So you want to learn chess but don’t know how and where to start? I know that feeling all too well because I was in the same place as you once. Back then the internet did not have any guides and the only way you could learn chess was through reading physical books or if someone was patient enough to teach it you by playing with you.
Even though I did manage to learn it on my own but it took me a lot longer than it should have. This is the reason I decided to write this detailed chess guide for absolute beginners.
Whether you are a grown up with a new found love for chess or a kid trying to learn chess on your own in order to impress your mates, it is necessary to learn the basics first. This guide is written for this exact same purpose and if you read it till the end, you will end up knowing
all the basics of chess and will have a clear idea on how to take your game to the next level.
Chess is a game of strategy played between two opponents on a board with 64 squares that are arranged in an alternate way in contrasting dark and light colors – typically black and white.
Each player starts the game with 16 chess pieces comprising of 1 king, 1 queen, 2 rooks, 2 bishops, 2 knights and 8 pawns. One player controls white pieces while the other one controls the black pieces.
The players sit on the opposite sides of each other on the board.
The game starts with the white player making the first move followed by the black side and so on until the game reaches a conclusion with a win for either player or a draw.
A player can win by capturing the opposing side’s king. This can be done in various ways which we will discuss ahead in detail.
This is chess in a nutshell.
Now let’s dive into details about what a chess set looks like, how to set up a chess board correctly, what do all the chess pieces mean and rules on how to move them, strategies on how to win a game of chess and so on.
Understanding the Chess Set
A chess set is the ‘equipment’ used to play the game. It includes a board, pieces and in some cases accessories such as timers.
Chess sets for beginners
Chess sets are available in many different sizes, colors, and materials.
One one hand, there are simple plastic or glass ones that are really affordable and available in the classic white and black colors. On the other hand, there are expensive, ultra customised or “themed” chess sets such as The Star Wars Themed Chess Set, Harry Potter Themed Chess sets and more recently, Game of Thrones Themed Chess Sets.
However, as a beginner, I would recommend starting with a ‘learner’ set.
These learners chess sets usually come with a cardboard chess board and plastic chess pieces that are small, lightweight and easy to handle. Most of these boards are economically priced and come with instructions tailored for beginners which make them perfect for learning.
As the name suggests, a chess board is a board on which all the chess pieces are placed. It consists of 64 small squares that are arranged in 8 rows and 8 columns. These squares are in contrasting dark and light colors. While there is no set rule for what these colors should be, black and white are the most commonly used. It’s because they provide the maximum contrast which allows the players – especially beginners – to easily recognize their respective chess pieces during a game.
There is a total of 32 chess pieces in a game of chess – 16 for each player placed on the opposite sides of the board. Each side has six different types of pieces, each in a different quantity:
- 1 King
- 1 Queen
- 2 Rooks
- 2 Bishops
- 2 Knights
- 8 Pawns
The 16 chess pieces on each side are also termed as Chess Armies. Since chess is an ancient game, you will notice that most of the terminologies used in the game refer to battles, fights, armies and battle strategies. The players use their armies to battle against each other in an attempt to destroy the opponents’ army and capture its king.
How To Play Chess – Basic Rules
As someone just starting out with learning the game of chess, it is important that you learn these basic rules first and follow them every time you play a game. Learning these rules may seem difficult initially but as you continue to practice you will soon be able to follow them as your second nature.
How To Setup a Chess Board
The first step is to lay out the board and pieces correctly. Place the chess board such that the square at the bottom right corner is light colored. Since the squares are alternately placed, the bottom right corner for the other player will automatically align as light colored.
Arranging the chess pieces
- Once the board is set up, arrange the chess piece by placing the pawns on the second row (or rank) on each player’s side. Since we have eight pawns, each square on this row will have one pawn.
- Then place the two rooks – one on each corner of the first row.
- After that, place the knights next to the rooks on each side.
- Then place the bishops next to the knights on each side.
- Finally, place the king and queen on the remaining squares such that the white (or light) colored queen takes up the white square and black (or dark) colored queen takes up the black square.
Starting a game
The player with the white army gets to make the first move. Having the chance to do so may result in an advantage later on in the game. Therefore, which player gets the white side is usually decided by a coin toss or by making one player guess the color of a pawn hidden in the other player’s hand.
Once this is settled, the game is started by the white player followed by the black one. The white then makes the next move followed by the black one and so on until the game reaches a conclusion. A player can never choose to skip his or her move and must always make a move when it is his or her turn.
Rules on moving the chess pieces
With all the chess board and chess pieces in their correct position, it is time to start your first game. But first, you will need to understand the power of each chess piece and how, when and where it can move across the chess board.
Let’s look at each chess piece one by one.
Pawns are the frontline soldiers of your army. They are placed in the front rank (or row) and lead the way to any attacking moves you make as well as help in defending.
The pawns are placed on the second row on each side of the board taking up all eight positions of the row.
The pawn moves differently depending on where it is on the board.
When starting from its original position, the pawn can move one or two squares forward.
In all other positions, the pawn can move only one square forward.
The pawn can never move sideways or backward.
The pawn can only capture another piece diagonally in front of it. It can never capture a piece directly in front of it nor can it jump over pieces. This diagonal capture gives the pawn a uniqueness that none of the other chess pieces enjoy.
The pawn can take part in two of the most common special moves in chess: En Passant and Promotion, both of which we will discuss below in detail.
The Rook is a powerful weapon in a chess army with the ability to destroy the opponent’s army with its superior movement capability. It is also very useful in defense as you will learn ahead.
The two rooks on each side start on the corners of the first row.
The rook can move any number of squares in a straight line in any direction: forward, backward, or sideways.
The rook cannot move diagonally.
The rook cannot jump over any pieces – friendly or opposing.
The rooks can capture enemy pieces by moving onto a square in the front, back or side of it.
The rooks play an important part in a special defensive move called Castling, which we will cover below.
The chess knight – like a real world knight – is superior in almost every way to any other piece on the battlefield when it comes to attack or defense. Just like it was hard to become a knight in the old days of hand to hand combat, it is difficult for most beginners to learn the moves of a chess knight.
Each player’s chess army starts with two knights. Both knights are placed on the first row one square away from the corner on each side.
The knight is different from all other pieces due to its unique movement.
The knight’s one move involves two steps. The first step involves one square horizontal or vertical movement followed by one square diagonal movement. When studied as one combined movement, the path can either form a vertical or horizontal “L” shape pattern.
Unlike other pieces, the knight can jump over pieces to reach its destination – either friendly or opposing.
The knight can capture an enemy piece by moving to its square, capturing and replacing it. Even though it moves in two steps, the knight can only capture a piece on its second step of a move i-e the diagonal movement.
The knight can be used to discreetly take out an opposing piece and break down the defense by going behind enemy lines in a stealthy fashion. Its range of movement can allow you to capture important pieces of the opponents’ army. Mastering the movement of a knight or in other words, developing a “knight vision” can give you a serious advantage over other players – especially beginners.
The bishop used to be a member of the king’s court in the old days. They were usually people with cunning skills and with the ability to manipulate and implement their own schemes. The chess bishop is the same. It can be used to launch long range attacks on the enemy as well as helps defend its own king.
The bishops start on the third square from each corner on the first row of the chess board. The bishops on each side – both dark and light – start on one color and must always stay on the same colored squares.
The bishops can only move in a diagonal direction either forwards or backwards.
The bishops can move any number of squares in a single move but can not jump off the board.
The bishops can not move through any pieces either friendly or opposing.
The bishops can not jump over other pieces.
A bishop captures other pieces by moving onto their squares and replacing them.
Since the bishops don’t have the ability to move in straight lines, they have somewhat limited powers. However, this can be overcome by using both the bishops together to cover up each other’s weakness and keep the opponent guessing.
The Queen is by far the most powerful piece in a game of chess. The Queen is considered to be more powerful than any combination of two other pieces with the exception of two rooks. This also makes her vulnerable since the opponent’s army will always be on the lookout to take her out.
Each side has one Queen that starts on the center square of its own color. So the white Queen will start on the white colored center square on the first row while the black Queen will start on the black colored center square on the side.
The Queen can move in any direction – forward, backwards, sideways or diagonal – and any number of squares as long as another piece doesn’t come in her way.
The Queen can cover the maximum number of squares compared to all other chess pieces.
The Queen can capture a piece by moving to its square and replacing it.
A capture is considered as one move so the Queen has to stop the square after capturing a piece.
With great power comes great responsibility. Since the Queen is so powerful, you must protect her at all costs because losing the Queen will likely mean losing the game. This is why it is usually recommended not to bring out the Queen too early.
The King may not be as powerful as the other pieces but it is without a doubt the most important piece in a game of chess. That’s why the King must be protected at all costs. Any move you make with any of your pieces should help in protecting your own King and at the same time weakening the opponent’s defense in an attempt to trap it.
Each side starts with one King placed on the center square with his opposite color. So the white King will start on the dark center square and the dark King will start on the center light square.
The King can only move one square at a time in any one direction without moving off the edge of the board. You can move the king forward, backward, sideways or diagonally one square per move.
The King cannot move onto a square where it can be captured by an opposing piece.
The opposing Kings can never be placed next to each other on the board.
The King captures the enemy pieces by moving to their square.
The King cannot capture the enemy King itself. It can only help other pieces in doing so.
Special moves and strategy tips
The King is not very useful in offense due to its limited movement but it can play a vital role in implementing a solid defense strategy. It is, therefore, important to protect the King even if that means losing other pieces.
The King can be used to make a special chess move called Castling. We will explain this later in detail.
General Rules For Chess Pieces
While some rules are specific for each type of chess piece, there are some rules that you’ll need to follow for all the pieces. The movement of chess pieces is done with the goal of either taking out an enemy piece or defending one’s own pieces.
Here are some general rules on how chess pieces can be moved.
- You cannot move a piece to a square that already has one of your pieces.
- You cannot move a piece by passing through or jumping over another one of your piece except the knight.
- You can move a piece to a square that has an enemy piece on it by capturing and replacing it.
Check, Checkmate, and Endgame/How To Win a Game
Even if you have never played chess before or you have just started to learn it, chances are that you have heard the famous chess phrases “Check”, “Checkmate”, and Endgame countless times in movies, television, radio and even in your everyday live by people around you. You may even have an idea about what these terms mean but not a very clear understanding of how they really work.
Check, Checkmate and Endgame are all part of the rules of chess. Let’s discuss each of these in detail:
A Check happens when a player makes a move to attack the King directly.
When this happens, you must move the King to another square that is not in check (or attack).
You cannot choose to let the King stay in check. As soon as the King gets checked, the only legal move is to remove it from the check.
If not in check, it is illegal to move your King to a position where it would be in check.
It is also illegal to move your King next to the enemy’s King as that would place it in check.
If your King is in check and there is no legal move you can make to move it away from a check, the King is in “checkmate”. This means you have lost your King and hence lost the game. Your goal in every game of chess should be to defend your King while at the same time trying to attack the enemy’s, King.
Just like getting your King in a checkmate position loses you the game, you can win the game by “checkmating” the opponent’s King first. Indeed, learning how to avoid and inflict a checkmate is the most important skill you can develop as a beginner.
When a checkmate happens, the King is not captured or removed from the board as per tradition. Instead, the game is simply declared over.
How To Avoid Checkmate
When your King is in check, there are three things you can do to get out of check:
- Move the King out of the way of the attacking piece
- Block the check by moving one of your own pieces in between your King and the attacking piece
- Capture the piece attacking the King. This can be done by your own King or another one of your pieces.
End Game – Win, Lose or Draw (Stalemate)
This is when a game of chess reaches its conclusion. There are three outcomes that can be considered as Endgame:
- You or the opponent’s King gets into a checkmate.
- You or the opponent chooses to resign. A player can voluntarily choose to concede defeat or resign when he or she loses an important piece and the chance for a victory become very slim.
- The game results in a tie or stalemate. This happens when you or the opponent are only left with the option to move the King into a check position and the current position is not under attack from any enemy piece.
A game can also result in a draw or tie if the only pieces remaining on the board are the Kings. When this happens, no matter what the position of the Kings is, the game cannot move any further and hence results in a stalemate. As a beginner or novice, this is the most common type of stalemate you will likely experience.
A game can also end in a draw if:
- The players agree to draw.
- No capture or pawn move happens after 50 consecutive moves by each player.
- The Same board position is repeated three times by a player.
- When no legal move can result in a checkmate for either player. This is also called a “dead position”.
Special moves In Chess
Different chess pieces have certain types of special moves. Some of these involve just one piece while others come into play when a combination of pieces is used. Here are the three most commonly used special moves you should learn as a beginner:
This special move involves the Pawns. When a Pawn reaches the other (far) side of the board (8th rank), it has to be ‘promoted’ to any other piece of your choice. You can promote a Pawn to Rook, Knight, Bishop or Queen.
More often than not, players upgrade or promote their Pawns to a Queen since it is the most powerful piece. This is also called “Queening”. When a Pawn is promoted to a piece other than the Queen, the move is called “Underpromotion”.
- Once the Pawn reaches the 8th rank, a Promotion must occur.
- A Pawn can be promoted to a piece that has already been captured.
- It can also be promoted to a piece that is still on the board.
- When a Promotion happens, the Pawn is replaced by the new piece as part of the same move.
This is another special chess move that involves the Pawns. The word ‘en passant” is French for “in passing”.
En Passant is a pawn capture move that is enforced when a pawn moves two positions from its starting position and the enemy pawn is in a position that it could have captured the moving pawn had it only moved one square. As a result, the opponent can capture the moving pawn on the next move just like it would have captured it had it only moved one square.
There are some conditions that must always be met in order to implement the En Passant rule:
- The capturing pawn must be in its 5th rank in order to have the right to capture the opponent Pawn “in passing”.
- The En Passant capture must be made on the very next move otherwise the right to do so is lost.
- If En Passant is the only available legal move, it must be made.
Castling is a special defensive move in chess that involves the King and either one of the Rooks. It is the only move in chess where two pieces can be moved in the same turn. It is also the only move where a piece can be said to “jump” over another piece.
Castling can happen under very strict conditions.
- Castling can only happen if the King or Queen and the Rook involved have never moved.
- The squares between the King and the Rook (for Kingside Castling) or the Queen and the Rook (for Queenside Castling) are empty.
- The King is not in check.
- The King will not be in check if it moves into a castling position.
There are two types of Castling: Kingside and Queenside.
In Kingside Castling, the King moves two squares towards the Rook on the player’s first rank. This is followed by the Rook moving in the other direction and taking position at the square left empty by the King.
In Queenside Castling, the King moves two squares towards the Rook on the player’s first rank. This is followed by the Rook moving in the other direction and taking position adjacent to the King on the opposite side.