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I thought I heard somewhere that pawns are not pieces but just called pawns. Then, I heard from some other places that they are. I think they are but what is the exact definition of a pawn?

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    No pawns aren't pieces Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 3:42
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    I think this Wikipedia article is exactly what you are looking for: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess_piece
    – Akavall
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 6:37
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    If pawns are not pieces, then, what are they? Perhaps air?
    – user26887
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 17:51
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    According to the FIDE Laws of Chess, 2.2: "At the beginning of the game White has 16 light-coloured pieces (the ‘white’ pieces); Black has 16 dark-coloured pieces (the ‘black’ pieces) [...] Eight white pawns [...] Eight black pawns". Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 20:44
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    When I learned the terminology (from some book or other in the 90s), there were "pieces" and "pawns", and the term for all of them was "men" (even the queen). But I don't know where this convention came from or whether it's still current; evidently it's not FIDE usage! Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 3:54

5 Answers 5

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I think a "piece" in the chess context is typically shorthand for the more specific terms of a "minor piece" (Knights and bishops) or a "major piece" (Rooks and Queens).

However, one could reasonably point out that the category of "chess pieces" in the typical board game sense should surely include pawns, and I'd have to agree.

So while the term is very commonly used and understood to refer to major/minor pieces, I think fundamentally it's at least a little ambiguous and when communicating especially with non-chess players it's probably best to simply be more specific, at least the first time the term is used.

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    Pawns should be called "tiny piece". 😁
    – xehpuk
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 11:17
  • I'm used to "chessmen" despite one being a Queen.
    – Joshua
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 17:49
  • @Joshua, who says pawns are men? To float a different perspective, they could be women. They are generally gender neutral so "men" doesn't really apply, either. I have plans to 3D print a chess set that's all women of history, or at least women warriors, so calling them "chessmen" is a bit sexist, even if it is a normal term. English does tend to use the masculine term when in a mixed group, but if there was 20 women and 1 man, would you still say "Hey guys!" or "Hey ladies!"? Yes, men are traditionally the warriors, but it doesn't mean they have to be men. :-) Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 20:11
  • @computercarguy When I think of the chess pieces as people, I've always thought of the pawns as the children of the king and queen :-). However, I always use "he/him" when talking about pawns during a game, and "she/her" when talking about the queen. I also (just because of habit) rarely use the term "chessmen", simply because I'm used to saying "chess pieces". In answer to your last question, "Hey ladies!" sounds a bit odd coming from a teenage boy, so I stick with "Hey guys!" no matter the gender of the group. It's like "Hey y'all!", I guess (yes, I live in the American south). Commented Dec 21, 2021 at 0:36
  • Indeed, there is a distinction between a "piece" as a "movable objects used in a game" vs "piece" as a chess term denoting all the movable objects except for the pawns. However, Kasparov called pawns pieces too, depending on the context. For example see: youtu.be/6z4ZNcZmJ-8?t=1400. For Kasparov, a "piece" is a "movable object in chess with substantial power".
    – Ardweaden
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 9:32
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No, the word "piece" does not include pawns. We can see this in some common phrases. A "minor piece" is a bishop or a knight – pawns are even more minor but don't count as minor pieces.

The word "piece" is also used in phrases where it implies "bishop or knight" because if the piece in question had been a queen, rook, or pawn, this would have been specified. For example, when we say that a player is up or down a piece.

One usage that might confuse the issue is that the physical objects we move on the board are called "pieces", and this refers to the pawns as well as to the pieces. We also see this usage when we say that in one game one player "has the White pieces".

Wikipedia lists these usages.

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Yes. According to the FIDE Laws of Chess (emphasis mine):

2.2. At the beginning of the game White has 16 light-coloured pieces (the 'white' pieces); Black has 16 dark-coloured pieces (the ‘black’ pieces).

These pieces are as follows:

  • [...]
  • Eight white pawns        usually indicated by the symbol white pawn
  • [...]
  • Eight black pawns        usually indicated by the symbol black pawn

There are also other articles implying that pawns are pieces:

3.7.5.3 This exchange of a pawn for another piece is called promotion, and the effect of the new piece is immediate.

However, it's worth noting that a pawn isn't considered a piece in terms of the Algebraic System:

C.1 In this description, ‘piece’ means a piece other than a pawn.

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I think it's just convention (see appendix). There are some sayings like

'In endgames, when you're winning, trade down. But trade pieces, not pawns.'

If you consider pawns as pieces, then this becomes

'In endgames, when you're winning, trade down. But trade non-pawns instead of pawns.'

Seems pretty weird.

There are also some definitions of the start of endgames like

(for lichess) Endgame starts when there are 6 pieces except kings.

If you consider pawns as pieces, then this becomes.

(for lichess) Endgame starts when there are 6 pieces except kings and pawns.

(I cannot think of examples that do not involve endgames.)


Appendix:

It's like in financial accounting when 'accounts receivable' (basically IOU's) are considered 'tangible' by 'accounting fiction' even when by our everyday understanding of the word 'tangible' they are 'intangible'.

or like the definitions of open and closed in topology: under these definitions, a set can be both 'open' and 'closed' (look up 'clopen'), but in our everyday understanding of these terms a door cannot be both open and closed.

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    Can you please share the source of lichess definitions? Thank you.
    – Minot
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 6:55
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    The phrasing in your second quoted block sounds weird because you wrote it in an awkward way. There might be other, less awkward phrasings. Maybe something like "In endgames, when you're winning, trade down but keep your pawns."
    – ilkkachu
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 12:41
  • @Minot cannot find anymore see here and here
    – BCLC
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 21:49
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    so they are not pieces for the majority of the definitions?
    – Andrew May
    Commented Dec 20, 2021 at 22:29
  • @AndrewMay idk about majority. i just know in some definitions they are not treated as pieces
    – BCLC
    Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 6:41
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In discussions of strategy, "piece" usually does not include pawns. In some contexts it may just mean knights and bishops. "Black is up a piece and a pawn".

In all other contexts (rules, board setup, physical set design, computer engines, etc) "piece" usually does include pawns.

There are some ambiguous contexts where it's not clear.

For instance, "there were 6 pieces left on the board". If this was a line in a book that is not about chess strategy, I'd assume it includes pawns. If this was a line in a report on a chess match, I'd assume it doesn't (but I wouldn't be certain whether it included the kings).

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    I like most of this answer, but I think in the specific context of "x pieces left on the board" usually that is referring to everything (pawns, pieces, kings) because that's how "piece" is used in the context of tablebases. Commented Dec 22, 2021 at 2:01
  • thank you all for your answers and comments they helped
    – Andrew May
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 15:55

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