chess board setup

Yes! A pawn can become a queen through a promotion known as “queening”. This occurs when a pawn of either side reaches the eighth rank and is exchanged for the queen of their respective color. 

Throughout this article, we’ll discuss the fascinating history and present use of promotion. From how to promote your pawn to queen to (just as crucial) how to prevent your opponent from doing it; it’s time to learn the ins and outs of pawn promotion. 

From pauper to prince (or queen, in this case), let’s learn all there is to know about promoting your pawn to a queen. 

The Prince and the Pauper

Growing up, once of my favorite books was the children’s adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. I mean, just imagine: a poor boy gets to parade as a prince, while the real prince gets a glimpse of how the other half lives.

Every time I promote a pawn to a queen, I am fondly reminded of this story, and the fact that anything is possible (no matter where you come from).

However, it also reminds me that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Yes, the humble pawn is now a queen, but it has much more responsibility now. Not to mention the multiple pieces who have now dedicated their lives to capturing it.

Meet the Queen and the Pawn 

Before we jump in, let’s inspect the ranks! 

Promotion truly is a rags-to-riches tale. The queen (nine points) is the most powerful piece in the arsenal of a chess player. She has the ability to move horizontally, diagonally or vertically, for as many moves as the board allows. In short, the queen is ready to cause havoc. 

Interestingly, the queen was not always as powerful as she is today. This piece was originally referred to as a “prime minister”, “counsellor” or “vizier”. Furthermore, it’s only move was one move diagonally; imagine that! 

According to historian Marilyn Yalom, the queen as we know (and love) her today started in Spain during the reign of Isabella I of Castile; most probably inspired by the sovereign’s power. 

The pawn (1 point), on the other hand, is the weakest member of the battalion. Although rich in numbers – there are eight pawns on each side – a pawn can only advance one square forward at a time. However, pawns are allowed to move two squares when moving for the first time. To capture its opponent, a pawn moves vertically to the left or the right. 

This humble piece is as old as chess itself, having its origins in chess’ predecessor, chaturanga. Initially, the pawn moved one square forward and captured oppositions to the side.

Now that you know the specifics of a queen and a pawn, let’s discuss how the one can become the other. 

How to Promote a Pawn to Queen

When a pawn reaches the eighth rank (the row closest to your opponent) on a chessboard, it may be “promoted” to a higher rank of the same color, including that of a queen. 

When a pawn is promoted to queen, it is usually referred to as “queening”. This process happens on the same move as when the pawn lands on its final rank. 

Given the limited versatility of a pawn’s movement range, reaching the eighth rank without capture by the opponent is quite a feat. It kind of makes you want to shout: “Well done, little guy!”. 

Furthermore, your starting queen does not have to be captured by your opponent for you to queen a pawn. Technically, and this is the fun part, that means a player could have nine queens in total (eight promoted pawns and an original queen).

However, this scenario is not likely to happen (but it’s nice to imagine the possibilities of endless queen power!). 

In the gameplay below, for example, online players showcase how a board with nine queens would look. We would not want to find ourselves on the receiving side of this attack! 

Pawn promotion and endgame 

As you can see from the (exaggerated) example above, pawn promotion is likely to decide the outcome of an endgame. An endgame is when there are only a few pieces left on the chessboard. 

Related: Can a pawn take a king?

The History of Chess Promotion 

The process of a pawn’s promotion was inspired by the thought of a foot soldier (the pawn) advancing through enemy lines, all the way to its opponent ranks. 

Surely, such a feat should be celebrated? Thus, it was decided that a “foot soldier” should be promoted to the lowest rank available: an officer. 

Wait, the lowest rank? That’s right! As previously mentioned, a queen did not always have as much value as she has today. During the Middle Ages, in fact, this piece was valued at just a smidge above a pawn. 

As the queen grew more powerful, so did the pawn when it got to be promoted. Talk about a Freaky Friday-level life swap! 

When the pawn grew stronger during promotion as a result of the queen’s newly found power, chess was radically altered. Of course, this was also influenced by the more powerful moves that the bishop got at the time. 

Within chess circles, there were multiple objections that a king should not be able to have more than one queen. Look, we say the more the merrier! Especially if an extra queen or two can help you topple your opponent’s empire. 

How Many Queens Can There Be On A Chessboard?

As there are eight pawns on a side and two queens, there can technically be 18 queens on a chess board at the same time. 

However, this is a highly unlikely scenario, although it might be a site to see. 

According to this chess forum, the most number of queens that have been on a chessboard during a professional game seems to be five. These games were between Tresling and Benina (1896) and Vondung against Lamprecht (1972). 

Also keep in mind that a pawn is not always promoted to a queen. We will discuss this in further details a bit later, but a pawn can also be promoted to a bishop, knight or rook. 

What If An Extra Queen Isn’t Available? 

According to the World Chess Federation, if a queen or other promoted piece is not available, players must stop the game and call upon an arbiter to give them the correct piece.

If you’re already a chess player, you might be familiar with the process of simply turning a pawn on its head to represent that it is a queen. 

This is a commonly accepted way of gameplay in casual play. Even the US Chess Federation thinks it’s acceptable! I mean, imagine the chaos at home if you and your sibling have to wait for a family member to give you a replacement piece. Inspired by the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, we say “off (onto) his head!”.  

The Rules of Promotion 

A pawn must be promoted once it lands on the square of the eight rank. In formal games, a replacement piece must be given to players if not available on the board (or in the capturing cells). Players must stop the clocks to wait for this replacement.

In casual chess, however, it is perfectly acceptable to turn a pawn on its head and call it a queen. Wow, we wish we could do the same! 

What is Underpromotion in chess?

Underpromotion in chess refers to when a pawn is, you guessed it, underpromoted to a piece less powerful than the queen.

This could be a knight, bishop or a rook. But wait, why on earth would a player under promote their pawn if they could make it a powerful queen? 

There may be cases in a game play where it is beneficial to rather promote a pawn to something other than a queen. These scenarios include: 

  • To hint to a weaker opponent that it is time to retire their king. 
  • To avoid stalemate. This is when a king is not in check mate, but cannot move without landing in check mate. This then leads to a draw. 
  • When a knight would be more beneficial to fork. 
  • Simply as a joke, especially if the player knows that their promoted piece will be immediately captured by a lurking rook. 

How to Prevent Your Opponent from Reaching Promotion 

Pawn promotion is great when it’s working for you, but what if your opponent plans on using it against you? Here are a few ways to prevent pawn promotion.

Keep your rook close 

Keeping a rook on the eighth rank is a commonly used tactic to capture a pawn that has been promoted. 

Once the pawn is swapped for a queen (or whichever piece), it is the opponent’s turn to move. If they have a rook on the same rank, they can simply capture the promoted pawn before it does any damage.

Capture as many pawns as you can

Don’t see a pawn as a non-threat. When it creeps towards your home ranks, imagine it for what it really is: a pawn on the war path to becoming something more powerful. Wait, is this a Game of Thrones plot?

While keeping as many of your own pieces (pawns included) safe, capture as many of your opponent’s pawns as possible. Nip it in the bud, if you will.

Keep your king safe

You won’t always be able to prevent a pawn from being promoted. This is especially true when a round of chess reaches end game, in which case only a few pieces are left on the board. Then it’s important to keep your most prized piece, the king, as safe as possible.

If you, for example, only have a king left, there is little change that you will be able to prevent pawn from reaching your home ranks. In this case, it is important to keep as many squares as possible between you and the lurking enemy-to-be.

Other Names for Chess Promotion 

When a pawn is promoted to a queen of the same color, this is referred to as “queening”.

In the case that a pawn is promoted to a piece other than a queen, such as a knight, bishop or rook, this is called “underpromotion.” 

In general, however, it is acceptable to call the entire process “promotion”. 

Conclusion

From a minuscule pawn to a mighty queen, pawn promotion (or queening) is just about the best thing that could happen to this foot soldier.

When a pawn reaches the eighth rank, it can be promoted to queen within the same move. This move has an interesting history, and is extremely valuable to any player looking to topple the enemy’s monarchy.

Although this rule technically means that there can be as many as nine queens on a side at the same time, this is highly unlikely. In professional games, the highest number recorded is five queens. Casual players usually see between one and two promotions on a side.

In the end, it’s all about endurance and grit: go, little pawn, go!

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