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Learn How to Play Chess

Updated on August 24, 2010

The Board and Chessmen

The chessboard has 32 light-colored and 32 dark-colored squares, all of which are used in the game. The 8 vertical rows are called files; the horizontal rows, ranks. Straight lines of the same-colored squares running in a slantwise direction are called diagonals.

Each side has a set of 16 chessmen. One set is light in color, for the White side; the other is dark in color, for the Black side. The 8 impor­tant men are called pieces: king, queen, 2 rooks (or castles), 2 bishops, and 2 knights. The other 8 men are called pawns.

The board is placed between the two players so that each has a white square at his right hand. At the start of the game, the two rooks occupy the extreme right and left squares of the first rank (the nearest row); the two knights stand next to the rooks; the two bishops are placed next to the knights; the queen is "on color" (white queen on a light square, black queen on a dark square); and the king stands on the one re­maining square along the first rank. The pawns stand on the row directly in front of the pieces.

Photo by Guillermo Ossa
Photo by Guillermo Ossa

General Play

Because White moves first, he presses his initiative by trying to occupy or control the central squares from which pieces exert their maximum force. Each side tries to mobilize its pieces in the fewest possible moves; to control files, unobstructed by pawns, or out­posts (squares in the center or near the opposing side from which a piece cannot be driven by pawns); to protect its men, especially its long.

A game is won occasionally by a surprise checkmate, but usually it comes by force, after one side has gained control of the greater part of the board through captures and by pro­moting its pawns. Once the other side is power­less to prevent checkmate or ruinous loss of men, it may concede the game by resigning (surrendering).

When neither side can gain a decisive advan­tage the game may be called a draw, by mutual agreement or because neither has men sufficient to force a checkmate. A draw also can be claimed (by the player who would otherwise be losing) if he can check the other's king perpetually, or if the other player cannot contrive to checkmate within 50 moves (if a man is captured or a pawn is moved, the count resumes), or if precisely the same position occurs for a third time. Another form of draw is the stalemate, in which the side whose turn it is to move cannot do so without exposing its king to check.

In official tournament and match play, the moves of the game are written down, and each side must make a required number of moves in a specified time (customarily, in the United States, 40 moves in two hours for each player and 20 in an hour thereafter). There are also "speed tourneys" at 10 seconds per move; and there are tournaments conducted by mail in which players have three days to respond to a move.

Moves and Powers

Each type of chessman moves in a different manner. It may capture an opponent's man by moving onto the occupied square and removing the piece from the board.

A pawn may move straight forward only one square at a time, except on its first move, when it may move two squares (to the 4th rank). It also may move diagonally forward, but only to capture an opponent's man. If two opposing pawns meet on the same file, they stop each other; they can neither move nor capture the other. If a lawn manages to reach the other end of the board (the 8th rank), it is immediately promoted to any more powerful piece except the king (usu­ally it is exchanged for a queen).

The knight's move is L-shaped; two squares in either a horizontal or vertical direction and then one square to its right or left. It can jump over pieces between its original square and the square to which it moves, but can only capture the opponent's piece on the square on which it finally lands.

The king may move in any direction, but only one square at a time. The remaining men may move any distance open along their lines of power but may not leap over any men: bishop, along the diagonal; rook, along a file and rank; queen, the most powerful piece of all, along the diagonal, file, and rank.

The powers of the chessmen are related di­rectly to their mobility. The knight is usually most active on the board early in the game; the long-range pieces (bishop and rook) become more active as the board clears; and pawns are potentially more valuable as the chance of pro­moting them increases. In playing strength, the king and knight are equal to 3 pawns each; the bishop (roughly) to 3% pawns; the rook, 5; and the queen, 9. A bishop, although it covers only half the squares of the board, still rates a frac­tion of a pawn better than a knight, and two bishops usually are better than two knights or even bishop and knight. But a bishop shut in by its own pawns may be almost valueless.

Special Powers

En passant (French for "in passing") is a special way of capturing with a pawn. It applies when the pawn moves forward two squares on the first move and passes by an opposing pawn that has reached its 5th rank on an adjoining file. On his next turn only, the op­posing player may capture the advancing pawn as if it had moved only one square forward, and place his own pawn diagonally forward on his 6th rank.

There is one situation in which two pieces, a king and a rook, can be moved simultaneously. Once in a game a player may safeguard his king by castling. This maneuver permits a player to move his king two squares toward either rook (if the squares are clear) and then move the rook to the sqnare jumped over by the king. Castling is legal only if neither king nor rook has moved previously; and only if the king is not under direct attack (check), does not move into such attack, and does not cross a square under attack by an opposing man.

Any move that threatens to capture a king is called a check. To guard his king from the threat, the player must either move his king to a safe square, capture the checking man, or interpose one of his chessmen between the king and the enemy piece. The opponent must not ignore the check. The game ends when the king is in check and there is no way for him to avoid capture. This is called checkmate or mate, and it means victory for the other contestant.


Moves in chess are described by a code. Every piece has a letter symbol: K-king, Q-queen; R-rook; N-knight (though sometimes Kt is used); B-bishop; and P-pawn. The pieces on the kingside of the board at the start of a game are called KR (king's rook), KN (king's knight), and KB (king's bishop). Those on the queenside are QR (queen's rook), QN (queen's knight), and QB (queen's bishop). A file takes the name of the piece that stands on that file at the start, for example, the QR file. Ranks are numbered 1 through 8. Each square is identified by its rank and file; for example, the first square on the queen's rook file, from White's side of the board, is called QR1 for White's moves but QR8 for Black's.

A move is recorded by identifying the piece moved, following it with a hyphen, and then naming the square on which it has been placed. Thus, a first White move of a pawn to the fourth rank before the queen is 1 P-Q4; Black's reply of knight to the third rank before his king bishop is 1... N-KB3. Castling kingside is writ­ten O-O, and castling queenside, O-O-O. Captures require an "x" and the chessman taken; for exam­ple, RxKN (or RxN if only one knight can be taken). En passant is written PxP e.p. Check is an abbreviated "ch" after the move. An exclama­tion mark (!) signifies a brilliant move; one ques­tion mark (?) a poor move; and two question marks (??), a losing move.


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