Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How to Play Chess

Learn the Royal Game

Welcome to my tutorial on how to play the game of chess. In this article, you will learn the following:

  • How to set-up the board 
  • General rules and order of play
  • How the pieces move
  • The objective of the game and how the game ends
  • How to learn more about chess

Board Set-up

Look at the diagram below:

This is the standard set-up for chess. Notice the following:
  • The right corner (from the players' point of view) is always a white (or light) square.
  • The queen and king reside on the back row (or "rank") on the middle two squares, with the queen's initial square matching her color - the White queen goes on the white square, while the Black queen goes on the black square.
  • To the outside of the king and queen are the bishops.
  • To the outside of the bishops are the knights.
  • At the corners are the rooks.
  • The pawns start on the second rank.
In this particular diagram, you can also see coordinates. We will use these to describe piece movements in what is called Algebraic Notation. This is the standard "language" to write chess moves and you can learn it in this article about chess notation on the Chess.com website.

General Rules and Order of Play

Before we learn how the pieces move, here are a few general rules.
  • The player with the white pieces goes first.
  • The players alternate turns, with each player moving one piece and then the other. You cannot "pass" or otherwise take a turn without moving a piece.
  • The game ends either by checkmate, stalemate, an agreed draw, or resignation. We will describe checkmate and stalemate below. (There are a couple other ways the game can end, such as via "three-fold repetition", but let's focus on the most common for now)

Piece Movement

Let's go over how the pieces move. Here are a couple points for you to note about all of the pieces:
  • The pieces can capture each other by landing on them and replacing them. The only exception is the king which in traditional chess cannot be captured - we'll discuss this later in this tutorial. (Here is a video about the relative value of the pieces)
  • With the exception of the knight, the pieces cannot "jump" over each other (as in checkers).
At the end of this article, we will view a famous game played by masters to see how all of these rules are put together.

The Pawn

The pawn, the humble footsoldier in the chess army, has a variety of moves it can do in certain situations. We'll cover each of them:

First Move
On its first, pawn can either move one or two spaces forward. After its first move, it can only move one space forward.

Capturing with the Pawn
Unlike the other pieces, which capture using their general movement rules, the pawn does not capture other pieces by moving forward. They capture by moving diagonally one square.

Look at the diagram below:

Note that the Black pawn on e5 can capture only the pawn on d4. It cannot capture the pawn on e4. If it were White's move, only the d4 pawn can capture the Black pawn on e5. The White e4 pawn cannot capture.

Capturing En Passant
This is a special move for the pawn in specific situations. En Passant is French for "In Passing." Here is the general rule for capturing en passant:

  • When your pawn has reached the 5th rank (rank 5 for White or rank 4 for Black using the coordinates),
  • And your opponent's adjacent pawn uses its initial move to move two squares "passing" your pawn.
  • One your next move only, you may capture the pawn landing diagonally on the square behind the pawn you captured.
Use the diagram below to move through an example demonstrating en passant (click on either the arrows or the move notation to see the pieces move.

Pawn Promotion
The humble pawn has a special move where it can be promoted to become another piece if it reaching the 8th rank. It can become a queen, rook, knight, or bishop. Check out the diagram below for examples of how this is done.
So hopefully this gives you a good idea of how to move the pawns.

The Rook

The rook can move in four directions: forward, backward, and to either side. Note the diagram below:

In this diagram, you can see:
  • The White rook (on d4) can move sideways and up and down, and can capture the pawn on d7.
  • The Black rook (on g6) can move sideways and up and down, but must cannot pass the g4 square, because its own bishop is blocking it on g3.
The rook also has a special move in tandem with the king, called "castling," which we will discuss below when we discuss how the king moves.

The Knight

The knight is perhaps the toughest piece to explain in words, but fortunately a picture makes it easy. Basically, the knight "leaps" in an "L" shape:
  • Two squares either up, down or side-to-side, then
  • One square 90 degrees in either direction.
  • The knight does not "pass" through any of the squares between it's starting square and destination square, therefore it can go "over" other pieces.
Consider the following diagram, which illustrates the movement of the knight. 

Notice that the Black knight on h6 can only get to four squares while the White knight can reach its maximum 8 squares.

The Bishop

The bishop moves diagonally. Like the rook, it can move until it either runs into one of its own pieces or it can capture another piece (and of course it can stop at any point before this).
  • Each bishop stays on the same color for the whole game.
  • Each player starts out with a bishop on the light squares and a bishop on the dark squares.

The Queen

The queen combines the powers of the rook and the bishop as she can travel up-and-down, side-to-side, and diagonally. This makes the queen the most powerful piece (in general).

The King

The king can move in any direction exactly one square. There are a couple special rules for the king:

  • The king cannot put itself in a position where it can be captured on the next move.
  • When an opposing piece attacks the king (to where it can capture it on the next move if the king is not moved), then the king is in "check" and must attempt to escape check.
  • If the king is in check and cannot escape legally, then the king has been "checkmated" and the game is over. We will cover this in more detail in the next section.

The king has a special move - typically used to get the king to safety. This move is called castling. The maneuver goes like this:

  • The king moves two squares toward either the closer rook (kingside) or the further rook (queenside).
  • The rook moves to the other side of the king.
See the following diagram:

A couple rules regarding castling:

  • You cannot castle if your king is in check.
  • You cannot castle if you have moved either the king of the rook that you want to castle with.
  • You cannot castle if the king must travel through a square that can be attacked by an opposing piece. See the diagram below.

In the diagram above, it is Black's turn to move. Black cannot castle because the king is in check from the knight.

If it were White's turn to move, White would not be able to castle because the king must pass through the f1 square, which is attacked by the Black bishop on c4.

The Objective of the Game and Ending the Game


The ultimate goal for every player is to checkmate your opponent's king. As mentioned in our king section earlier, checkmate occurs when:
  • The king is in check - attacked by another piece where the king would be captured if it were the opponent's turn.
  • The king cannot escape check legally.
Example #1
Consider the following diagram:

It is Black's turn to move. This position is checkmate.
  • The White queen is checking the Black king.
  • Because the queen is protected by the knight on g5, the king cannot capture the queen.
  • The king cannot go to any other square because it is either blocked by its own pieces or the square is attacked by the queen.
Example #2
Check out the diagram below:

Here is another checkmate position:
  • The rook is checking the king.
  • The king cannot go to either the c8 or e8 squares because the rook can capture it next turn.
  • The king cannot go to the c7, d7, or e7 squares because the king attacks those squares.
Example #3

Is this checkmate?

Let's see:
  • The knight on g6 is attacking the king, so the king is in check.
  • The king is blocked in by its other pieces so it cannot move.
  • The pawn on h7 cannot capture the knight because then the queen would be able to capture the king on the next move. The pawn is "pinned."
  • So yes - this is checkmate.
This particular checkmate pattern is an example of a "smothered mate." We will cover common mating patterns in another article.


Checkmate is not the only way to end a chess game. The game can also end in a stalemate, which is a draw. Take a look at the following position:

It is Black's turn to move. In this position we can see:
  • The Black king cannot move legally as all of its squares are covered by either the queen or the rook.
  • The Black king is not in "check" as there is no piece that can capture it on the following turn.
  • Therefore, the king is in stalemate, and the game is a draw (despite White's larger forces).
  • Note that if Black had any other pieces that could make a legal move, this would not be stalemate (and White would probably go on to win).

Insufficient Material

If both sides lack the material force needed to deliver checkmate, then the game is drawn. For example, consider the diagram below.

In this position, despite being ahead by a whole piece, this game is drawn as a lone king and knight cannot checkmate the opposing king.

Note that if the knight were a pawn it may not be drawn as White may potentially be able to promote the pawn to a piece that could deliver checkmate with the king.

Other Ways to End a Game

The game may be ended a few other ways:
  • Both players may agree to a draw in any position.
  • One player may resign - quit -  if he does not want to continue.
  • The 50 move rule: Basically, if there are 50 moves without a pawn advance or a capture, a player may claim the game drawn.
  • The three-fold repetition rule: If a game reaches the same position three times, a player may claim a draw.
  • If you are playing with chess clocks, if a player runs out of time, then the other player may claim a victory. However, if both players' time runs out without either player before someone claims, it is considered a draw if either player claims it.

Putting It Together

Here is an example of a famous game played in the 19th century. You can see how the player with the White pieces - Paul Morphy - puts the moves together to checkmate his opponent. Paul Morphy was one of the strongest players in the early years of chess. This game was known as Morphy's "Opera Game" and Paul Morphy played the duo of Count Isouard and the Duke of Brunswick.

Learning More About Chess

I hope you found this tutorial helpful. Here are a few tips on how to learn more about chess:
  • Play your friends and enjoy the beauty of chess! If you don't know anyone where you live to play check out Chess.com or the Internet Chess Club.
  • Learn algebraic notation and record the games you play for future review. 
  • Remember that both winning and losing are part of the game. Be a gracious winner and learn from your losses.
  • Check out some instructive videos. Here is three of the most instructive chess channels on Youtube.
  • Check back on this site for the growing section for beginners.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I am Ronald Banilov, i am a college student, i play chess in free time, i just want to say amazing post the way you explore this topic is very impressive. Thank you for such an great post.