Chess is the ultimate tabletop game. Played by medieval monarchs, and still enjoyed the world over today, the pervading legacy of this historic board game is indisputable, and its scope for strategic depth unmatched. But learning how to play chess can be an altogether different experience. Often presented as a complex game understood only by the most dedicated grandmasters, you might be hesitant to rummage around its pieces.
Playing chess isn’t nearly as complicated as it seems. The game is as enjoyable for children as it is for checkerboard veterans, and learning how to play won’t take nearly as much time, or brainpower, as you might think. Even if you solely focus on the basics, you’ll soon understand why it’s still considered one of the best board games around.
We’ll teach you how to play chess, and walk you through all the basics, including the game’s setup, rules, and the movement of each piece. You’ll come away with a firm understanding of this classic game, and maybe even a few tricks up your sleeve.
No more worrying about how to move a Knight, or what people mean when they use jargon like ‘en passant’: you’ll be playing chess in no time.
You’ve grabbed a board and a jumble of pieces, but how do you set up the game? First, make sure the board is laid out so that a white square is at the bottom right-hand corner of the sides facing each player.
Now comes the chess pieces. Each player sets up their pieces in the same way, and fills the two rows of squares closest to them. The first row (that is nearest to the board’s edge), follows a specific arrangement: Rooks (Castles) are placed in each corner, Knights are next to them, and then come the Bishops.
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Royalty fills the two remaining squares. Place your Queen on the square that matches its colour (so, if you’re playing white, place your Queen on the white square), and your King on the single square remaining.
Playing chess isn’t as complex as it may first appear. Each turn, one player moves one of their pieces, with turns alternating between players. You’re never allowed to skip your go or refrain from making a move, but can move any piece that belongs to you.
But like most strategy board games, chess isn’t focused on friendly navigation, but domination. If you move a piece onto a square that’s currently occupied by an opponent’s, you’ll ‘capture’ it: permanently removing your opponent’s piece from the board, and placing your piece where it once stood.
Capturing is central to the game’s objective. When a King is put in a position where it will be captured on the next turn, they are in ‘check’. The player in check must use their turn to stop their King from being captured next turn, getting themselves out of check. They might do this by capturing the enemy piece that is set up to attack their King, blocking the attacking piece, or moving their King to another square where it is out of check.
Also, you cannot make a move that you would place your King in check. That would effectively be handing victory to your opponent.
The objective of the game is to ‘checkmate’ your opponent’s King. This is a situation where their King is in check, and there’s no possible move that could be made to escape. Get to a situation where your opponent’s King will inevitably be captured on the next turn, and you’ll win the game.
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Chess can also be won if your opponent resigns, conceding victory to you.
It may end in a stalemate if neither player can make any more legal moves, or the game reaches a ‘dead position’, in which neither player can win through legal moves. Stalemates are rare, though, and you’ll find your early games end in more resignations than checkmates or draws.
How to move chess pieces
Each type of chess piece follows its own movement rules. However, there are some general stipulations shared between them all.
- No piece can move through another, whether the other piece is controlled by you or your opponent.
- You can only move onto a square currently occupied by another piece when you’re capturing it, and can only capture enemy pieces.
- When you capture an opponent’s piece, you can’t continue moving, but must replace the enemy’s piece on that square.
Pawns move directly forward one square. Simple.
However, if a pawn hasn’t yet moved (that is, if it’s on its starting square), you can choose to move it forward two spaces instead of one.
Pawns are also unusual in that they capture opponent pieces differently from how they move. Pawns can capture pieces by moving one square diagonally left or right in front of them. They can’t capture backwards, however, and can only move diagonally if capturing another piece, /not/ when simply moving.
Rooks move any number of squares horizontally or vertically in any direction. They can’t move diagonally, and have to move in a single, straight line.
Bishops move any number of squares diagonally in any direction. They can’t move horizontally or vertically, and have to move in a single, straight line.
If you look at your chessboard when the pieces are set up, you’ll see you have one bishop on a white square, and the other on a black square. Since they can only move diagonally, they’ll be tied to these colours for the whole game.
Knights move in an ‘L’ pattern: advancing two squares horizontally, and then one square vertically; or two squares vertically, and one square horizontally. They must move the full distance, and can’t stop after only a couple of squares, say.
Crucially, Knights can move through other pieces, and can happily land behind any piece that crosses their path. This is best thought of as the Knight jumping over opponent pieces.
Queens move any number of squares diagonally, horizontally, or vertically, and are something of a cross between Rooks and Bishops. They can only move in a straight line, so can’t combine diagonal and horizontal movements together in one turn.
Chess special moves
If you manage to move a pawn all the way to the opposite side of the board it will be promoted, and converted into a Queen, Rook, Bishop, or Knight. You get to pick the piece it’s promoted to, although a Queen is the usual choice. Put the new piece in the square that the Pawn currently occupies, and remove the Pawn from the board.
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The new piece follows all the movement rules it usually would, as if it had never been a pawn. There’s no limit to the number of pawns you can promote during a game, and your choice of promotion isn’t limited by previously captured pieces, either. You could theoretically convert every pawn into a Queen, and have them all on the board at the same time.
Often forgotten by beginner players, en passant is a powerful move. It comes into play when you move a pawn forward two squares from its starting position. If, by moving the pawn two squares instead of one, you moved it over a square in which an opponent pawn could have captured it, your pawn can be captured by your opponent on their next turn, as if it had only moved one square.
The idea is that you can’t evade capture with your pawn by taking advantage of their two-square movement boost. Your opponent must invoke the en passant rule on their /next/ turn following the pawn’s movement, or they forgo the opportunity to capture it.
Castling involves moving your King and one of your Rooks on a single turn. To perform it, move your King two squares towards your chosen Rook, and place that Rook in the adjacent square on the other side of the King. You’ll end up with your King and Rook bunched up next to each other towards one side of the board. Either Rook can be used in the manoeuvre.
However, castling is a very situational move that requires two conditions to be fulfilled: the Rook and King haven’t yet moved in the game, and there are no pieces between them.
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You also can’t perform castling if your King is in check, which effectively means you can’t use castling as a way of escaping check. Nor, as usual, can castling be used if it would put your King in check.
How to learn chess
When it comes to learning how to play chess, practice makes perfect. After reading through the basic rules, sit down with a pal to have a go at setting up and playing a test game. Don’t worry about the special moves for now. Instead, focus on memorising the movement methods of all six pieces, and identifying when a King is in check or checkmate. Keep these rules explanations handy, so you can easily refer back when you get stuck.
If you don’t have any pieces or a chessboard to hand, no problem. Chess works as a fantastic online board game, and there’s plenty of well-optimised internet versions that are free to play. We reckon chess.com is the best among them for letting you practise against bots, or challenge your friends.
Although chess has something of a reputation for being cognitively exacting, it’s best played in whichever way you feel most comfortable. That might mean quickly dashing through a game, and moving pieces with little strategic thought to ingrain their rules in your head.