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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Chess Primer: Basic Rules

Welcome! If you are reading this, then it is likely that you don't know much about chess, but are eager to learn. Hopefully this crash course will leave you with the following knowledge

1) How the pieces Move
2) How to read chess games (PGN gamescores)
3) How to understand a game between more experienced players (In other words, what are the important features of a chess position), and improve your own play
4) How to calculate chess moves (tricks and tips for playing good chess)
5) Avenues for further study

I've tried to make this guide as simple, straightforward, and practical as possible. However, in taking this approach there is much I have had to oversimplify and omit. Hopefully this information will do enough to spark your interest to learn more about Chess, and develop a deeper understanding of the game. Who knows, you may even one day become a grandmaster!

Basic Rules
Section I: The starting position in chess
Section II: How the pieces move
Section III: The object of the game
Section IV: Portable Game Notation

Section I: The starting position in chess

Below is the starting position in standard games of chess

The board should always have a White (or Light colored) square in the lower right corner. If there are numbers on the board (for reasons explained later), White is placed along the first and second row, Black along the seventh and eight.

The first/eight row contains the pieces: from the left to right (for White; opposite order for Black) they are the Rook, Knight, Bishop, Queen, King, Bishop, Knight and Rook. They are arranged in size order (Rook is the smallest of these pieces, King is the largest) In front of each piece is a pawn. For each side, there are 8 pawns, 2 each of the Rooks, Knights, and Bishops, and a single Queen and King.

Chess players are an odd bunch, and have invented a large amount of vocabulary devoted to chess. A good resource to decipher all of this is found at, among other places.

Instead of referring to rows and columns on a chess board, players call them Ranks and Files. They label the ranks and files too; ranks are labelled, from bottom to top (from White's perspective, it's reversed with Black) from 1 through 8. Likewise, files are labelled from left to right using letters; from A through H. We will return to this again later in Section IV.

Section II: How the pieces move

Below is a chess position from a game I played, and which will be used as an example throughout this guide. It's about halfway through the game; some pieces have been captured / traded and are no longer on the board. Let's look at each remaining piece and see how they can move.

Pawns: the foot soldiers of chess

Shown above are all the possible pawn moves that White can play in this position. Pawns move one forward at a time, except for the first time they move, when they can move either one or two squares forward. 

Pawns are the only piece that capture differently then they move. Pawns can capture diagonally one square. There are no captures possible using a pawn in the above position, but I highlighted the type of movement using an orange arrow to give you and idea of what it would look like. Pawns are good short-range fighters, specializing in hand-to-hand combat. This makes them well suited to be on the front lines, as they are in the starting position.

Pawns cannot move through or past another piece (either friendly or opposing). Thus, one of the White pawns in this position is unable to move; it is blocked by Black's pawn.

Shown above are all the possible pawn moves that Black could play in the example position. Just like with the White pawns, if the pawn is on it's starting square, it has the option of going either one or two spaces.

One of Black's pawns does not have any moves shown, even thought it is not blocked by another piece. That is because if that pawn was to move, it would expose the Black King to an attack by the White Bishop. I'll cover the movement of those pieces in a bit, and explain why this is an illegal move. For the time being I will add that this pawn, which cannot move, is said to be pinned; it is a common occurrence for pieces and pawns to become pinned, and we will discuss this later.

Knights: The hoppiest piece on the board

The movement of the Knights are arguably the hardest to learn and visualize  in chess. They move in a L-shaped pattern, moving two squares in one direction and then one square in another, or one square in the initial direction and then two in the other. 

Huh? Sounds confusing, I know. But if you study the above diagram and remember two tips, it will be easy to figure out how they move.
Hint 1) Knights always alternate colors (the color of the square they stand on, that is) when they move (White-Black, or Black-White)
Hint 2) The moves that a Knight can make form a sort of circle around that Knight. This is easiest to visualize when a Knight is in the center of the board, and can make the maximum number of moves possible (8). Keep this in mind: it's important to get Knights to the center of the board.

Knights are the only piece that can jump over other pieces. They are good mid-range fighters, but cannot fight up close. They usually make poor defenders, for reasons that will be become clear when you learn about the movement of the other pieces. In a nutshell, the Knight (or the Pawn for that matter) cannot move to a new square and keep surveillance on another square. In the diagram above, if the Black Knight moved to the side of the board (a5), they would no longer be able to influence the center (e5). This contrasts with the Bishops, Rooks, and the Queen.

Bishops: the colorbound clergy

Whew! Learning the pawn and Knight moves are the hardest part of this introduction. The remaining four pieces are much simpler.

First, the Bishop; this noble clergyman can move on the diagonals, as many squares as possible (although it can not move through obstructions, it can capture enemy pieces). Bishops are stuck on one type of color square their whole life. Just as Kermit the frog sang "It's not easy being green", so too Bishops lament being stuck on the same color, especially when there are  many obstacles (other pieces) on the same colored squares.

Rooks: the righteous pillars of strength

The Rooks move up and down files and across ranks, in straight lines as many spaces as they want, as long as there are no obstructions. Straight forward moves from a straight moving piece!

The Queen: long live the her majesty!

The Queen may be the easiest piece to memorize the moves for, once you know the others: it's simply the combination of the Rook's moves and the Bishops move. In other words, the Queen can move either side to side, up and down, or diagonally. But it can only move one direction at a time.

The King: a royally important piece

The King can move any direction, but only one square at a time. It is only slightly faster than a pawn. The King is also a special piece, in that it's movement is sometimes restricted. It cannot voluntarily move onto a square that is being attacked by an enemy piece, and if the King is attacked (this is called Check, and is explained in the next section) the attack must be blocked or the King must flee.

Special Rules

There are a few special rules that are worth mentioning. Due to the brevity of this introduction, I will not explain these in detail, and suggest that for a more complete explanation you refer to some of the links provided in the advanced study chapter of this guide.
  • Castling: Castling is the only time in Chess that you can move two pieces at the same time. In order to castle, the King and at least one of the Rooks must not have moved yet, and the space between the King and the Rook must be cleared and free from attack by enemy pieces. To castle, move the King two squares towards the Rook, and then leapfrog the Rook over the King (sitting on the square next to the King).
  • En Passant: If a pawn moves two squares on it's initial move, but an opposing pawn is placed such that it would have been able to capture this pawn if it had moved only one square, then this capture will still be allowed.
  • Pawn promotion: If a pawn reaches the end of the board (the eight rank if it is a White pawn, the first rank for a Black pawn), then it may be promoted to any other piece except a King or another pawn.

Section III: The object of the game

The object of the chess game is checkmate the opposing King. Simply put, checkmate is when you attack the opponent's king, and your opponent has no way to escape from this attack; he/she cannot capture the attacking piece, block the attack, or move the King to an unattacked square.

If your opponent can escape, block, or otherwise eliminate the attack on the King, then they are only in check, not checkmate. When an opponent is in check, they are obliged to make a move to get out of check. It is illegal to make a move that puts yourself in check. 

Another way to think about this set of rules is that the King may never be captured (It's as if Checkmate is declared a move before this would occur).

Checkmate is the only goal in the game, with one exception. Sometimes, Chess is played under time constraints. Under those conditions, if a player runs out of time, they lose the game. Note that neither having more pieces, more space, control of more squares, or better placed pieces will win the game unless it leads to checkmate.

Section IV: Portable Game Notation

Chess notation, in the most modern and commonly used form, is fairly simple to understand. The board is labelled in a fashion reminiscent of the game Battleship, with the files labelled A through H (left to right from White's perspective) and the ranks labelled 1 through 8 (bottom to top from White's prespective). Moves are denoted by listing the desintation square for the piece. For any other piece except for a pawn, a prefix is added to denote the piece. The prefixes are N for Knight, B for Bishop, R for Rook, Q for Queen, and K for King. Castling, captures, pawn promotions, and ambiguities in piece movements are all handled in special ways, demonstrated below in the example gamescore. 

This form of notation is the most commonly used today, and is known as Algebraic notation. However, it is not the only way to record moves; many older books and chess literature will use Descriptive notation, which is a bit harder to learn and will not be explained here.

See if you can follow along with the gamecore below. If you setup a board and play the recorded moves correctly, you will arrive at the board diagrammed underneath the game.

Example gamescore

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