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Pawn promotion

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Pawn promotion

Promotion is a chess rule describing the transformation of a pawn that reaches its eighth rank into the player's choice of a queen, knight, rook, or bishop of the same color.[1] The new piece replaces the pawn on the same square and is part of the move. Promotion is not limited to pieces that have already been captured.[2] Every pawn that reaches its eighth rank must be promoted. Pawn promotion, or the threat thereof, often decides the result of a chess endgame.

Since the queen is the most powerful piece, the vast majority of promotions in practical play are to a queen. Promotion to a queen is often referred to as queening. A promotion to a piece other than the queen is called underpromotion (Golombek 1977).

If the promoted piece is not available, FIDE rules are that the player should stop the game clock and summon the arbiter for the correct piece. In addition, under US Chess Federation rules and in casual play, an upside-down rook may be used to designate a queen (Just & Burg 2003:16–17).

Promotions to king are allowed in some chess variants, such as suicide chess. As noted below, at one time promotion was not mandatory, and the player could choose to have a pawn reaching the eighth rank remain a pawn. In some fairy chess variants, promotions to pieces of the opponent's color are also possible. In shogi, all but two of the eight piece types can promote, but only to a particular piece; two of these pieces are available only by promotion. In xiangqi, pawns gain additional movement after crossing to the board's other side, but this is not usually labelled promotion.

Promotion to various pieces

Promotion to a queen is the most common in practical play, since the queen is the most powerful piece. Underpromotion (promoting to a piece other than a queen) occurs more often in chess problems than in practical play. In practical play, underpromotions are rare, but not extraordinarily so (see table below).[3] As the most powerful piece, the queen is usually the most desirable, but promotion to a different piece can be advantageous in certain situations. A promotion to knight is occasionally useful, particularly if it occurs with check. A promotion to a rook is, on rare occasions, necessary in order to avoid a draw because of an immediate stalemate that would occur if the promotion was to a queen. Promotion to a bishop almost never occurs in practical play (about one game in 33,000). (See Underpromotion: Promotion to rook or bishop for examples of underpromotions to rook and bishop made in order to avoid stalemate.)

The percentage of games involving promotions can be misleading because often a player resigns when he sees that he cannot stop his opponent from promoting a pawn. In the 2006 ChessBase database of 3,200,000 games (many grandmaster- and master-level), about 1.5 percent of the games contain a promotion. In these games (counting games in which multiple promotions by the same player to the same piece occur only once), the fraction of times each piece was promoted to is approximately:

Piece Percentage
Queen 96.9
Knight 1.8
Rook 1.1
Bishop 0.2

This suggests that about 3 percent of all promotions are underpromotions. The frequency of truly significant underpromotions is, however, less than this. Note that the promotion is not limited to pieces that have been captured. A player may promote to any piece they wish, regardless of whether or not it has been taken. In theory, a player could have nine queens, ten knights, ten bishops or ten rooks, though this is an improbable scenario. Some chess sets (see Chess piece) come with an extra queen of each color to use for promoted pawns.[4] If an extra queen is unavailable, it is often represented by an upside-down rook instead.[5]

The diagram from the game between Bobby Fischer and Tigran Petrosian in the 1959 Candidates Tournament shows a position in which each side has two queens.[6] Four queens existed from move 37 until move 44 (Fischer 2008:113–14).


The ability to promote is often the critical factor in endgames and thus is an important consideration in opening and middlegame strategy. Almost all promotions occur in the endgame, but promotion in the middlegame does happen.

Promotion occasionally occurs even in the opening, often after one side makes a blunder, as in the Lasker trap, which features an underpromotion to a knight on move seven: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e5 3.dxe5 d4 4.e3? Bb4+ 5.Bd2 dxe3! 6.Bxb4?? exf2+! 7.Ke2 fxg1=N+! Schlechter vs. Perlis, Karlsbad 1911 could have featured a promotion to queen on move 11: 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.e3 Bf5 5.Qb3 Qb6 6.cxd5 Qxb3 7.axb3 Bxb1? 8.dxc6! Be4?? 9.Rxa7! Rxa7 10.c7 threatening both 11.cxb8=Q and 11.c8=Q.[7] Perlis avoided the trap with 8...Nxc6!, losing more slowly.[8] The British grandmaster Joe Gallagher pulled off a similar idea a half-move earlier in Terentiev-Gallagher, Liechtenstein Open 1990: 1.d4 Nf6 2.Bg5 Ne4 3.Bf4 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Qb3 cxd4 6.Qxb6 axb6 7.Bxb8? dxc3 8.Be5?? Rxa2! and now White could have resigned, since if 9.Rxa2, c2 promotes the c-pawn (Gallagher 1996:121). Another example occurs after 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Ng3 h5 6.Bg5?! h4 7.Bxf6?? hxg3 8.Be5 Rxh2! 9.Rxh2 Qa5+! 10.c3 Qxe5+! 11.dxe5 gxh2, with the dual threat of 12...hxg1(Q) and 12...h1(Q), as in Schuster-Carls, Bremen 1914 and NNTorre, Mexico 1928 (Burgess 1998:72). Note that 10.Qd2 (instead of 10.c3) would have been met by 10...exf2+! 11.Kd1 (11.Kxf2 Qxd2+) Qxd2+ 12.Kxd2 fxg1=Q rather than 10...Qxe5 11.dxe5 gxh2 12.Nf3 h1=Q 13.0-0-0 with a strong attack (Neishtadt 1996:94–96).

There are also a few opening lines where each side gets a desperado pawn that goes on a capturing spree, resulting in each side queening a pawn in the opening. An example is seen in the position at right, where play continued 10...bxc3 11.exf6 cxb2 12.fxg7 bxa1=Q 13.gxh8=Q.

Both players promoted by White's seventh move in Casper vs. Heckert: 1.e4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.e5 d4 4.exf6 dxc3 5.d4 cxb2 6.fxg7 bxa1=Q 7.gxh8=Q.[9]

History of the rule

The original idea was that a foot soldier that advanced all the way through the enemy lines was promoted to the lowest officer. In the middle ages, the queen was much weaker than now, and its only move was one square diagonally and not at all in any other direction. (It was earlier called farzin or ferz (from the Persian for "vizier"). When the queen and bishop got their new moves, chess was radically altered. When the fers became the queen, there were objections that a king should not have more than one queen (Davidson 1981:59–60).

At different times, the pawn could only promote to the piece of the file on which it promoted, or on which it started (queen if on the king's file). In Italy in the 18th and early 19th century, the pawn could only be promoted to a piece that had already been captured. Likewise, Philidor did not like the possibility of having two queens, and in all editions of his book (1749 to 1790) he stated that a promotion could only be to a piece previously captured. Lambe also stated this rule in a 1765 book (Davidson 1981:60–61). If none of the promoting player's pieces had yet been captured, the pawn remained inactive until one of the player's pieces was captured, whereupon the pawn immediately assumed that role (Staunton 1848:7). A player could thus never have two queens, three knights, three rooks, or three bishops (Staunton 1848:7). One old set of chess rules said that "a promoted pawn became a ferz, with the move of the queen".

The restricted promotion rule was used unevenly. Arthur Saul published a book in 1814 which gave the unrestricted promotion rule, as did Jacob Sarratt in an 1828 book. By Sarratt's time, the unrestricted promotion was popular, and according to Davidson it was universal by the mid-19th century (Davidson 1981:61). However, Howard Staunton wrote in The Chess-Player's Handbook, originally published in 1847, that according to Carl Jaenisch the restricted promotion rule then remained in force in northern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia, and Germany (Staunton 1848:7).

1862 British Chess Association rule

Although the current rules of chess require a pawn that reaches the eighth rank to be promoted to a different piece, that was not always the case. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first World Champion, in his 1889 work The Modern Chess Instructor endorsed the then-existent "Code of Laws of the British Chess Association" (Steinitz 1990:xx). Law XIII thereof provided, "When a pawn has reached the eighth square, the player has the option of selecting a piece, whether such piece has previously been lost or not, whose names and powers it shall then assume, or of deciding that it shall remain a pawn." (Steinitz 1990:xxii) (emphasis added). Steinitz explained the purpose of this rule by referring to the position diagrammed at left, which he cited from Johann Löwenthal's Book of the London Chess Congress, of 1862:

If White plays 1.bxa8(Q)?? (or any other promotion), Black wins with 1...gxh3, when White cannot stop Black from checkmating him next move with 2...h2#. Instead, White draws by 1.bxa8(P)!, when 1...gxh3 or 1...Kxh3 stalemates White, and other moves allow 2.Bxg2, with a drawn endgame (Steinitz 1990:xxiv). Steinitz wrote, "We approve of the decision of the London Chess Congress, of 1862, although the 'dummy' pawn rule was denounced by some authorities." (Steinitz 1990:xxiv) The same rule and explanation are given by George H. D. Gossip in The Chess-Player's Manual (Gossip & Lipschütz 1902:17–18,33).

The broad language of Law XIII also appears to allow promotion to any piece of any color. This led to the whimsical endgame study diagrammed at right. White is to play and checkmate in one move. No solution is possible under modern-day rules, but with Law XIII in effect the surprising solution is 1.g8(Black N)!, when the newly promoted knight blocks its own king's flight square (Birbrager 1975:25). Presumably other amusing problems could be created involving promotion to a white or black king, which Law XIII also appears to allow.

Howard Staunton vigorously opposed the 1862 rule when it was proposed, but the tournament committee passed it by a large majority of votes (Sergeant 1934:117). However, it did not catch on. Philip Sergeant wrote (Sergeant 1934:138):

A correspondent in the May [1865] Chess World ... did not exaggerate when he wrote that the B.C.A. Code had been very generally rejected by British amateurs, and emphatically condemned by the leading authorities of America, Germany, and France. In particular, the absurd "dead Pawn" rule, against which Staunton had made his protest in 1862, had failed to win acceptance.

The tournament book of the London 1883 international chess tournament (originally published in 1883) contains a "Revised International Chess Code", which was "published for the consideration of Chess Players, and especially of the managers of future International Tournaments". Unlike the 1862 rule, which allowed the pawn to remain a pawn, it requires that, "A Pawn reaching the eighth square must be named as a Queen or piece ... ."[10] (Minchin 1973:iii-iv)


Promotion to a knight, bishop, or rook is known as an "underpromotion". Although these pieces are less powerful than the queen, there are some situations where it is advantageous to underpromote.[11]

Underpromotion is also sometimes used in casual games as a way of showing off to a significantly inferior opponent. Similar techniques used in these sort of games including sacrificing powerful pieces and putting pieces in a tactically vulnerable situation which the opponent is unlikely to take advantage of. This is considered to be unsporting.

Promotion to a knight

Since the knight moves in a way which the queen cannot, knight underpromotions can be very useful, and are the most common type of underpromotion.

In the top diagram on the right, given by World Champion Emanuel Lasker, White has a huge material disadvantage. Promotion to a queen (by 1.exd8=Q?) would still leave Black ahead in material. Instead, promotion to a knight with 1.exd8=N+! wins by virtue of a fork: 1....K\any 2.Nxf7 followed by 3.Nxh8 leaves White a piece up with a winning endgame.[12]

Promotion to knight may also be done for defensive reasons; to the right is such a case, a 2006 game between Gata Kamsky and Étienne Bacrot.[13] White threatens to capture the pawn or checkmate by Rh1 if the black pawn promotes to a queen, rook, or bishop. The only move that does not lose for Black is 74...e1=N+! The resulting rook versus knight endgame is a theoretical draw (see pawnless chess endgame). In the actual game, mistakes were made in the rook versus knight endgame and White won on move 103 (de la Villa 2008:43–44). This is a standard defensive technique for the endgame of a rook versus a pawn (de la Villa 2008:71–72).

Tim Krabbé points out that Zurakhov-Koblentz (pictured in the diagrams at left and right) furnishes a very rare example of a game with two "serious" underpromotions to knight. In the position at left, Black threatens 57...Nxg7, and if White avoided this by promoting to queen, rook, or bishop, Black would reach a drawn position with 57...Ne7+! and 58...Nxg8. The only winning move is 57.g8=N! Krabbé notes that this is a rare example of a non-checking knight-promotion.

Twenty-one moves later, the players reached the position at right. Once again, a promotion to anything other than a knight would be a blunder allowing a knight fork, e.g. 79.c8(Q)?? Nd6+ and 80...Nxc8, with a drawn ending. White instead played 79.c8=N+! (Here, there are other winning moves, such as 79.Kc5.) Kb8 80.Kb6 and Black resigned, since White cannot be stopped from promoting a third pawn—this time to a queen.

This was the 71st move of a game between Vladimir Akopian and Sergey Karjakin at Nalchik, 2009.[14][15] After 71.a8(Q)??, 71...Qxb2+, followed by alternating checks on the a and b files, would give Black a perpetual check, so Akopian played 71.a8=N!, and Karjakin resigned, as 71...Qxb2+ 72.Nb6+ would cover the check and force 72...Qxb6+ 73.Kxb6, with an easy win for White.

An example of underpromotion to a knight occurred in this game: Peter Svidler versus Vladimir Malakhov, played at the FIDE World Cup in December 2009 at Khanty Mansiysk in Siberia: (Slav Defense a6):[16][17] 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 a6 5.e3 b5 6.c5 g6 7.Bd3 Bg4 8.h3 Bxf3 9.Qxf3 Bg7 10.g4 e5! 11.Qg3 Nfd7 12.Ne2 Qe7 13.0-0 h5 14.f3 Nf8 15.a4 b4 16.Bd2 a5 17.e4 dxe4 18.Bxe4 Ne6 19.Rae1 h4 20.Qf2 0-0 21.f4 exd4 22.f5!? Nxc5 23.Bb1 d3 24.Nc1 Qd6 25.Ba2?? Bd4 26.Be3 Ne4 27.Qxh4 g5 28.Qh5 d2 29.f6 Qxf6 30.Bxd4 Qxd4+ 31.Kg2 dxe1=N+! and White resigned because of 32.Rxe1 Qf2+ 33.Kh1 Ng3# or 32.Kh2 Qxb2+ 33.Ne2 Qxe2+ 34. Rf2 Qxf2+ 35.Kh1 Ng3#. If 31...dxe1=Q??, it is White who mates with 32.Bxf7+ Rxf7 33.Qxf7+ Kh8 34.Qf8+ Kh7 35.Rf7+ Kg6 36.Qg8+ Kh6 37.Rh7#.[18]

Promotion to rook or bishop

Because the queen combines the powers of the rook and the bishop, there is rarely a reason to underpromote to either of those pieces. However, doing so is occasionally advantageous, usually to avoid an immediate draw by stalemate if the promotion was to a queen. In the position at left (with White to move), Black threatens to capture White's pawn (which would be a draw), and a promotion to queen would be stalemate. The move 1.g8(R)! wins because White can force an elementary checkmate from the resulting position.

At right is a position from a 2006 game at the Irish Chess Championship.[19] Here too, a promotion to queen would allow stalemate: 70...b1=Q?? 71.Qh3+! Kxh3 stalemate (or 71...Kg1 72. Qh1+! and now the black king is forced to capture). Instead, the game concluded 70...b1=R! 0-1

In the position at left, promotion to a queen or rook would pin the bishop, leaving black with no possible move, resulting in a stalemate. Promotion to bishop is the only winning move: 1. c8=B! B\any 2. Nd7 B\any 3. Bb7# 1-0. (Promotion to knight threatens checkmate via 3.Nb6, but that is thwarted by 2...Bc7 3.Nb6+ Bxb6 4.Kxb6, with a drawn game.)

Less often, underpromotion to bishop or rook may be necessary not to avoid stalemate, but to induce it and thus save a draw in an otherwise hopeless position. To the right is an example from the end of a study by Herman Mattison.

Both king moves lose quickly (they can be met by ...Rgg7, for example), so the pawn must be promoted. 6.b8=Q and 6.b8=R both lose to a capture on c8, and 6.b8=N, while leaving a stalemate after 6...Rgxc8??, loses quickly after 6...Rcxc8. This only leaves 6.b8=B!: since the c7 rook is now pinned, Black must either lose it with a theoretical draw or play 6...Rxc8 which, with a bishop on b8 rather than a queen or rook, is stalemate.

Underpromotion to knight or rook in practical play is rare, and to bishop is even rarer, but in composed chess problems such as this last example, it occurs more often. Perhaps the most famous example is the Saavedra position. Some cases can be quite spectacular: a study by Jan Rusinek, for example, sees White promoting to knight, bishop and rook in order to induce stalemate. An Allumwandlung is a problem where promotions to all four possible pieces occur. An extreme example is the Babson task, where underpromotions by Black are countered by matching underpromotions by White (so if Black promotes to a rook, so does White, and so on), White's underpromotions being the only way to mate Black in the stipulated number of moves.

In the 1972 game[20] between Aron Reshko and Oleg Kaminsky, promotion to a queen or rook would allow 61...Qf7+!! 62.Qxf7 stalemate. White could promote to a knight, but that would not be sufficient to win (Soltis 1978:34–35). White wins after:

61.a8=B! Qb3

If 62.Bc6 Qa2 63.Bd7 Qg8 64.Qxg8+ Kxg8 65.Kg6 also wins (Müller & Pajeken 2008:219–20)

63.Bd5 Qf8
64.Bf7 Kh8
65.Qe8 Qxe8
66.Bxe8 Kh7
67.Bf7 Kh8 Black is in zugzwang for two moves.
68.Kg6 h5
69.Kxh5# wins (Soltis 1978:34–35)

In the actual game, White promoted to a Knight=N. White won the game because of an error by Black (Müller & Pajeken 2008:219–20).

In the 1938 (or 1933) game between Alexey Sokolsky and Grigory Ravinsky, promotion to a queen or rook would allow 66...Rc2+ 67.Ka1 Rc1+ with a draw by perpetual check. Promotion to a knight also draws because of the position of Black's king, with 66...Rc8! 67.Ra6 Rxa8 68.Rxa8 stalemate. However, the move 66.a8(B)!, which was played in the game, wins for White, with the following main variations:

a. 66...Rh5 67.Be4 Rxh6 68.Ka3 (putting Black into zugzwang) 68...Rh5 69.Rb8 Re5 70.Bc6 and White wins.

b. 66...Rc7 67.Bd5 Bd7 68.Rd6 Be8 (if the rook moves along the c-file, then 69.Bxf7+) 69.Bxf7+ Kxf7 70.Rd8 and the threats of 71.Rxe8 or g8=Q+ (or both) are unstoppable.

c. 66...Rc8 67.Be4 (or 67.Bd5 Rd8 68.Bc4 Rc8 69.Rb7 Rd8 70.Re7 Rc8 71.Ka3 Rb8 72.Bd5 Rd8 73.Kb4 Rb8+ 74.Ka5 Rd8 75.Kb6 Rc8 76.Kb7 Rd8 77.Kc7 Rd7+ 78.Rxd7 Bxd7 79.Bxf7+ and White wins) 67...Bc6 68.Bxc6 Ra8 69.Ba4 Re8 70.Ka3! Ra8 71.Re6! fxe6 72.Kb4 Kf7 73.Bc6 Rb8+ 74.Kc5 and 75.Be4 and 76.Bxh7 win for White (if 74...Rxb3, then 75.Be8+).
(d) 66...Re5 (preventing 67.Bd5) 67.Bf3! Rf5 (67...Bc6 or 67...Bb5 are met by 68.Bd5!) 68.Be4 (or 68.Rb8 Re5) 68...Re5 69.Bd3 Bb5 70.Bc4 and White wins by getting his rook to e7 (if 70...Re8 or 70...Bc6, then 71.Bxf7+).[21]

Insignificant underpromotions

A majority of underpromotions in practical play are, as Tim Krabbé puts it, "silly jokes"—underpromotions made where there is no real need to do so.[21] A recent high-level example was the game ShirovKramnik, Amber Blindfold, 2005.[22] In the position shown to the right, Black played 25...e1(B)+. This underpromotion is completely inconsequential as both it and 25...e1=Q+ force 26.Qxe1.

In 1932, a long game[23] between Milan Vidmar and Géza Maróczy had been a theoretical draw for many moves, because of the opposite-colored bishops endgame. Two underpromotions to bishops occurred on successive moves by White:

124.h8=B+ Kxh8
125.d8=B Kxg8

The game was drawn on move 129.

Unusual situation

An unusual situation occurred in a 1993 game between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.[24] Karpov was in serious time trouble, with one minute to make 16 moves. In this position, Kasparov captured the rook on d1 with the pawn on c2, and said "Queen!", indicating that the promoted piece was a queen. However, no queen was immediately available. It took some time for the arbiter to come up with a black queen. Kasparov said that if he had been attentive, he would have promoted to a rook, which was available. Kasparov's clock was running while the arbiter was getting a queen, so he started Karpov's clock. Karpov immediately played 25.Qxe4 and Kasparov told him that he was in check. Karpov replied "From what? It might be a bishop on d1." The clocks were stopped. The arbiter found a black queen, the game was backed up to the position after 24...cxd1=Q+, and Karpov was given an extra two minutes on his clock because of Kasparov's illegal move. Kasparov disputes that he made an illegal move. Kasparov soon won the game, however (Kasparov 2010:332).

Articles on promotions in certain endgames

These articles involve endgames where the question is whether or not a pawn can be safely promoted:

See also



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