Strange but true - the "Dummy Pawn"

May 27, 2014, 7:33 PM |

It has been a number of years since I have played a clock game over the board.  But in high school and college, I used to love to play 5-minute games.

There was always the potential for a problem when one went to promote a pawn that reached the eighth rank.  If promoted to a queens, with queens still on the board, if a taken rook was available it could be turned upside down and used as a faux queen.  If a second set was not available, in an emergency, the pawn could be laid on its side and named - though it could roll around as pieces were slammed to the board in time trouble!

There was a time, however, and not too long ago, that the promotion rule required that a pawn could only be promoted to a piece that had been taken in the game.  Therefore, one could not have two queens at any time.  Or three knights, even if the promotion to a knight would have been a mate.

And an obvious problem could occur when a pawn reached the eighth rank and no pieces had yet been captured!  What to do?

This is the what was once called a "dummy pawn."  It stayed where it was, immovable and unpromoted for the time being.  Chess writer Edward Winter discussed the old rule in a Chess Notes #5791 a few years ago.

Winter quoted a passage from Steinitz, in The Modern Chess Instructor (1889), with Steinitz writing:

Page xv (regarding the pawn): ‘He, however, alone of all the chessmen has the privilege of promotion, i.e. on reaching an eighth square he may be exchanged either for a queen or any other piece his player may select. The laws of the British Chess Association, which we adopt, provide that his player may refuse his promotion, in which case he remains a pawn as before, but unmovable, and he is termed a “dummy” pawn. We must, however, state that such a case can only very rarely occur in actual play, and that this law, though in our opinion theoretically sound, has little practical value for playing the game over the board, but may be of importance for the construction of problems.’

Page xxii: ‘When a pawn has reached the eighth square, the player has the option of selecting a piece, whether such piece has been previously lost or not, whose names and powers it shall then assume, or of deciding that it shall remain a pawn.

Quoting another source (Staunton), a game attributed to Ponziani is reproduced.  I will shown the game here to the key point of the pawn reaching the eighth rank.  The software will not allow me to "non-promote"!  This game also used an archaic form of castling!

Here are the moves, as modified by the old rules:

1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 Be7 4 Bc4 Bh4+ 5 g3 fxg3 6 O-O (Kh1, Rf1) d5 7 Bxd5 Bh3 8 Bxb7 g2+ 9 Kg1

At this point, Black plays pawn takes rook (9 ... gxf1), but pawn on f1 has nowhere to go and no piece to replace it!!  A DUMMY PAWN

The game continued 10 Bxa8?? A terrible blunder, under the circumstances.

Black now played 10 ... Bf7, simultaneously reincarnating the pawn as the just-captured rook, double-check and mate!

Howard Staunton thought the position was "absurd."  At least half of White's pieces are set up for the next game.

Post script:  To add a little more to the mix, I found this quote in an entry on "Chess," in the 1902 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

As has been already stated, the laws of the game, as laid down in the Praxis, form the basis of the rules adopted by the British Chess Association in 1862, the main differences between the two codes arising from a mitigation in the Association laws of some of the severe penalties laid down in the Praxis, and the enactment of the "Dummy Pawn" rule, whereby a pawn on reaching an eight square may, if the player chooses, remain a pawn.