While browsing the Chess and Puzzling Stack Exchange sites, I've come across several instances where people have found loopholes in the rules of chess, causing these loopholes to be patched out eventually. In fact, while reading through the current (since Jan 1, 2018) FIDE Laws of Chess, I noticed the following paragraphs:

3.7.1 The pawn may move forward to the square immediately in front of it on the same file, provided that this square is unoccupied, or

3.7.2 on its first move the pawn may move as in 3.7.1 or alternatively it may advance two squares along the same file, provided that both squares are unoccupied, or

3.7.3 the pawn may move to a square occupied by an opponent’s piece diagonally in front of it on an adjacent file, capturing that piece.

Now I'm curious about the wording of these paragraphs, especially the phrase "in front of it". This "front" direction is not defined or mentioned anywhere in the Laws. Its usual meaning is "towards the rank furthest away from the pawn's initial location", but what if it weren't?

Suppose "front" is taken to mean the facing of the physical pawn (imagine figurine pieces with a clearly identifiable "front"). In that case, if a pawn is placed facing a different direction than usual, White could move a pawn to a lower rank or capture on a lower rank. Moving along the same rank is forbidden by the wording of 3.7.2.

Here are two examples I'm thinking of:

1. e4(facing e3) e5 2. e4e3

1. e4 d5 2.e5(facing d5) d4 3. e5xd4

In this case, it could even be technically permitted to rotate a pawn (changing what is "in front of it") using "j'adoube" before moving it.

Alternatively, the "front" direction could be defined as the direction the player is facing. However, in this case, Article 2 insufficiently defines how the chessboard is to be placed:

2.1 The chessboard is composed of an 8 x 8 grid of 64 equal squares alternately light (the ‘white’ squares) and dark (the ‘black’ squares).

The chessboard is placed between the players in such a way that the near corner square to the right of the player is white.


2.3 The initial position of the pieces on the chessboard is as follows: [depiction of standard positions]

It is not mentioned which pieces start closer to which player, so according to this interpretation, it is technically not illegal to start with the white pieces on the side of the board closer to Black. "Front" would then mean that pawns could only move one step (assuming you get the pieces out of the way), but not promote afterward (since the promotion rank is defined in paragraph as "the rank furthest from its starting position"). Alternatively, a player could rotate the chessboard by 180° before moving.

I'm aware that all this is nitpicking the rules, of course, that's not the intended way to play chess, I get that. So here's the question I'm actually interested in: Suppose that during a FIDE tournament, some player makes a move that is legal only by one of the above interpretations of the rules. How would this situation be resolved properly, considering Articles 11 and 12 of the Laws?

  • 39
    If I were still directing tournaments I would forfeit the game , chew your butt out, and tell you if you did such things again I would throw you out of the tournament.
    – yobamamama
    Dec 10, 2019 at 0:57
  • 14
    Pawns are typically uniform - if you rotate it then it is not facing in a different direction. And the answer is of course that is not a rule. Forward in this case always means towards your opponent.
    – JK.
    Dec 10, 2019 at 3:35
  • 15
    You seem to be ignoring the on the same file part of 3.7.1 and 3.7.2. Even if you decide to "rotate" the pawn and try to move it "forward" in it's new oritenation, it would no longer be moving on the same file and thus would be breaking these rules
    – Darren H
    Dec 10, 2019 at 10:01
  • 10
    This question makes me happy
    – Sam Sabin
    Dec 10, 2019 at 17:56
  • 12
    There's nothing in the FIDE laws that forbid a pawn from stealing the hat from a neighbouring bishop, climbing on a nearby horsie, galloping to the top of a castle and throwing the bishop's hat, pointy end first, at the opposing queen. Good luck convincing the tournament director of the legality of this maneouvre. Dec 11, 2019 at 4:32

9 Answers 9


This sort of thing is what the Preface of the Laws of Chess is for:


The Laws of Chess cannot cover all possible situations that may arise during a game, nor can they regulate all administrative questions. Where cases are not precisely regulated by an Article of the Laws, it should be possible to reach a correct decision by studying analogous situations which are discussed in the Laws. The Laws assume that arbiters have the necessary competence, sound judgement and absolute objectivity. Too detailed a rule might deprive the arbiter of his freedom of judgement and thus prevent him from finding the solution to a problem dictated by fairness, logic and special factors.

FIDE appeals to all chess players and federations to accept this view.

No, the laws don't define what the square in front of a pawn is. But arbiters have freedom of judgement to deal with that kind of omission from the rules.

And there is no way an arbiter will let you move a pawn in an illegal way during a FIDE tournament based on this argument.

It will just be treated as an illegal move (some bonus time for the opponent, have to make a legal move with the pawn if possible, and if it happens a second time the game is lost).

  • 13
    Still funny that the laws don't define something as simple as this pawn direction. Yes, lots of situations around a physical game of chess can't be covered exhaustively, but the rules of chess as an abstract game definitely could be covered in a rigorous mathematical description. Dec 10, 2019 at 11:13
  • 12
    they DO - "in front in the same file" meaning an white A-pawn moves along the A-file - forward being ruled by your direction of assault. Always remember that chess is meant to display a battlefield - white moves from 1 and 2 towards higher numbers , black moves from 7 and 8 toward lower numbers - Applying both makes it pretty obvious what is "in front" for a particular pawn. Adding in that pawn figures don't have anything resembling a face usually opposed to knights
    – eagle275
    Dec 10, 2019 at 12:44
  • 1
    I agree. Arbiters apply common sense backed up by the preface of the Laws of Chess. Dec 10, 2019 at 16:13
  • 13
    @eagle275 Yes, it's obvious what is meant, but your comment does nothing to address the claim the rules don't define what is "in front". Dec 10, 2019 at 17:40
  • 11
    @eagle275 You say "they DO" and then proceed to say a bunch of stuff that comes from your head, not the rules. Dec 11, 2019 at 1:34

There is no loophole. Rules 3.7.1 to 3.7.4 allow pawns to move forwards along the same file, or diagonally forwards onto an adjacent file.

The only argument here seems to be that "forwards" is not explicitly defined but it is implicitly defined by which beings with the following quote: "When a player, having the move, plays a pawn to the rank furthest from its starting position".

As the pawn can only move forwards and we know that a pawn can reach the rank furthest from its start position, then forwards must mean "towards the rank on which his opponent's king was set up".

The diagram accompanying 3.7.3 also make it clear which direction forwards is:

3.7.1 The pawn may move forward to the square immediately in front of it on the same file, provided that this square is unoccupied, or
3.7.2 on its first move the pawn may move as in 3.7.1 or alternatively it may advance two squares along the same file, provided that both squares are unoccupied, or
3.7.3 the pawn may move to a square occupied by an opponent’s piece diagonally in front of it on an adjacent file, capturing that piece.
enter image description here
Source: https://old.fide.com/fide/handbook.html?id=208&view=article

Even if for some bizarre reason you were to setup the board with the white pieces next to the black player and vice versa, there is no ambiguity as to which direction "front" is. For a white pawn, forwards is always towards the rank where the black king was set up.

There are also no rules allowing for any sort of rotation of a piece, so even if you had say the viking style chess pieces where the pawn model itself has a face, the direction in which the pawn model faces has no meaning in the rules.

  • A pawn starting on A2 or B2 can reach the rank furthest from the player even when "forwards" is towards H2.
    – Fax
    Dec 11, 2019 at 8:32
  • 3
    @Fax for a pawn on A2, forwards being towards H2 is explicitly ruled out by the fact that the rules refer to moving forwards along a file. Dec 11, 2019 at 9:25
  • 1
    That's a good point. However, if we define "forward" as "towards the 1st rank or towards the 8th rank", the pawns can still reach the rank furthest from their starting position. Indeed, the diagram in 3.7.3 illustrates that very definition with one pawn moving towards the 8th and one towards the 1st. The missing piece of the puzzle is "if your pawn is of color X then forwards is towards Y", which is nowhere to be found in the rules.
    – Fax
    Dec 11, 2019 at 12:50
  • 1
    @Fax As the diagram shows the white pawn being able to choose between moving 1 or 2 spaces along the file, it is clearly in the initial position (as per rule 3.7.2) - which clears up that ambiguity of which is closest to the original rank Dec 12, 2019 at 17:34
  • @Chronocidal That's true, although I wasn't arguing that. My argument is that the rules don't specify that a particular pawn can only move one way along a file, and the diagram doesn't disprove that. In particular, if you take the dots in the diagram to illustrate all possible moves for each of the pawns, you could just as easily come to the conclusion that a pawn on a white square can go up the chess board while a pawn on a black square can go down.
    – Fax
    Dec 13, 2019 at 12:39

This is a good question, as much as some may be instinctively frustrated by it, because finding room for improvement in rulesets is useful and can prevent future issues where arbitration is required.

My understanding is that "front" is defined by the piece's colour, not it's rotational orientation. This is consistent with the definition of "last rank" in the case of queening a pawn.

However, I'm not familiar enough with the FIDE ruleset to know where (if anywhere) this is mentioned.


No matter how a chess piece is shaped, FIDE rules do not define "front" or any other direction relative to the orientation of the piece.

Chess pieces do not have a front, rear, direction of advance, and so forth. Only the board has these.

  • 4
    The issue I'm seeing is that they don't define "front" at all, neither relative to the piece, the board, the starting setup or the player.
    – Magma
    Dec 10, 2019 at 11:40
  • 1
    @Magma: They don't define “such”, “corner” or “initial” either, I believe, but those are all English words with a mostly shared meaning. And the same holds for “front”: the dictionary included in my computer says: “the position directly ahead of someone or something; the most forward position or place”. The chessboard is in front of the player, the square is in front of the pawn.
    – DaG
    Dec 12, 2019 at 14:24
  • @DaG The issue in this question is that the English phrase "in front of the pawn" is ambiguous. Particularly if you have a more artistic set, where the pawns don't look lathed, so that they have a defined front side (like knights usually do). Then "In front of the pawn" may just as well refer to the way it happens to be turned. Now, I know and you know that that's not how chess works, but the question here is whether there is any kind of official reference to settle this issue, even in the face of pedantry.
    – Arthur
    Dec 12, 2019 at 18:05
  • 1
    "...a more artistic set" I had a friend who insisted on using his set, which was some very fanciful figurines. He hoped I would confuse the queen with a bishop or something. I responded by always facing the pieces in random directions, it drove him crazy. I guess that's what happens when a couple of rubbish players look for some advantage instead of trying to improve... Dec 12, 2019 at 19:02
  • @Arthur: Since a specific “front” of a pawn is not defined (with an arrow or a smiling face, say), I'd say that no amount of nitpickery or pedantry (and I am not lacking in that sector either) could suggest an interpretation different from the one afforded by the default, literal meaning of the words (as I wrote, the chessboard is in front of the player, the square is in front of the pawn).
    – DaG
    Dec 12, 2019 at 21:54

The official PDF of the FIDE Laws of Chess includes illustrations of the legal moves for each piece. These clearly show the white pawn moving "up" the file (including the two-square move from the starting rank), and the black pawn moving "down" (only one square, because it's shown away from the starting rank).

Moving the pawn along a rank is explicitly ruled out by the text, which mentions movement only along the file except for captures, which always occur in the adjacent files on the next rank. The definition of "rank" and "file" is given in Article 2.4.

The direction of "forward" from the starting rank is unambiguous, since no fewer than three movement rules involving the pawn only make sense for one along-file direction for each player. These are 3.7.b (double move permitted from the starting rank; this would land off-board if reversed), 3.7.d (the en-passant rule, which requires pawns of opposite colour to approach each other on adjacent files), and 3.7.e (promotion upon reaching the furthest rank from the starting rank, which would be impossible if only allowed to move away from it).

The very concept of a "forward direction" being mentioned in the movement rules, but no provision being made in those rules for rotating or reversing that direction, indicates clearly that the direction implied by the above paragraph is invariant for all subsequent pawn moves as well. That which is not explicitly permitted is implied to be forbidden.

Furthermore, FIDE tournaments are normally conducted with standard Staunton-style pieces, in which the pawn is rotationally symmetric and has no apparent "front". Indeed only the knights and bishops lack this property, but unlike the pawn they have rotationally symmetric movement patterns. The rules do not explicitly mention Staunton pieces except in the context of visually impaired players (who must identify pieces by touch), but providing an exotic form of chess pieces for a tournament game would be highly irregular, and could legitimately be considered unfair in itself.

I do agree that an explicit definition of "forward" would make a precise interpretation easier to arrive at purely from the text. This could be "along the file, towards the rank furthest from the player". This is unambiguous even for Black, since Article 2.1 places the board between the players and specifies its orientation (though even this could be improved, since it doesn't specify that the players must sit on the side of the board at which their pieces start).

  • An explicit definition of "forward" would work better if it were based upon where each colour was initially set up as that is invariant and prevents the OP from arguing that a player could walk around to the other side of the board to reverse the direction of movement of a pawn. Dec 11, 2019 at 9:36
  • The Staunton pieces are explicitly mentioned in the FIDE equipment standards (fide.com/FIDE/handbook/…) but the wording is surprisingly weak: "Recommended for use in FIDE competitions are pieces of Staunton style". The USCF rules are a bit stronger in this regard: "The conventional Staunton pattern is the standard. [...] Minor variations in design may be tolerated, especially in sets that are widely used."
    – itub
    Dec 12, 2019 at 12:14

The "on the same file" language already takes care of this. 2.4 The eight vertical columns of squares are called ‘files’

Moving based on some notional "facing'" of the pawn would take the pawn off the file.

  • 5
    But you could still use this loophole to move the pawn backwards, like 2. e4-e3. That's on the same file. Dec 10, 2019 at 7:50
  • 1
    you cant - as "forward" or "in front" is defined as "away from the player owning the pawn" .. so white moves pawns to higher numbers, black moves their pawns towards lower numbers - ALWAYS - even when taking other figures - or making an "en passent" move ...
    – eagle275
    Dec 10, 2019 at 13:04
  • 5
    @eagle275 " "forward" or "in front" is defined as "away from the player owning the pawn"" Cite? Dec 10, 2019 at 17:41

Sorry I am late to this party.

The question is about how FIDE resolves this issue. I can only answer about chess problems.

Although the text says that they only apply to over-the-board chess, I know from discussions with a FIDE rules writer that they have been concerned about their responsibilities as owners of a document which problemists will take seriously, maybe even more literally than players.

For over-the-board chess there are arbiters to help interpret the language, but what about the poor lost lambs who are fairy chess enthusiasts who want to know what happens if you change the rules. E.g. if a pawn ends up on a1 somehow, how can it move?

It is always possible to read text in multiple ways. Some are just silly e.g. suppose the players are bridge players. Or suppose the pieces melt in the middle of a game and occupy multiple squares. Some of these silly ideas can form the basis of so-called joke problems. See “Outrageous Chess Problems” by Bert Hochberg for many of these.

A couple more points about your idea.

  • If pawns can be rotated then we can’t assume in a problem that a pawn in second rank can necessarily make double move. It might already have moved and after rotation come back to the second rank again.

  • If a pawn has been rotated some angle which is not a multiple of 90 degrees, it won’t be able to move at all. Maybe this is what a dummy pawn is?


Front is meant to be the next square that the pawn could normally advance to unless it were making a diagonal capture. Pawns and pieces per se have no front or back. Maybe FIDE should define it that way for people who want to be lawyers and pick at the rules.

  • 6
    "Front is meant to be the next square that the pawn could normally advance to": As I quoted, the next square the pawn could advance to is already defined as the square in front of the pawn, so your suggestion would be a circular definition.
    – Magma
    Dec 10, 2019 at 11:38
  • 2
    So pawns can advance to the front... and the front is defined as the direction that pawns can advance to... hmm... Dec 10, 2019 at 11:38
  • 1
    no .. "front" is defined as direction of the "battlefield" chessboard - away from you, the player.
    – eagle275
    Dec 10, 2019 at 13:02
  • 3
    @eagle275 Where? You are just making stuff up and posting it in all the comments here, which is very unconstructive. Dec 11, 2019 at 1:36
  • 2
    @Will as far as OP wrote himself - the players are sitting on 2 specific sides - which are described (remember the part with a white square bottom right) and even when playing from "above" in 99 of 100 cases you play figures from the bottom up, which in most cases happens by driving the tiles with a mouse move away from you ..
    – eagle275
    Dec 11, 2019 at 15:40

There's another loophole with 3.7.3 and it happens when you turn the pawn's front to the left or to the right. You can then capture opponent's piece at the diagonal at the previous rank. Since it's at the adjacent file, the move is a "bona fide!" chess move. ex: white pawn at e4 turning to left and capturing Knight at d3. These loopholes can be removed by introducing an amendment 3.7.xx like "pawns can not move to a lower rank with the exception of 'en-passant' law, where they're technically moved by the opponent one rank below and captured, if the opponent prefers at the immediate move after the two square move of the pawn."

  • 1
    That's the second example I mentioned in my question.
    – Magma
    Dec 10, 2019 at 11:33
  • there is no loophole - as every move of a pawn is foremost "forward" - away from its owner. Even moving diagonally to take a figure is still basically away from the owning player
    – eagle275
    Dec 10, 2019 at 13:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.