En Passant – The Goofiest Chess Rule


To try and help you visualize and define En Passant (Meaning: "in passing"), this strange, esoteric rule of chess, you’re going to need a 50 lb bucket of live octopus (slime would be a cheaper, more humane, but less interesting alternative), an extra bucket of seawater, chalk, a blanket, a bowl of homemade soup, $50, and a volunteer. Preferably a gullible one.

With the chalk, draw a few squares of a chess board on the sidewalk. Oh, I forgot to tell you – you’re going to want to do this outside. Take your volunteer and put them on the square d2. I will stand on e4. We are both chess pawns. I’m going to hold up my bucket of octopus, ready to dump it on anything that comes in my sphere of control, and I have my eye on you. You get clever, thinking you can take a double jump on your first turn and get up bedside me, making it so I can’t give you an octopus shower. We’re pawns, remember. You might think, “Whew, that was easy. I’m safe!” Think again. It’s tentacle time. Pick up the octopus and put them back in the bucket of seawater you have prepared. We don’t want to make things too uncomfortable for them.

Run the whole experiment again, with a different volunteer, while the first one watches. Tell the new volunteer to ignore the giant puddle of seawater on the sidewalk. This time, when they pass, as the first volunteer cringes, you decide to do nothing. Let them pass, you say. Your first volunteer starts to get angry. Give them the blanket, the bowl of soup, and the $50 so they will be friends with you again.

How to do En Passant

To understand what is En Passant, you need to remember that it only works under these circumstances. A pawn on its starting square tries its double-jump move past an opponent’s pawn. The opponent – on the next move only – can exercise en passant and capture it, moving to their capturing square and removing the offending pawn. Here, a pawn takes pawn or you can decide not to. You’re holding the bucket of octopus. The choice is yours.


How En Passant works


I’m going to just flat out and say it – En Passant is a weird rule. Some chess purist reading this might take objection to that, and they are entitled to their opinion just like I am. This rule an octopus on the head of elementary school chess classes everywhere. I have yet to show this rule to anyone who says, “Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” Nearly every time, there are befuddled looks and more questions – like, “Why can pawns stop other pawns from crossing their path, but not any of the other pieces?” I have tried making up some lame excuse, like, “…because the other pieces are faster.” “But the pawn is fast on its first move too, it jumps two spaces,” is the counter to that one. Kids are really good sometimes at calling a mollusk a mollusk. “Why can’t other pieces stop each other from crossing squares they control?” “Who came up with this thing, anyway? Why can’t we just play without it?”

Finally I stopped trying to put up a fight to the often scarily pristine logic of a 7 year old and now I say, “Look, sometimes we follow rules that are very old, just because. For instance, why do the Buckingham Palace guards in England wear those huge black poofy bearskin hats in the summertime? Clearly they are very hot and uncomfortable. But they wouldn’t think of taking the hat off, just because it is a very old rule. You can’t be a Buckingham Palace guard if you don’t follow that rule, unless the Queen changes the rule. So we’re going to keep doing En Passant, until someone changes the rule.” I’ve even gone as far as to suggest taking up a petition as a way to placate an angry student population. Predictably, interest in this initiative languished with the prospect of doing actual work, and we were back to playing chess with this goofy, strange rule within 5 minutes or so.

Key Points

  1. Only works when a pawn tries to do its double-square first move past an opponent’s pawn.

  2. Only works on the next move.

  3. You don’t HAVE to capture the pawn, it’s up to you.