The rules of chess are not quite as complex as they first appear to be, and most people can learn the basic chess moves in a single day. However, they are complicated enough that misunderstandings can and do arise about how, exactly, particular moves work. We’ve heard from some new players that they were under the impression that you couldn’t pass a pawn and had to take it, instead, but are they right and if not, why not?
Can you pass a pawn without taking it? You can certainly pass a pawn without taking it. There are no situations in which a chess piece is obliged to take a pawn before passing it except for the special “en passant” move.
In this article we’ll look at the important details.
Pawns And Their Movement
OK, so as you probably already know the pawn is the most common piece on the chessboard. Each player starts with 8 of them and they are the “peasants” of the chess general’s army. They are there to open up the board and then to attack and defend as well as having, potentially, huge additional value in the endgame.
A pawn may move 1 or 2 squares forward on a file for their first move and then they move only 1 square forward after that. If they wish to capture another piece, they may do so but only by moving one 1 square forward diagonally (this may be in either direction if there are two squares available diagonally).
A pawn threatens another piece by moving onto a square in such a fashion that it may capture that piece on the next turn (e.g. by moving one square forward diagonally).
The pawn also has a pair of special moves available to it in very specific circumstances:
- Promotion. Nearly every chess player understands how this works, if your pawn makes it to your opponent’s king’s starting rank (Rank 8 for players with white and Rank 1 for players with black) then it must be exchanged for another piece. This is because pawns can no longer move forward from this position and would otherwise be useless to you. it may be traded for a queen, rook, knight or bishop of the player’s choice and this must be placed on the board before the player’s turn ends and the pawn must be removed. It is possible to have more than the starting number of queens, rooks, knights or bishops on the board thanks to this rule.
- En passant. This means “in passing” in French and this may be where the confusion lies with our original question of “can you pass a pawn without taking it?” En passant occurs when a player has pushed a pawn forward 3 spaces so that it lies on Rank 5 (for white) or Rank 4 (for black). The opposing player then pushes one of their pawns 2 spaces forward so that it sits adjacent to that pawn. The player with the pawn that has moved 3 spaces may then choose to pretend that their opponent’s pawn moved only a single square and capture it by moving diagonally forward in the direction of the pawn to the empty square behind it. This may only be done on the first turn following the pawn moving 2 spaces forward, after that, en passant does not apply.
As you can see “en passant” is an optional rule in chess. You may capture your opponent’s piece, but you can also ignore it. None of the other rules of pawn movement require you to capture a pawn either. In fact, if you examine the rules for king’s, queen’s, knight’s, bishop’s and rook’s moves you will discover that there is no rule that obliges you to capture a pawn in any of them.
So, to our original question “can you pass a pawn without taking it?” The answer must be a resounding “yes”. Chess is a game of rules. If there are no rules that compel you to take a piece, then you do not have to take it.
There is, however, a single exception to this rule in which players may be obliged to take a pawn rather than moving past it. And that is when the king is in check.
The Conditions For Moving When The King Is In Check
The king is considered to be in a state of “check” when the king is threatened by another piece on the board. That is the king may be captured by that piece on the next turn if nothing is done to remove the king from check.
The rules of chess state that a king may not be captured but that if they cannot move out of check, they are in “checkmate” and the opponent has won the game.
There are only three ways for a king to move out of check in chess:
- The king may move to a square, if there is one available, where it is no longer under threat. It may not, however, move into a square under threat as this would be placing itself in check and thus, it could be captured on the next move.
- If there is space between the king and the attacking piece, the player who’s king is under threat, may place any piece via any legal move between the king and the attacking piece to interrupt the attack (though, obviously, this is at the cost of putting the blocking piece under threat, instead of your king).
- If there is a legal move to do so, the player with the king in check may also capture the piece that is putting their king in check and thus they will remove the threat
It should be evident when scanning these three rules that you are not going to be obliged to capture a pawn if you are able to move your king out of check or to block whatever form of check they are in. However, it is possible to find yourself in the situation where only capturing a pawn will get you out of check.
In this instance, and only in this instance, you will be obliged to take the pawn rather than moving past it.
For example, if you set the board up as follows:
White: King (H1), Pawns (E7, D7), and Bishop (E6)
Black: King (E8)
The king is under threat from the pawn on D7 but is unable to capture that pawn because it is protected by the bishop.
The king can only move to D8 which is under threat from the other pawn, to F8 (the same) and to F7 which is under threat from the bishop. This means that the only legal move for black in these circumstances is for the king to capture the pawn on E7. I.e. k x e7
Thus, it is possible for a king (or other piece) to be forced to take a pawn without moving past it, but only in this specific and reasonably unusual circumstance. Otherwise, there are no rules to compel you to take any other piece in chess.
Can you pass a pawn without taking it? Yes, there are no rules in standard FIDE chess that oblige you to capture any piece on the board except for one. That is when your king is in check, you must remove the check before you can make any other legal move. It is in this situation that we find our only exception to the idea of passing a pawn without taking it.
If it is a pawn that is placing the king in check and the only way of getting the king out of check is to take that pawn, then you may not pass it without taking it – you have to deal with the check. However, we think it’s fair to say that you will only rarely encounter this situation and in the vast majority of cases, you will not be obliged to take a pawn and can freely pass it, instead.