  • Pawn phalanx – occurs when 2 or more pawns are placed alongside each other. Sometimes referred to as “hanging pawns”
  • Pawn chains – when pawns (of the same color) are adjacent diagonally
  • Backward pawns-when it is behind the pawns next to him and cannot move forward without being captured
  • Passed pawns – a pawn that cannot be stopped by enemy pawns from reaching the other side

Since pawns can’t move backward, moving a pawn has permanent consequences. Only move a pawn when it helps you achieve important objectives. When pawns can’t defend themselves, they are weak. Aim for a situation where your pawns can defend themselves, or else you will have to use your valuable pieces (resources) to defend them.

  1. François-André Danican Philidor (September 7, 1726 – August 31, 1795), was a French composer and chess player. He contributed to the early development of the opéra comique. He is widely regarded as the best chess player of his age; his book Analyse du jeu des Échecs was considered a standard chess manual for at least a century. A well-known chess opening, an endgame position, and a checkmate method are all named after him. [Back]

Further Reading


The Chess Variant Pages
Chess Corner
Chess Fox

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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