How to Play Chess: The Ultimate Chessable Guide

How to play chess basics:

1. Chess is played between two players, White and Black, who each have eight pieces and eight pawns in their armies

2. The battle takes place on an 8 x 8 board (=64 squares) arranged in a checker pattern. 

3. White always moves first. 

4. The object of the game is to attack and trap (checkmate), the opponent’s king

How to Play Chess – Introduction

Chess has been around for centuries. In all these years, people from all walks of life have wielded the chess pieces to throw down in an epic battle where win and loss is all up to themselves and the strategy they come up with – no luck involved. 

And yet despite its age, it keeps getting more and more interesting! The number of possible games is practically infinite (10^120 by one estimate!), so every time you sit down and play, something novel is bound to happen – whatever your imagination can come up with. 

Though not easy to master, chess is very easy to learn (one of its many beauties!). In this article, you’ll learn how to move the pieces, set up the board, play by the rules, and even learn some chess etiquette for good measure. Let’s get started!

The Chess Board

Chess is played on a board of 64 squares, 8 x 8, in a check pattern, which looks like this on a computer:

How To Play Chess - The Board

How To Play Chess - The Board

There are two players, White and Black. Beginning with White, each player moves pieces and pawns with the goal of trapping the opponent’s king, the most important piece in the player’s army. Trapping the king is called checkmate, and is explained later. 

On each turn, you can move one of your pieces in one direction. Chess is much easier to understand by learning how the pieces move first, so let’s start with that. 

The Chess Pieces and How They Move

There are six different types of pieces in chess, each with a unique way of moving. Let’s go through each one:

The Rook 

The rook is the chess piece that looks like the tower of a castle:

How to Play Chess - The Rook

How to Play Chess - The Rook

Each player begins the game with two rooks. A rook can move vertically or horizontally, any number of squares per turn, like so:

How the Rook Moves

How the Rook Moves

The Bishop 

The bishop is the chess piece that, as the name suggests, looks like a bishop’s hat.

How to Play Chess - The Bishop

How to Play Chess - The Bishop

The bishop moves diagonally, any number of squares per turn, like so:

How the Bishop Moves

How the Bishop Moves

Each player starts with two bishops: one for the light squares, and one for the dark squares. Each bishop must stay on its color – a light square bishop can’t “hop over” to the dark squares, and vice versa! 

The Knight

The knight is the chess piece that looks like a horse.

How to Play Chess - The Knight

How to Play Chess - The Knight

Each player starts with two knights. Knights are interesting pieces – not only do they move in a unique way, but they are the only piece in chess that can jump over other pieces. The knight moves in an “L” shape: two spaces vertically and one space horizontally, or one space horizontally and one space vertically, like so: 

How the Knight Moves

How the Knight Moves

The Queen

The queen is the chess piece represented by a pointy crown:

How to Play Chess - The Queen

How to Play Chess - The Queen

Each side starts with only one queen. The queen is the most powerful piece in chess: she can move any number of squares horizontally, vertically, or diagonally per turn – like a rook and bishop in one! 

How the Queen Moves

How the Queen Moves

The King

The king is the piece represented by a crown with a cross on it: 

How to Play Chess - The King

How to Play Chess - The King

Each side starts with one king, and can only have one king for the entire game. The king can move in any direction, like the queen, but only one square per turn, like so: 

How the King Moves

How the King Moves

Although the queen is the most powerful attacker, the king is the most important piece in the chess game. This is because the game ends when you’ve trapped the king – but more on that later. 

The Pawn

The last piece (although sometimes technically not referred to as a piece), is the pawn:

How to Play Chess - The Pawn

How to Play Chess - The Pawn

Each side starts with eight pawns. The foot soldiers of chess, pawn moves are a little trickier than the rest. 

Pawns can only move forward one square at a time, except on their first move. On their first move, they can move one or two squares. 

Pawns also have a special way to capture other pieces. We will talk about what capturing is in the next section.

(Still trying to understand how the pieces move? You can read a more thorough guide in this article.)

Capturing Pieces

The object of the game, checkmate, is about trapping the opponent’s king, as we’ll discuss in more detail later. But to do that, you have to get through a few of his henchmen first! You accomplish this by capturing enemy pieces with your own. 

Capturing is simple – to capture a piece, you simply move your piece to the square where your opponent’s piece is, removing it from the board and replacing it with your own. 

Once captured, a piece cannot return to the board. By capturing a piece, you remove it from the game. An overriding theme in chess is to capture as much of your opponent’s material (pawns and pieces) and not let them do the same to you. By having a larger/stronger army, you have a better chance of trapping the king in checkmate! Just like a real war, the side with more troops usually (though not always!) has an advantage. 

As I mentioned, pawns have a funny way of capturing. Though pawns move one space forward at a time, they cannot capture that way. They can only capture diagonally, like so: 

Pawn Capture

Pawn Capture

The pawns above can capture each other (or they can move forward, ignoring each other, or do nothing at all!) However the pawns below can’t capture each other: 

Locked Pawns

Locked Pawns

Instead, they simply butt heads, never able to move until one of them is captured and the road is cleared. 

Confused yet? Hopefully not! Because there is one more special move that pawns can make…

Special Moves: Capturing En Passant

There are three special moves in chess. En passant capturing (from the French term meaning “in passing”) is one of two special rules in chess. Remember how pawns have the ability to move two squares on their first move? Well, if they do that such that they land to the side of an enemy pawn, the enemy pawn can capture them diagonally, like so: 

En Passant Capture

En Passant Capture

Sounds tricky, but it’s one of three special rules in chess. Master these, and you’ll have the rules down no problem!

Special Moves: Promotion

Pawns get another special move in chess. As you may recall, pawns move only forward, one space at a time. So what happens when they get to the other side of the board? 

When a pawn reaches the other side of the board, you can transform it into any piece you want except the king. As you might imagine, such power is enviable – and much of chess strategy revolves around advancing pawns up to make a second queen or other strong piece! 

If you’re playing online, when you move your pawn to the back rank, a menu will pop up asking you which piece you want. The pawn will then turn into that piece, like so:

How to Play Chess - Promotion

How to Play Chess - Promotion    How to Play Chess - Promoting to a QueenHow to Play Chess - Promoting to a Queen

If you’re playing with a physical board, you can replace the pawn with one of the captured pieces. Most chess sets will actually have an extra queen, in case there will be two queens on the board after a pawn promotion. If you don’t have an extra piece in the set, you can simply flip over a rook or other piece to symbolize the promoted piece.

Special Moves: Castling

Castling is the final special move in chess. Castling is the only move in chess where you can move two pieces in one turn – the king and the rook. You can castle kingside or queenside. In kingside castling, you move your king two spaces toward the closer rook to the king, then put the rook on the other side of the king, like so:

Kingside Castling 1

Kingside Castling 1     Kingside Castling 2Kingside Castling 2

In queenside castling, you move your king two spaces toward the further rook to your king, and then put the rook on the other side of the king, like so:

Queenside Castling 1

Queenside Castling 1    Queenside Castling 2Queenside Castling 2

Castling is a very useful move. You get your king safe and your rook a little more into the game all in one move! For that reason, in the vast majority of cases, it’s a good idea to castle!

Notice that with queenside castling, your king is a little closer to the center of the board. It is therefore a little more exposed to danger. (In chess, the king in the center of the board in the early and middle stages of the game is usually a bad thing, as it is exposed to attacks from many pieces).

To castle, a few conditions must be met:

  1. The king and the rook involved in castling can’t have moved prior to castling – it must be each piece’s first move
  2. You cannot castle through check. This means that if an opponent’s piece threatens to capture your king after you have castled, or ‘on the way’ to the castled square, you can’t castle then and there. For example, White could not castle in this position, because the Black bishop, which can move diagonally any number of squares, controls a square in the king’s path to castling.

Obstructing castling

Obstructing castling

Likewise, White cannot castle kingside in this position, because the king would land on a square controlled by an enemy knight. White can castle queenside, however, because no enemy pieces are obstructing them from doing so:

Obstructing Castling 2

Obstructing Castling 2

We cover the concept of check in more detail in a later section. For now, let’s set up the board.

Setting Up the Board

That’s it, you know how all the pieces move! That wasn’t so hard, was it? 😉 While any online chess site will have it set up for you, it’s worth knowing how to set up the board if you play in person, of course! Here is the starting position of chess:

Starting Position

Starting Position

Notice a few features: the king and queen are in the center of the back rows (called the ‘back ranks’ in chess), with the bishops on either side. The knights are next to the bishops, and the rooks in the corner. A pawn is in front of every one of them.

Important note: the bottom left square (from White’s perspective) is a dark square. This means that the white queen starts on a light square and the king starts on a dark square. Conversely, the black queen starts on a dark square and the black king starts on a light square. If this is tough to remember, you can remember the right square by this easy phrase: “the queen’s dress matches her shoes”!

The Object of the Game: Checkmate

Okay, you’ve got your board set up, you know how the pieces move, now what? The aim of the game is to checkmate your opponent’s king. What does that mean? As alluded to previously, when you move your piece to a square occupied by an enemy piece, you capture it, removing it from the board. However, you cannot capture the enemy king – the goal is to trap it, such that it would be captured no matter what square it moved to – while threatening to capture it the next turn. To see what this means, consider the following position:

Check

Check

In the position above, White threatens to capture Black’s king. The queen can move any number of squares in any direction, so you can see that Black’s king is on a square that White’s queen controls. This is called check. We say that the Black king is in check or the White queen checks the Black king (it is customary to verbally say “check” when you threaten the king in this manner, but not necessary!) 

By the rules of the game, when a player’s king is in check, they must respond to it in one of three ways: 

  1. Move the king out of check
  2. Block the check with another piece
  3. Capture the piece that’s checking the king

To do anything else would be illegal as per the rules.

In the position above, Black can’t capture the enemy queen with a piece, and has no pieces to block the check. Therefore, they have to move the king out of check – a square to the right or left, for example. 

Now consider this next diagram: 

Checkmate

Checkmate

Not only is the Black king in check, he can’t escape check! If he moves over to the left, White’s bishop will capture him. Black has no pieces to move in front of the queen’s path to block the check (remember, pawns can only move forward, not sideways), and there are no pieces to capture the queen. When the king is both in check and cannot escape it like this, it’s checkmate (or ‘mate’ for short). This ends the game – White wins!

Of course, you don’t have to trap the king precisely in this way. You can use any combination of pieces you want. In fact, one of the funnest aspects of the game is finding new ways to checkmate your opponent’s king!

Resignation

In actual practice, players don’t win by checkmate most of the time. When it becomes obvious that their opponent will win shortly, most players resign the game. 

Players resign for all sorts of reasons. When losing badly, it can be pointless to keep playing moves, knowing that you will end up in defeat. Therefore, resigning saves a lot of time and pays respect to your opponent – in this way, it’s a form of good sportsmanship. To resign, you can simply say “I resign” or tip over your king (be nice, don’t fling it at your opponent, no matter how frustrated you are by losing 😉). 

However, I strongly recommend as a beginner not to resign your games unless you are 100% sure you will lose. Even if you are down many more pieces than your opponent, stay in the game! That’s because many players at the beginner level can make a horrible mistake – called a blunder – at any moment and completely change your winning chances. Even strong players blunder from time to time!

Wayne Gretzky said “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Well, in chess, you can’t win a game you aren’t playing! Stay in the game as long as you can and fight with all you’ve got!

Stalemate

In chess, a win or a loss are not the only two results. The players can also draw, and in a number of different ways. One of the most common methods is stalemate. Recall that with checkmate, the enemy king is both in check and he has no legal moves. In stalemate, the king is not in check, but he still has no legal moves – and the player wielding that king can also move no other pieces. Having no legal moves to choose from, the game is a draw. See what this means by taking a look at this position here:

Stalemate

Stalemate

If it is Black to move in the position above, it’s a stalemate and the game is a draw. The only squares Black’s king could move to are controlled by White’s queen, and therefore stepping into them would be illegal. Even though there are pawns on the board, they can’t move – they’re locked together, as described above in the pawn section.

However, if it were White to move, it would not be a stalemate. White could move their queen away, giving the black king spaces to move to safely. The game would continue with no stalemate.

Now imagine the diagram above again, with Black to move. Only this time, there is another Black piece on the board, say, a knight for example. In that case, it would not be stalemate, because Black would have a legal move: moving the knight.

It’s important to know these subtle differences. Stalemate could save you from a loss if you’re on the weaker side, and could cause a win to slip through your fingers if you’re on the stronger side!

Other Draws

Stalemate is not the only way to draw, however. Another common method is threefold repetition, meaning the players have reached the same exact position three times. To give an example, consider this position below:

Threefold Repetition

Threefold Repetition

In this position, Black’s king is in check, and must move to safety, for example, onto the corner square. But White can just move their queen to the left one square, checking the king again, and the king must move back to the right. But then White’s queen can just move back to the right again, giving another check – indefinitely. We call this common way to reach a draw perpetual check. It’s worth knowing that in the above position, White should do this, because they have no chance of winning. Black’s army is much stronger, and they threaten their own checkmate. If White moves their own queen to White’s back rank, she traps the White king behind his own pawns!

Another draw is the 50 Move Rule. The 50 Move Rule states that if neither player makes a pawn move or capture in 50 moves, the game is a draw. This is not a common way to draw, but it does happen from time to time. Imagine a position where all the pawns lock together, and neither side can get inside the opponent’s camp. Such a case is likely to draw by the 50 move rule. Neither side can make any progress. 

A more common draw by ‘inaction’ is a draw by insufficient material. This means that neither side has enough power to checkmate. For example, this position:

Insufficient Material

Insufficient Material

This is a dead draw – neither side has any pieces to checkmate the enemy king with! And, the kings can’t checkmate each other. Remember that the king can only move one square. This means that if it were to threaten the enemy king, the enemy king could in turn capture it!

However, insufficient material draws are not only in cases where it’s a king versus a king. A king and knight versus a king, or a king and bishop versus a king is also a draw, for example. That’s because it is impossible to checkmate with these combinations, as well as certain other combinations of pieces. Note that you can checkmate with only a king and queen versus a king. And you can even checkmate with a rook and a king versus a king. 

The final way to draw a game is by agreement: at any time, the players can agree to end the game in a tie. They might do this for a number of reasons. They may simply see no way to win, or are just tired and want to call it quits!

The Value of the Pieces

You now know all the piece movements and ways to win and draw. The final thing worth knowing to start playing chess is the value of the pieces.

The value of the pieces is not fixed, and does not appear in any rulebook as a rule. It is just a commonly accepted ‘point system’ to get an idea of who is winning the game and who is behind. The reasoning for this is that even though the aim of the game is checkmate, getting checkmate is usually not that easy. You often first have to clear some pieces out of the way to get to your opponent’s king.

You clear these pieces out of the way by capturing them. However, some pieces are more valuable for the capture than others. The queen, for example, which can move any number of squares in any direction, is certainly worth more than a pawn, which can only move two squares forward at the most!

To get a sense of the value of the pieces, chess players commonly assign a point value to each one:

Pawn: worth 1 point – the lowest value of all (although it does have the potential to become a queen, the highest point value of all!)

Knight: 3 points – the knight’s ability to hop over both friendly and enemy pieces back and forth and side to side makes it worth three pawns

Bishop: 3 points – though the bishop is a much longer range piece than the knight, it is limited to only one color of squares, making it roughly equal to the knight

Rook: 5 points – the rook can move up and down and side to side any number of squares, and therefore access any square on the board with relative ease, making it worth five pawns, and more valuable than the bishop and knight

Queen: 9 points – the queen, having the ability to move any number of squares in any direction, is the most powerful piece of all, worth more than all 8 pawns put together – not to mention any combination of lower pieces!

King: Well, there is no point value for the king! Or you could say it is infinite, because losing the king means losing the game!

So, you typically wouldn’t want to capture an opponent’s bishop with your rook, only to have them recapture it with another piece. That means you gave up a piece worth 5 for a piece worth 3, which is basically illogical.

That said, the points aren’t everything – remember that the aim of the game is checkmate, and even if you sacrifice your queen to do it, checkmate wins the game, no matter who is ahead on points!

Etiquette and Sportsmanship

Like many games and sports, chess has its own unique ‘unwritten rules’ and etiquette. 

One of the first acts of good sportsmanship is to shake your opponent’s hand before making the first move and after the game concludes. In fact, FIDE, the international governing body of competitive chess, has made it a rule for their tournaments! 

Another important custom is called the “Touch Move Rule.” This means that when you touch a piece, you must move that piece (unless it is illegal to move that piece – for example, if you’re in check). Once you let go of the piece, your move is final – no take-backs, unless your opponent is very generous! While in a casual game this is just good etiquette, in a tournament game it’s the rule. 

But, suppose your pieces are placed on their squares a little sloppily, and you want to fix them. In that case you can touch the pieces, even if it’s not your move, to adjust them. When you do so, you must say “adjust” or “J’adoube”, which is the French term for “I adjust.” Adjusting too much can be annoying to the other player – try to place your pieces on their squares neatly when you make your moves!

While other rules exist for tournament play, these basics are definitely enough for a beginner. Always remember to be a gracious winner or loser – chess is a very emotional game, so respect your opponent no matter what!

Bringing It All Together

Okay, you’ve learned all the rules of the game and how the pieces move. A lot of information in one sitting, to be sure! So let’s play through the first few moves of a game and see it all at work. The best way to learn is by doing – I recommend taking out a chess board and playing out the moves in person, or using this virtual one

Let’s assume you’ve shaken your opponent’s hand and are ready to start. You play White, so you move first. A good move first move is moving a pawn into the center of the board, the most important area, like so: 

How to Play Chess - Ruy Lopez Move 1

How to Play Chess - Ruy Lopez Move 1

Remember, on their first moves, pawns can move two spaces forward! And it’s a good idea to move either of the pawns in front of the king or queen two spaces on the first move to establish control of the critical central area. 

Let’s say Black responds in kind with their own pawn move toward the center. 

How to Play Chess - Black First Move

How to Play Chess - Black First Move

Remember that these pawns can’t capture each other – they “butt heads”, obstructing each other’s paths. It will take a piece capturing it to remove the pawn from the enemy pawn from the board, freeing the way. So let’s attack Black’s pawn!

How to Play Chess - White's Second Move

How to Play Chess - White's Second Move

Since the knight moves in an L shape and can jump over the other pieces, you can attack your opponent’s pawn, threatening to capture it on the next move. Remember, to capture it, all you have to do is move the piece where the enemy one is, replacing it with your own. 

Black is probably against us capturing their pawn, so let’s say they bring out their own knight, defending it!

How to Play Chess - Black 2nd Move

How to Play Chess - Black 2nd Move

Now the black pawn is safe. If White captures it with their knight, Black will capture the knight with their own knight – an advantageous move. It’s advantageous because the pawn is worth only 1 and the knight is worth 3: meaning Black is up +2! We can say that in such a case, Black has a material advantage

But we’re smarter than that, right? So let’s develop another piece – meaning get it into the game and fighting. 

How to Play Chess - Move 3

How to Play Chess - Move 3

By moving the bishop to this square, we threaten to capture Black’s knight on the next turn. There’s a benefit to doing so: by removing the knight, the defender of the pawn, we can then capture the pawn without having our knight captured! This is a simple chess tactic called removing the defender

Note that White is now ready to castle on the next move. The king and rook can “see each other”, and neither have moved yet, meaning it’s okay to castle. And castling is a great idea in the early stage of the game. By castling, you get your king safe and rook closer to the action all in one move. Not a bad idea! 

We’ve just seen the first three moves of a popular chess opening, called the Ruy Lopez, or Spanish Game. The opening is a critical phase because it sets the stage and the plans for the rest of the game. Once you’ve mastered the basic rules of the game, you might consider reading this guide on chess opening principles for absolute beginners. 

And we’ll leave it at that! The game can go many ways from here, all up to your strategy. Once you’ve mastered the rules, I encourage you to look into the opening guide above or this article on basic chess tactics. You’re well on your way to become a chess player – we hope to see you on the battlefield. 🙂

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How do you get better at chess? 

There are two ingredients to chess success: study and practice! 

Good chess players take time to learn good opening moves, tactics, strategy, and other elements of the game. They then apply their knowledge by practicing it in many games, analyzing each one after the fact to look for mistakes and ways to improve. 

Not so long ago, players had to study with physical books and boards, playing out all the moves and variations physically – eating up a lot of time. These days, chess players suffer no lack of choice for chess improvement! There are many good methods to study: reading books, watching videos, playing through grandmaster games, and of course, studying on Chessable 😉 Chessable has particularly revolutionized the way players study chess by using the scientific principle of spaced repetition in its MoveTrainer software, allowing players to easily memorize hundreds and thousands of variations in just a short time.

2. Who moves first in chess?

By the rules of chess, White always moves first.

3. What is the best first move in chess?

That is a hot debate in the chess world! However, the strongest players in the world (grandmasters), have narrowed down the best first move down to four choices: :

1.e4 (moving your king’s pawn two spaces forward) 

1.d4 (moving your queen’s pawn two spaces forward)

1.c4 (moving your queen’s bishop pawn two spaces forward) 

1.Nf3 (moving your king’s knight two spaces in front of the king’s bishop) 

For beginners, we highly recommend one of the first two: they are the simplest, but still extremely solid and played often by the pros.

4. Which piece cannot move backwards?

The pawns cannot move backward. Any other piece can move backwards. 

This is an extremely important part of chess. This is because when you move a pawn, you have effectively made a permanent change to the board. Think carefully before moving a pawn!

5. Can you move more than one piece at once?

No. You can only move one piece at a time – the only exception is when castling.

6. What is the value of each chess piece? Which is the most important?

You can see the value of the chess pieces in the section labeled above. At 9 points, the queen is the most valuable chess piece in terms of attacking power, but the king is the most important. That’s because if you get checkmated, the game is over!

7. Who invented chess? When was chess invented?

Although nobody knows who specifically invented the game of chess, experts believe that the game originated in India. The earliest predecessor to modern chess, chaturanga, developed some time in the 7th century AD. 

From there, chaturanga spread into Persia, where it was known as shatranj. That game spread through the Muslim world in the middle ages, until finally landing in Europe during the Moorish invasion. It was around the 15th century that the game took the form we are familiar with today. 

Interestingly, however, the final rules we play by today weren’t codified until the mid-1800s!

8. What is chess notation? How many types are there? 

Chess notation is a way of recording and describing the moves of a chess game. There are two main types of chess notation: algebraic and descriptive. 

Descriptive notation was an early predecessor of algebraic notation. You might have heard it in TV and movies – people calling out “knight to king’s bishop three” or something similar. 

While fancy sounding, chess players no longer use descriptive notation. Around the 1980s, the much more concise and less confusing algebraic notation became the standard. In order to read any modern chess book, you need to know algebraic notation. 

You can learn algebraic notation with this beginner’s guide.

9. What is the goal of chess?

The goal of chess is to checkmate your opponent’s king – see the section on checkmate above. 

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