En Passant Pawn Capture Rule

The en passant pawn capture rule is a special pawn move that beginning chess players are seldom aware of. Even the more experienced players can easily overlook it. We will admit, we ourselves have forgotten about it in a game or two during our chess careers!

When your opponent picks off your advanced pawn with a rule you had simply forgotten about, you feel awfully foolish. Don’t let that embarrassment 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.

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, and this is another French word that means “in passing”.

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 and 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).

The en passant Rule

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. In light of this, 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 .
  • The capture can only be made on the move immediately after the opposing pawn makes the move, otherwise, the right to capture en passant is 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.

En Passant Pawn Capture Rule
En Passant Pawn Capture Rule
En Passant Pawn Capture Rule

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. This capture was brought in to prevent this and meant 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 it 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.

Don’t hesitate to make use of the rule, even if your 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!

Two Games That Show How Dangerous En Passant Can Be

In the first game, Paul Morphy gave his opponent knights odds. Despite these odds, the game only lasted 16 moves.

Morphy uses the en passant rule to deliver the winning discovered check.

Paul Morphy – James Thompson, 1-0, 1859, New York, NY USA

Irina Korepanova used this rule to deliver checkmate in her game against Alexander Tishkov.

Irina Korepanova – Alexander Tishkov, 1-0, 2007.11.23, Round 3 Governor Cup, Khanty-Mansiysk RUS

En Passant in the Endgame

Many chess players’ training routine neglects the endgame. As a reminder here are two examples of how to use and how not to use the en passant rule in chess.

Because captures aren’t forced in chess, knowing when to use en passant and when to avoid it. This skill is similar to knowing which pieces to exchange and which piece exchanges to avoid.

In the following diagram, White plays a4, which is a dual-purpose move. Either White obtains a passed pawn, or he hopes Black will capture the pawn in passing.

En Passant Endgame
En Passant Endgame

Capturing en passant leads to a draw, so Black decides not to capture and plays the winning …b3. This study shows what might happen if Black caught en passant.

The en passant rule can be beneficial in restraining a pawn majority. In this diagram, having a passed pawn causes Black to lose the game because he cannot avoid capture on b6.

En Passant Endgame restraint
En Passant Endgame restraint

Black could play for a stalemate if he didn’t have a pawn on b7, but instead of a draw, White delivers checkmate thanks to the en passant rule.

En Passant: Questions and Answers

1.) Is en passant legal?

Yes, it is a legal chess move.

2.) How many times can you en passant?

There is no restriction on the number of times you can play en passant in a game. Theoretically, the maximum would be eight times in a game because your opponent has eight pawns.

3.) Can you en passant a queen?

No, you can’t en passant a queen because the rule only applies to pawns.

4.) Why does en passant exist?

En passant got introduced to chess to prevent a player from bypassing a capture with his pawn and taking advantage of the two square advance rule for a pawn on its first move.

5.) What is the en passant rule in chess?

This rule allows you to capture an opponent’s pawn if you have a pawn on the fifth rank, and he advances two squares to avoid capture. You can capture the pawn as if it had only advanced one square.

Remember, if you want to capture en passant, you must do it right away! 

This capture is not possible if your opponent advances his pawn one square instead of two on the initial move and then advances it again. 

For example, your opponent plays …e6, and you choose not to capture the pawn with your pawn on d5 or f5. He plays …e5 on the next move. In this instance, you cannot capture en passant because the e-pawn didn’t advance two squares in one move.

6.) Is en passant forced?

No, it isn’t forced. In chess, you aren’t forced to make any capture.

7.) Can en passant take two pieces?

No, you can only take a pawn that advances past your pawn on the fifth rank.

8.) Is en passant optional?

Yes, it is optional. There are no forced captures in chess.

9.) Who invented en passant?

En passant got introduced at the same time the two-square pawn advance entered chess, but the rule was only universally accepted in 1880.

Conclusion – The En Passant Pawn Capture Rule

Now that we’ve cleared up the confusion, 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.

We hope this article was informative for you and you are interested to learn more about chess rules and chess pieces now! If you want to make any remarks, then feel free to leave a comment.

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