Special Chess Rules – Pawn Promotion

Today’s article is about Pawn promotion. And along with the rules about Pawn promotion, we will take a little step into endgame strategy.

The pawn is the lowly foot soldier of chess. And though it is the weakest of the pieces, it can have a huge impact on the outcome of a game. The gain of a single pawn can be enough to ensure victory in many positions.

The big reason for this is that a pawn has an ace up its sleeve, so to speak. As you remember, the pawn can only move forward one step at a time (apart from its first move, when it can take two steps). But when it reaches the other side of the board (the “eighth rank”), it is allowed (required) to become a more powerful piece. On almost every occasion in practical play, the Pawn becomes a Queen.

Which piece should I promote the pawn to?

Which piece the Pawn becomes is up to the player. You can decide to make the Pawn into a Knight, a Bishop, a Rook, or Queen. You may not make a second King, and you may not elect to leave the Pawn unpromoted. (Put another way, you can’t elect to “promote” your Pawn to a Pawn.)

Underpromotion

There are occasions … rare occasions when you may wish to promote your Pawn to some piece other than the Queen. We call that “underpromotion.” You may never in your chess career have the occasion to underpromote; this comes up more often in chess puzzles and tactics quizzes. But it could come up, and you should be aware of the possibility.

In the position below, it is White’s move, and his Pawn is on his seventh rank, ready to promote. If he promotes the Pawn to Queen, he will actually lose the game. But if he “underpromotes” the Pawn, he can win the game. Do you see what underpromotion will save the game for White?

Who promotes first?

For our first foray into chess strategy, I want to show you a simple way to determine whether you or your opponent will Queen your Pawn first. There are very many occasions when you will have to carefully count the moves to determine when and under what circumstances you or your opponent will reach the queening square. But in many cases, where its simply a question of which Pawn is faster, there is an easy way to tell.

First, you should recognize that no Pawn is faster than any other Pawn; they all travel at the same rate: one square per turn. I often see players pushing their Pawns in a frantic race as if somehow or other through some magic, their Pawn will get to the eighth rank faster than their opponent’s. But you can tell right away without all the panic. If it is your turn and your Pawn is even with or farther advanced than your opponent’s, your Pawn will get there first (provided you move your pawn!).

It’s a simple rule, but it may spare you some agony in counting moves in simple Pawn races.

What happens after the “race”?

You should be very aware, however, of what happens after your Pawn promotes! Your opponent might very well lose the race, but win the game. You should especially beware of checks. In the diagram below, if it is White’s turn, he will promote first; he’s won the battle! But he loses the war, because though Black loses the race, he promotes with check and will then capture White’s brand new Queen.

If you’re interested in learning more about the rules and elementary chess tactics, be sure to get the wonderful book, Learn Chess: A Complete Course

20 thoughts on “Special Chess Rules – Pawn Promotion

  1. Great blog, by the way! My question: can a pawn be promoted to a Queen if one is still in play? If so, how is it indicated that the pawn is now a queen? Thanks!

    • Yes, you can have two Queens. In fact, it is possible (in theory) to have nine Queens, if all eight Pawns were promoted. In practice, the promoted Pawn is replaced by a Queen sitting on the 8th rank where the Pawn was. Some chess sets are sold with two extra Queens to take care of that situation. At a tournament or club, players often go looking around begging for another Queen to replace the Pawn. In a pinch, a Rook turned upside down is used as an extra Queen.

      On the score sheet, you indicate the promotion to a Queen like this: g8(Q). That means that a Pawn has moved from g7 to g8 and the player promoted the Pawn to a Queen. If you promote the Pawn to a Knight or Rook, you replace the Pawn with the appropriate piece, and the notation is: g8(N) or g8(R).

      Thanks for the comment!

    • @robin: yes, you can promote your pawn and give the enemy king check at the same time. You may not promote your pawn if your own king is in check or if the pawn move results in check to your king. Hope that helps! :-)

  2. If my opponent moves to the end of the board and promotes his pawn to a queen, can I capture immediately with my rook if it is in position to do so? Thank you. Curt

  3. when the pawn reach the 8 rank,but the player donot replace/said the piece for changing the promoted pawn even when the opponent complaint, what action the arbiter will take?in this occasion.

    • When the Pawn reaches the promotion square, the player should replace it with a Queen before stopping his own clock and starting the opponent’s clock. If he has not replaced the piece, then I think the opponent would be justified in complaining. In which case, the arbiter would probably make an adjustment in the players’ clocks, possibly with a penalty for the offending player.

      Thanks for your question!

  4. wt wud happen if i want my pawn,on reaching the opposite end to be promoted as a knight and i already have my both knights alive on the board

    • First, it is legal for a player to have three knights, so you may promote your pawn to a third knight if your other knights are still on the board. However, chess sets don’t come with extra knights for promotion. So if you find yourself wanting to promote your pawn to a third knight, you will have to find a knight from another set. Or, if no other set is available, you can turn a rook upside down and use that for a knight. (Players will often use an upside down rook to represent a queen when needed … same thing could apply to a knight.) Or, if no rooks or knights are available, you might even put a ring on the promoted pawn.

      Thanks for the question!

    • The king can never be promoted. And a pawn can be promoted to any piece except the king or pawn. I hope that answers your question! :-)

    • Haha I like planyig Haha I like planyig chess but I couldn’t even process what was going on, that was cool well done, I thought scholars mate was called blitzkrieg?

  5. In a game last night, both myself and opponent were one step away from promoting our pawns.
    I moved first and was able to capture his queen in the process. My opponent quickly played and promoted his pawn to his captured queen.
    On my next turn I asked to promote my pawn to Queen and was told I could not, that I had the turn to declare which piece to promote to had passed.
    Side note, it was only due to the excitement of capturing his queen and his nearness of his own promotion that I failed to declare. The piece was not in jeopardy.

    • I’m not sure of the rule on that … I’ll have to get out the official rule book. First, your move isn’t complete until you replace the pawn with the promoted piece, so your opponent should have not let you punch your clock until you had replaced the piece. If you look at the second game between Ivanchuk and Carlsen in the 2013 Candidate’s matches, you’ll see an instance where Ivanchuk punched his clock before he replaced the piece, but he quickly corrected it and the arbiter didn’t do anything about it. As I recall, Carlsen was under a lot of pressure and didn’t say or do anything about the misstep. Interesting question. :-)

    • Yes you may. This is a very good situation to be in, because it means you have a choice of two squares (either the capture or the straight-ahead move) where you can promote your pawn.

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