Can chess pawns move backwards? (No! But Why?)

Have you ever made a pawn move you wish you could take back? Pawns make up your frontline in chess, so making an inaccurate pawn move can leave your formation exposed and your more valuable pieces vulnerable. If only there were some way to move pawns backward. Well – is there?

Unfortunately, no. Here’s why. 

Pawns can’t move backward in chess. The rules of the game dictate that pawns can only move one square forward with each turn. They also have the option to move two squares forward on their first move. Once a pawn is advanced enough, your best bet is to promote it by reaching the enemy’s back rank. 

In the remainder of this article, I’ll elaborate on the above ideas and explain to you how pawns move. Although it’s a seemingly invaluable piece, a pawn placed correctly can tip the balance in your favor in a close game. 

This is How Pawns Move In Chess

There are several key things to understand about pawn movement. 

  • Pawns typically move one square forward, given that the square in front of them isn’t occupied. 
  • Pawns can move two squares forward on their very first move. All pawns have this utility available to them. It’s only available for their first move, though. 
  • Pawns have different movement and attack patterns. They are the only piece with this feature. We’ll talk more about how pawns attack in a later section, but the important part is that pawns’ attack options don’t allow them to move backward, either. 
  • Pawns can make a special move called “En passant” in very specific situations. This move doesn’t involve any backward movement either, though. 
  • Pawns can be promoted to minor and major pieces once they reach the enemy’s back rank. 

As you can see, pawns have a simple movement pattern and a few special abilities available to them. Unfortunately, none of them involve the pawn moving backward. 

All of them do involve the pawn moving forwards, though. Yup – interestingly, there is no move you can make with a pawn that doesn’t involve it going even further toward the opposite end of the board. 

This may be a disappointing revelation for you if you often find yourself in positions where you wish you hadn’t moved your pawns so far out. 

But – there’s more to it. Stick around to the end to learn how to make good use of overextended pawns. 

Pawns Can Move Two Squares On Their First Move

If you’ve played a game or two of online chess, you probably already know about this rule. 

What you may not know, though, is that pawns can only use this two-square leap on their first move. 

If white played pawn to e3 in this case, they wouldn’t be able to follow up with pawn to e5 on the next move. 

So, yeah. This is very much a ‘use it or lose it’ ability. You’ll encounter plenty of situations on the board where it’s best to move the pawn just one square ahead, though. 

Interestingly, pawns couldn’t move two squares on their first move in the historical versions of chess. No, this ability was added to the game much later – sometime in the 15th century.

The reason for this addition was that without it, games would start off too low. 

Pawns Move and Attack Differently

We’ve talked a bit about how pawns move. But what about how they attack? 

Well, the pawn’s offensive faculty deserves a section of its own since it’s the only piece that attacks/captures differently from the way it moves. 

Pawns attack one square diagonally in front of them. I’ll spare you the wall of text and simply show you how it looks. 

In this position, the white pawn on d4 can either:

  • Move forward. Pawns can always move forward as long there’s nothing blocking their way. 
  • Capture the black pawn on e5. 
  • Capture the black bishop on c5. 

Pawns cannot capture backwards. 

The lone white pawn on d4 has no moves. 

  • It cannot capture backward, be it diagonally or straight. The black rook, bishop, and knight are all completely out of the pawn’s reach. 
  • It cannot move forward since the black queen occupies d5. 

If there were a black piece on c5 or e5, the white pawn could capture it. In this case, there isn’t, so white is forced to move their king. 

Pawns Promote Once They Reach The Back Rank

So – pawns don’t move back, whether we’re talking about standard or offensive movement. 

But maybe they shouldn’t have to. Enter pawn promotion. 

When a pawn reaches the other end of the board, you can promote it to (exchange it for) a knight, bishop, rook, or queen. 

Pawns are almost always promoted to queens – the strongest chess piece. Underpromoting (not promoting to a queen) can be the better move in some very niche circumstances though. 

Promoted pieces are much stronger than pawns, so there is an obvious incentive to push pawns forward and close in on the promotion square. 

Unlike pawns, all of the promoted pieces can move backward. But they’re no longer pawns at that point, so it would technically be incorrect to say that pawns can move backward after they’ve been promoted. 

So, if you’ve overextended a pawn, and the enemy doesn’t capitalize on your error by eliminating the said pawn, you may just want to make a run for it. In most games, an extra queen will be more than enough to turn the tide in your favor. 

How To Use Pawns in Chess

Let’s face it: pawns are pretty weak. They amount to 1 point each, and most of the time, they end up serving as cannon fodder. Still, you should not underestimate their importance.

Here are a few pointers for improving your pawn play. 

Keep Your Pawns Connected

Pawns work very well as a unit. Since they can’t move backward, you usually want to keep them connected in a chain-like structure, at least until the end game, when an opportunity for promotion usually presents itself. 

By keeping your pawns connected, you effectively create a protective barrier against the opposing army. 

Lure Out Enemy Pawns

Pawns can’t move backward – you may see that as an inconvenience at first, but realize that that’s also an opportunity. 

You can’t reverse a pawn move, but neither can your opponent. 

Try to get your opponent to overextend their pawns to induce weaknesses in their formation. You can create outposts for your bishops and knights deep within enemy territory this way. Knights, in particular, have the potential to inflict devastating damage when they’re locked in at a secure outpost near the enemy king. 

Oftentimes, you can end up in positions where your enemy has to give up material or make an unfavorable trade to get rid of such a knight. 

Use Pawns to Defend Your King

Try not to advance the pawns protecting your king. In a kingside castle with the white pieces, for example, you should leave the f2 and g2 pawns alone. They’re there to keep your king out of the enemy’s line of sight and block potential checks. 

The h2 pawn can safely be moved one square up to h3. This maintains the castle’s defensive structure but offers your king an escape route in case the enemy major pieces infiltrate your back rank. 

A pawn in h3 also prevents enemy pieces from occupying g4 – a square black commonly occupies with their minor pieces to gain a tactical edge. 

In this position, for example, pawn to h3 prevents black from developing their light-squared bishop to g4 and pinning the f3 knight to the d1 queen. 

Have a look at some related questions to solidify your understanding of pawns. 

Can Pawns Ever Move Backwards in Chess?

Pawns can never move backward. They can, however, promote to another piece by reaching the enemy’s back rank. You can then bring the advanced piece back into the battlefield. 

Can a Pawn Take a Queen?

Yes, a pawn can capture a queen as long as she falls within his attack range. Except for kings, all the pieces in chess can capture each other. Kings are immune to capture. 

Final Thoughts

Pawns cannot move backward in chess, as nothing in their moveset involves moving in a backward direction. You may think this is inconvenient; a wrong pawn move will haunt you for the rest of the game. 

And you’re right – but the same is true for your opponent. Keep your pawn structure strong and try to induce weakness in theirs for a huge position advantage. 

If your pawn is close enough to the finish line, see if you can make a run for it and promote it to a queen.