When I had joined my first chess club many years ago, I remembered one of the first questions every new member had been asked: “Do you know an en passant capture?”
My answer, as a long-time chess enthusiast who had read every available book, was yes. However, I was surprised how many people actually said, “Huh, what?”, and learned an important chess rule that day. So, it cannot hurt to say a few words about it.
En passant is a special move in chess that is often misunderstood by beginners and even experienced players. It is a French term which means “in passing” and refers to a capture that can be made by a pawn immediately after an opponent’s pawn has moved two squares from its starting position, and lands adjacent to the capturing pawn.
En passant captures have been part of the rules of chess since the 15th century, but it was only in the 19th century that they became an official part of the game. This rule was added to prevent pawns from advancing two squares to avoid capture by an opposing pawn. If a pawn was allowed to do so, it would become nearly impossible to capture it, making the game less interesting and more predictable.
To make an en passant capture, the capturing pawn must be on its fifth rank, and the opponent’s pawn must have just moved two squares from its starting position and landed on the adjacent file. The capturing pawn moves diagonally to the square where the opponent’s pawn would have landed if it had only advanced one square. The captured pawn is then removed from the board.
Some openings feature en passant captures. Have a look at the French Defense, Steinitz Attack, after the first moves: 1. e4 e6 2. e5
The e-pawn stands on the fifth rank, so it can capture the black pawn at the d or f-file, if they make the two-fields move. For instance (before the capture), 2. … d5:
And after the capture, 3. exd6:
Fun fact: This series of moves was actually played in the game Steinitz-Fleissing, Vienna 1882:
It is important to note that en passant captures can only be made on the move immediately following the opponent’s pawn double-step. If the capturing player does not make the capture on that move, they forfeit the opportunity to do so. Let’s see an example after 1. e4 e6 2. e5 d5 3. d4 ♞e7:
The capture 4. exd6 isn’t possible because White made another move (3. d4) immediately following 2. … d5, so the right was forfeited.
En passant captures can sometimes be used as a tactical weapon to gain an advantage in the game. For example, a player might move a pawn two squares to lure the opponent’s pawn to move two squares as well, leaving it vulnerable to an en passant capture. This can help the player to gain control of the center of the board, which is a key strategic objective in chess.
On the other hand, en passant captures can also be a liability if the capturing player is not careful. A player might be tempted to make an en passant capture without considering the consequences, and end up losing a valuable pawn or putting themselves in a worse position. It is important to weigh the risks and benefits of an en passant capture before making the move.
In conclusion, en passant captures are an important part of the rules of chess and can add an interesting and tactical dimension to the game. It is important for players to understand when and how to make en passant captures to take advantage of their benefits, while avoiding their potential drawbacks. With practice and experience, players can master this special move and use it to their advantage in the game of chess.