Of the chess set pieces the pawn is the most numerous and frequently the most uninteresting, even in a good carved chess set.
Interestingly, the pawn has always been seen as the infantry among the pieces. In medieval times this was often translated into seeing the piece as the ordinary man; this is hardly surprising as at that time the infantry of an army were often armed peasants fulfilling their obligation to their feudal lord. Even the earliest forms of chess refer to this piece as the 'foot-soldier.' 'Padati' in the original Sanskrit literally translates this way and was the earliest name for the pawn.
Of course the pawn is the only one of the chess set pieces that cannot move backward but, and here the game of chess proves itself to be a meritocracy, it can make it to the far side of the board and be promoted. The player can then choose the new rank of the pawn, be it queen, rook, bishop or knight. Obviously a promoted pawn cannot become a king, nor would it be wise to do so. The promotion is termed 'queening' as the choice is usually to promote the piece to a queen. The promotion is not limited to a piece already taken by the opponent and it is not widely understood that, in theory at least, it is possible for a player to have as many as ten knights, ten bishops, ten rooks or even nine queens in play at any one time.
The pawn has always been among the chess set pieces, even as far back as the game's origins in India some 1500 years ago. Medieval chess players even gave each individual pawn a profession: each one became a gambler, a city guard/policeman, an innkeeper, merchant, doctor, weaver/ clerk, worker, farmer or a blacksmith. The position of each one related to the major piece behind - for example, the blacksmith and the city guard or policeman were in front of the knight as they were overseen by knights in real life.
The German name for the pawn is 'Bauer' or peasant and the French refer to it as 'Pion:' this was corrupted to form our present 'Pawn.'
Interestingly, the piece has had philosophical connotations and it is the only chess piece that lends its name to a life situation. In the English language to be a pawn is to be someone manipulated by a stronger person or power: an unimportant subordinate or agent.
To many who play chess, the pieces may seem to be play things but, as the pawn shows us, there is a great deal more depth and history to the game.
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