Pawn Races

Pawn races are where both players are rushing to promote a passed pawn into Queens. Whoever queens their pawn first will usually win the game in a “Queen vs Pawn ending”. The newly created Queen will usually just go eat the enemy pawn before it queens. However, if both pawns Queen at the same move, then you get a “Queen vs Queen Endgame”. And if the enemy pawn is on the 7th rank, about to Queen, then the “Queen vs Pawn endgame” is not always won for the Queen.

The simplest pawn races are where both pawns are passed. You just have to count how many moves each pawn will take to reach the Queening square. Remember to count only once if there is an initial two-square-move for any of the pawns.

And remember to check that neither pawn can be stopped by a King. If the King can stop a pawn, but the other King cannot, then guess who wins. Similarly, if each King can stop the enemy pawn, then a pawn race is likely a draw with both pawns lost.

More complicated pawn races arise in King-and-Pawn endings where both Kings are in amongst the enemy pawns. The race goes something like this:

Hence, in the most complicated pawn races in endings, you need to count how many moves every single one of these phases takes. The nuances and advanced techniques include:

  • Less Than or Equal Counts? If you count the moves, what sequence wins? Do you need less moves? Or less than or equal moves? Equal move counts mean that you Queen and then the opponent Queens immediately. Lesser move counts (2 for you to Queen, 3 for your opponent) means, assuming you are moving first, that you’ll get a Queen and then their pawn will be on the 7th so you can then play a “Queen vs Pawn Ending” against a pawn on the 7th (usually won, with two drawing exceptions for rook pawns and bishop pawns, but it also matters if there are additional pawns hanging around! Do you know all the exceptions to the exceptions for Queen vs Pawn endings?).
  • Who Moves First: The “count” applies to whichever player is moving first. Whose turn it is to move matters!
  • Responsive Pawn Moves Reduce the Count: You need to take note of any responsive moves made by the enemy in defense, such as its pawn minority trying to respond to the advancing pawn majority (e.g. a defender’s pawn taking back a pawn majority’s pawn). Any move that requires a responding move will stop the enemy from advancing their own pawn race, so it must be added to their move count (or alternatively, removed from your pawn race count). It can be very complex to get the count right.
  • Sacrifice Pawns to Queen Faster: it is often fewer total moves for the King to capture less pawns, and the pawn majority to advance sooner, even if it means sacrificing a pawn. This will get a passed pawn going by one or two moves faster. Even a single move faster can be the difference between a win and a loss.
  • Kings Capture Only Important Pawns: The King should also be choosey about which pawns to capture. Only capture the absolute minimum pawns that will allow the fastest queening sequence of moves.
  • Queening Squares (Geometry Matters): if both players are queening pawns, are the Queening squares diagonally opposite? If so, then the first Queen will control the Queening square of the other pawn, winning even if the counts are equal moves!
  • Skewers Matter (Diagonals): watch out for alignment of Kings with the newly created Queens. Are any kings on the same diagonal as a queening square? Or the same file or rank as the Queen? There might be a tail-end skewer combination that gives a win even if both players have queened at the same move (i.e. the counts were equal, but it’s won thanks to a skewer after both Queens have been promoted).
  • Queening with Check: Another tactical issue that can affect the count by 1 move is when one of the pawns queens with check. The check will prevent the second pawn from queening immediately.

Pawn races seem like they should be simple. But only the simple races are simple. Some of the pawn races can be very complex.

Related Chess Tactics

Read more about these related chess strategies: