How To Play Chess: A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners

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Chess is a timeless classic and one of the oldest board games still actively played today. It’s a game of strategy and critical thinking that rewards patience and planning but punishes hasty moves harshly. Whether you’re new to the game or looking to brush up on the basics, this guide will show you how to play chess, starting with the basics, like setting up the chessboard. We’ll also go over the role of each piece, talk about some basic chess rules, and discuss a few beginner chess strategies to get you started.

Part I – Chess Pieces

Whether it’s complex negotiations or a highly tactical sports game, you’ll often hear the phrase “It’s like a game of chess,” implying the high degree of tactical thinking and maneuvering involved. But, before we get to more advanced strategies, and start pondering all the intricacies of playing chess, let’s start with something simple: a chess piece guide.

two king chess pieces
Epic showdown, by chess standards.

King:

The king is the most important piece in chess. The objective of the game is to checkmate the opponent’s king, putting it in a position where it’s threatened with capture and cannot escape.

The king moves one square in any direction: horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.

Although more powerful than a pawn, the King is a piece that requires utmost protection, so only go on the offensive if you know your King is well-protected.

Queen:

As any chess guide will tell you, the king may be the most important piece, but the queen is undoubtedly the most powerful one on the board. It combines the abilities of both the bishop and the rook and is widely considered the ultimate chess piece.

The queen can move any number of squares horizontally, vertically, or diagonally in a straight line, making it the most versatile attacking piece in your arsenal and an excellent defender at the same time.

Rook:

The rook is a powerful piece that moves and captures in straight lines. It can move any number of squares horizontally or vertically and can often be used effectively for area denial tactics. It’s also involved in some advanced moves, such as castling, but more on that later.

Bishop:

As anyone living in a Catholic country would confirm, bishops are very powerful figures. While the rook takes on the more straightforward role of moving in straight lines, the bishop covers all transversal movement, being able to move any number of squares diagonally. The best way to use them is to try and position each, so it controls open diagonals while being out of reach or protected from the enemy’s pieces.

Knight:

While these particular ones aren’t after any damsels in distress or holy artifacts to plunder, the knight is probably the most interesting piece on the board, with a unique movement pattern.

They are the only pieces on the board that move in an “L” shape, consisting of two squares in one direction (horizontally or vertically) and then one square in a perpendicular direction. The knight is the only piece that can jump over other pieces in the game as a legal move, making it a highly strategic piece. You’ll want to place them as close to the center of the board as possible, thereby maximizing the number of squares they can threaten.

Pawn:

Last but not least are the humble footsoldiers of our chess army – the pawns. Pawns are the most numerous and initially the weakest pieces on the board, moving forward but only capturing diagonally. On their opening move, pawns have the option to move one or two squares forward, but from then on, they can only move one square forward at a time.

As you’d imagine from a workhorse in the army, the pawns have a simple objective: push forward slowly and try to protect each other and the other more valuable pieces while doing so. 

While the other pieces have no special game-changing chess moves or objectives other than capturing the opponent’s pieces or trapping their king, pawns actually want to reach the opponent’s last line of defense, for when they get to the opposite side of the board, they can be promoted to any other piece (except a King) of the player’s choice.

There is no limit on these piece conversions, so you really want to try your best to keep the opponent’s pawns from reaching your backline.

Part II – Setting up the Chessboard

Now that you know what each enemy piece does (and are familiar with your own pieces, too), it’s time to get ready for a match. Before starting a chess game, you’ll need to set up the board. Luckily, this is a pretty easy and quick process that will also give you a hint about the importance of each piece. Chess is played on a board with 64 squares, alternating between light and dark colors.

set up white chess pieces
A picture is worth a thousand words.

Each player starts with 16 pieces: one king, one queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, and eight pawns. Set up the board so that each player has a light square in the bottom-right corner. The black and white pieces should mirror each other, and both need to be placed in two ranks, with the front one consisting of eight pawns each.

The back row houses all of the power pieces, with the rooks placed on the edges of the board, followed by the knights and bishops, and finally, the king and queen. The white queen is set up on the light/white square, while the black queen goes on the black/dark square.

Part III – Basic Gameplay

Before you can start concocting a grand chess strategy, you first need to understand how the game works, so let’s talk about some gameplay basics.

older person playing chess
He grew this epic beard while waiting for his opponent’s move.

White always moves first in chess, and the first moves will have to involve moving one of your pawns from the front row or horsing around with one of your knights right away. They are the only two pieces you can move at the start of the game since all the others will be blocked from moving.

Checkmate is the ultimate goal of the game and signifies a victorious end for the attacking player. It occurs when the king is under direct attack (in check) and cannot escape capture on the next move. It means the defending player has no legal moves to avoid capture, and as a result, the game ends with the defending player losing.

On the other hand, a stalemate is a unique situation where a player, whose king is not in check, has no legal moves to make. In this case, the game ends in a draw or a tie, and neither player wins. Stalemate happens when a player’s king is blocked or positioned in such a way that it can’t make a legal move without putting their own king in check. This usually occurs when one player has only a king on the board and the opponent is trying to checkmate it but fails. While the game ended in a draw, it can be considered a strategic win for the player who managed to force the stalemate.

In summary, checkmate is a winning scenario for the attacking player when the opponent’s king has no escape from capture, while stalemate is a draw when the player to move has no legal moves left and their king is not in check.

There are two other ways the game can end in a draw. If no player captures or moves a pawn for fifty consecutive moves, the game immediately ends in a draw. Additionally, if players repeat the same moves and the position of their pieces without actually changing the board for three consecutive turns, any player can claim a draw and end the game.

Both rules were introduced to prevent players from unnecessarily prolonging the game.

Players can also retire early if they realize they have no chance of winning or agree to a draw if they come to a standstill and are unable to make meaningful progress. Professional tournaments often have timers for each player, and letting the clock run out by taking too long to plan your moves will also count as a forfeit.

Key Gameplay Concepts:

The process of capturing and removing pieces from the board is a fundamental facet of the game, but there is a lot more to this game. A comprehensive grasp of these essential concepts is imperative for players of all calibers, so let us cover them all, from the basic to the advanced ones.

5D chess
We won’t be explaining how to play 5D chess!

Capturing and Removing Pieces from the Board:

When you move a piece to a square occupied by an opponent’s piece, you capture that piece and remove it from the board. Captured pieces are no longer in play and cannot be used again. Remember that each piece on the board has a different move set and, conversely, captures other pieces in different ways. 

When planning your next chess move, always be aware of the enemy positions and try to move to capture pieces that aren’t adequately protected while protecting your own. Be aware that advanced players will often deliberately sacrifice even powerful pieces to set up a chain of moves that will pay off later, so always think carefully before jumping at a chance to capture enemy pieces.

Check and Checkmate:

When a king is under threat of capture by an opponent’s piece, it is considered to be in “check.” You must move your king out of check, block the check, or capture the threatening piece to avoid checkmate. If your king is in checkmate and you are unable to make a move to escape the check, the game is over, and you lose.

Therefore, the key objective of every game is protecting your king, so try to keep it safe by strategically placing your other pieces to cover all approaches. One of the ways to do so is by pulling off a special move, which I’ll talk about next.

Castling: This move involves the king and one of the rooks. It allows the king to move two squares toward the rook, while the rook moves to the square next to the king. Castling is subject to certain conditions and is useful for safeguarding the king and activating the rook, so it’s often one of the early moves cautious players like to do after starting the game.

En Passant: A popular move that incentivizes careful pawn management, this one applies to pawns only. If an opponent’s pawn moves forward two squares from its starting position and lands next to one of your pawns, you have the option to capture it as if it had only moved one square forward. 

En Passant means “in passing” in French and refers to the fact that the pawn would have been under direct threat from your pawn had it moved only one square. The rule exists to stop players from making late pawn promotion rushes or skipping the opponent’s areas of influence by waiting for the ideal moment to use the double move.

Pawn Promotion: Speaking of promotion, we’ve already mentioned this ability earlier, but it’s worth going over it again. When a pawn reaches all the way to the opponent’s back row, it can be promoted to any other piece (except the king – we only have one of those, remember). Typically, players choose to promote a pawn to a queen since it’s the most powerful piece on the board, but sometimes a knight’s move set may be more advantageous. 

Part IV – Strategies and Tactics

Now that you’re familiar with chess pieces and the moves they can execute during the game, let’s talk about a little chess strategy for beginners. Chess is a game of careful maneuvering and tactics, and there are various principles to employ to improve your play.

Hangover Alan meme
It’s not that complicated.

Controlling the Center of the Board

Trying to control the center of the board is a fundamental principle in chess strategy. The center refers to the four squares in the middle of the board: d4, d5, e4, and e5. Establishing control over these squares can provide several strategic advantages and is considered crucial for a successful game. Pieces like the knight and queen are especially deadly in the middle of the board as they can threaten or defend a wider range of tiles, while occupying the center early also puts you on the initiative and facilitates quicker piece development.

Bringing Your Pieces to Active Squares Early

Speaking of piece development, bringing your pieces to active squares as soon as possible is one of the most important chess tips to keep in mind. It involves bringing your pieces out of their starting positions into squares that offer maximum influence and flexibility. By developing your pieces effectively, you can establish a strong position, create threats, and maintain a dynamic advantage throughout the game.

Protecting Your King

Here’s one of the more obvious tips for chess beginners – your king is your lifeblood, and your primary objective in each game is to keep it safe from enemy check attempts. We’ve already mentioned castling as a strategy to put your king away from the action and get the rook involved closer to the center of the board, but you can also ensure that your knights and bishops cut off potential attack avenues early. Finally, remember that defending your king is only part of winning a game of chess, so don’t go overboard with the defense.

Creating Pawn Structures To Support Your Position

If you truly want to learn how to play chess, it’s essential to master the art of creating pawn structures. A well-constructed one can provide stability and control over key squares, restrict your opponent’s pieces, and serve as a foundation for your other strategic plans. 

pawn with a crown on top of it
The pawn is the king, just don’t tell the king.

Some key aspects to keep in mind are establishing a solid center (either with pawns or other pieces supported by them), creating pawn chains while avoiding isolated pawns, and looking for opportunities to create passed pawns, i.e. those who have no opposing pawns in front of or adjacent to them and have a clear path to the enemy’s back line.

These are just a few elementary strategies to get you started, but each game is unique, and every player will react differently to your moves. Planning ahead and thinking not only about your grand plan but also about what the opponent is trying to achieve are key pillars to becoming a successful chess player. 

Part V – Improving Your Game

Chess is a game that rewards practice and learning, so don’t expect to become even moderately proficient without investing a whole lot of hours into it. To improve your skills, consider the following:

  • Play regularly: Find opponents of similar skill levels and start playing chess regularly to practice. If your friends are not into chess, try the local chess clubs or search for players online. You can also start practicing against a computer, which will allow you to adjust its skill level to match yours and gradually work your way up. Who knows, with enough practice, maybe you’ll be the next to face off against the Komodo chess engine.
  • Study openings and endgames: Learning chess involves familiarizing yourself with different opening strategies and learning basic endgame principles. Study famous chess openings and try to analyze endgames and how and why a checkmate occurs.
  • Analyze your games: Review your past games and identify mistakes or missed opportunities. With each new game and opponent, you will notice something new about your game and develop new skills and strategies built on the mistakes you’ve made in the past. This is especially easy to do if you play your chess games online. You can also analyze how your opponent moves to see if you can learn new tactics and ideas from them that will give you a slight advantage in the next match.
  • Solve chess puzzles: Working out solutions to tricky chess puzzles can be a great way to sharpen your tactical skills and improve your ability to spot combinations and threats on the board. Don’t try to start with these as a complete beginner, but consider them more of a useful resource to improve your game once you’ve mastered the basics.
  • Take chess lessons: If you are really serious about improving your game, consider enlisting the help of professionals. If you can’t find anyone nearby or traditional teachers are too expensive, consider online chess lessons and guides containing useful chess tips and tricks.
fantasy chess set
There are various types of chess sets available.

Conclusion

Chess is a beautiful, complex, and challenging game that can provide endless hours of entertainment if you are willing to overcome its somewhat steep learning curve. It’s one of the timeless classics still worth playing. By understanding the basic rules and practicing regularly, you’ll lay the groundwork for honing your skills, which will allow you to develop advanced strategies and play against more skilled opponents. So grab a chessboard set, find a willing opponent, and start playing chess until your king reigns supreme on the battlefield.

FAQ

  1. What are the basic rules of chess?

    Some basics you should know are that both opponents start with the same pieces and that the game can end in a win, forfeit, or draw, with the ultimate goal being to checkmate your opponent’s king while protecting your own. Check out our beginners’ guide to chess above for more details and gameplay strategies.

  2. What is the end goal of chess?

    Your goal in chess is to checkmate the opposing player’s king piece while preventing the same thing from happening to you. A checkmate is achieved when an opposing piece is in a position to capture your king (a “check”), and you have no option to move it out of harm’s way.

  3. Can you teach yourself to play chess?

    Absolutely. You can get the basics by watching others play and reading online guides like this one. To truly learn how to play chess, though, you’ll need to play some games against real people or at least an AI chess opponent to start with.

  4. How long does it take to learn chess?

    Learning and mastering chess are highly individual skills, so there isn’t strictly a timeframe that works for everyone. Learning the basics of the game, such as how each piece moves, should become second nature after only a couple of games (if that), but getting your head around the special rules and truly mastering advanced tactics will take much longer. On average, you can expect to become a proficient chess player after about a year of daily practice, but your mileage may vary.