If you’re just taking up chess or have been watching the game, you’ve probably realized that pawns are the weakest pieces in chess. They are also the most common and in the early stages of the game, they are also the most commonly traded pieces in attacking and defensive moves. So, does this mean that pawns aren’t important in chess?
Are pawns important in chess? Pawns are extremely important in chess. The idea that pawns are weak because of their constrained movement is completely inaccurate. Together, pawns form an army and their strength is in numbers and formations. They are absolutely vital to the defence of the most important chess piece, the king!
Let’s take a detailed look at the importance of the humble pawn in chess.
An Introduction To The Pawn In Chess
The pawn is the most numerous piece in chess. In fact, it makes up fully half of all the pieces on the board. They occupy the 2nd rank and 7th rank for white and black, respectively, at the start of the game completely walling off the major pieces from the rest of the board.
If you think of a chess color as an army, then it quickly becomes obvious which group the pawns are meant to represent: the infantry. They are the “cannon fodder” of chess, meant for pushing forward, testing the enemy’s strength and their loss is never so costly that it feels like that the game has just become hopeless.
Yet, it is in the idea of infantry that we find our first clue as to the value of pawns. Imagine the D-Day landings without troops to rush up the beach. The battle of the Somme without the two lines of trenches slowly wearing away at each other. While the infantry may be viewed by their leaders as “disposable” in real life, as in chess, the infantry can turn the tide of a war.
Imagine if you were an officer and you were preparing to face the enemy, would you worry more about one man on horseback or 8 infantry soldiers charging over the rise at you?
How Chess Pawns Move
A pawn may move one or two squares forward on their first move, after this, whether they moved two squares or not on that first move, they are restricted to moving only a single square forward.
When they capture another piece, it is only allowed if they move a single square forward diagonally.
There is only one exception to this rule. If a pawn has already made it to the 5th rank (that is they are 3 squares away from their starting space) and their opponent moves a pawn two spaces to occupy he square next to the existing pawn (and thus circumventing the threat of being captured that would occur had they only moved one square), they may capture this pawn as though it had only moved one square. This is known as “en passant” (or in English, “in passing”).
You may only capture a pawn en passant on the first move after that pawn has moved two squares forward, after that – it becomes immune to this form of capture.
The Hidden Power Of The Pawn: Promotion
When a pawn is pushed forward so far that it reaches the last rank, it does not become useless. Instead, the player whose pawn it is must promote the pawn to the rank of another piece. Thus, a pawn may become a queen, a knight, a rook or a bishop.
Typically, the pawn is promoted to a queen. It is perfectly permissible for a player to have more than one queen on the board at a time. In fact, during the 1927 world championships Capablanca and Alekhine both had two queens on the board at the same time!
If the pawn is promoted to a different piece this is often known as “under promotion” because it has not fulfilled its potential.
In general, this tends to happen when a player can promote the pawn to a knight and create an immediate fork that results in a very high gain in material or a move that results in immediate checkmate.
The least likely promotion for a pawn is to a bishop which occurs in only roughly 1% of cases!
While this is the most obvious example of the power of pawns there are others.
A Quick Introduction To Pawn Structure
Yes, a pawn is weak on its own but just like an infantryman when there are enough of them or if they are the only piece left in the fight, they can become much stronger than you might think.
For example, imagine a street fight, if it is just you and one opponent who is a little smaller than you, you would probably be confident of winning. But if there were three such opponents attacking you at once, you would not be anywhere near as confident. Pawns are like the little opponent, there’s strength in numbers.
So, let’s take a look at pawn structure:
- The backward pawn. It’s not always good to be a pawn, a backward pawn can’t move forward without being threatened and captured by an opposing pawn. This is a disadvantage to the player that controls the backward pawn.
- The connected pawn. Pawns may look weak but when two pawns align on a diagonal line that they adjacent on, the rear pawn is protecting the front one, making it much harder to attack. Connected pawn structures can be incredibly powerful at any point in the game.
- The doubled pawn. One pawn in front of another on the same file. They cannot protect each other and worse, they may be blocked by a single pawn of the enemy’s! They’re a big disadvantage.
- The hanging pawn. This is when you have two pawns that are on adjacent files, but which have been cut off from support by any other pawns. They can offer powerful attacking opportunities, but you may need to use a major piece (or more) to defend them, which can offset their attacking value.
- The isolated pawn. Another weakness is a pawn that is too far from your other pawns to be connected to any of them. It’s quite literally “isolated” from its fellows. While you may be able to use other pieces to protect it – that’s a loss of strength to your attack.
- The passed pawn. This is the name given to a pawn which has passed all of the opponent’s pawns in its way and cannot be threatened by another pawn as it moves to promotion. This is considered a substantial advantage in most circumstances.
- The pawn majority. The player with the most pawns on the board has the “pawn majority” and assuming other material is equal this is a clear advantage to that side. A pawn majority generally speaking makes it easier to pass a pawn or to dominate one side of the board through connected pawns.
As you can see, pawns can have a substantial influence on the game. They may not be the strongest pieces but just like any infantry solider with a gun, under the right circumstances, they can absolutely change the course of a game for the better.
Are pawns important in chess? Absolutely, yes. In fact, it’s probably best for your game that you don’t start thinking of any piece as “unimportant”. They can all contribute to the winning of a game and if you lose a piece (without gaining a piece of similar or greater value in return) you will usually have damaged your own chances of winning a game.
Don’t forget that while a pawn is scored at just one point in chess, if it reaches the final rank, it is transformed into a queen (or any other piece of your choice) and that means it can be worth as much as 9 points in the endgame. The more pawns you have on the board, the stronger your chances of getting a bonus queen just when you really need one to finish off the game for good. So, never underestimate a pawn their value may surprise you.