We’ve come across this question a few times recently and while we’re not entirely certain what is making players ask it, we do know that it needs answering. Are there are any circumstances in chess in which you must not move your pawn forward and instead, must capture an available piece? And if so, what are they? Well, the good news is that the answer to this is pretty straightforward.
Can a pawn move forward without capturing? In the standard version of chess the answer is yes, a pawn can absolutely move forward without capturing another piece. This is true even when there is a piece on the board that could be captured by a pawn. It has no obligation in chess to capture any other piece.
You absolutely have to capture only when that’s the only move that would release your king from check or it’s the only legal move you can make. Let’s take a look at capturing in chess in some more depth.
How Do Pawns Move In Chess?
The rules of chess define how pawns move quite clearly and while pawns are also capable of making two special moves in addition to their standard moves, not only is there no reference to being obligated to capture another piece – we can’t find any earlier variation in which they might have been compelled to capture rather than move.
The rules of chess state that:
- A pawn cannot move backwards
- A pawn will normally move a single square forward along the file it occupies, but the first time that a pawn moves it may move two squares forward instead of one
- If a pawn moves two squares forward instead of one, it may not jump over another piece and the squares must be unoccupied
- If a pawn moves two squares forward instead of one, it may not capture a piece at the end of the move
- If a pawn is to capture another piece it must do so moving a single square forward, diagonally, to either side of the pawn
The two special moves that pawns may complete are:
- “En passant” or “in passing”. If a pawn is moved two spaces forward on its first move and the square that it passes over (the empty square) is under threat by the opponent’s pawn then the opponent’s pawn may capture the pawn as though it had only moved one space forward. That is, the opponent’s pawn moves diagonally into the space behind the pawn that has moved two spaces and the pawn that moved two spaces is then removed from the board. This can only be done following the move in which the pawn moved two spaces, if any other moved is played instead, the pawn is no longer eligible for being captured “en passant” (which is simply “in passing” in French). There is no compulsion on a player to make use of the “en passant” rule.
- Promotion. If a pawn reaches the final rank of the enemy’s territory, it is no longer able to move forward. Thus, to prevent the pawn from becoming useless, the player is required to promote that pawn to another piece (a queen, a rook, a bishop or a knight) and must do so immediately that their pawn comes to rest on the final rank. A pawn may capture a piece on the final rank as long as it does so by moving one square forward diagonally to become promoted. Again, there is no obligation for a pawn to capture on the final rank if it is able to do so and it is fine to promote the pawn by pushing it past an eligible piece, instead.
Thus, it is very clear that there is no requirement for a pawn to capture another piece in the rules of movement for a pawn. However, that doesn’t mean that a pawn can never be obliged to capture another piece.
The Two Times When A Pawn Can’t Move Forward Without Capturing
There are, in fact, two occasions on which a pawn must capture another piece:
- If the king is in check and the only piece which can relieve chess is a pawn capturing the piece which places the king in check
- If there is not other legal move available on the board except for a pawn capture
As you might expect these are reasonably rare circumstances and while they may occur naturally in play, you won’t see them very often in any competitive level of chess unless they are being used to demonstrate something between matches. So, let’s take a look at an example of this:
When The King Is In Check And The Pawn Is The Only Way Out
You’ll want to set up the board like this:
White: King (F5), Queen (G6)
Black: King (H6), Pawn (F7)
It’s black to move and as you can see this is pretty heavy stuff. White’s King prevents the black King from taking the White Queen. White’s Queen also prevents the black King from moving out of check as any position that it moves to is also in check.
Therefore, the only way to get the black king out of check is f7 x g6. Thus, the black player must take with the pawn (though they probably won’t be too unhappy about that outcome as they are now in a winning position).
When There Is No Other Legal Move On The Table
While this is true of the previous example too, we can find other set ups where the board might compel a player to take with a pawn as it’s the only legal move available.
Set up the board like this:
White: King (B1), Pawn (B2)
Black: King (A8), Rook (A7 and C8), Pawn (B3 and C3)
It’s white to move and things look particularly dire for the player with the white pieces. Their king may not move to either side or it will be checked by one of black’s rooks. The king may not move forward as the path is blocked by his own pawn.
Nor can white’s pawn move a square forward because it is trapped in by a black pawn in front of it. Thus, the only legal move for white is b2 x c3. Thus, our white pawn is compelled by the rules to capture a piece rather than move forward.
Are There Variants Of Chess Where A Pawn Might Be Required To Capture Rather Than Move Forward?
Yes, in fact, there is a whole group of variants collectively known as “losing chess” that oblige a player to capture a piece if they can capture a piece. These games are also known as “suicide chess”, “killer chess”, “capture chess”, “giveaway chess”, etc. too.
The objective in these games is the exact opposite of ordinary chess. You don’t want to retain your pieces and push your opponent into checkmate. Instead, the winner of the game is the person who can either have all their pieces taken or end up trapped in a stalemate.
Given that you now want to burn through your pieces – the rules of losing chess need to compel players to take each other’s pieces when they can. Otherwise, every game of losing chess would end up falling victim to the rule of repetition or the 50-move rule. There would be no incentive for players to take each other’s pieces at all as this would help their opponent while hurting them.
Losing chess is a very popular sport and there are players who devote considerable energy to playing this variant to the exclusion of all others. That means there is a fully developed set of tactics and strategies that you can employ to improve your chances of winning in the game.
It is also, as far as we are aware, the only type of chess in which a pawn is obligated to capture a piece rather than move forward.
Can a pawn move forward without capturing? Yes, in fact, the very first move of the game has a pawn move forward without capturing anything in most games (yes, it’s possible to make a knight move first but, by and large, this is not a “usual” move). So, we took this to mean “Is a pawn obliged to capture another piece if it may take it?”
The answer to that question is a resounding “no”. There is no rule in chess which obligates you to capture any other piece with any piece except for the rule that requires you to get your king out of check if it is in check or if there are no other legal moves available to you. Otherwise, if you don’t want to take – you don’t have to. Push the pawn forward or leave it alone. It’s your call.