In chess, promoting a pawn to its highest potential – a queen – is often the ultimate goal for players, as it can significantly increase their chances of victory. However, there are rare situations when under-promoting a pawn to a lesser piece, such as a knight, bishop, or rook, can prove advantageous.
This counterintuitive concept may baffle beginners and intrigue experienced players alike.
In this article, we’ll look at the nuances of under-promotion in chess, examining its potential benefits and exploring various scenarios in which this unconventional tactic might just be the key to maintaining an advantage – or at least throwing a curveball at your opponent.
When Would You Want to Under-Promote a Pawn in Chess?
Under-promotion of a pawn in chess, though a rare occurrence, can arise in situations where promoting to a queen would be disadvantageous or when a lesser piece is more suitable for the given position.
Here are some instances when you would want to under-promote a pawn:
When promoting a pawn to a queen would cause a stalemate, under-promoting to a lesser piece, such as a knight, can be a better choice to continue the game and ultimately secure a win.
Below is an example where White promoting the d-pawn to a queen would produce a stalemate.
Promotion to bishop would lead to checkmate on the next move. (Black king can move to h8, followed, by bf6# OR king to f8 will allow for h8 promotion to queen for mate.)
Below is another example of under-promoting to a knight to avoid stalemate:
We cover this game more down below.
Knight promotion for a check
In certain positions, promoting a pawn to a knight can immediately put the opponent’s king in check, or even checkmate, due to the unique L-shaped movement of the knight.
This can be especially effective when the opponent’s king is confined to a small area, and promoting to a queen or rook would not yield the same result.
Reducing material for a theoretical draw
In endgame scenarios where promoting a pawn to a queen might make it harder to achieve a theoretical draw, under-promoting to a lesser piece can be advantageous.
For example, in certain positions with a rook and pawn versus rook, under-promoting to a bishop or knight could simplify the position and make it easier to achieve a draw.
Avoiding immediate capture
Promoting a pawn to a queen might result in an immediate capture by an opponent’s piece.
In such situations, under-promoting to a different piece could allow the promoted pawn to avoid capture and maintain a material advantage.
Under-promoting a pawn can be unexpected, catching your opponent off guard and possibly leading them to make a mistake.
This psychological aspect of under-promotion can be advantageous in closely contested games.
For example, let’s say you’re in a game where you have an advantage and your opponent is facing time pressure. They have a rook on their back-rank ready to capture a promoted pawn.
But let’s say instead of promoting to a queen – almost always an obvious capture at the expense of a rook – you under-promote to a rook.
Now the opponent has to calculate whether they actually want to make a less-than-obvious decision.
They may decide to keep the rooks on the board.
At the same time, it’s typically optimal to promote to a queen in such a scenario.
If you can get a pawn (“1 point”) for a rook (“5 points”), that’s generally a good decision.
However, there are nuances to consider.
It will be captured on the next move regardless of piece type/value
For example, in this position, if black were to promote the pawn, it will be taken on the next move regardless of whether it’s a queen, rook, bishop, or knight.
In fact, promotion is not objectively the best move to make – it’s a waste of a move.
Moreover, the b-pawn likely can’t be saved given the position.
To practice different types of checkmate
Chances are if you’re reading this text here, you are pretty serious about chess.
Accordingly, there will come times in your chess career where you’ll need to practice various forms of checkmate that don’t involve a queen or rook.
In this example, we have the following options:
- Promote to Queen: Checkmate in 3
- Promote to Rook: Checkmate in 3
- Promote to Bishop: Checkmate in 7
- Promote to Knight: Checkmate in 7
So you may want to promote to one of those minor pieces to practice – if you think you can get the job done.
It is important to note that under-promotion scenarios are often rare in practical gameplay, and the decision to under-promote should always be based on a careful evaluation of the position and its implications.
Developing an awareness of these unique situations can enrich your understanding of chess strategy and enhance your ability to recognize opportunities for creative and unconventional play.
Pawn Promotion in Chess (Rules)
In chess, pawn promotion is the process of advancing a pawn to the eighth rank and then replacing it with a more powerful piece, typically a queen, but sometimes a rook, bishop, or knight.
This is a powerful and essential move that can change the outcome of the game.
The rules for pawn promotion in chess are as follows:
- When a pawn reaches the eighth rank, it must be promoted to a more powerful piece.
- The player can choose to promote the pawn to a queen, rook, bishop, or knight.
- The promoted piece is placed on the square where the pawn reached the eighth rank.
- The pawn is removed from the board after it is replaced by the promoted piece.
- The promotion move is considered a legal move, and the game continues with the promoted piece on the board.
It’s important to note that a pawn can only be promoted if it has advanced to the eighth rank, and the promotion move must be the player’s next move.
If a player fails to promote a pawn, it remains on the eighth rank and becomes a target for the opponent.
Pawn promotion is an important tactic in chess, and it can lead to a significant shift in the balance of power on the board.
Players should always keep an eye out for opportunities to promote their pawns and take advantage of the additional power that comes with the promoted piece.
Pawn Promotion to Queen
When a pawn reaches the eighth rank of the chessboard, it can be promoted to any of the more powerful pieces, including the queen.
Promoting a pawn to a queen is the most common choice since the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.
With its ability to move in any direction along the rank, file, or diagonal, the queen can be a formidable force and can put tremendous pressure on the opponent’s position.
Pawn Promotion to Rook
Promoting a pawn to a rook is another option when it reaches the eighth rank.
The rook is the second most powerful piece on the board, and it has the ability to move along the rank or file, making it a valuable piece for controlling open lines and attacking the opponent’s position.
A pawn promoted to a rook can be especially useful in an endgame situation, where the extra firepower can make all the difference.
Below is an example where promoting to either a queen or rook could make sense.
If you promote to a queen, then the bishop captures it on the next move, followed by the knight capturing the bishop.
So, essentially you sacrifice your pawn for a bishop.
But you could also under-promote to a rook and pressure your opponent into a more complicated decision.
Do you take the rook with the bishop just as you’d do if it was promoted to a queen.
But white also has other options, such as checking the black king.
When in doubt, promote to a queen (as long as it doesn’t produce a stalemate or lead to an inferior outcome as under-promoting to another piece).
But you also have choices.
This example, which occurred in the same game as the above example, is a more obvious example of when you should promote to queen and not under-promote.
In this case, promoting to queen would be mate-in-7 (i.e., -(#7) evaluation) for black.
However, under-promoting to rook would result in a -6 to -7 evaluation.
Black would still be ahead, but would require more moves and accurate play to finish off the game.
In the position below, black promoting to a queen or rook makes no functional difference on the evaluation of the position.
Promotion to a queen would be taken by the rook right away.
Promotion to a rook may or may not be taken by the rook right away and could create complications in the position, which would be good for black given its large positional deficit.
Pawn Promotion to Bishop
Promoting a pawn to a bishop is also a viable option when it reaches the eighth rank.
The bishop is a powerful piece that can move diagonally across the board, and it can be especially useful for attacking the opponent’s position and controlling key squares on the board.
A pawn promoted to a bishop can be particularly effective in a position where the opponent’s king is exposed, as the bishop can be used to deliver checkmate.
Pawn Promotion to Knight
Promoting a pawn to a knight is the least common option when it reaches the eighth rank, but it can still be a useful move in certain situations.
The knight is a unique piece that moves in an L-shape, making it a valuable tool for attacking and defending positions on the board.
Promoting a pawn to a knight can be particularly useful when the opponent has a well-defended position and the knight can be used to break through and create a weakness in their defenses.
Avoid Stalemate by Promoting to Knight
It’s also a common choice to avoid stalemate situations.
The position below is one example where promoting to a queen or rook would result in stalemate:
And then must execute the checkmate via:
78… e1=N 79. Kg1 Qg2#
Example of Promoting to a Knight for Tactical or Positional Reasons
The example below is very unique because it’s a situation where there is no functional difference between promoting to a knight or promoting to a queen.
Promoting to a queen would result in immediate capture.
Promoting to a knight would check the king and either result in immediate capture or force the king to move.
Promoting to a rook would be weaker than either option and promoting to a second light-squared bishop would be weakest.
Promoting to a knight would also force the opponent to think about what it should do rather than promote to a queen, which makes black’s next move obvious.
One of the Rarest Reasons to Promote to a Knight
FAQs – Pawn Underpromotion
Can a promoted pawn be taken immediately?
Yes, a promoted pawn can be taken immediately in chess.
When a pawn reaches the opposite end of the board and is promoted to a different piece (usually a queen, but it can also be a rook, bishop, or knight), the promotion is considered a move in itself.
After the pawn is promoted, the opposing player has the opportunity to capture the newly promoted piece if it is within their legal moves.
So, if a promoted pawn is in a position where it can be taken, the opponent can capture it on their next move if it is within the rules of the game.
Can you have multiple queens in chess?
In a standard game of chess, each player starts with one queen, which is the most powerful piece on the board. However, it is possible to have multiple queens during the course of a game.
The opportunity to have multiple queens arises when a pawn reaches the opposite end of the board from its starting position.
At that point, the pawn can be promoted to any other piece, including a queen. It is common practice to promote a pawn to a queen since the queen possesses a wide range of movement and can be highly influential in the game.
In rare situations, it is possible for a player to promote several pawns to queens, resulting in a situation with multiple queens on the board for that player.
However, this occurrence is infrequent and usually happens in very exceptional circumstances.
It can be a highly advantageous position as multiple queens offer increased attacking potential and can be a significant threat to the opponent’s king.
So while it is not the norm, it is possible to have multiple queens in a game of chess under specific circumstances.
Can you promote a pawn to a second queen?
Yes, you can promote a pawn to a second queen when it reaches the end of the board.
When a pawn reaches the opposite end of the board, it can be promoted to any other piece, including a queen, rook, bishop, or knight.
The promotion is limited to a single piece of the player’s choice.
What are the pawn promotion rules?
In chess, when a pawn reaches the opposite end of the board (the eighth rank for White and the first rank for Black), it is eligible for promotion.
The player must promote the pawn to a different piece of their choice.
The available options for promotion are:
- Queen: Promoting a pawn to a queen is the most common choice since the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, possessing the combined abilities of a rook and a bishop.
- Rook: A pawn can be underpromoted to a rook. The rook has the ability to move horizontally and vertically across the board.
- Bishop: Promoting a pawn to a bishop allows it to move diagonally across the board. Each player starts with two bishops—one on a light square and one on a dark square—and promoting a pawn to a bishop allows for the possibility of having more than two bishops.
- Knight: A pawn can be underpromoted to a knight. The knight has a unique movement pattern, moving in an L-shape consisting of two squares in one direction and then one square in a perpendicular direction.
The piece cannot remain a pawn.
The player can choose any of these four options when promoting a pawn, and it is not necessary to promote the pawn to a piece that has been captured earlier in the game.
The promotion is not limited to a piece of the same type as the pawn.
The player typically places the new piece on the board to replace the promoted pawn.
Pawn promotion is an important strategic element in chess, as it allows pawns to transform into more powerful pieces, enhancing the player’s attacking potential.
Do you always promote a pawn to a queen?
No, you do not always promote a pawn to a queen.
While promoting a pawn to a queen is the most common choice due to its power and versatility, there are certain situations where under-promoting to a knight, bishop, or rook can prove advantageous.
These scenarios are typically rare, but they can arise in cases where promoting to a queen would lead to stalemate, or when a lesser piece would be more suitable for the given position.
When should you under-promote a pawn?
You should under-promote a pawn in situations where promoting to a queen would be disadvantageous or when a lesser piece is more suitable for the given position.
This might include avoiding stalemate, achieving a theoretical draw in endgames, putting the opponent’s king in check or checkmate with a knight, or avoiding immediate capture by the opponent’s pieces.
It’s crucial to carefully evaluate the position and its implications before deciding to under-promote a pawn.
Is there any reason not to promote pawn to queen?
Yes, there can be reasons not to promote a pawn to a queen.
While a queen is the most powerful piece on the board, promoting to a queen might not always be the best choice.
Reasons not to promote a pawn to a queen include avoiding stalemate, utilizing the unique movement of a knight to put the opponent’s king in check or checkmate, simplifying a position to achieve a theoretical draw, or preventing the promoted piece from being immediately captured by the opponent.
Can you promote a pawn to a queen if you already have a queen?
Yes, you can promote a pawn to a queen even if you already have a queen on the board.
There is no limit to the number of queens a player can have in a game of chess.
When a pawn reaches the opponent’s back rank, it can be promoted to any piece regardless of the existing pieces on the board.
This can lead to situations where a player has multiple queens, which can be a significant advantage in terms of material and attacking power.
The underpromotion of a pawn in chess is a rare but potentially powerful move that can surprise opponents and shift the balance of power on the board.
While most players opt to promote their pawns to a queen, rook, bishop, or knight, there are situations where promoting to a less powerful piece, such as a knight or a bishop, can be strategically advantageous.
Underpromotion can be used to create unexpected threats or to set up clever tactical combinations that can catch the opponent off guard.
Overall, underpromotion is a tool that experienced chess players keep in their arsenal, and it can be a valuable addition to any player’s game.