How to Play Chess for Beginners
This guide is designed for all those that are new to Chess, or those that know some Chess rules, but need to brush up on other rules. We won't be discussing any Chess strategies or openings such as King's or Queen's Gambit, Sicilian Defense, English Opening... We'll cover more advanced strategies in other blog posts.
On the chess board, the vertical rows are called Ranks while the horizontal columns are called Files. On boards that have the squares labelled, the Ranks are labelled A to H, and the Files are labelled 1 to 8, since the board is 8 squares wide and 8 squares long.
The chess pieces are sometimes also referred to as chessmen.
Chess piece names are:
♟ Pawns (there are 8 pawns per player)
♜ Rooks (sometimes referred to as castles)
♞ Knights (sometimes referred to as horses)
There are special names for certain types of moves, such as:
Castling – this involves moving your King & Rook together.
En Passant – this is a special case when a Pawn captures another Pawn that moves beside it.
Promotion – this happens when a Pawn gets all the way to the end of the file.
You can learn more details about these moves in the Special Rules section.
You can learn how each of the chess pieces move in the “How to move the chess pieces” section.
There are specific names for some types of attacks, including:
Check – this is when any piece is moved into attack position toward the enemy King.
Checkmate – this is a special type of Check that ends the game if the enemy King cannot escape from Check.
Stalemate – this happens when a player has no legal moves left, but the King isn’t in Check.
Draw – this is a tie game when neither player wins.
Resignation – when a player knows they cannot win, they can give up by resigning.
You can learn more details about these attacks in the sections relating to Check, Checkmate and Stalemate.
The chess board is composed of 64 squares in a 8 x 8 grid of alternating light and dark squares (usually referred to as white and black squares).
Each player has 16 chess pieces. 8 major pieces on the back row (row 1 for white or row 8 for black), as well as 8 pawns on the next row (row 2 for white or row 7 for black).
If your board has the Ranks & Files labelled (1-8 for Ranks, A-H for Files), then the board orientation is simple, since the A-H letters face the players with the 1-8 numbers between the players. The A1 square is on the left hand side of the white player; while the A8 square is on the right hand side of the black player.
If your board squares aren’t labelled, then just remember the phrase “white on right” or “light on right”. Each player should have a white square on their right most square.
The pawns fill up the 2nd & 7th rows.
Then on the 1st & 8th rows, the pieces are arranged on the following Ranks:
Rooks on Ranks A & H
Knights on Ranks B & G
Bishops on Ranks C & F
Queens on Rank D
Kings on Rank E
With this setup, the white player has their King on the right side of their Queen while the black player has their King on the left side of their Queen.
Each player has 1 black Bishop and 1 white Bishop. They also have 1 Rook & Knight that begin on a black square and others that begin on white squares. The Bishops cannot change to other colored squares while the other pieces can (see “How each piece moves” below).
The player with the white or light colored pieces always moves first. There is no official method to determine who plays the white or black side, but some common ways include flipping a coin, alternating (when playing multiple games), or hiding a white & black pawn in different hands and letting the other player pick a hand.
After white makes the first move, black moves. The players continue to alternate exactly 1 move per turn. A player cannot skip a turn and cannot make multiple moves in the same turn.
The King can only move 1 square in any direction; with the exception of castling (explained in the Special Rules section).
A Rook can move vertically or horizontally any number of squares, but cannot jump over other pieces that block it’s path.
A Bishop can move diagonally any number of squares, but cannot jump over other pieces that block it’s path. Since they move diagonally, each Bishop can never move to a different colored square than it started on.
The Queen combines the moves of the Rook and Bishop. She can move any number of squares vertically, horizontally or diagonally, but cannot jump over other pieces that block her path.
A Knight moves in an L shape, 1 square horizontally and 2 vertically or 1 square vertically and 2 horizontally. The Knight is the only piece that can jump over other pieces.
A Pawn can only move forward 1 square at a time, except on the Pawn’s first move they can move either 1 or 2 squares forward, but after their first move, they can only move 1 square at a time. Pawns can never move backward.
With the exception of the Pawns, all pieces capture other pieces in the same way that they move.
The King can capture any piece that is on one of the squares directly next to him, but he cannot take a piece that is protected by another piece because that would put the King in Check.
The Queen, Rook and Bishop can capture any piece that is in the path of their legal moves. Once capturing a piece, they cannot continue moving until their next move and they must occupy the square where they captured the enemy piece.
A Knight can capture any piece that occupies the square that they are moving to (the end of the L movement). A Knight cannot capture any pieces on the squares between their start & end position because they are jumping over those pieces.
Pawns can only capture a piece that is 1 square diagonally in front of them (with the exception of the En Passant move explained in the Special Rules section). They cannot capture pieces directly in front of them and can therefore be blocked from moving forward by any pieces directly in front of them.
It should go without saying that a piece cannot capture a piece of the same color; it must be an enemy piece.
A piece also cannot take a piece if it requires them to make a move that would put their King in Check. The King must be protected at all costs.
There are some special rules that can only be used in very specific circumstances.
Castling is the only time you can move 2 pieces at the same time. Castling involves moving the King and one of the Rooks at the same time and can only be performed if the King and Rook have never been moved in that game, and there cannot be any pieces between the King and Rook. Even if the King or Rook moved and then moved back to their original starting position, they cannot Castle because the pieces were moved.
There are 2 types of Castling. In both cases, the King must always be moved first, then the Rook. If you move the Rook first, it is not a legal Castling maneuver and you must then only move your Rook during that turn.
This is performed with the King and the Rook on the H Rank (closest to the King). It’s performed by moving the King 2 squares toward the King-side Rook, then moving the Rook around to the other side of the King (i.e. the Rook jumps over the King) and lands on the F Rank.
This is performed with the King and the Rook on the A Rank (closest to the Queen). It’s performed by moving the King 2 squares toward the Queen-side Rook, then moving the Rook around to the other side of the King (i.e. the Rook jumps over the King) and lands on the D Rank.
En Passant is a special move that only Pawns can perform. When chess was originally created, Pawns could only move 1 square forward at a time. When a rule was created allowing Pawns the option to move 2 squares forward on their first move, another rule was created for a situation when a Pawn has already advanced just beyond the middle of the board (row 5 for white or 4 for black). If the opponent then moves one of their Pawns 2 moves forward and the Pawn lands directly beside the advanced Pawn of the other color, the advanced Pawn has the option of moving diagonally behind the other Pawn and captures it. The option to perform an En Passant maneuver only exists directly after a Pawn moves 2 squares forward beside your Pawn; if you move another piece instead, you cannot perform an En Passant capture of that Pawn in another turn later.
Think of it as if the Pawn ran too quickly 2 squares forward without checking if it was safe, then the enemy Pawn ambushes the speedy Pawn. This is where the name En Passant comes from, which means “in passing” in French.
The end result is the same as if the Pawn had only moved 1 square forward and the enemy Pawn performs a regular diagonal capture of the other Pawn.
Pawns are the only pieces that can change into another piece. This only happens when a pawn makes its final move and reaches the end of the board (rank 8 for white or rank 1 for black). Think of it similar to King promotion when playing Checkers. Once a Pawn reaches the end of the board it is immediately removed from the board and is replaced with any other piece (except another King) that the player wants. i.e. When a player moves the Pawn to the end of the board, they don’t promote the Pawn on their next move, they promote it during the same turn.
Since the Queen is the most powerful piece in chess, a player almost always chooses to promote the Pawn to a Queen. If your chess set doesn’t have any extra Queens and the player still has their original Queen, sometimes a Rook is turned upside down to represent a new Queen (if a captured Rook is available).
The only real time someone would choose not to promote to a Queen would be if doing so would immediately result in a stalemate.
The goal in chess is to Checkmate your opponent; it doesn’t matter how many of your opponents pieces you capture, if you don’t Checkmate them you don’t win. Many beginners may try to capture as many of their opponent’s pieces as they can. Although the less pieces your opponent has, the weaker they are, if you only look for chances to capture pieces, you may be overlooking opportunities to win the game by Checkmate.
But what does Check and Checkmate mean? We’ll start with Check:
Check is a situation in which one player makes a move that threatens their opponents King. A King is threatened when another piece moves into a position where they can capture the King on their next turn. When a King is in Check, the player must either move their King out of Check, capture the piece that is threatening their King, or move one of their pieces in between their King and the piece that is threatening their King.
It is customary to let your opponent know they are in Check by saying “Check”.
Checkmate is a form of Check in which a King is threatened but it cannot move out of Check, cannot capture the piece threatening it, and cannot block the Check.
When a King is in Checkmate, the player that traps their opponents King says “Checkmate” and wins the game.
Stalemate occurs when a player has no legal moves left. This is different from Checkmate because while Checkmate means a player’s King is currently under threat by an enemy piece, in the case of Stalemate, neither King is under attack.
Stalemate only occurs in the end game when most of the chess pieces have been captured. If the player whose turn it is cannot move any piece, including the King or any other piece, they are in Stalemate.
One example of Stalemate is if a player lost all their pieces except their King and they cannot move their King anywhere because all possible paths would put their King in Check.
Similarly, even if that player also had a Pawn, but the Pawn was blocked from moving forward and there were no pieces that the Pawn could capture, it would still be a Stalemate.
Another possibility would be if the player had a King and Knight; if the Knight was shielding the King from an attack from another piece and the King couldn’t move anywhere without being in Check, that is still a Stalemate.
What is a Draw?
A Draw is a tie game that occurs in one of the following conditions:
When both players agree to end the game in a tie.
If the same board position occurs 3 times (known as Threefold Repetition), a player may claim a draw with an arbiter.
If the same board position occurs 5 times, the Five-fold Repetition Rule requires an arbiter to declare a draw.
If there has been no pieces captured and no Pawns moved within the last 50 moves (known as the 50-move Rules).
If the game is in a Dead Position, which is when neither player has sufficient pieces left to be able to Checkmate their opponent.
Threefold and Five-fold Repetition Rules:
These rules are designed to prevent a game from continuing indefinitely if no progress is being made. The difference between the rules is that a play may claim a draw with an arbiter after 3 repetitive board positions, but it isn’t an automatic draw; whereas an arbiter is required to declare a draw when they notice the same board position occurs 5 times.
Two positions are considered to be equal if the same pieces are occupying the same squares on the same player’s turn. The identical board position doesn’t necessarily need to occur consecutively; it could be part of a larger loop of moves.
Ex. When trying to trap a King in the end game, if player 1 Checks the King with a Rook, then player 2 moves their King to the right, then player 1 Checks the King by moving the Rook to the right, then player 2 moves their King to the left. In theory this game could continue forever by moving the same pieces back and forth. The same could happen if moving the King & Rook to the right, then to the right again, then to the left and left again...
Perpetual Check is exactly what it sounds like – a player continues to Check the other player’s King during every turn, while the other player continues to move out of Check each time. This situation used to constitute a draw in tournaments, but that rule was removed. They players will usually agree to a draw in this situation since eventually either the Threefold Rule or 50-move rule will take effect.
What is a Dead Position?
A Dead Position is when neither player can perform a Checkmate because they don’t have sufficient pieces to do so. It occurs when the only pieces left on the board are:
A King against a King.
A King against a King & Bishop.
A King against a King & Knight.
A King & Bishop against a King and Bishop when both Bishops are on the same color squares.
A Dead Position can also occur in very rare cases when there would otherwise be sufficient pieces to cause a Checkmate, but they are arranged in a way that prevents any pieces from being captured.