It isn’t very complicated to learn how to play chess. In this article you will learn:
- How to set up the chess board
- The rules of chess
- Chess notation
- How the chess pieces move
- The value of the chess pieces
- How to win a chess game
- The three phases of a chess game
Chess is a complex game built upon a simple foundation. You are likely to find it much easier to learn how to play chess than you expect.
How many games do you know of that will keep you learning something new after decades of playing it?
Most players enjoy playing all-out attacking chess when they get started. Later, they learn the subtle beauty of how to play positional chess. The game changes with you, or for some the game changes them.
Let’s get on with learning how to play chess.
The Essential Knowledge You Need to Play Chess
How To Set Up The Chess Board
A chess board is a pattern of alternating light and dark squares. There are two key points to remember when setting up a chess board.
The bottom right-hand corner is always a light square and the queens start on a square of the same color (i.e. the White queen starts on a white square). Once you know these two important facts setting up the rest of the pieces is easy.
You will set your pawns across the second rank (horizontal row). Then working from the outside in you place a rook, knight, and bishop on the first rank. This leaves a square for the king next to the queen.
The Rules Of Chess
Chess owes a lot of its richness and complexity to some of its unique rules. As in any game learning the rules is a good starting point when learning how to play chess.
There are interesting concepts like promoting a pawn to a piece of greater value, earning a draw by getting your king stuck without a legal move (stalemate), or allowing a piece to jump over another. This is essential knowledge you must know if you want to learn how to play chess well.
These might sound complicated or strange at first, but you will soon become familiar with them. Just as with learning anything new, practice makes things more familiar, and learning how to play chess is no exception.
Recording your chess games is invaluable in becoming a better player. Analyzing your games helps you learn where you can improve.
Keeping a record of your game in a tournament helps settle any disputes and is necessary if you wish to claim a draw because of the 50 Move Rule (a game is a draw if there are no piece captures or pawn moves for 50 moves).
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How the Chess Pieces Move
Part of the mystique surrounding chess undoubtedly stems from the numerous different piece movements, but it doesn’t take long to get familiar with the differences. You can’t learn how to play chess without knowing how the pieces move.
The pawns and knights are perhaps the most mysterious pieces when it comes to movement.
Pawns move forward one square at a time and capture diagonally one square ahead. On the first move, you can advance your pawns two squares if you wish provided no piece occupies one of these squares.
Many players forget about the special capture rule call en passant. Be certain this is one of the first rules you learn when learning how to play chess.
En passant allows you to capture a pawn if you have a pawn on the fifth rank and your opponent pushes his pawn to squares forward. Hoping to avoid being captured by passing your pawn. However, you can capture the pawn as if it only advanced one square.
Knights move in an L-shape of two squares by one square. They can move forwards, backward, and sideways. This is the only piece allowed to jump over another piece. Getting the most out of your pieces is a skill you must acquire soon after learning how to play chess.
The Value of the Chess Pieces
When learning how to play chess, it helps to learn the hierarchy of the pieces. There are many instances where pieces of greater value are given up for one of lesser value but you will learn about this as you grow in playing strength.
Don’t wait too long after you learn how to play chess to acquire this essential knowledge!
For example, if you sacrifice a rook for a knight this is called an exchange sacrifice. You have given up a piece worth 5 points for one worth 3 points.
Beginners are advised to use the relative values to protect your important pieces from attack and guide you in keeping an equal position when you first learn how to play chess.
- Pawn – 1 point
- Knight – 3 points
- Bishop – 3 points
- Rook – 5 points
- Queen – 9 points
Remember, if a pawn advances all the way to the eighth rank you can promote it to a piece of greater value.
This guide to the relative value of the pieces is particularly helpful in deciding to exchange pieces while you are learning how to play chess.
How to Win a Chess Game
Although it’s important to have fun while playing chess we learn how to play chess with the intention of winning games.
There are two ways to win a chess game. These are if your opponent resigns, or you checkmate them.
In chess when you directly threaten to capture your opponent’s king, you call it ‘check’. This is very useful because it means your opponent has to spend a turn dealing with the check.
If you find yourself in check you can defend your king by blocking the attack, capturing the attacking piece, or moving your king. If you can’t do any of these the check becomes checkmate and the game is over.
One of the interesting aspects of chess is you can be ahead in material but still lose. Checkmate ends every game even if you have more pieces on the board than your opponent.
There are typical checkmate patterns it’s helpful to know. Be sure to include studying them while you learn how to play chess.
One of the most famous checkmate attacks is Scholar’s Mate and was recently featured in the Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit”.
If you find yourself in a hopeless position, it’s considered good sportsmanship to resign. By choosing to resign, you are conceding the win to your opponent without having to play on in a lost position.
For example, you might see your opponent is about to deliver a checkmate and you have no defense or he might be far ahead in material.
Very similar sounding to checkmate is stalemate. When you have no legal moves and aren’t in check this is stalemate and the game is a draw.
Three Phases of a Chess Game
It’s useful to have a basic understanding of the different phases of a game. These are general guidelines and aren’t rigid definitions, but familiarizing yourself with them will make it easier to learn how to play chess well.
Although the endgame often begins after queens are exchanged you can have a king and queen endgame. There are openings where the theory extends into the middlegame too.
However, like piece values, it’s important to have an idea of the three different phases.
They are the:
The following video offers you a great resource with lots of free chess wisdom:
The Chess Opening
As the name suggests, this involves the first few moves of the game when you are bringing your pieces out and getting your king to safety. This is where we all start our journey when we are learning how to play chess.
When you start learning how to play chess you don’t want to spend a lot of time studying the opening. You will progress faster if you concentrate on your middlegame play.
However, you must know how to reach the middlegame with a comfortable position. That means knowing the basics.
Concentrate on three things in the opening:
- king safety,
- and a sound structure.
Even at the start of the game you need to be on the lookout for threats from your opponent. Developing your kingside pieces to castle sooner is good but you will likely need to defend your center pawn first.
Being on the lookout for threats to your pieces is a good habit to acquire early while you are learning how to play chess.
A good way to start the game is by advancing either your e-pawn (1.e4) or d-pawn (1.d4). Then develop your knight and bishop so you can castle.
Take a look at this simple way to develop your pieces. This is called the Colle Opening and is a good opening to play with white. You can expand your opening repertoire after you learn how to play chess.
The Colle opening is also easy to understand. When learning how to play chess keep it as simple as you can.
When you play with black, some good openings to choose from are the French Defense, Caro-Kann Defense, and the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
Be certain you learn the plans or strategies for the opening you choose while you learn how to play chess.
The Chess Middlegame
This is the heart of the battle where the pieces engage with each other, or you spend time maneuvering your pieces to gain an advantage. While you learn how to play chess, improving your middlegame technique is crucial.
After you have developed your pieces and got your king to safety, it’s time to play the middlegame. There is a lot to learn about the middlegame, and becoming good at it will take much longer than it takes you to learn how to play chess.
The good news is you don’t need to know a lot when you are playing other beginners. In fact, one of the simplest ways to improve is by avoiding blunders. Long after you learn how to play chess, you will find avoiding blunders a key skill.
Begin with this piece of advice from GM Simon Williams, also known as the GingerGM, who has coached lots of chess players.
Whenever you or your opponent make a move, Simon’s advice is to ask “Why am I making this move?” or “Why did he make that move?”. Ask it for even the most obvious moves to cultivate the habit.
For example, “I am playing 1.d4 to stake a claim in the center and control e5.”, “My opponent played 1…d5 because he also wants to control the center and especially e4.”, and “I am playing 2.Nf3 to defend my d-pawn and gain more control of e5.”
Another good habit to develop is making certain your pieces are defended at all times. You can’t keep every piece defended through the whole game, but you must reduce how often this happens.
When you advance a piece to a square where it isn’t defended always ask if there is any way for your opponent to attack it. Keep your pieces safe and look for your opponent’s undefended pieces.
White has two undefended pieces in the diagram below. The knight on d4 and the pawn on b2. Can you see how black can attack both pieces at the same time?
Double-attacks aren’t something you need to know when you first learn how to play chess. You will develop this skill as you work on your tactics and puzzles.
The Chess Endgame
In the endgame, you attempt to convert your advantage from the middlegame into a win or, if you are behind in material, hold on for a draw. Former world champion Capablanca believed that if you wanted to learn how to play chess, you must learn the endgame first.
The endgame usually starts after most of the pieces have been exchanged. Rook endgames and pawn endgames are the most common.
Long after they have learned how to play chess many players neglect studying how to play these endgames.
Learning how to win a pawn endgame is very important. When you know which pawn endings are won you will know when to exchange all the remaining pieces.
Knowing this will also help you avoid exchanges. Instead of swapping pieces and ending up in a lost endgame you will keep as many pieces on the board as possible.
Remember, a lot of chess games end in a draw. Switching from the middlegame to an endgame is a good tactic if you know you can get a draw.
Learning how to save a game this way is an important skill to master soon after you learn how to play chess.
A king and one bishop can’t deliver checkmate so if you can exchange all the pawns, the game is a draw. Which pieces can and cannot deliver checkmate is good to know and is essential knowledge while you learn how to play chess.
Stalemate is another way of saving the game. In the diagram below even though white has a pawn, the black king controls the promotion square.
The white king has to defend the pawn but he also blocks the black king from moving too. Stalemate!
You’ve Made a Wise Decision Learning How To Play Chess
Learning how to play chess will improve your performance in many areas of life.
Studies have shown that children who play chess often improve their grades at school. Surely it’s quite clear if you improve your ability to assess a position and calculate the best moves in a chess game, it will help you meet challenges at work.
The techniques used to learn how to play chess and apply this information are valuable in all areas of our lives. As you get better at chess, your levels of concentration and patience will improve.
We invite you to take a few minutes and learn about the fascinating history of chess:
Here is an inspirational game played by one of the greatest attacking chess players ever – Paul Morphy. His games are beneficial for beginners to study while learning how to play chess.
Paul Morphy may have played chess over a hundred years ago, but the principles he used to win games still apply in our technological era today. You can shorten the time it takes to learn how to play chess by seeing how strong players play the game.
Things to keep in mind are how Morphy develops his pieces quickly and aims them at the center. These two principles alone will help you to improve a lot while you learn how to play chess.
A wonderful, rich, and pleasurable journey has begun for you with your decision to learn how to play chess. Chess players make up a very supportive community so don’t hesitate to reach out with questions or concerns.
Remember that every titled chess player was also once a beginner.
Learning how to play the endgame is a vital skill many people learning to play chess neglect. Good endgame technique can stop you from losing an advantage you got in the middlegame or earn you a draw if you are behind on material.
That’s why today you can get Anna’s Essential Endgames Course, by IM Anna Rudolf, with 50% off!
Moving Forward and Improving at Chess
Here are a few instructive articles to help you take those first steps with greater confidence. There are many more posted on the iChess blog.