Checkers, also known as draughts, is a timeless two-player board game that has captivated minds across cultures and generations for millennia. Just like chess, its origins can be traced back thousands of years, with the addictive mix of easy-to-grasp yet highly strategic and tactical gameplay standing the test of time to the modern day. In this guide, I’ll explore the rich history of this classic board game, and talk about its basic setup and rules. We’ll also go over the core mechanics, strategies, and tips for mastering the game. So if you’ve ever wondered how to play checkers (or why you’d want to, in the first place), read on!
A Brief History of the Game
The history of checkers dates back to the beginnings of human civilization as we know it. Some historians even believe an ancient form of the game was played in the famous Sumerian city-state of Mesopotamia as early as 3000 B.C.E. Others have found similarities with Alquerque, another ancient board game dating to Egypt as early as 1400 B.C.E. but popularized in Europe through the Spaniards, who took it from the Arabic world.
The modern version of the game originates from a crafty Frenchman in the Middle Ages, who around 1100 A.D. had the bright idea of expanding the game to include twelve pieces per player and putting it on a classic chess board. Thus, the foundations for the modern game were set, though the rules of checkers would see numerous variations over the years.
By the end of the 18th century, English mathematician William Payne created an official guide for the game (at the time called draughts), and by 1840 the first World Championship tournament was organized. The winner, a Scottish man called Andrew Anderson, further standardized the rules, essentially finalizing the game as we know it today.
Now that you know a bit more about the game’s origins, let’s talk about how to set up a checkers board and start playing. First off, it’s worth noting that for the majority of this review, I’ll be talking about the so-called American checkers or English draughts, a version of the game most popular in Anglophone countries. There are also Turkish and Russian draughts played on the same 8×8 checkerboard, and even more complex International (10×10), Canadian, and Singaporean/Malaysian versions (12×12), but those are beyond the scope of this article.
A standard 8×8 checkers board is essentially the same board used in chess, consisting of 64 alternating dark and light squares. Each player controls 12 pieces, typically distinguished by color. These are usually white and black like in chess, though there are also white and red/brown versions available, too. The pieces are placed on the dark squares in the three rows closest to the player. The setup looks like this:
One distinction compared to chess is that it’s the player with the dark pieces (black checkers) that gets to take the first turn. At tournament level, players have up to five minutes per turn but in casual play, there is no need to enforce those rules unless you’re playing with an acute over-analyzer.
Now that you know how to set up checkers, it’s time to move on to the actual gameplay and talk a little bit about the core rules of the game. So, how do you play checkers, and what are some essentials you need to know before we can move forward?
Starting with whoever has the dark-colored checkers, the players alternate turns until one of them achieves a victory condition or the game ends in a draw. Each player’s pieces move diagonally forward, typically only one square at a time unless there is a capture. Movement is strictly diagonal and you are not allowed to use the horizontal and vertical planes or move any of your pieces to one of the white squares.
Standard pieces can only shift direction diagonally toward the opponent’s checkers, but cannot move backward until they are crowned as king pieces – more on that later.
Capturing Your Opponent’s Pieces
A piece can capture an opponent’s piece by jumping in a straight diagonal line over it to an empty square beyond. Capturing is mandatory when possible, and multiple jumps can be made consecutively if they lead to more than one capture.
If a player’s piece captures an opponent’s checker and lands in a position to nab another piece in the same turn, they must continue jumping and capturing checkers in a sequence. This sequence of captures is known as a double jump and is an essential checkers strategy you’ll need in order to master the game.
In addition to setting up double jump chains to get that coveted multiple capture turn, a key strategy in checkers is turning some of your humble checker posse into royalty. That’s right – just like chess players can promote a lowly peon to the all-powerful Queen piece, so too is the promotion to a king checker a pivotal moment in the game.
When one of your regular pieces reaches the farthest row on your opponent’s side of the board, it is crowned by stacking an additional piece from your discard pile on top of it. A kinged checker has expanded movement capabilities:
Enhanced Movement: Kings can move both forward and backward diagonally, increasing their strategic value and potential for board control.
Capture Flexibility: Kings can capture in both the forward and backward directions, enabling them to threaten opponents from multiple angles.
How To Win a Checkers Game
The ultimate goal of checkers is to either capture all your opponent’s pieces or block them so they can’t make any legal moves. If you want to “win checkers” you’ll need to strategically combine piece captures and achieve board control, which will allow easier kinging or blocking of your opponent’s checkers.
If a victory seems unobtainable, either player can suggest a draw at any time. In casual games, this is usually the end of it, as both players concede they’ve reached a standstill, even if one of them may have a captured checker or two more than their opponent.
In tournament-level play, though, should the opponent refuse, they’ll have another forty turns to try and achieve a victory or at least gain a decisive advantage. Should they fail to do so (by removing more of the opponent’s pieces than they lose or kinging some new checkers, for example) the game ends in a draw.
Finally, if one player’s next turn would leave them without any legal moves to jump forward and not a single checker can do anything when the player begins their turn, they will be forced to concede and it’s considered a victory for their opponent.
Now that you have your game of checkers set up and rules are no longer a mystery, it’s time to talk a little bit about some strategies to elevate your game to the next level. We’ll start with the basics, and then move on to ideas more advanced players can incorporate into their game.
Strategies for Beginners: Laying the Foundations
Before you can call yourself a checkers master, you’ll first have to come to grips with some basic tactics that will elevate your game from a complete beginner level. Here are some key ones to consider:
- Central Control: Focus on controlling the center of the board at the start. This provides better mobility and potential for capturing the opponent’s pieces. Just be careful not to focus your own pieces too much on the center, so that the opponent doesn’t encircle you.
- Promotion Strategy: Kinging is one of the most popular checkers moves with good reason. Prioritize promoting your pieces to kings, as they enhance your movement options and overall power on the board. Just bear in mind that reaching the furthest row isn’t always easy and don’t give the opposing pieces unnecessary openings.
- Trading Smartly: Assess the consequences of each capture. While capturing is essential, avoid leaving your pieces vulnerable to immediate retaliation unless there is a further plan behind it.
- Forced Jumps: Look for opportunities to force your opponent into making jumps, disrupting their plans and opening avenues for your strategy.
- Defensive Placement: Avoid clustering your pieces, which can make them susceptible to chain captures, and get several of your pieces removed from the board in just one turn. Spread them out to minimize your opponent’s capture opportunities.
- Planning Ahead: Just like in chess, try to think several moves ahead. Anticipate jump sequences and consider how your moves and the potential moves of your opponent will impact the board’s dynamics.
Advanced Strategies: Elevating Your Gameplay
Knowing how to play checkers is one thing but truly mastering the game is a whole different story. Here are some advanced tips that will help players who already understand the basics take their game to the next level.
- Positional Sacrifices: Sacrifice a piece strategically to gain positional advantage or set up a sequence of captures. Sometimes losing one checker to set yourself up to combine jumps is well worth the price, and can turn the tide of the game completely.
- Blocking Kings: Remember that kings are somewhat like queens in chess – pieces that have more movement options compared to the other checkers on the board. Place your pieces in strategic positions to limit the movement of your opponent’s kings or risk getting absolutely wrecked by them.
- King Supremacy: On the flip side, and building from our beginner tip about getting kings as soon as you can, remember that kings are game-changing pieces. Utilize their ability to move and capture in both diagonal directions strategically to control the center of the board and exert influence over the key squares on the board.
Improving Your Game: The Journey to Mastery
As with other skill-based games, checkers is all about constantly improving and learning from your opponents and mistakes alike. To round off this checkers guide, here are a few basic general tips on elevating your game.
- Patience and Planning: Take your time to evaluate your moves. Planning and patience are essential for successful gameplay. Consider that even the pros take up to five minutes per turn, so don’t feel the need to rush yourself into making the wrong move. Having said that, don’t overdo it, either, or you’ll just annoy your opponents.
- Practice Regularly: Consistent practice against players of varying skill levels hones your strategic thinking and board awareness, which will help you greatly in the long run.
- Analyze Games: Review your games to identify mistakes, missed opportunities, and patterns in your gameplay, but also try to remember the clever moves your opponents pulled, and why they worked so well.
- Study the Experts: Observe games played by experienced players to learn advanced tactics and strategies. Checkers is a deceptively simple game to start, but much like chess or advanced card games, there is plenty more strategy to it than first meets the eye.
Checkers is a game of intellectual prowess that transcends time and borders. Its strategic depth despite the simple core rules offers nuanced gameplay that rewards careful planning and strategic thinking, which resonated with people centuries ago just as much as it does today.
From its humble origins amid ancient civilizations to the modern battlefields on square chess boards, checkers has remained a popular game across all generations. So, if you haven’t already done so, learn how to play checkers today, and see why the game has such an everlasting appeal!
The key rules are related to the placement and movement of the checkers. Each player should lay out their pieces in the first three rows of their side of the board, making sure they are placed on the dark squares only.
Opponents sit opposite each other and the first player to start is the one with the dark-colored checkers, after which they alternate turns until either one player wins or both are forced to accept a draw as no one can gain a decisive advantage.
You play by moving pieces diagonally, one space at a time unless there is an opportunity to capture an opponent’s piece, in which case you can “jump” over it. Each player can only move a single piece per turn and pieces can be promoted to king by reaching a black square in the first row of the opponent’s side of the board.
As with most board games, in checkers, the how to play part is easier to explain than how to win. That said, the winning conditions are simple enough, it’s just not easy to achieve them. To win, you need to either eliminate all of your opponent’s pieces (by jumping over them with your own in a straight diagonal line) or block them in such a way that on their turn the player has no legal moves and has to concede. Remember that standard pieces can only move and capture diagonally forward, while kinged checkers can also do both actions in reverse.
While checkers can get pretty complex, it is still a much simpler game than chess overall. The reason is simple: while both are played on the same board, there’s only one variation in movement when it comes to checkers: kinged pieces can move and capture diagonally in both directions. Chess has several different pieces, each with a unique moveset, making for far more variables to consider during a game.
Yes, absolutely. Probably the first thing you learn when someone shows you how to play checkers is that you move only one piece per turn forward diagonally. What they may neglect to mention is that if your piece has managed to capture an opponent’s one and its new position would allow it more captured pieces, you are not only allowed but obliged by the rules to make those captures too.
And while a non-capturing move effectively ends your turn, managing to position your pieces so they can keep attacking allows you the opportunity to get the so-called double-jump (or even a triple-jump) and decimate your opponent’s frontline in a single turn. Just remember that standard pieces can only move and capture moving forwards on the board, so double and especially triple jumps would require exceedingly poor placement by your opponent.