Most chess pieces can attack or move backwards, but what about the pawn? The chess piece has a lot of unique chess rules, including a two-square leap as its first move, en passant, and pawn promotion. But all of those moves are done in a single direction.
A pawn is not able to move or attack backwards under any circumstances. The rules of chess only allow a pawn to move forward in a straight line, or attack diagonally in a forward direction. There are no exceptions that would allow a pawn to move backwards.
This makes a pawn the only chess piece that is unable to move backwards. All other chess pieces have the ability to move up, down, left, or right (be it in their own unique way). The pawn is essentially its own category when it comes to chess piece movement.
Pawns Can Only Move Forward
First and foremost, the average pawn move is very straightforward. In the most literal sense of the word, because the pawn simply moves in a straight line, and may only move forward.
There are no special chess moves that allow a pawn to move in any other direction. If you want to move a pawn, the only way is up.
Pawns do not move very fast, they can only move forward one square per turn, except for their first move. Pawns that haven’t moved yet are allowed to move two squares forward, instead of one. A pawn may only move forward if no other pieces (of either color) are blocking its path.
Once the pawn reaches the other side of the board, pawn promotion is mandatory:
The main objective of the pawn is to reach the other side of the board, where it can promote itself into a stronger chess piece. Pawns that make it to the other side are removed from the board, and will be replaced by one of the following pieces (chosen by the player):
Pawns initially provide protection for stronger pieces, including the king. However, they also have the ability to attack pieces of the opposing color. Attacking and taking another piece with a pawn always involves a diagonal movement, as will be explained below.
Can A Pawn Attack Backwards?
The rules of chess do not allow a pawn to attack backwards under any circumstance. Pawns are only allowed to attack in a diagonal forward motion (left and right). While chess rules permit a pawn to move forward in a straight line, attacking another piece is only allowed diagonally.
To visualize the squares that a pawn is allowed to attack, please refer to the diagram below:
Notice how the diagonal squares are places to either side of the pawn, but not right in front of it. The pawn may choose to avoid attacking a piece diagonally, and could instead choose to ignore the piece completely. It can simply keep moving forward in a straight line: attacking with a pawn is not mandatory.
But once again, attacking with a pawn only happens diagonally and forward. Never backwards. Never.
Why Can’t Pawns Move Back?
The rules of chess don’t allow pawns to move back, because this would make pawns a lot more powerful. With a maximum of 16 pawns on the board, this would significantly disturb the balance in the game. If all pawns could move back, other pieces wouldn’t be able to move around safely anymore.
Another reason why pawns can’t move back is that it would permit them to defend the king on the first rank. This would make it a lot harder for a king to be placed in checkmate, unnecessarily drawing out the game longer.
A final reason relates to pawn promotion. If pawns were allowed to move back, pawn promotion would happen a lot less, which is a big win condition in the late game of any chess game. Technically, it’s also the only way that permits a pawn to legally move backwards on the board.
Promote A Pawn To Move & Attack Backwards
If you ever want to legally move a pawn backwards, you’d have to execute a special pawn move called pawn promotion. That’s when the pawn reaches the other side of the board and promotes into a queen, rook, bishop or knight.
The promoted pawn would then be able to move backwards as the promoted chess piece:
Admittedly, that’s not the pawn that is moving backwards. As explained, pawns are only permitted to move forward. There are no exceptions to this rule. However, once a pawn upgrades into a queen (the most commonly chosen promotion), it is fully capable of making all the moves a queen is permitted to make.
I’ve briefly mentioned at the beginning of this article that every chess piece except the pawn is allowed to move backwards. So it wouldn’t matter if you’d promote that pawn into a queen, rook, bishop, or knight. It would always be allowed to move backwards in its new form.
We can’t really say that the second queen on a chess board would be a pawn anymore. That’s why we basically say that as a rule of thumb, pawns don’t move or attack in a backwards direction. However, one could argue that pawn promotion is the one exception to this rule. If a player would see a second queen as an ‘upgraded pawn’, then that would indeed be a pawn moving backwards.
Would you agree with this theory? Or should we only be allowed to say that backwards movement for a pawn is not permitted under any circumstances? Feel free to join the discussion below, and together we can improve this resource for everyone!