The en passant pawn capture rule is a special pawn move that beginning chess players are seldom aware of. Even more experienced players can easily overlook it. I will admit, I myself forgot about it in a game at my local club a few years ago. When my opponent picked off my advanced pawn with a rule I had simply forgotten about, I felt awfully foolish. Don’t let the same embarrassment to happen to you. By reading this article, you will learn and understand en passant. Maybe you can even surprise your opponent with en passant and gain a crushing advantage.
En passant is French for “in passing”.
French words turn up in several places in chess, due to France’s strong influence on the game, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. The international chess federation is known as “FIDE”, which is a French acronym for Fédération Internationale des Échecs. Also, j’adoube (English: “I adjust”) is said when adjusting a piece’s position on a square without violating the touch-move rule. Plus there is the “French Defense” (1. e4 e6 – one of the game’s most solid and resilient openings), and the “Paris Opening” (1. Nh3 – one of the rarest and most outlandish).
If you were to read the official rules of chess cover-to-cover, en passant is there in black and white. Rule 3.7.d, to be precise! “A pawn attacking a square crossed by an opponent’s pawn which has advanced two squares in one move from its original square may capture this opponent’s pawn as though the latter had been moved only one square. This capture is only legal on the move following this advance and is called an ‘en passant’ capture.”
Ugh. It is almost impossible to read such a dry, technical description. Nobody learns chess by reading the official rules, cover-to-cover. That would be like reading the instruction manual before attempting to assemble a piece of furniture! As we all know, most of us disregard tiresomely long reading material, and simply dive in (sometimes with disastrous results).
We start in chess by learning how the different pieces move. Some are easy – bishops move diagonally, rooks move horizontally and vertically, queens have both these powers. Knights, with their “L” shaped movement and ability to jump, are trickier. Pawns, the weakest soldiers, are more difficult still; they normally move ahead one square, except on their first move when they can move two squares, but when they capture, they do so diagonally! It becomes second nature after a while, but to someone approaching the game for the first time, special cases like en passant can be knowledge gaps. Even a chess instructor may neglect to mention en passant, to avoid confusing their student while they are still trying to understand more common, basic concepts. En passant is relatively rare, usually appearing less than once per game. More common tactics are covered in this Empire Chess bundle by GM Damian Lemos.
Let us try and put the rather confusing explanation from the official rulebook into plain and simple English. The conditions for en passant are:
- the capturing pawn must be on its fifth rank (imagine a White pawn on d5).
- the threatened pawn must have moved two squares from its starting square, and be on an adjacent file (so, if White has a pawn on d5, then Black’s c-pawn and e-pawn could be threatened with en passant capture if they move from their starting squares).
- the capture can only be made on the move immediately after the opposing pawn makes the move, otherwise the right to capture en passantis lost.
- If all these conditions have been met, the threatened pawn can be removed, as if the pawn had moved only one square. So, if White has a pawn on d5, and Black’s c-pawn advances from c7 to c5, White may capture Black’s c-pawn, and White’s own pawn will move to c6.
An illustration will show what is meant.
Why did the rule-makers see fit to introduce this exception to the way that pawns normally move?
In the early days of chess (over 500 years ago), it was not possible for a pawn to move ahead two squares on the first move. The two-square first move rule was added to speed up the game, but it resulted in a disadvantage for the player whose pawn had made it to the 5th rank. Without en passant, pawns on the 5th rank could be passed by enemy pawns advancing two squares, without risk of capture. The en passant capture was brought in to prevent this to mean pawns moving ahead two squares could be captured by 5th rank pawns, as though they had moved just one square.
In most places, the en passant rule was adopted at the same time as allowing the pawn to move two squares on its first move. Together, they represent two of the last major rule changes in chess as the game evolved from its origins in India.
Why should you play en passant?
Like any chess move, you would only play en passant because you judge it to be the strongest move available to you. I have seen beginning players proudly play en passant more to show off that they know the rule, only to see their position collapse. Somehow, they feel that if they can play en passant, that they must. This is a mistake.
Due to its relative obscurity, some consider it “unsporting” to play en passant against a relatively new chess player. If your opponent is just getting the hang of playing chess, it seems a trifle unfair to whisk one of their pawns off the board when they weren’t expecting it. If it is a friendly game, you could try warning your opponent about the possibility of playing en passant, and allow them to take back their move, but the lesson will be better remembered if you are not so merciful. It, after all, a rule of chess, even if a little obscure.
Personally, I would not hesitate to play en passant, even if my opponent did not know it. One learns more by losing than one does by winning, and you should never hesitate from an opportunity of giving your opponent a lesson!
Now that the confusion has been cleared up, keep an eye out for opportunities to play en passant, and if it is the strongest move, go ahead and take advantage of your right to play it! For more ideas check out this recent article about positional vs tactical chess.