Pawns - The Forlorn Hope.


In chess the humble pawn is sometime on a 'mission impossible' - a forlorn hope of reaching the furthest rank and gaining instant promotion. The 'instant' part of the move is really important, along with the ability to choose to be promoted to a Queen, Rook, Bishop or Knight. I have played many games in which a pawn has finally won through and become a Queen - usually that heralds the ending of the game. I wondered, though, why anyone would choose to take a lesser promotion (such as a Rook or a Bishop) than that of the Queen and could only surmise a near stalemate situation where a new Queen would prevent the opposing King from moving, but would not actually be in check and thus result in a stale mate. For the Knight promotion I could see some clear scenarios and decided, in my spare time, to do a bit of exploration. Accordingly, I looked at some of the 1,000,000 chess games that have taken up residence on one of my hard drives. I wrote a small snippet of a program to look through them all and report, within that 1,000,000 sample of games, how many occurrences there were of a Pawn being promoted. It happened in just over 42,000 games - that is to say once every 24 games or so.

I then looked at those games that resulted in a promoted Pawn creating instant Checkmate. The figure instantly dropped to a shade over 300 games in all and then, when I looked individually at the Queen, Rook, Bishop and Knight promotions, an even more interesting set of events became visible - in each of the Rook and Bishop promotions the Queen was rejected for reasons of 'elegance' - choosing the piece with the minimal force needed.

The Knight, however, produced only 15 instant Checkmates - once in every 66,667 games ! Here are examples of two of those games: The first is the last few moves of what, otherwise, was a fairly standard game dated 1977 and the second is the full game of a short but most powerful game, some 67 years earlier, in which the winner, Showalter, seemed well aware of what his 'game plan' was.

Janis Klovans vs Valentin Arbakov in 1977.

Robbins  vs  Showalter at Lexington in 1910.

Oh, that Title ? When the muzzle-loading musket was invented, armies discovered that it took about 30 seconds for a skilled musketeer to reload his weapon. During this time he was helpless. The immediate solution was to arrange the defending troops in a broad line and fire a simultaneous volley at the attackers when they were some distance away, then reload and fire another volley as they approached closer and so on until you either won or were overwhelmed.

One military response to this was to have a 'wave' of troops who would rush forward, absorb the first volley and keep running until they reached the enemy lines ... with any luck within that 30 second reloading period. Of course, the casualtie with this approach were enormous. The Dutch, who were militarily quite advanced at that time, had a term for the casualties - the "verloren hoop." In Old Dutch that meant the 'Lost Heap' (referring to the pile of dead bodies). The British (not necessarily the World's best linguists) thought "verloren hoop" sounded like "forlorn hope" which seemed an appropriate name for the rush forward into the face  of massed musket fire.

The question for the military commanders was how to get the troops to rush forward to almost certain extinction. The common soldiers had to take part in these desperate assaults - orders were orders - but the officer leading them was a volunteer. He was offered the 'forlorn hope' that if he survived the engagement he would instantly be promoted. As a result there were often young junior officers who fancied their chances and were willing to take the gamble of their lives !

In France they had a somewhat similar system which was called "les enfants perdus" but, in their case, all the survivors of the first wave were given an appropriate promotion. This resulted in some fierce clashes at many battles of the 1808-14 Peninsular War in Spain between the British allies and Napoleon's armies as both sides fought for instant promotion (as well as victory).

For me an amusing thought is "What if, in Chess, once a Pawn got through to the far rank all the remaining Pawns on that side simultaneously were promoted - in situ, to Queen ?" Now, there's a game that would be somewhat fiercely 'Pawn-fought' !