Pawn Promotion: What is it, Rules & Notation

Pawn promotion in chess Chess terms

“Pawns are the soul of chess,” once observed the 18th-century French chess maestro and composer, A. Philidor. Pawns not only shape the game’s structure and, therefore, its character, but also wield pivotal influence in the endgame due to their remarkable potential to transform into any other chess piece. While the ultimate aim in chess is to achieve checkmate, pawn promotion in chess stands as the focal point of nearly all endgame strategies, as it represents the primary pathway leading to checkmate. Consequently, it is of paramount importance to grasp what a pawn promotion is in chess and its mechanics. In this article, we will delve into the mechanics of pawn promotion, elucidating how pawn promotion works.

Quick Summary

  • Pawn promotion in chess occurs when a pawn reaches the farthest rank, transforming into a queen, rook, bishop, or knight. White pawns promote on the eighth rank, black on the first.
  • This rule allows having more of the same piece than at the game’s start. Notation for pawn promotion includes the promotion square and the promoted piece’s first letter, often without an equal sign as per FIDE rules.
  • Underpromotion refers to choosing a piece less valuable than a queen. It’s primarily used to avoid stalemate or for specific strategic needs, like a knight fork. Examples include promoting to a knight for a tactical advantage, a bishop to avoid stalemate and maintain a winning position, and a rook to achieve checkmate in situations where a queen would result in stalemate.

What is pawn promotion in chess and its placement?

Pawn promotion refers to the magical transformation of a pawn in chess, which occurs when the pawn successfully advances to the farthest rank of the board. For white the promotion rank is the eighth rank, while for black, it would be the first rank. Promoting means that the player can choose to substitute the pawn with another piece, such as a queen, rook, bishop, or knight.

Pawn Promotion

This also makes it possible to have more of the same kind of piece compared to the starting position of the game. For example, due to pawn promotion, having two queens or three rooks can be possible. A spectacular example of a case with five queens on the board occurred in one of the game analysis of Alexander Alekhine:

An example of a pawn promotion

An example of pawn promotion

The queen is the most powerful piece in chess and therefore holds the highest potential to deliver a checkmate, and pawns are commonly promoted to queen. Chess slang for such promotion would be “queening the pawn”. The diagram above provides an example where white can promote the pawn to a queen on the next move, which would also checkmate the opponent: 1.e8=Q#

an example of pawn promotion - continuasion

Pawn Promotion Rules

According to the official pawn promotion rules, once a pawn advances to the farthest rank, it is obligatory to substitute it with either a queen, a rook, a knight, or a bishop.

Notation for Pawn Promotion: How to Write it Down on a Blank

The most commonly used notation for pawn promotion consists of the promotion square, an equal sign, followed by the first letter of the promoted piece. E.g. e8=Q or bxc1=R in the case of capture. However, in the official FIDE way, the “=” is omitted, e.g., e8Q or bxc1R.

What is Underpromotion?

Promoting a pawn to a queen is the standard because a queen is generally the most valuable piece. However, if a player chooses to promote the pawn to a different piece than a queen, basically to a piece whose value is under the queen’s value, this would be an instance of “underpromotion”.

Examples of Underpromotions and reasons to do it

There are essentially two main reasons why one might prefer to underpromote. The most common one is to avoid stalemate. A queen is nothing else than a piece that compounds the movements of a rook and a bishop. But because she controls too many squares, this might sometimes lead to a stalemate, and we would then prefer a restricted version of the queen’s mobility, basically a piece like a rook or a bishop. The second, less frequent reason for an underpromotion would be because a specific movement of a knight is needed in the particular position, either to gain tempo or win a piece due to a knight fork.

Example №1: Underpromoting to a Knight

underpromotion example position

In the diagram above, with white to move, capturing the rook on c8 right away would lead to a theoretical draw of queen + rook vs. queen + bishop + knight. However, white has a brilliant tactic to win the material: 1.Qxa7!! Kxa7 and now 2.bxc8=N+ forks and wins the queen.

Underpromotion example position - continuasion

What if black refuses to capture the queen and instead plays 1…Kc7? Then white has an extremely special way of checkmating with an underpromotion to a knight with a discovery check: 2.b8=N!#, because only a knight can guard the c6 square:

Underpromotion example position #2

Example №2: Underpromoting to a Bishop

underpromotion example position 2

Situations where you’d need to favor underpromoting to a bishop can be seen as edge cases in chess. In the diagram above, however, white is threatening Ra8#. The only way for black to cover the critical square, a8, is to promote to a piece that can move diagonally. Promoting to a queen, 1…h1=Q might seem like a natural reaction, expecting 2.Rxh1 Rxh1 and converting the endgame with ease. But after queening the pawn, there would be a plot twist after the unexpected 2.Ra8! Qxa8 stalemate. The only prudent option for black is thus to be promoted to a bishop, 1…h1=B!

Underpromotion example position 2(2)

The a8 square is under control, and 2.Ra8 Bxa8 is not a stalemate anymore. The resulting position with rook + bishop + pawns vs. rook is a theoretically winning position for black.

Example №3: Underpromoting to a Rook

Underpromotion example position 3

In the diagram above, queening the pawn results in a stalemate. However, a bishop or a knight would not be sufficient to deliver a checkmate. Therefore, white promotes to a rook and checkmate in the next move: 1.f8=R Kh6 2.Rh8#.

Underpromotion example position 3-1

Written by
Deniz Tasdelen, National Master
National Master with over 20 years of experience. He has participated in many prestigious tournaments, including the European and World Youth Chess Championships.
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Frequently Asked Questions about Pawn Promotion

Can a pawn be promoted to any piece?

The pawn can be promoted to a queen, a rook, a bishop, or a knight. It would be illegal to try to promote it to a king.

Can you refuse to promote a pawn?

Once the pawn reaches the final rank, it is mandatory to promote the pawn into one of the following pieces: a queen, a rook, a bishop, or a knight.

No, trying to promote a pawn to a pawn would be against the official rules of chess pawn promotion. Pawns cannot stay as pawns on the final rank of the board. - Your One Stop Chess Resource
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