The Butterfly Effect: Pawn Promotion

In my last article, I mentioned a trait that distinguishes experienced chess players from beginners; an understanding of the pawn’s importance. At the game’s start, pawns are often considered the least valuable member of our army but as the game progresses their value increases. This increase in value can also be applied to the Bishops, Rooks and Queen, because at the start of the game, these pieces are trapped behind a wall of pawns which must be moved in order for them (the pieces) to gain access to the board. Knights are excluded because they can jump over pawns and pieces allowing immediate board access. Pawns can grow greatly in value as the path to their promotion square becomes less cluttered with opposing pawns and pieces. We’re now going to continue our exploration of the pawn by looking at simple pawn promotion.

We’ll start with some basic terminology necessary to understanding how to effectively promote pawns. All pawns have the ability to promote to a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop upon reaching their final rank (the eighth rank for white or the first rank for black). Upon reaching the end of its journey, the pawn must promote. A pawn may not remain a pawn nor can it promote to a King. You can think of pawn promotion as a metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

One type of pawn stands out from the others, the passed pawn. A passed pawn is a pawn that faces no opposition on the same file or adjacent files. A passed pawn has a clear path to its promotion square. The only way to stop a passed pawn is by using a piece (if one is available) to either capture or block the pawn. If you’re in the endgame phase and have only your King, you may not be able to stop it (depending on where the King is in relation to the pawn). If you have a piece able to block or capture a passed pawn, that piece loses its effectiveness because it has to deal with the passed pawn. Therefore, if a player has many pieces remaining on the board, dealing with a passed pawn is less of a problem. However, a player with fewer pieces on the board will find it more difficult to corral the passed pawn. The closer a passed pawn comes to its promotion square and the fewer opposing pieces there are to stop it, the greater the pawn’s value.

As mentioned in my last article, beginners will often try to promote pawns early in the game. Because there are so many opposing pawns and pieces on the board during the game’s early stages, the poor pawn marching towards its promotion square is typically captured which can greatly discourage the novice player. The beginner often asks “when should I attempt to promote a pawn?” An experienced player will know the answer to this question immediately, “during the endgame of course!” Here’s why:

A passed pawn does a player no good if it cannot get to its promotion square. Unlike other members of our chess army who can move in any direction to get out of harm’s way, the pawn can only move forward. Therefore, once you move a pawn, it’s committed since that pawn cannot retreat if a position becomes dangerous. The pawn is also slow moving. After a pawn’s first move, where it has the option of moving one or two squares forward, the pawn lumbers along one square at a time. This makes the pawn an easy target. However, if you worked through the pawn positions from my last article, you’ll know that pawns can protect one another using pawn chains as a support system. If you put all this together, you’ll realize that you must choose the right time to start a pawn’s journey towards promotion.

Pawns tend to be pushed towards their promotion square during the endgame when there are fewer pieces on the board. In our example, a student game, we’re going to use a single pawn with our King in the role of the pawn’s escort. Trying to stop our pawn from promotion will be the opposition’s King. Let’s take a look at a new term, opposition. An understanding of opposition is critical to successful endgame promotion.

Endgame “King” opposition occurs when the two Kings face each other on a rank or file with only one square between them. Kings can never be on squares directly adjacent to one another. If we have the white King on e4, that King controls d5, e5 and f5. If black’s King is on e6, the black King also controls the d5, e5 and f5 squares. However, unlike the other members of your chess army, neither King can move to a square controlled by the opposing King. King opposition plays a decisive role in endgame pawn promotion. White’s goal is to use the King to escort the pawn to its promotion square while black’s job is to stop the promotion. Kings must be used in the endgame!

In the example below (a student game so you can see how my beginning students tackle this type of promotion), white starts by moving the King in front of his pawn rather than pushing the pawn first. The white King needs to be in front of its pawn to successfully promote. After 1.Kd2…Ke7, 2.Ke3…Ke6, 3.Ke4, it’s black’s turn. White controls the critical squares d5, e5 and f5 which means the black King cannot occupy any of these three squares. Black also controls those squares but, since its black’s turn, the black King must abandon its position and counter control of the critical squares, moving to either d6 or f6. Let’s say that the black King moves to f6 (4…Kf6). White plays 4.Kd5, controlling the critical squares, e5 and e6. Notice that the white pawn remains on its starting square until the black King is driven back. Black plays 4…Ke7, trying to stay in front of the pawn. On move five, white brings the King to an opposition square with 5.Ke5. Black moves the King to f7 on move five (5…Kf7). White then plays 6.Kd6. Black tries to lodge his King on e8 (6…Ke8). Black’s King must not be allowed to remain on e8 or the game will end in stalemate. White smartly places his King in opposition to black’s King with 7.Ke6. Now the Black King has to move off of e8 (7…Kd8). White now pushes the pawn up the e file as the black King tries to reoccupy the e8 square. However, we reach an important moment on move ten. On move ten, white‘s pawn can advance no further. White needs to keep the black King off of e8 so he moves his King to f7 which cuts the black King off from e8. This move allows white’s e pawn to march to its promotion square. Play through the remaining moves. One point to note is that white must keep the black King off of the promotion square because this can lead to stalemate. We’ll look at stalemate in my next article. For now, play through this endgame and then try placing the two Kings and pawn on different squares and attempt pawn promotions.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).