The Art of Attack in Chess
- En passant is a special pawn capture in chess. You can capture en passant when your pawn is one square deep into your opponent’s half of the board, and they move their pawn two squares from its starting square such that it lands directly next to yours
- In order to play an en passant capture, certain conditions must be met
- Capturing en passant is not necessarily a good or bad move; it depends on the situation, just like any pawn capture
In general, the rules of chess are pretty straightforward. But there’s one rule that seems to always trip up beginners, and that’s the special rule related to pawns: the en passant capture. So in this article we’ll explain what the en passant rule is, how players use it, and why en passant is something you should know well as a chess player.
What Does En Passant Mean and How Does It Work?
First things first: what does ‘en passant’ even mean? En passant (pronounced ‘ahn-pa-sahnt’) comes from French and means “in passing.” This refers to how the en passant capture works.
As you probably know already, pawns can usually only capture diagonally when an enemy piece or pawn is situated diagonally in front of it, like so:
Normal pawn capture: the white pawn can capture either the pawn on the right or bishop to the left, taking that square for itself. It cannot take the pawn in front of it
But in an en passant capture, you can capture an enemy pawn as it passes your pawn, like so:
Notice a couple things about this sequence:
- White’s pawn is on the fifth rank (one square deep into the opponent’s half of the board)
- Black’s pawn is moving two squares from its starting square to land next to the white pawn
- White’s pawn still lands on the square diagonal from it, even though the captured pawn was next to it
En Passant Rules
The en passant capture is only reserved for special situations – you cannot capture en passant all the time. By the rules of the game, in order to execute an en passant capture, a couple of conditions must be met:
- Your pawn must be one square into your opponent’s half of the board. So, if you’re White, your pawn must be on the 5th rank, and if you’re Black, then your pawn must be on the 4th rank (remember the ranks are always ordered from White’s perspective, so it’s not your fourth rank, it’s White’s fourth rank)
- You only have the opportunity to capture en passant directly after your opponent plays the pawn move. There’s no waiting until next turn – you’ll lose your right to capture en passant!
- The enemy pawn must land directly next to your pawn after making a two-square jump
Should You Capture En Passant?
Just like it’s not necessarily a good idea to capture an opponent’s pawn in the normal fashion if offered, it is not always necessarily a good idea to capture en passant if offered. Like with most things in chess strategy, it depends on the situation.
Let’s look at a situation where an en passant capture was the way to go. In the position below, Black just played …b5, moving his b-pawn two squares from its starting position to land next to White’s a-pawn. Now it’s White to move.
If you’ve been paying attention until now, you’ll know that White has the ability to capture en passant. What do you think? Should they?
White to move. Should they play axb6, capturing Black’s b-pawn en passant?
In this case it’s a good idea for two reasons:
- Black’s b-pawn is threatening to go to b4, kicking away White’s knight on c3 and disrupting his central control
- By capturing en passant, White’s pawn is removed from the a-file, meaning White’s rook has more freedom/control over the a-file
After the en passant capture: White’s knight is no longer threatened and their rook has excellent control over the a-file
What about this case? White just played f4 – should Black play exf3 en passant?
In this case, the answer is no – there’s no point! Better is to simply take the hanging pawn on d4, for example with …Qxd4. By playing exf3 en passant, White will simply recapture the pawn on f3. You wouldn’t have gained anything from that exchange.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is en passant legal?
Yes, en passant is legal as long as these three conditions have been met: 1) your pawn is one square deep into the opponent’s half of the board 2) your opponent moves their pawn two squares from its starting position such that it lands next to yours 3) you perform the en passant capture on that turn – you cannot wait until next turn to capture en passant
Is en passant ever used?
Yes! En passant may not be as common as other types of captures, but it certainly makes an appearance from time to time and is an important rule to know. The examples shown above are taken from real games. The first one, in fact, was taken from a game played by World Champion Magnus Carlsen, and actually featured two en passant captures! You can see the full game here
What does en passant mean?
“En passant” means “in passing” in French, and that French term is used to describe the special pawn capture in chess whereby you capture a pawn that lands next to yours “in passing.”
When was en passant introduced in chess?
It is not clear exactly when the en passant rule was introduced, but experts believe it was sometime around the 15th century A.D – around the same time the “pawns can move two squares on the first move” rule was introduced.
How is en passant pronounced?
Although the n and t are silent at the end of French words, English speakers typically pronounce the term as “ahn-pa-sahnt”
Could use a refresher on how the chess pieces move? Check out this article here