Sports & Games

What Is a Pawn in Chess? Learn How to Move Your Pawn Pieces

Written by MasterClass

Aug 31, 2019 • 4 min read

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Garry Kasparov Teaches Chess

In many ways, pawns are the most basic and fundamental chessmen in the entire game. Though pawns may seem unassuming, pawn strategy and placement can often be the difference between winning and losing a game of chess.

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What Is a Pawn in Chess?

A pawn is the most common chess piece on the chessboard. Chess sets contain sixteen total pawns. Each player begins the game with eight pawns set up on the second rank directly in front of the major pieces: rooks, bishops, knights, queen, and king.

Pawns are considered to be the weakest piece in the game of chess due to their limited mobility.

How Do Pawns Move Across a Chess Board?

Usually, pawns move one space forward at a time. A pawn is the only piece that may never move backward.

However, the rules of chess are tricky and nuanced, especially for beginners. There are a number of special rules that apply specifically to pawns that affect the way they can move across the board.

  • First move. The first time a pawn moves, it has the option of moving one square forward or two squares forward.
  • Capturing. The pawn is the only one of the chess pieces that can capture other pieces in a method that’s different from how it normally moves. The pawn captures by moving one square diagonally forward to the left or right.
  • En passant capture. En passant—French for “in passing”—is an unusual rule that applies specifically to pawns and involves a special move. Let’s say you’re playing as white and you choose to move your pawn two squares forward on its first move. If on that move, the pawn lands on a square adjacent to a black pawn on its fifth rank, the enemy pawn may still capture the white pawn. The capture must be made immediately on the next move, or the right to capture en passant is forfeit. If an en passant capture is the only legal move that can be made, it must be played. Learn more about En passant capture here.
  • Pawn promotion. If a pawn reaches the opposite side of the board, it can be promoted to a piece of the player’s choosing—a rook, a bishop, a knight, or a queen—and is immediately replaced by the new piece. In this scenario, it’s rare for anything other than the queen—the most powerful piece—to be chosen as the replacement.

What Are the Basics of Pawn Structure?

Though pawns are the weakest individual pieces, a keen chess player knows that the pace and shape of a chess game can be determined by pawn structure—that is, the configuration of the pawns on the board.

When you play chess, understanding pawn structure is essential to developing a chess strategy and, eventually, achieving a checkmate.

There are entire chess books dedicated solely to pawns and pawn structures, but here are the basics:

  • Passed pawn. A passed pawn is a pawn that cannot be stopped by any opposing pawns on its way to promotion. A passed pawn has the potential to be an extremely powerful piece in the endgame, as the threat of promotion creates a major disadvantage for your opponent.
  • Connected pawn. Connected pawns are two or more pawns that are diagonally adjacent and therefore are able to protect one another. Connected pawns represent one of the most powerful pawn structures, as they are protected from enemy pieces and can restrict their movement.
  • Backward pawn. A backward pawn is a connected pawn that cannot move forward without being captured by an opponent’s pawn. Backward pawns represent a positional disadvantage, as they cannot be safely advanced.
  • Isolated pawn. An isolated pawn is a chess pawn that cannot be protected by any of your other friendly pawns. Isolated pawns are particularly susceptible to attacks by an opponent’s piece. When you’re at the beginning of the game or the middlegame, isolated pawns can be protected by other major pieces, but may prove to be a fatal weakness in the endgame.
  • Doubled pawns. Doubled pawns are two pawns of the same color that occupy the same file. This pawn structure is one of the weakest, as the pawns are not able to defend each other and can both be blocked by one of your opponent’s pawns.
  • Hanging pawns. Hanging pawns are two pawns on adjacent files that are separated from all the other pawns. On the one hand, hanging pawns can be advantageous, as they can control key squares, but they also are vulnerable to attack and must be defended by major pieces.
  • Pawn majority. A pawn majority refers to having more pawns than your opponent on one side of the board. For example, if you have three pawns on the kingside compared to your opponent’s two, you have a “kingside majority,” and if you have more pawns than your opponent on the queenside then you have a “queenside majority.” Pawn majorities are valuable, as they can effectively control one side of the board or lead to a passed pawn through a series of exchanges and pawn takes.

Whether you’re an enthusiastic amateur or dreaming of going pro, mastering the game of chess takes time, wit, and more than a little cunning. No one knows this better than Garry Kasparov, who, at age 22, became the youngest world chess champion. In Garry Kasparov’s MasterClass on the art of chess, the master player shares the chess strategy that made him a six-time world champion, including his favorite openings and advanced tactics, and how to develop the right instincts and philosophy to become a stronger player.

Want to become a better chess player? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master chess players, including Garry Kasparov.

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