Chess Basics

How to play chess? A Guide for Beginners

The world of chess is diverse and exciting, filled with creative solutions and lots of unexpected twists and turns along the way. But for someone who’s just starting their chess journey, it can be a bit intimidating. There are lots of rules and terminology, as well as lots of combinations to memorize. It seems to us that the best way to start playing this game and enjoying it is to choose a comfortable pace and take it one step at a time. 

how to play chess

What should the first step be? 

Probably the board setup, right? As we have a lot of ground to cover, without further ado, let’s start looking into this wonderful game and uncovering its secrets one by one!

Chess pieces

This is a short intro into chess pieces in general, and their names, just to review them and be on the same page about the terminology,  before discussing their designated positions, moves, and attack directions. 

  • Pawn. This is the lowest ranking chess piece, the one that’s commonly the smallest on the board and looks like a round ball on a leg. Each player has 8 pawns at their disposal. 
  • Knight. The chess piece, that typically looks like a horse’s head and mane. Each player has 2 knights in their army. 
  • Bishop. Bishop is the one with the ‘pointy hat’ with a split down the middle. It can look slightly different depending on the set, but that’s the general idea. Each player also has 2 of those.   
  • Rook (Castle). Rook is the one that usually looks like a tower on a castle wall, so it’s unmistakably recognizable. Again, 2 rooks for each army. 
  • Queen. The chess piece with the largest resources and powers, and it usually looks like a crown with a small ball on top. 
  • King. The king is the tallest chess piece on the board, and typically has a small cross-like addition on top, so it’s unmistakable. 

Now that we don’t call the pieces ‘soldier’ and ‘horsie’ anymore, let’s move along and position them correctly on the board! 

Chess board setup step by step guide

Ok, the board is right there, but it still means very little to a person not familiar with what’s going on. So the first step is to set up the board correctly in order to avoid mistakes in the future. There are two armies in any chess layout. The white army and the black army (the actual color of some chess sets can differ). They take their place on opposite sides, each chess piece in its designated square, which is permanent. If anyone attempts to learn to play chess, these positions are the first to memorize. Also, chess board designed for beginners usually have alphanumeric notations on them, just so it’s easier to identify the squares. Let’s take it step by step though.  

  1. Position of the board. The board has to be positioned in a certain way. Each player should have a white square in the right bottom corner.  
  2. Position the chess pieces. Both armies are positioned in the bottom two rows in front of each player. Those rows are referred to as ranks, the first rank being the one closest to each of the players. The second rank positions are occupied by 8 pawns, each on its individual square. The first rank is positioned as follows: 
  • King and queen in the middle of the first rank (queens go on matching-colored squares)
  • Bishops go next to the king and queen. (they are referred to as king-side bishop and queen-side bishop)
  • Knights go next to the bishops on each side (queen-side knight and king-side knight)
  • Rooks close the setup and go into each of the corners, next to the knights. (queen-side rook, and king-side rook) 
chess setting

Now that the board is correctly set up and ready, it’s high time to discuss a few basic rules, before we go over each piece and see how they move and how they capture other pieces. 

Basic rules of chess 

The objective of the game is to defeat the king of the opposing army, i.e. threaten him in a way that the opponent has no means of saving him. The threat to the king that still can be avoided is called “check”. The final threat that finishes the king is called “checkmate”. 

The players take turns making moves, and if they are beginners, each one can think over their move as long as they like, but in more skilled games, the time each player has is always restricted in order not to delay the game too long. 

The general rule is, none of the pieces can ‘jump’ over other pieces on the board, except for the knight. It moves in an odd route, which we’ll discuss in a minute, and is allowed to jump over other pieces from both their army and the opposing one. 

If a player moves any chess piece and it lands on the opponent’s piece, that’s called a ‘capture’, and the pieces that have been captured, are put aside and off the board, the attacker taking its place. 

how to play chess

There are a number of specific rules that are used in advanced combinations during professional matches, but as this is a guide for beginners, let’s not complicate the game at this point, and focus on general principles, not to confuse the heck out of our readers. ‘All in good time’ is a great rule of thumb in this case. 

Let’s move on to the chess pieces and discuss them in more detail. 

Moves of the chess pieces and their captures 

Making a move and making a capture often entail different trajectories, so let’s see how the chess pieces move and how they are allowed to capture the opponent. 

  • Pawn. Pawns are allowed to move only to the square in front of them. Never side-ways, or backwards. If the pawn hasn’t been touched yet during the game, its first move can be 2 squares to the front. This is optional, so each player has a choice to move each pawn 2 squares the first time they are touched, or one square. When each pawn has made their first move during the game, they can’t go 2 squares anymore. 

Pawns capture other pieces only in the two available squares to the right and to the left diagonally. A pawn cannot capture backwards.   

  • Rook. The rook or the castle can move only straight either vertically, or horizontally, for any number of squares, as long as they are not occupied. The rook never moves diagonally for any reason. If a square in the rook’s way is occupied by a chess piece from the opposing army, the rook can capture it.  
  • Knight. Knights move in a very odd route, very much like the letter ‘L’. Two squares to the side, then one vertically, or vice versa, two squares vertically the one horizontally, in shape on an ‘L’ pointing any which way. Unlike all the other pieces, knights can move over other pieces but can land only on unoccupied ones, or occupied by the opposing color, thus capturing them. 
  • Bishop. As opposed to the rook, the bishop moves and captures exclusively diagonally in any direction. It cannot move vertically or horizontally and it cannot go over other chess pieces. 
  • Queen. As we mentioned before, the queen has immense power on the board and is the most high-ranking piece, partially because when it comes to making a move, the only no go for the queen is a curve. It can move in anywhere, as long as it’s a straight line. Vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. It captures other pieces like all the rest, by occupying their square. And, like the rest of the pieces (except for the knight), it cannot jump over other pieces on the board.
  • King. The king is allowed to move only one square in any direction, i.e. horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. It can capture other pieces, but it cannot ‘sacrifice himself’, or move to a square, where he can be threatened. Meaning he can’t move to a position that will result in check or checkmate. 
how to play chess

Knowing the chess pieces moves is crucial to playing the game, but not sufficient.  How to play chess well? Here’s where it usually gets a bit tricky.  The answer to that question is chess strategies. As this glorious game has been around for centuries, great chess players have devised many strategies and combinations of moves that can help players win the game. As we mentioned before, this is a beginner’s guide, so in order not to confuse our audience, let this be an intro to chess strategies. But keep in mind that there’s a lot more to discover and learn on the way to greatness!  

Introduction to chess strategy

As we already mentioned, knowing the moves and playing chess successfully are two very different things. Beginner players find that out very quickly and many get discouraged. But rather than being intimidated by the magnitude of possible outcomes and the different strategies to memorize, beginners should take it slow and get acquainted with the process little by little. Here we are not going to discuss difficult move successions. We want to give our readers the general idea of what chess strategy actually is. 

Much like in life, in chess, the objective of a strategy is to reach your goal with the minimal amount of collateral damage and minimal effort. When it comes to chess, it means the maximal control of the board. And the term ‘chess opening’ usually involves a plan to gain control of the center of the board, because a well-placed knight, for example, can control a big portion of the board, not counting the other pieces. Another strong point is ‘castling the king’ which is also a good move to memorize.  

There are countless books and websites on how to be a better chess player and they all involve strategy. And even though beginner players are not really expected to implement all of them, it’s still a good idea to at least recognize them when they are being implemented against you. So not to shoot the breeze, let’s talk more about popular chess openings, that will help any beginner feel more confident. 

Best chess openings for beginners

As we mentioned before, if you are interested in how to play chess for beginners, game-opening strategy is something you should be familiar with. So let’s go over the most popular and well-known openings, just to get started. 

  1. French Defense

It is most commonly associated with the moves e4 and e6, followed by d4  d5. French defense is one of the main strategies that a beginner should know and opens up many interesting opportunities. 

Sicilian Defense
  1. Sicilian Defense

This is a great strategy for players with black pieces. It’s quite aggressive and involves an exchange of pawns for gaining central positions, thus better control of the board straight from the beginning.  

how to play chess
  1. Italian game

It typically starts with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 and the objective is once again gaining better control of the central part of the board. This strategy also helps castle the king more effectively. 

how to play chess

Chess is exciting and colorful. Greatness comes with practice and love, and as there’s a lot to learn, so the main principle we suggest for beginners is learning, practicing constantly and having fun with it! Good luck in all the matches to come!

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