Looking to learn how to play chess? This guide has all you need to get started (or refresh your memory, if you haven’t played for years). Our beginner’s guide takes you through the chess setup process, explains the essential rules – including how each chess piece moves – and covers basic chess strategies.
Chess dates back to the sixth century CE, but it’s still among the world’s most played games. The magic of this classic board game is that getting started is dead simple, but the strategy gets as complex and deep as you want. Chess is just as much a kids’ board game as it is a challenging strategy board game for veteran grandmasters – and you can read on to learn all the rules in minutes.
If you’re looking to play at home, these are the best Chess sets to use. For something more modern, try our guide to the best board games of all time instead – or go a bit more literal with the best miniature wargames. For now, though…
Here’s how to play chess:
- Chess setup
- Chess rules
- How to move chess pieces
- Chess special moves
- Chess strategies
- How to learn chess
- How to start playing chess competitively
Got your chess set ready to go? Right then, here’s how the pre-game chess setup works. First, make sure the board is laid out so that a white square is in the bottom right-hand corner of the sides facing each player.
Now come 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, the one 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.
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 might seem complex if you watch experienced players at work – but believe us, the chess rules are very simple. 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. 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 of the six types of chess pieces follows its own movement rules. However, there are some general stipulations shared between them all.
Firstly, no piece can move through another piece, whether that other is yours or your opponent’s. Secondly, you can only move your piece onto a square occupied by another piece by capturing that piece (and you can only capture enemy pieces). Thirdly, when you do capture an enemy piece, that’s the end of the move – you can’t continue moving your piece; it remains on the square where you captured the enemy piece.
As for each chess piece’s special rules, the table below gives a summary. After that, we’ll go through one by one – starting with the lowly pawn.
|Rook / Castle||Any number of squares, but only horizontally or vertically in a straight line|
|Knight||Only in ‘L’ pattern:
|Bishop||Any number of squares, but only diagonally|
|Queen||Any number of squares, in any direction, including diagonally|
|King||One square in any direction, including diagonally (but not into check)|
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 capture pieces by moving one square diagonally left or right in front of them. They can’t capture backwards, and can only shift diagonally if capturing another piece, not when simply moving.
Rooks – also known as Castles – 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, then one square vertically; or two squares vertically, and one square horizontally. They must move the full distance of the ‘L’, so can’t stop after moving only a couple of squares horizontally, say.
Crucially, Knights can move through other pieces, allowing them to land behind enemies. This is best thought of as the Knight jumping over its opponents.
The Queen can move any number of squares diagonally, horizontally, or vertically. They’re something of a cross between Rooks and Bishops, and are the most powerful pieces in chess.
However, Queens can only move in single straight lines. That means you can’t move a Queen diagonally across the board, then move it vertically up, and finally shift it horizontally all on the same turn. You’ll need to make each of those moves on separate turns.
The King can move a single square diagonally, horizontally, or vertically in any direction. That makes the King a pretty weak piece that’s best protected by those around it.
Chess special moves
If you manage to move a pawn all the way to the opposite side of the board it will be promoted to a Queen, Rook, Bishop, or Knight. You get to pick the piece it’s converted to, although a Queen is the usual choice given the piece’s strength. Put the new piece in the square that the Pawn currently occupies, and remove the Pawn from the board.
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 a 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 you had moved the Pawn only one square. The idea is that you can’t evade capture by taking advantage of your Pawns’ two-square movement boost.
Your opponent must invoke en passant on their next turn (i.e. immediately following the movement of your Pawn). If they forget to, then it’s bad luck for them, and they lose the chance to capture your Pawn using en passant.
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, before placing the 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.
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.
Now you know how to play chess, but how do you win? Here are a few chess strategies for beginners that’ll help. They’re basic pointers that are easy to follow, but should give you a leg up over your opponent. Even the most advanced grandmasters follow these strategies.
Control the centre of the board
At the start of every game of chess, the centre of the board is entirely open. Move your pieces into the free space early to take control of the board and grab the advantage. Taking the centre for yourself will limit the movement options of your opponent, while freeing up space for your own pieces. Rather than hanging back while your opponent advances, take the fight to them.
Move several pieces at the start
In the opening turns of a game of chess, it can be tempting to focus on a single piece. Moving one piece across several turns might seem like the best way of quickly attacking your opponent. But it’s usually a recipe for disaster. While you’re galavanting across the board, your opponent has probably developed their entire frontline, taking the centre of the board, and putting you on the back foot. Make sure to move multiple pieces in the opening few turns to give yourself a sturdy foundation.
Defend your King
The King is the most important piece in chess. You need to keep it safe at all times. That means not moving it out into the open, nor abandoning it too early by moving all of its neighbouring pieces away. As a good rule of thumb, it’s best to castle your King as soon as possible. By moving your King away from the centre of the board you nestle it into safety, while bringing your rook into a more useful position.
How to learn chess
When you’re trying to learn chess, practice makes perfect. After reading through the basic rules above, 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 if 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 precise, competitive, and mentally taxing, you should try and play whichever way you feel most comfortable. Sure, you could test yourself against experienced opponents, or train your reactions with a chess clock – but you could also trundle through lots of casual games on your own, in your own time, to build confidence.
How to start playing chess competitively
Maybe you’re feeling pretty confident in your chess skills by now. If you want to take things to the next level, you can look into competitive chess games.
If you want to play competitively, you should expect to play chess tournaments in person. However, that doesn’t mean the internet is totally useless – you can use it to find competitive chess games. The US Chess Federation (or the English Chess Federation if you’re UK-based) shares the dates and locations of chess tournaments. If you have a local chess club near you, you may also be able to find tournaments to enter through them.
If you’re thinking of joining a tournament, there’s plenty of admin you’ll need to get right. Some tournaments may expect you to sign up in advance rather than on the day, while others may require you to be a member of the organisation in charge of the tournament.
You should also check whether you’re expected to bring your own chess boards, clocks, etc. We’d suggest yes: it’s better to be safe than sorry, and you might have time for a few practice games between rounds.
It can also be helpful to understand the rating system used in chess tournaments before you begin playing competitively. Chess Federations will assign players a rating that represents their skill level, and these are calculated based on how well players do in competitive tournaments.
A variety of rating systems have been used in chess’ history, so make sure you’re familiar with the right one for your tournament. For example, the US Chess Federation uses a national rating system that differs from other countries.
Finally, if you’re looking to play competitively, you should start thinking competitively. Publications like The Chess World can help you develop your understanding of chess strategy, and you should start analysing games (your own and those of skilled chess players) to look for ways to improve.
Now you’re a confident chess player, why not try some other classic board games out? We can teach you how to play dominoes, how to play backgammon, and even how to play checkers. If you prefer playing card games, our tutorials can teach you the blackjack rules or how to play solitaire. Or, if you’re after something more current, we can even show you how to play Dungeons and Dragons with our beginner-friendly guide.