In English as far as I know, pawns were once not pieces. A player had eight pieces and eight pawns which, together, totaled 16 chessmen.

When did this usage change? Why?

And (if you happen to know) how is it in the other major chess languages, like French, German and Russian?

  • As far as I know that hasn't changed. But I don't know much, and I haven't been keeping up with the times. Do you have some evidence that pawns are now considered pieces?
    – bof
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 8:43
  • @bof: If you don't know much, I certainly don't. No, I have no evidence, per se. It was just an impression -- common knowledge, I thought. But maybe it isn't. At any rate, there is this: fide.com/fide/handbook.html?id=171&view=article
    – thb
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 19:56

3 Answers 3


The terms are a bit loose. To quote from Wikipedia:

In chess, the word "piece" has three meanings, depending on the context.

1) It may mean any of the physical pieces of the set, including the pawns. When used this way, "piece" is synonymous with "chessman" (Hooper & Whyld 1992:307) or simply "man" (Hooper & Whyld 1987:200).

2) In play, the term is usually used to exclude pawns, referring only to a queen, rook, bishop, knight, or king. In this context, the pieces can be broken down into three groups: major pieces (queen and rook), minor pieces (bishop and knight), and the king (Brace 1977:220).

3) In phrases such as "winning a piece", "losing a piece" or "sacrificing a piece", it refers only to a bishop or knight. The queen, rook, and pawn are specified by name in these cases, for example, "winning a queen", "losing a rook", or "sacrificing a pawn" (Just & Burg 2003:5)

Source: Wikipedia, emphasis is mine.

From the same article, the term pieces to include pawns has been noted since the late 1980's. Speculating, it may be that commentators did not see the need to distinguish between the terms pieces and men, hence coming into common use. For example, Josh Waitzkin's tutorials in Chessmaster, first made in the 1990's, use the term pieces instead of men. I've seen terminology become more lax over time, e.g. pieces being 'killed' instead of 'captured'.

As for other languages, I am unable to say I'm afraid.

  • 1
    I'm guessing the term "chessmen" has gone out of favor because it's not gender-neutral. We have to say either "pieces" or "chesspersons", and "chesspersons" sounds too much like parody.
    – bof
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 22:29
  • @bof: You're probably right. My experience may not match yours, but in my experience, where I live, few real people of either sex seem to care much about gender neutrality. They seem to do it because they imagine that someone else cares, which is ironic. The usage of "piece" to include the pawn is fine as far as it goes; it's just unnecessary. The new usage is okay except that there was no valid chess reason to change the old usage. The old usage was okay, too. And, by comparison, as it seems to me, the old was just clearer and better.
    – thb
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 15:17
  • @bof: I wonder... you might be right. To me, they're just pieces -- I'll sometimes refer to the king as "he"/"him", or the queen as "she"/"her", but that's about it. That being said though, I can still easily imagine people referring to them gender-neutrally for P.C. reasons, rather than due to seeing them as just pieces. Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 14:54

As you ask for German, we make the distinction as in your question:

Figur chess piece
Stein chessman
Bauer pawn

We also distinguish between

Leichtfigur light piece (knight or bishop)


Schwerfigur heavy piece (rook or queen)
  • Since you translate Figur with chess piece, does that mean that the meaning of Figur is ambiguous and depends on the context, just like chess piece does?
    – hkBst
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 10:06
  • @hkBst: No, I don't mean that. Verlust einer Figur (loss of a piece) is generally fatal and does not comprise Verlust eines Bauern (loss of a pawn). I used the English terminology of the OP. Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 10:12
  • BTW in English one also has minor piece and major piece
    – hkBst
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 10:33
  • I'd disagree: In German, we see the same development as in English. "Stein" is becoming somewhat old-fashioned and often gets replaced by "Figur" (i.e. most people don't really care). "Verlust einer Figur" still refers to non-pawns only, though.
    – Annatar
    Commented Apr 30, 2018 at 6:10

As you do, I have the impression that the usage has changed within a lifetime, but I can’t be more precise than that.

I tend to use the generic “unit” as do many problemists. For non-pawns I use the term “officer”, but I am not sure if that includes the king. I am sure I slip into using the word “pieces” often but these days it’s a synonym for “unit”.

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