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The Pawn

by Mark Donlan

The pawns represented the foot-soldiers in the Indian army. In fact, the Arabic word for the pawn is "baidaq," which means foot soldier. In other languages the pawn goes by the following names: according to Davidson, in Czech it is "sedlak," which means peasant; in French it is "pion," which means foot-soldier; in German it is "bauer," which means peasant; in Greek it is "stratiotes," which means soldier; in Italian it is "pedone," which means foot-soldier; in Russian it is "peshka," which means soldier; in Spanish it is "peon," which means peasant; and in Turkish the old term was "piyade," which has no meaning except as this piece in chess, while the modern usage is "piyon," similar to the French term.

ChessCafe Curriculum

In the starting position, the pawns occupy each player's second rank: from a2 to h2 for White and from a7 to h7 for Black, as shown in the diagram above. Each pawn has a numeric value of one point, which, as we will see, makes the pawn the lowest valued of all the chessmen. From its original square, each and every pawn has the choice of moving forward one or two squares, but only on its first move. A move is made by transferring a unit from one square and releasing it on another. Once a pawn has made its initial move, it can only advance forward one square at a time thereafter, unless it is blocked by another unit directly in its path. No algebraic designation is used for the pawn, instead we simply note the square to which it moves.

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For example, to designate moving the pawn on e2 forward two squares, we would write "e4." If this were the first move of the game, it would be written as 1.e4. This signifies that the white pawn on square e2 was moved to the e4-square. A typical answering move by black could be ...e5, in which the black pawn on e7 also moves two squares forward. This move would be written as 1...e5. And the two moves together written as 1.e4 e5. The numeral one designates that it is the first move of the game; e4 designates White's move of the e2-pawn to e4; and e5 designates Black's move of the e7-pawn to e5.

The position on the board would now look as follows:

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Both pawns are now blocked from moving directly forward. However, the pawn captures and attacks one square forward diagonally, not straight ahead. This means that the white e-pawn attacks the squares d5 and f5, and the black e-pawn attacks the squares d4 and f4.

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If an enemy unit stood on these squares, it could be subject to capture. The pawn is the only unit that captures differently than it moves.

With it being White's turn to move, suppose White now played 2.f4. This signifies that the white pawn on square f2 was moved to the f4-square. The white pawn on f4 now attacks the black pawn on e5 and threatens it with a capture.

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A capture is carried out by moving onto the square occupied by the enemy unit. This means that you put your unit on that square and take your opponent's chessman off the board for the remainder of the game. In chess if you touch a chessman, then you must move the unit that you touched; and if it is your turn to move and you touch an opponent's chessman, then you must capture it if there is a legal move available. So it is important to think before you act. Two units cannot occupy the same square at the same time and you also cannot capture your own chessmen.

In the diagram above, it would now be Black's turn to move, and Black has a decision to make. The game of chess is all about making good decisions. White is threatening the black e-pawn with capture, Black can choose to ignore this threat, defend the e-pawn, or capture the white f-pawn.

If Black wishes to defend the e-pawn, one way to do so is by playing 2...d6. The concepts of attack and defense are important motifs in the game of chess. Black would now be ready to answer a capture of the e-pawn with a recapture in reply.

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In algebraic notation a capture is designated by the letter "x." So, after 2...d6, we could see 3.fxe5 dxe5, in which the white e-pawn captured on square e5, and the black d-pawn recaptured on square e5. The resulting position would look as follows:

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Nevertheless, Black's other choice at move two is to simply capture the white f-pawn immediately. This would be written as 2...exf4 and the resulting position would look as follows:

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In this position Black has one more pawn on the board than White. With White's move of 2.f4, White is said to have put the f-pawn en prise. En prise is a French term that means "in take." This results when a player puts an undefended unit on a square where it can be captured.

The sequence 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 is the beginning of one of the oldest of all chess opening move orders. It is called the King's Gambit Accepted. White is willing to gambit away his f-pawn in return for potential attacking chances against the black army. The sequence 1.e4 e5 2.f4 d6 is called the King's Gambit Declined.The King's Gambit was most commonly played during the eighteenth century, though it remains popular to this day. In fact, whole books are still being written about it today!

As we can see, each side takes turns to move, with White always moving first. Two consecutive moves by the same player are prohibited; nor can a player pass his turn. The convention that White moves first was only introduced around the mid-nineteenth century.

Throughout all the years of chess the pawn has always only moved forward and has always had the same capture, moving one square in a diagonal. It was around 1550 that the pawn developed the two-square move forward on the first move; prior to this only one square was allowed. This was done to help speed up chess games.

Pawns are the only chessmen that cannot move backward. They are often the first units to move in a game and so are the first chessmen engaged in battle. There are a couple of special pawn moves, called en passant and promotion that we will explore in the next lessons. In the meantime let's introduce the pawn game.

Playing the Pawn Game

Set up the pawns in their starting positions on each player's second rank. Choose for colors by having one player hide a black pawn in one hand and a white pawn in the other. The opponent then selects one of them and plays whichever color he selected. After the first game, the players switch colors every game. Remember: the white side always moves first. The ways to win the game are as follows:

  • If you are the first player to get a pawn all the way across the board to the last rank.
  • If you capture all your opponent's pawns, while you still have at least one left.
  • If all your opponent's pawns are blocked, while you can still make a move.

The game is a draw (tied) if both sides are blocked so that neither player can make a move.

Chess players are polite! Before every game, chess players always shake hands and wish each other good luck. During the game, they do not disturb their opponents. When the game is over, they always shake hands and thank their opponent for a good game.


The following pawn structure arose in the game Anand-Kramnik, London 2012:

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How many pawn moves are available to each side?

The following pawn structure arose in the game Rogoff-Williams, Stockholm 1969:

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How many pawn moves are available to each side?

The following pawn structure arose in the game Filipowicz-Smederevac, Polanica Zdroj 1966:

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How many pawn moves are available to each side?

Pawn Breakthrough

In the following position how can White to move get a pawn to the last rank before Black?

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The following pawn structure arose in the game Shirov-Kasparov, Linares 1997:

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How can Black to move get a pawn to the last rank before White?

The following pawn structure arose in the game Uhlmann-Sachdev, Podebrady 2012:

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How can Black to move get a pawn to the last rank before White?

Pawn Blockade

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In this game, the pawns cannot make captures. The aim is to take away all forward moves from the opponent. Thus, the player who moves last wins.

Sixteen Pawns

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Place the remaining fourteen pawns on the board so that no three of the sixteen pawns are situated on the same rank, file, or diagonal. The first and eighth ranks can be used.


Anand-Kramnik, London 2012: Seven pawn moves for White; Nine pawns moves for Black.

Rogoff-Williams, Stockholm 1969: Six pawn moves for White; Eight pawns moves for Black.

Filipowicz-Smederevac, Polanica Zdroj 1966: Six pawn moves for White; Five pawns moves for Black.

Pawn Breakthrough: 1.g5 hxg5 2.f5 gxf5 3.h5 g4 4.h6 g3 5.h7 g2 6.h8. Or 1.g5 fxg5 2.h5 gxh5 3.f5 h4 4.f6 h3 5.f7 h2 6.f8.

Shirov-Kasparov, Linares 1997: Black breaks through with 1...f4!

Uhlman-Sachdev, Podebrady 2012: Black breaks through with 1...c4!

Sixteen Pawns:

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A brief introduction to the Royal Game

A PDF file of this article, along with all previous articles, is available in the Archives.

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