How to Play Chess

Easy to learn, hard to master – such is the beauty of chess! People of all walks of life have enjoyed this classic game for centuries, in large part because the rules are so simple, yet the possibilities are endless. In this article, you’ll learn how to play chess: the rules of the game, the object of the game, how the pieces move, and some other interesting rules that make chess the unique and fascinating game that it is.

How the Pieces Move

Before we get to the object of the game – checkmate – we’ll learn the names of the pieces and what they do. Let’s start with the most important one: the king.

How Chess Pieces Move - The King

How Chess Pieces Move - The King

The king, marked with a cross-bearing crown, can move in any direction one square. It can move horizontally, vertically, or diagonally (see the diagram above). It is also the one piece you cannot live without – if your opponent traps your king, the game is over (more on that later)! You can sacrifice any other piece or pawn on the board, but you must always protect your king.

Next is the king’s faithful companion: the queen. Unlike her lazy husband, the queen can move any amount of squares in any direction – horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. This makes her the most powerful piece at your disposal by far.

How Chess Pieces Move - The Queen

How Chess Pieces Move - The Queen

Note that the queen, or any chess piece, cannot split its move. In other words, you can’t move the queen four squares to the left, then two squares up in the same turn. You can only move in one direction per turn.

Next is the rook. The rook, looking like the tower of a castle, is also a powerful piece. It has the ability to zoom all over the board, horizontally or vertically, any number of squares.

How Chess Pieces Move - The Rook

How Chess Pieces Move - The Rook

And there’s one more piece that can move any number of squares: the bishop. With its tall hat, often marked with a cross, the bishop can shoot up and down the diagonals of the chess board. The bishop does have one curious feature, however. Because it can only move on the diagonals, it cannot move to different color squares. In other words, your bishop starting on a light square will always stay on the light squares, while your bishop starting on a dark square will always stay on the dark squares! This makes having two bishops, which can together cover all the squares, a valuable advantage in a chess game.

How Chess Pieces Move - The Bishop

How Chess Pieces Move - The Bishop

Next up is the knight. The knight, resembling a horse on the chess board, is a bit of an odd creature. For one thing, it moves in a way that no other chess piece – not even the queen – can. The knight moves in an “L” shape, two spaces vertically and one space horizontally, or the opposite: two spaces horizontally and one space vertically.

How Chess Pieces Move - The Knight

How Chess Pieces Move - The Knight

The second curious feature of the knight is that it is the only piece that can jump over other pieces. Every other piece and pawn can be blockaded by its allies or the opponents’ pieces and pawns, but not the knight. As long as a fellow piece or pawn does not occupy it, the knight can jump to any square you wish. Tricky beasts!

How the Pawns Move

Now that we know how the pieces move, that brings us to the pawns. These little guys actually have the most complicated rules, but don’t worry – not that complicated! Pawns can move one space forward only, unless its their first move: then they can move two squares (or one square, if that’s all you want!).

How Chess Pieces Move - The Pawns

How Chess Pieces Move - The Pawns

Pawns are also the only part of your army that cannot move backward, which is quite an important feature of the game. Any time you move a pawn, you are doing something permanently which cannot be undone.

Pawns can also transform. When you advance a pawn all the way to the other side of the board, you can change the pawn into any piece you want except the king. That’s right, you can even have another queen if you want. And for that reason, it’s perhaps no surprise that a common strategy is to get a pawn to the other side of the board, and stop your opponent from doing the same at all costs!

But maybe the strangest thing about pawns is how they capture other pieces. Normally, to capture an opponent’s piece, you just move your piece to the square where the opponent’s piece is, replacing it with your own. Pawns do the same, but they can only do so diagonally. So, to restate, pawns can only move one space forward (or two on the first move), and can only capture pieces diagonally.

So, what happens if a pawn meets another pawn or piece face to face? Nothing! They simply butt heads, unable to make any progress. While a piece can capture a pawn with forward movement, a pawn can’t do the same. So for this reason, when two pawns meet head to head, they lock up, like so:

Locked Pawns

Locked Pawns

The pawns in the diagram below cannot capture each other – they’re stuck there until they get captured. These pawns, however, can capture one another:

Pawn Capture

Pawn Capture

Or they can move forward, ignoring each other altogether! Tricky, right? Well, sorry to tell you, there’s one more tricky pawn rule to remember: capturing en passant. 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

Yeah, little tricky, but that’s the most complicated rule in chess – if you know that one, you’re well on your way to getting the game down!

Castling

Remember how I said there are two special rules in chess? One is en passant capturing, and the other is called castling. Castling is the only move in chess where you can move two pieces at once – 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 an extremely 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

Setting Up the Board

That’s it, you know how all the pieces move! That wasn’t so hard, was it? 😉 Now that you know how the pieces move, it’s time to set up the board and start playing! And while any online chess site will have it set up for you, it’s worth knowing how it works 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 squares. 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 actually 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 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!) Black must move their king to safety immediately – to do anything else would be illegal. But in this position, the king can safely move a square over and be out of the queen’s threat. So, the game continues. Though it was check, it was not checkmate.

Now consider the position:

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. 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!

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 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 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 actually 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 and get inside the opponent’s camp. Such a case is likely to draw by the 50 move rule.

A more common draw by ‘inaction’ is 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, and certain other combinations of pieces.

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, can move any number of squares in any direction, certainly worth more than a pawn, who 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!

So that’s it – you’re ready to play chess. While this article is somewhat lengthy, it really isn’t that hard – in fact I bet you can master the rules in a weekend of play. And to get you started, you can take this free Chessable course, where you can practice everything you learned here. As a next step, you might also want to learn how to record the moves of a game properly, using chess notation.

Happy checkmating!

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the most powerful piece in chess? Without a doubt, the queen! The queen can move any number of squares in any direction, an ability no other piece has.

2. Can you win a chess game in 2 moves? Yes. The quickest possible checkmate in chess is Fool’s Mate, although it is very uncommon. A more common super-quick checkmate is Scholar’s Mate. You can learn common ways to checkmate this Chessable course.

3. Which pieces can jump over others? Only the knight can jump over other pieces – whether it be your opponent’s or your own.

4. Which chess piece moves first? You can move any pawn you want first, or a knight, since they can hop over the pawns. It is impossible to move any other piece, because they are blocked in by the other pieces.

5. Can chess pieces move backwards? Yes. The only one that cannot move backwards is the pawn.

6. Who moves first in a chess game, White or Black? White always move first in a chess game. Why? Well, that’s just the way it is! I like to think of it as a clash between good and evil, and good moves first 😉

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