Play Chess pt. 1: The Basics. Getting You Playing …

So, you want to play Chess, eh? Well that’s great! Chess is a great game to play, and the good news is that it’s actually quite easy to learn! The bad news (there had to be some, right?) is that it can take a lifetime, if ever, to master. Even though there are so-called masters, whether anyone has truly mastered this beautiful game, is open for debate.

Nevermind that, though, it’s a journey for everyone, and if you are just discovering Chess, then yours begins here. The information, below, gives you only the bare essentials, but at the end of it, you will have enough information in order to set the board up and complete your first game of chess.

Enjoy!

First Things First: The Object of the Game

Ultimately, when it comes to chess, the object of the game is to capture the enemy King. This is known as Checkmate and occurs when the King is under attack and can not escape. There will be more on checkmate in a later section, it is not something we need to concern ourselves with for now.

There are other objectives in a game of chess, however, that are often over-looked when it comes to informing the beginner. From the very first move, the chess player is trying to bring his/her pieces into the game and coordinate them so that they control the board, primarily the centre. The other objective, is to take the opponent’s pieces. If we can take them while not losing our own, then all the better. This helps us along the way towards checkmate.

Section 1: Equipment

— The Board

The chessboard is made up of 64 (8×8) squares. These squares alternate dark and light — generally referred to as black and white, even though this may not necessarily be the actual colours.

Each square of the chessboard has a co-ordinate –a unique identity, if you like– that it holds throughout the game. There have been many forms of this throughout Chess history, but in recent times the most common is Algebraic. This is determined by numbers running from bottom to top and letters running from left to right. This means that white will have the square ‘a1’ in the bottom left corner. In Black’s case, this will be ‘h8’.

Sets of squares running up and down the board, (in other words, 1-8), are known as Files.

Sets of squares running across the board, (a-h), are known as Ranks.

Sets of squares running diagonally are known as (prepare yourself, this may really surprise you …) Diagonals.

The picture below shows this. It’s worth taking a few moments to familiarise yourself with it.

The chessboard, showing the coordinates and ranks, files, diagonals.
The chessboard, showing the coordinates and ranks, files, diagonals.

— The Pieces

Each player begins the game with 16 pieces:

1 King
1 Queen
2 Rooks
2 Bishops
2 Knights
8 pawns

These have many designs, but the most common is the Staunton set, which is generally used as standard in tournaments, etc.

— Chess Clock (optional)

Chess games can have time restrictions (commonly referred to as time controls) to fix the duration of a game and make sure that conditions are clear and fair. To facilitate this, a special chess clock, (like the ones shown below), is used. In a nutshell, this is two timers in one. After moving, the player presses a button, which stops their clock and starts that of their opponent, and vice-versa. It is wise to become somewhat familiar with the game before adding the complication of a chess clock.

Section 2: Preparing For Battle

When setting up the board, the ‘white’ player always has a white square in the bottom right-hand corner, (h1, as shown in the picture, above), hence the maxim: white on the right.

For new players, it is best to learn how to place the pieces in the following way.

— Queen: The Queen always begins the game on the central square of her own colour. This will be on d1 for White and d8 for Black.

— King: The King always begins the game on the central square next to the Queen. This will be on e1 for White and e8 for Black.

— Bishops: One bishop is placed next to both the King and Queen. So, White’s bishops will be placed on c1 and f1, black’s on c8 and f8.

— Knights: The knights begin the game next to the bishops. So, White’s knights will be placed on b1 and g1, black’s on b8 and g8.

— Rooks: The rooks begin the game on the end squares, next to the knights. So, White’s Rooks will be placed on a1 and h1, black’s on a8 and h8.

— Pawns: The pawns take their place infront of the pieces, running across the board on the second rank from a2 to h2 and a7 to h7 respectively.

This will give you the start position shown, below. A classical (non-variant) game of chess always begins from this position.

fig. 2: The correct setup at the start of a game of chess.
fig. 2: The correct setup at the start of a game of chess.

Due to the placement of the King and Queen, files a-d are known as the Queenside and e-h the Kingside.

Section 3: Moving Your Forces

• In chess, White always moves first.

• Moves are then made in alternating turns.

• Passes are not allowed.

• A capture is made by removing the piece in question from the board and replacing it with the capturing piece.

• Players can not capture their own pieces.

— Pawns: As a general rule, pawns move one square forwards (never backwards). There are, however, two exceptions to this: 1). On its first move the pawn may also move 2 squares forwards. 2). When capturing. Pawns capture 1 square diagonally forwards. They do not capture directly forwards, hence a pawn with a piece on a square directly infront of it is blocked. This is all shown in the illustrations, below.

• Illustration ‘A’: White has moved first, a pawn 2 squares (as it is its first move) to e4. Black has answered by moving his pawn to e6, just choosing to move it 1 square. White has then moved his pawn to d3. Black has moved a pawn 2 squares this time, moving it to d5. Notice, because pawns capture 1-square diagonally forwards, that this challenges the White pawn on e4.

• Illustration ‘B’: Following on from illustration ‘A’, White has chosen to capture Black’s pawn on d5, removing the piece from the board, and then occupying that square with the capturing pawn.

• Illustration ‘C’: Also following on from illustration ‘A’, White has, instead, chosen to advance the e-pawn forwards one square to e5. This blocks both pawns in place.

Pawn Basics: 3 essential pawn fundamentals.
Pawn Basics: 3 essential pawn fundamentals.

There are, however, two special considerations when it comes to the pawn …

En Passant: ‘En passant‘ means ‘in passing’ in French. In chess, it refers to a special capturing move made by the pawn. I have often heard this referred to as ‘the off-side rule of chess’ when it comes to being explained, but it is actually not so difficult (he says…). Let’s imagine we are White and that one of our pawns has reached our 5th rank (so, applying the coordinates, #5 for White and #4 for Black) — it’s on e5, say. Black then moves one of his pawns two squares forwards, which brings it right next to our pawn — for clarity’s sake, f5. In this instance, we are able to capture this f5-pawn by moving our pawn directly behind it — thus, to f6. The capture is carried out in the same way, apart from that the move is slightly different. This is shown in the picture, below, which carries on from illustration ‘C’, above.

• Illustration ‘A’: Black has moved his pawn 2-squares forward to the f5-square.

• Illustration ‘B’: White captures en-passant by moving his pawn to the f6-square. Notice the difference between the en-passant capture and the standard one made in illustration ‘B’, above. In the standard capture, the capturing pawn moved one square diagonally forwards and replaced the captured pawn on its square. In the en-passant capture, the capturing pawn still moves one square diagonally forwards, but it moves to the square behind the captured pawn, rather than to its actual square.

En passant: Meaning, 'in passing' in French, is a special pawn capture.
En passant: Meaning, ‘in passing’ in French, is a special pawn capture.

For en-passant to be valid, strict conditions must be met. The move is an exception rather than a standard manouever, so it is worth taking some time in order to become totally fluent with it, as it can be very embarrassing to get it wrong, or over look it. A friend who is a staff member on an online chess server told me once, that a good percentage of cheating accusations and bug reports he gets come from people who are unfamiliar with the en-passant capture.

• The ‘En passant’ capture is only applicable to pawns — no other piece can make this capture or be captured in this way.
• The capture can only be made if the opponent’s pawn moves 2 squares on its first move. Never if the opposition pawn has moved 1 square.
• The pawns must be absolutely next to each other, there can be no empty squares between them.
• If we wish to capture en-passant, it must be on our very next turn. We can not wait and do it later with this pawn.

Promotion: As pawns can not move backwards, logically, something has to happen should they reach the end of the board. Well, it does — and it is very exciting! Should a pawn make its way to the end of the board, (so, applying the coordinates, this would be rank #8 for a White pawn, and rank #1 for a Black pawn), it becomes another piece. This is known as promotion. The player can even choose between Knight, Bishop, Rook, and Queen when it comes to which piece to promote it to. Normally, this is a Queen, because the Queen is the most powerful piece on the board, but in certain situations, a player might choose another piece — perhaps a knight would mean checkmate, for example.

Take a look at illustration ‘A’, below. This shows 2 possible promotions, depending on who it is to move: White would advance his pawn to the d8-square, but instead of putting a pawn on the square, he would (hopefully!) place a Queen as his elected promoted piece. If it was Black’s turn, he would advance his pawn to e1, but instead of choosing a Queen, he would choose a knight. The reason being, that this would mean instant checkmate to the white King. The resulting promotions are shown having been carried out in illustration ‘B’, the pawns having been removed and replaced with the new pieces.

Pawn 'promotion' is one of the most fantastic fundamentals of chess. It's every player's wish to advance to their 8th rank and get a new Queen.
Pawn ‘promotion’ is one of the most fantastic fundamentals of chess. It’s every player’s wish to advance to their 8th rank and get a new Queen.

• Promotion does not alter anything about the pawn’s standard moves. This is until it promotes, at which time its moves change to that of the new piece.

• The pawn does not retain it’s standard moves after promoting.

• Pawn promotion is not optional. If a pawn reaches its 8th rank, it must promote immediately, as part of the move.

— Knights: The knight is the only piece that can jump over pieces. Therefore, it is the only piece other than a pawn, able to make the first move of a game. When it comes to the move itself, knights move in an ‘L’ shape, 1 square forwards or backwards and two squares to the side; or, 2 squares forwards or backwards and 1 square to the side. The diagram below shows a knight placed in the centre of the board and all of the squares available to it.

The Knight moves in an 'L' shape -- 2 squares forward or backwards, and 1 square to the side, or 1 square forward or backwards and 2 squares to the side.
The Knight moves in an ‘L’ shape — 2 squares forward or backwards, and 1 square to the side, or 1 square forward or backwards and 2 squares to the side.

— Bishops: In a nutshell, the Bishop moves diagonally forwards or backwards, any number of squares. Its only restrictions are the limits of the board and interposing pieces. The diagram, below, illustrates this.

Bishops move diagonally forwards or backwards. Their range is only limited by the board and other pieces also on that diagonal.
Bishops move diagonally forwards or backwards. Their range is only limited by the board and other pieces also on that diagonal.

— Rooks: The rooks move along ranks and files, by any number of squares, dependant on board limits and interposing pieces. Also, it must move in a straight line, it can not move in an ‘L’ shape in a single move, for example.

Rooks move in a straight line, along ranks and files. Their range is only limited by the board and interposing pieces.
Rooks move in a straight line, along ranks and files. Their range is only limited by the board and interposing pieces.

— the Queen: The Queen is, beyond doubt, the most powerful piece on the board. This is due to her vast range of movement. The Queen combines all the moves of the other pieces apart from the knight. That is to say, she can move along ranks, files, and diagonals, by any number of squares. As always, this is dependant on the board limits and any interposing pieces. Also, she must move in a straight line and can not turn corners. The diagram, below, illustrates the possibilities of the Queen.

The Queen combines the moves of rook and bishop, able to move (in a single straight line) along ranks and files, and diagonals. As with those pieces, she is limited only by the scope of the board, and pieces in her way.
The Queen combines the moves of rook and bishop, able to move (in a single straight line) along ranks and files, and diagonals. As with those pieces, she is limited only by the scope of the board, and pieces in her way.





— the King: The Queen might be the most powerful piece on the board, but the King is undoubtably the most important. If we lose our King, we lose the game, so we look after him! To help us in this, there is a special move, called castling which I will come to in a moment. First, the standard moves of the King — unfortunately, being the most important, he is also the most limited. The King moves one square in any direction, forwards, backwards, sideways, diagonally.

The King is the most important piece in chess, but also the most limited in movement. He is only able to move one square, forwards, backwards, sideways and diagonally.
The King is the most important piece in chess, but also the most limited in movement. He is only able to move one square, forwards, backwards, sideways and diagonally.

Sounds pretty simple, and it is, apart from a couple of things.

1). We may not make a move that would place our King in Check. This is absolute, no exceptions.

Q: What is ‘check’?

A: Check means that the King is attacked, and ready to be captured, by an enemy piece. This may be announced (“check”) by the person giving check, but this is not mandatory. The picture, below, shows the different pieces giving check. Simply put, if under their normal move, they would be able to take the King on their next move, then the King is in check.

Just for illustration, different Black pieces giving check to the White King.
Just for illustration, different Black pieces are shown giving check to the White King. Notice that it is not ‘Checkmate’ as the King may take the Black pawn, thus moving out of check.

• We may not move another piece if doing so would open the line of sight of an enemy piece to our King. Notice, in the position shown, below, that if the White knight would move, it would reveal a check to the King from Black’s Bishop. Thus, the knight may not move. Technically, the knight is said to be pinned to the King, but I am trying not to bombard you with too much information so I will not say more on the pin here.

The White Knight may not move as it would reveal check to the White King from Black's bishop.
The White Knight may not move as it would reveal check to the White King from Black’s bishop.

• Obviously, Kings may never give check, as doing so would place it in check also.

• When our King is placed in check by our opponent, that check can not be ignored and must be solved immediately. This can be done: 1). by blocking or capturing the piece giving check, or 2). by moving our King. If we are unable to make a legal move and solve the check, then we are checkmated, and we lose. (More on this, below.)

2). Castling: So, we know two things about the King — first, that he is priceless, and second that he is obviously based on the obese and gout-riddled Kings of old, and can’t move very well. Luckily, the chess Gods have thrown us a bone and given us a special move that we can use to protect the King. This is known as castling.

When the castling move is carried out, two exceptions occur. 1). The King moves 2 squares, and 2). a rook moves also (don’t get me started on why it’s not called ‘rooking’…). Castling is a very valuable move in chess, it does two things. First, it moves the King out of the centre of the board, (where he is usually exposed), to the usually safer flank, where he has protection behind pawns and is guarded by pieces. The other thing that castling does is move a rook in to the centre of the board, where they are usually more potent and are ready to take advantage of files opening up due to exchanges in the centre. So, it lets us do two important things for the price of one.

This is how it works in practice. We take our King and move it 2 squares to the left or right. The castling rook then jumps over the King to come to rest next to him. The diagram below shows this. You will notice that Black has castled on the Queenside of the board, (known as castling Queenside or castling ‘long’), and this often means that the king has to make an additional move in order to optimise his protection compared to Kingside castling. As compensation, the Black rook is move centralised. Which side to castle to depends very much upon the position.

Castling: A move which helps us protect our King and develop a rook in one.
Castling: A move which helps us protect our King and develop a rook in one.

As always, there are a few considerations that must be in place with castling:

• It must be the first move that the King makes in the game. If it has moved at all, then castling is absolutely ruled out — even if the King moves back to its original square.

• The rook in question must also not have moved before in the game, even if it has returned to its original square. So, if the Queenside rook has moved, castling to the Queenside is absolutely ruled out.

• There may not be any pieces between King and rook. (It goes without saying that no captures can be made when castling.)

• The King can not castle in to check.

• The King can not castle out of check.

• The King can not castle through check.

• Castling is a King move, so as advice, move your King first. Some people touch both pieces, or even move the rook first. This could mean disaster. When playing chess under ‘touch-move’ conditions, if you are deemed to have touched your rook first, then you are technically making a rook move, and would lose the option to castle with that rook.

Section 4: Ending Hostilities

— Decisive result: One side wins and claims the full point. Perhaps the most well known decisive result is checkmate. As has been said, above, check is when the King is attacked by an enemy piece. The player must then immediately end the check to the King. Should that not be possible, the game is lost. The picture, below, shows two examples of checkmate. In mate 3, checkmate has yet to be delivered, can you spot how? (Answer at the bottom of the page.)

A player may also resign, if he/she feels that they are lost and that checkmate is inevitable. Rather than playing on and go through the motions, they can, in essence, surrender. This can be done by lying the King down on its side, but generally one just offers congratulations to the opponent and announces it verbally.

It is also possible to lose a game on time.

— Draw: Games are not always decisive in chess, sometimes the point is split. There can be different reasons for this:

• Mutual agreement: The players decide that niether can make progress (or one or both think they are losing, haha) and agree to cease hostilities and share the spoils.

• Lack of checkmating material: The minimums for checkmating are King and Queen, King and rook, King and two bishops, King bishop and knight. If one player does not have at least one of those possibilities, (say King and two Knights vs lone King), then the game is a draw — even though one side is clear material up.

• 3-fold repetition:

• Perpetual Check:

• 50 Move Rule: This is very seldom seen. It occurs when there is no pawn move for 50-moves. For this reason, it is very important to be able to carry out the minimum material checkmates, mentioned above (more on that elsewhere).

Stalemate: Stalemate occurs when the opponent has no legal move available, but is not in check. Usually, stalemate happens in situations where one player has a lone King, and the opponent has an overwhelming material advantages and makes an oversight. This can result in a situation, such as the illustration, below, where the White King has no safe square to move to. As it is illegal to place one’s own King in check, and passes are not allowed, chess rules dictate that the game is a draw. It goes without saying, that one does not want to commit stalemate as the attacker, it’s the chess equivalent to shooting wide when infront of an open goal. Another reason to practice the minimum checkmates, (such as King & Queen vs lone King), until they are second nature.

Stalemate: Positions such as this one are not uncommon, White, to move, is not in check, but has no legal square to move his King to. This would result in a draw, even though Black has a winning material advantage.
Stalemate: Positions such as this one are not uncommon, White, to move, is not in check, but has no legal square to move his King to. This would result in a draw, even though Black has a winning material advantage.

©2016 John Lee Shaw & hotoffthechess.com | all rights reserved.

About John Lee Shaw 175 Articles
I love all things chess! I only play for fun these days, but I love following and writing about the game. I don't pretend to be an expert, I'm more a knowledgeable enthusiast. Not a big fan of engines and I don't use them much in my analysis -- I prefer to approach the game from the human angle. The battle of minds, power and pitfalls of the ego and the psychology of competition never fails to fascinate and thrill me! :-) I am also a contributor at www.chessimprover.com.

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