The Basics of Chess - Learn How to Play

Chess is played on a square board of eight rows (called ranks and denoted with numbers 1 to 8) and eight columns (called files and denoted with letters a to h) of squares. The colors of the sixty-four squares alternate and are referred to as 'light squares' and 'dark squares'. The chessboard is placed with the light squares at the players' right, and the pieces are set out as shown in the diagram, with each queen on its own color.

The pieces are divided, by convention, into White and Black sets. Each player, referred to by the color of his pieces, begins the game with sixteen pieces: these comprise one king, one queen, two rooks, two bishops, two knights and eight pawns. White moves first. The colors are chosen either by a friendly agreement, by a game of chance or by a tournament director. The players alternate moving one piece at a time (with the exception of castling, when two pieces are moved simultaneously). Pieces are moved to either an unoccupied square, or one occupied by an opponent's piece, capturing it and removing it from play. With one exception (en passant), all pieces capture opponent's pieces by moving to the square that the opponent's piece occupies.

When a king is under immediate attack by the opponent's pieces, the king is said to be in check. When in check, only moves that result in a position in which the king is not in check are permitted. The player must not make any move that would place his king in check. The object of the game is to checkmate the opponent; this occurs when the opponent's king is in check, and there is no way to remove the king from attack.

Each chess piece has its own style of moving.

The king can move only one square horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Once in every game, each king is allowed to make a special move, known as castling. Castling consists of moving the king two squares towards a rook, then placing the rook immediately on the far side of the king. Castling is only permissible if all of the following conditions are met:

  • The player must never have moved either the king or the rook involved in castling
  • There must be no pieces between the king and the rook
  • The king may not currently be in check, nor may the king pass through squares that are under attack by enemy pieces. As with any move, castling is illegal if it would place the king in check.
  • The king and the rook must be on the same rank (to exclude castling with a promoted pawn, described later). The rook moves any number of vacant squares vertically or horizontally (it is also involved in the king's special move of castling)

The bishop moves any number of vacant squares in any direction diagonally. Note that a bishop never changes square color, therefore players speak about 'dark-squared' or 'light-squared' bishops, depending on the color of square on which the bishop resides. Alternatively, bishops may be identified as a 'queen bishop' or a 'king bishop', depending on whether they are next to the queen or the king when on their home square.

The queen can move any number of vacant squares diagonally, horizontally, or vertically

The knight can jump over occupied squares and moves two spaces horizontally and one space vertically or vice versa, making an 'L' shape. A knight in the middle of the board has eight squares to which it can move. Note that every time a knight moves, it changes square color.

Pawns have the most complex rules of movement:
A pawn can move forward one square, if that square is unoccupied. If it has not yet moved, the pawn has the option of moving two squares forward, if both squares in front of the pawn are unoccupied. A pawn cannot move backward. When such an initial two square advance is made that puts that pawn horizontally adjacent to an opponent's pawn, the opponent's pawn can capture that pawn en passant as if it moved forward only one square rather than two, but only on the immediately subsequent move.

Pawns are the only pieces that capture differently than they move. They can capture an enemy piece on either of the two spaces adjacent to the space in front of them (i.e., the two squares diagonally in front of them), but cannot move to these spaces if they are vacant.

If a pawn advances all the way to its eighth rank, it is then promoted (converted or 'queened') to a queen, rook, bishop, or knight of the same color. In practice, the pawn is almost always promoted to a queen.

With the exception of the knight, pieces cannot jump over each other. One's own pieces ('friendly pieces') cannot be passed if they are in the line of movement, and a friendly piece can never replace another friendly piece. Enemy pieces cannot be passed, but they can be 'captured'. When a piece is captured (or taken), the attacking piece replaces the enemy piece on its square (en passant being the only exception). The captured piece is thus removed from the game and may not be returned to play for the remainder of the game. The king cannot be captured, only put in check. If a player is unable to get the king out of check, checkmate results, with the loss of the game.

Chess games do not have to end in checkmate either player may resign if the situation looks hopeless. Games also may end in a draw (tie). A draw can occur in several situations, including draw by agreement, stalemate, threefold repetition of a position, the fifty move rule, or a draw by impossibility of checkmate (usually because of insufficient material to checkmate).

Besides casual games without exact timing, chess is also played with a time control, mostly by club and professional players. If a player's time runs out before the game is completed, he automatically loses. The timing ranges from long games played up to seven hours to shorter rapid chess games lasting usually 30 minutes or one hour per game. Even shorter is blitz chess with a time control of three to fifteen minutes for each player and bullet chess (under three minutes).

This is by no means a complete guide to playing chess. There are many guides available on the internet that discuss strategy and tactics to better your game. The information on this page is meant to give you the basics of chess and how to setup and move the pieces. For more information please view our links pages for useful websites.

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Last updated: Tuesday, May 22nd 2018