Explaining a special chess move like pawn promotion to a new player is always exciting. Getting those little pawns to the other side of the board will transform them into something bigger!
Following chess rules, pawn promotion forces a pawn that is moved to the other side of a chessboard to transform into a queen, rook, knight, or bishop of the same color. Promoting a pawn removes that piece from the board, and adds a stronger chess piece in its place.
It’s not permitted to promote a pawn into a king, nor can a pawn remain a pawn. Pawns are moved onto the eighth rank of the board by choice, but are then forced to transform.
Pawn Promotion Explained
Following FIDE rules, the correct procedure for pawn promotion is as follows:
- Move the pawn to its promotion square (the far side of the board);
- This promoted pawn is immediately removed from the board;
- Players must announce which promoted piece is chosen (queen, rook, knight, or bishop);
- The chosen piece is placed on the same square the pawn promoted;
- The player’s turn ends.
The following diagram visualizes how a pawn is able to move on the board. Once the pawn reaches the eighth rank, it may transform into a queen, rook, knight, or bishop. Generally, the strongest strategic choice is to promote a pawn into a queen:
Pawns may only attack forward diagonally, which can alter the path of movement for this chess piece. It is permitted to promote a pawn by means of a diagonal attack:
Pawn Promotion Notation Rules
If a player wishes to use the algebraic notation for chess moves, the letter for the promoted piece is indicated at the end of a pawn move. For example, if the pawn on square g7 moves to square g8 to promote into a Queen (Q), standard FIDE notation would be g8Q.
Please note that choosing another chess piece for pawn promotion will change the letter at the end, depending on the chosen piece:
- Q = Queen
- R = Rook
- N = Knight
- B = Bishop
The knight officially uses the letter N for chess notations, because the letter K is already used for indicating the king. Remember that it is not permitted to promote a pawn to a king.
In case of attacking another piece to promote a pawn, the FIDE chess notation for pawn promotion would be indicated with g x h8Q.
Unofficial notation variants include indicating pawn promotion notations with an equal sign (g8=Q), forward slash (g8/Q), or using parenthesis (g8(Q)). However, these variations are not recognized by FIDE and won’t be used in chess tournaments.
The Pawn Is Usually Promoted To A Queen
Promoting a pawn comes with a choice. It’s possible for a player to transform into one of four pieces. Usually, that ends up being the queen. The reason is simple: the queen is arguably the strongest piece in chess. That’s mainly thanks to the queen’s efficient movement across the board.
However, players could choose other pieces as well. The rook, knight, or bishop are all strong choices.
And yet, having two queens at once simply is the better strategic choice in almost every case. As always, there are some exceptions to this rule. The board situation is the deciding factor in choosing the optimal chess piece for pawn promotion.
Underpromotion: When Not To Promote To A Queen
The main reason to not promote a pawn to a queen would be to avoid a certain stalemate. In some board situations, promoting into a rook or knight instead of a queen would avoid a situation in which the opponent’s king can’t move anymore. This process is called underpromotion.
Underpromoting a pawn is rare, but definitely not impossible in the final stages of a match.
Take for example the board situation shown below, which shows an almost cornered black king, as well as a pawn that’s ready to promote itself:
Promoting the pawn into a queen here would completely lock up the opponent’s king. He would have no movement options left. But he also wouldn’t be under attack. In chess, this would mean a stalemate. No winners and no losers.
To avoid this certain stalemate, it would be better for white to promote into a rook. This allows the king to maneuver out of his tight corner:
What would have happened if we ignored the black king’s situation and promoted the pawn into a queen anyways? It would immediately end the game and cause a stalemate (i.e. a draw), since the black king is not attacked. Black has no more moves left either:
In the example above, promoting into a queen is an instant disaster for white. A match that white was certain to win, instantly turned into a draw. Black wanted that draw, because they were certain to lose.
White was greedy by choosing to promote to a queen. No thought was given to the consequences of locking up the opponent’s king. That’s why underpromoting into a rook was a better choice for white!
Pawn Promotion Into A Checkmate
A much more fortunate situation would be to instantly force checkmate with a pawn promotion. While a checkmate situation is just as rare as underpromotion, it can definitely happen.
There are no chess rules that forbid a pawn to promote into a queen, rook, bishop, or knight in order to instantly checkmate the opponent’s king. Similarly, a pawn may promote to immediately check a king as well.
The example diagram below shows a situation in which pawn promotion would result in an instant checkmate:
While a pawn rarely checkmates a king directly, it is much more common for pawn promotion to result in an instant checkmate. In the situation above, white could even choose to underpromote their pawn on g7 into a rook to instantly checkmate the opponent’s king. That will score white some extra style points for sure.