Basic Chess Rules

Chess is one of the best known strategy board games in the world. Anyone can learn the basic chess rules although it takes years of practise to become a master.

Age: Adults and older children

No. of players: 2 players

Equipment: Chess board and pieces. You can download a free printable chess set from our website.

Time: 10+ minutes

Aim: To checkmate (capture) your opponent's King.

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1. Two players sit opposite each other at a table with the chess board between them. The board is set up so that the white square is to the right of the row closest to each player. The playing pieces (called 'men') are set up as shown in the diagram below.

How to set up a chess board

The chess pieces have special names:

Names and drawings of chess men

Notes: (a) The King is always the tallest piece and often has a cross-shaped top. (b) The Queen always starts on her own colour. (c) Each player starts with 8 Pawns, 2 Rooks, 2 Knights, 2 Bishops, 1 Queen and 1 King.

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2. Each chess man has its own way of moving. You will need to learn their movements thoroughly to be able to play chess well. Note that in the following diagrams, a dashed line show all the possible squares where that piece can move in a straight line. It can stop at any square along a dashed line.

    A Pawn can only move forward one square at a time in a straight line, except for its first move and when capturing another man. When a Pawn moves for the first time in a game, you have the choice of moving one or two squares forward. When capturing another piece it moves diagonally one square.

How a Pawn moves in chess

    A Rook (symbol: R) can move any number of squares forwards, backwards or sideways, but not diagonally, until it reaches another piece or the edge of the board.

How a Rook moves in chess

    A Knight (symbol: N, since K is used for the King) has the most unusual method of moving. It is the only chess piece that can jump over other men. It moves three squares in the shape of the letter "L". That is, two squares forward or backward followed by one square sideways, or two squares sideways followed by one square forward or backward. Although it sounds confusing, the diagram below should help.

How a Knight moves in chess

    A Bishop (symbol: B) can move any number of squares diagonally, but not forwards, backwards or sideways, until it reaches another piece or the edge of the board. The Bishop that starts on the black square will always stay on a black square. The Bishop that starts on the white square will always stay on a white square.

How a Bishop moves in chess

    The Queen (symbol: Q) is the most powerful piece. She can move any number of squares forwards, backwards, sideways or diagonally until she reaches another piece or the edge of the board.

How a Queen moves in chess

    The King (symbol: K) can only move one square in any direction, forwards, backwards, sideways or diagonally. However, the King must NEVER move to a square where it can be captured.

How a King moves in chess

    NOTE: You cannot "take back" a move once it has been completed. In fact, according to chess etiquette, you must move a piece if you touch it. Think about your move and its consequences before you touch any piece.

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3. One player holds a black Pawn in one fist and a white Pawn in the other fist. The opposing player taps one of the fists. The colour of the Pawn in that fist is the opposing player's colour for the game. If more than one game is played, they swap colours each game. The player with the white pieces goes first.

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4. Players alternate turns to move one piece. The move must be according to the rules in point 2 above. A piece cannot jump over another piece (except for the Knights) and two pieces cannot occupy the same square.

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5. A player can capture an opponent's piece by landing on the square occupied by the opponent's piece. That piece is removed from the board and is not used for the rest of the game (but see point 7 below for an exception). However, a Pawn captures in an unusual move. A Pawn captures by moving one square diagonally. This is the only time a Pawn does not move straight ahead.

In the diagram below, the white Pawn can capture the black Pawn (or vice-versa), the white Rook can capture the black Knight, the black Bishop can capture the white Queen, and the white Knight can capture the black Bishop.

A variety of capture moves in chess

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6. If a Pawn is able to move all the way across the board to the opposite side, it is promoted to any other piece except a King (or a Pawn). Usually (99% of the time) this is a Queen since it is the most powerful piece due to its moves. It is possible (though extremely rare) for a player to have nine Queens (their original Queen and eight new Queens) if all their Pawns make it to across the board. If the player's Queen has already been captured, the Pawn and Queen are simply exchange on the board. If not, the Pawn (or another piece) must be marked in some way to show it is now a Queen.

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7. The aim of chess is to checkmate your opponent's King. A player's King is checkmated when the player cannot move or protect their King so that it would be captured on the next move. (The King is never actually captured in chess.) Whenever a King is under threat of being captured, the player must say "Check". If the King cannot move or be protected, the player says "Checkmate" or, more commonly, simply "Mate".

An example of checkmate in chess

    It is Black's move. The black Bishop and black Rook cannot capture any of the white pieces or prevent them from capturing the black King by getting in the way. The Black King cannot move to any adjacent square since they are all covered by the three white pieces. Checkmate!

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8. Many chess games end in a draw. This occurs when neither player can force a checkmate, such as when each player is left with only their King. Since neither King is allowed to enter a square where they can be mated, it is impossible for either player to get close enough to threaten the other King.

Other situations are harder to know if there is a draw:

    (a) If each player makes the same move three times in a row, it is deemed a draw. In the example below, it is white's move. Follow the numbered moves and you will see that these moves could be repeated forever, so the game is declared a draw. Note that White has two Queens (due to a Pawn's promotion) and that Black puts White in check after moves 2, 4 and 6. This is from a championship game played between Paul Brandts (White) and Fred Wilson (Black) in 1970.

    An example of a draw in chess

    (b) Another case where it is difficult to resolve a draw is the 50-move rule. If neither player moves a Pawn or captures another piece for fifty consecutive moves, the game is declared a draw.

    (c) Finally, if both players agree, a draw can be declared at any time.

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9. If neither player can checkmate their opponent and there are no valid moves left, the game is declared a "Stalemate". This can be a good tactical move for a player who is outnumbered and facing checkmate. If they can manoeuvre their King so that it is not in check yet cannot make a legal move, they can cause a Stalemate.

An example of stalemate in chess

    It is Black's move. Even though White has many more pieces than Black, the black King is not in Check. However, Black cannot move since the King can never move where it could be captured and the white Queen controls all those squares. Stalemate!

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Advanced Rules

The rules above are the basic rules needed to start playing chess. However, there are some other rules and strategies that you will need to know once you have become more proficient.

1. Each chessman is given a value. This helps you work out if it is worth sacrificing one or more pieces for an advantage in capturing an opponent's piece.

    Pawn - 1
    Knight - 3
    Bishop - 3
    Rook - 5
    Queen - 9
For example, it may be worth losing a Pawn and a Bishop (1 + 3 = 4 points) to capture a Rook (5 points). This could be a good strategic move.

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2. Castling is a technique that is not used very often but can be quite powerful in the right circumstances. You move your King and one Rook (which was also known as a Castle, hence the name 'castling') together during the same move. This is the ONLY time you move two pieces in chess. It is also the only time the King moves more than one square. Castling can only occur if neither the King nor the Rook have been moved, so castling can only occur once in any game.

The King is moved two spaces towards either Rook, and the Rook is moved to the square that the King jumped over. This can occur with the Rook on either the Queen's side or the King's side (but not both, of course).

How to castle in chess

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3. It is possible for an opposing Pawn to avoid being captured by your Pawn if it travels two squares on its first move. To overcome this you can capture an opponent's Pawn en passant, which is French for 'in passing'. Although the Pawn had moved two squares, it is captured as if it had only moved one square. This must occur immediately after your opponent moves their Pawn. Capturing en passant is optional, not compulsory.

How a pawn captures En Passant in chess

    The black Pawn chose to move two squares to avoid being captured by the white pawn. However, the white Pawn was still able to capture the black Pawn 'en passant' by moving to the square it had jumped over. The black Pawn has been captured and is removed from the game.

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Sample Game

Now that you know the basic chess rules, you can follow a sample game that shows many of the moves.

Chess moves can be written using the international Algebraic Chess Notation. Our Sample Chess Game will explain algebraic chess notation and show you a complete step-by-step game using the notation.

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