How Chess Works

By: Meredith Bower  | 
chess pieces
These time-honored pieces have challenged many a chess player. ATU Images/Getty Images

Think about your favorite board games. When you were little, Chutes and Ladders or Candyland may have been at the top of the list, but you quickly outgrew drawing a card and advancing across the board. Later, you took up Monopoly. It's fun, but it can be never-ending; and there are so many pieces. Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit and Apples to Apples make great party games, but you need a group to make it really fun. Scrabble is challenging, but there are only so many ways to use the X and the Q tiles; and there's always one player who makes up words.

Odds are, most families have the classic 3-in-1 combo set of checkers, chess and backgammon, complete with a reversible game board and a package of checkers and chess figures. Each of these games, with histories dating back hundreds of years and across many cultures, has withstood the test of time, but chess stands out as perhaps the perfect game. There aren't too many pieces, only two people can play, and winning is different every time.


To be successful at chess, you simply need to understand the game and play with enough frequency to be able to improve your strategy. Furthermore, chess is a great equalizer. Sure it's played in posh parlors and hushed libraries, but more often you'll see it played by old and young, rich and poor in public parks, coffee shops and even hotel banquet rooms where hundreds of people compete simultaneously.

Additionally, the fundamental strategies of chess are lessons that can lead to success in life. Chess Champion Orinn Hudson, a former state police officer, uses chess to teach at-risk kids the lessons of life. Through his foundation Be Someone, he has taught more than 20,000 kids not only how to play the game but how to apply the rules to their lives.

He sees chess as a valuable way for kids to develop critical thinking skills. When teaching chess to children, Hudson reminds them that they all have the same resources (16 game pieces); success is how you use them.

Chess is full of right moves. Learning to play it well takes time and patience, but once you understand the role of each piece and learn to think strategically, you'll understand the game's longstanding appeal.

Before we talk about what the right chess moves are, let's look at the history of the game.

History of Chess

Because of its knights, rooks, kings and queens, you might think chess began in medieval times. But in truth, the game has its roots in India where it's believed to have been played as early as A.D. 300. This original game, called Caturanga, required four players. But the board (64 squares), pieces (Rajah or pawn, ship, horse, elephant) and moves are similar to the modern game [source: The Chess Page].

Chatrang is the name given to the game when it appeared in Persia in A.D. 600. From there it spread along the Silk Road trading routes to Arabia and Byzantium. Chatrang is believed to have reached Europe in the 8th century when the Moors invaded Spain. From there it spread throughout Europe, and later the Spanish brought it to the Americas where it spread across the continents.


Throughout history, variations of the game have evolved based on where and when it arrived. Byzantine chess was played on a circular board; the chessboard used in Germany beginning in the 13th century was 12 squares by eight squares and had three additional pieces.

With its foundation in the Indian version of chess, both China and Japan developed their own versions of the game, both of which are still played today. In Siang K'i, the Chinese game, the board has a five by nine grid on each end (one green and one red), separated by a moat. Players move on the intersection of the grid marks with the goal of placing the highest ranking figure, in this case the general, in check.

Japan's version of chess, called Sho-gi is played on a nine by nine grid. Each player has 20 game pieces of different value and ability to move, but all 40 pieces are the same color. Opponents' pieces are distinguished from each other by the direction they point, which naturally leads to a set of rules unique to this version of the game [source: The Chess Page].

With a few exceptions, modern chess, the game played around the world today, resembles the ancient version played in India. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the queen gained significant power with her ability to move in any direction. A rule called "castling" was introduced to protect the king. But, that's getting ahead of ourselves. The next section will explain the rules of play.

The elephants in the Indian version of chess and the knights in the Western game reflect different cultures. In addition to the character differences, until the mid-19th century, the pieces also showed class distinctions. Wealthy players' game pieces were heavy and ornate, while everyone else used lumps of wood that varied in height. In 1847, John Jaques designed the pieces we recognize today, placing symbols that represent the characters on top of pedestals of different heights [source: Chess - Online Guide].

Despite being an ancient game, today chess is enjoyed in the most modern ways. Players can compete against opponents all over the world via the computer and they can even play against the computer. Chess history was made in 1997, when a computer named Deep Blue 2 beat the best player in the world Garry Kasparov [source: Chess - Online Guide].

How to Play Chess

Anatoly Karpov, chess players Anish Giri and Ian Nepomniachtchi
Chess Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov (C) and chess players Anish Giri (L) of the Netherlands and Ian Nepomniachtchi (R) of Russia compete during the 2020 FIDE Candidates chess tournament at the Hyatt Regency Ekaterinburg Hotel. The event is to determine who will challenge Magnus Carlsen for the title of the World Chess Champion. Alexei Kolchin\TASS via Getty Images

Chess is a game of strategy for two players. The goal is to attack your opponent's king, and put him in check. This means the king cannot move without being captured.

The rules of game are based on the pieces, half of which are black and half of which are white. True, game manufacturers, who are in the business of fun, create games with non-traditional colors and replace typical game pieces with other characters, but for the purposes of this article, we will use the standard colors.


The chessboard has 64 squares that alternate in color from black (or dark) to white (or light) across eight rows. The horizontal rows are called the ranks and they're identified by numbers (1 to 8) and the vertical rows are the files, identified by letters (A to H). A letter and a number identify each square. The four squares in the center of the board (positions E-4, E-5, D-4, D-5) are the most critical in terms of controlling and winning the game.

Each player starts with 16 game pieces, either all black or all white, including eight pawns, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, a king and a queen. Both players place their game pieces on the board in the same order. The way to insure that the board is facing in the right direction is to remember "white in right," meaning there should be a white square on your extreme right corner.

To make sure you place the pieces in order along the back rank, it's helpful to remember the pieces get taller as you move inwards. Rooks, or the pieces that look like a castle, go in the corners; knights, the pieces that look like horses, occupy the space next to the rooks; and, the two bishops sit on the squares inside of the knights. You have two spaces and two pieces left. Remember, the queen always goes on her own color. A clever way to remember this rule is that a "queen's dress must always match her shoes." Each of the eight squares in the next row or rank holds a pawn.

The goal of chess is to capture your opponent's king, but since actually capturing the king is against the rules of the game, players aim for checkmate. Sound confusing? It is -- at first. Think of the game as a battle. All of your pieces work to capture or remove your opponent's pieces from the board by moving onto the squares they occupy. By capturing his pieces, his king becomes more vulnerable and open to being attacked. Meanwhile, you must also defend your king and save your own pieces from being captured.

This is where strategy comes into play.

When you've got your pieces in a position where your next move would be to capture your opponent's king (if it were allowed), you have him in check. Now your opponent must make a move to save his king or get him out of check. If the king is trapped and has no way to escape, it's called checkmate and you have won.

Each piece is assigned points, and there are rules about how it can move around the board. The point value assigned to each piece is only to show its strength in terms of how it can move. At the end of the game there is no adding up of points based on the pieces you've captured. The winner is declared because he or she has trapped the opponent's king, in other words he has been checkmated.

Chess Pieces

Each chess piece has its own movement capabilities. It's also assigned a point value, which only indicates its strength. Beginning players tend to focus on the direction the pieces can move, but soon it becomes second nature, and players start seeing the pieces in terms of how they can attack their opponent. Being able to visualize and strategize is key to winning the game. Let's look at the pieces in the order they are set on the chessboard, beginning in position A-1.

The rook, which looks like a castle, is worth five points. It has the ability to move along the ranks and files in a straight line. It may not jump over other pieces or share a space with another piece of the same color. But the rook may capture an opponent's piece and remove it from the board. The rook is considered a long-range piece that moves in the direction of a cross [source: Andrews].


The knight, which looks like a horse, starts the game between the rooks and bishops. Although it's only worth three points, its power is in the way it moves. Knights move in an L shape over three squares. In other words, it moves two spaces in one direction, turns and moves one more space. Although they travel shorter distances, they can change direction, which is helpful in capturing the opponent's pieces. If a knight starts on a light square, he will end up on a dark square and vice versa [source: Andrews].

The bishop, the piece topped with a miter, is worth three points. It can only move diagonally and so is restricted to the color on which it begins. Bishops are also not allowed to jump, but they can capture and remove an opponent's piece. Bishops can cover great distances in an X formation [source: Andrews].

The queen, who is slightly shorter than the king, is the most powerful piece and worth nine points. She has the ability to move in the same directions as both the rook and the bishop. Although she may not jump another piece, she can move in eight different directions making her the most powerful attacker [source: Andrews].

The king is considered priceless in value, but not as powerful as the queen. Although he can move in any direction, he may only move one square at a time. He stays on the board throughout the entire game and may not be captured. He is the target and when he is threatened or under attack, he is in check and must move to save himself. When a king is unable to escape or get out of check, the game is over [source: Andrews].

Finally, each player has eight pawns. They line up across the second and seventh ranks, their home base. Although pawns are only worth a point each, they occupy space and can serve as a defense. They only move one square at a time and are restricted to moving forward (never backwards) along the file. Pawns may not capture a piece on the square directly in front of them, they capture diagonally forward [source: Andrews].

As you move your pieces move around the board, you not only want to defend your king, but also capture your opponent's pieces and remove them from the board.

Now let's look at some of the rules of the game itself.

Chess Rules

It's no wonder chess can seem like a complex game. In addition to rules and regulations for each piece, there are many more dos and don'ts to learn. The more you play, the more familiar the rules will become. Here are the basics:

  • White always begins the game, so players should determine in advance who will use the white pieces.
  • Unlike checkers, no piece is allowed to jump. The only one that comes close is the knight, and he really just turns the corner.
  • Players are not allowed to skip their turn or move twice in a row.
  • The only time you may "take-back" a move is if you place your king on an unsafe square or in the path of an opponent's piece that can capture it. Your opponent must alert you to your illegal move and you can take it back.
  • If your king is under attack or in check, you must do whatever you can to save him. The options are to move the king, block the king or capture the threatening piece. If you cannot do any of these, your opponent has your king in checkmate and the game is over.
  • Pawns only move one square at a time except when they are leaving homebase on the second or seventh rank. The first move can be either one or two spaces, but only forward along the file.
  • If the king is not under attack, but moving him in any direction would put him in check, then the game ends in a draw. This is called stalemate.

For a game that's been around for centuries, it's not surprising that it also has several special rules.


  • Castling -- This move is done at the beginning of the game to get the king in a safe position. It's the only time you can move two pieces at once, and it's the only time the king can move more than one square. If you've moved pieces out into the board and there's nothing between the king and the rook in the front rank, you can move the king two squares to the side and then move the rook to the other side of the king. The rules about this special rule are: You cannot castle out of check and you cannot castle through check.
  • Pawn promotion -- If a pawn reaches the opponent's end of the board without getting captured, it receives a promotion. Pawns may be promoted to any piece, usually a queen, giving the pawn more power.
  • En passant -- This also has to do with pawn and it means "in passing." This is the trickiest of the three special rules. It allows the pawn to capture an opponent's pawn without landing on its square. This may only be done if the pawn came from homebase and moved two squares and, in the meantime, passed an enemy pawn.

[source: Andrews].

Chess Strategy

Mathematically speaking, it's just about impossible to run out of chess moves, since the number of possibilities is equal to 10 to the 120th power. Practically speaking, winning at chess involves three strategies:

  1. Protecting your king
  2. Capturing opponent's pieces that are protecting his king
  3. Attacking your opponent's king and placing him in check

Endless books, articles and Web sites are devoted to chess strategy and analyzing the most famous games and moves in history. Take a peek inside one of these resources and you'll see strategies like the King's Gambit, Fork Attack and Fianchetto, all of which are pretty confusing to a beginner.


Most chess experts recommend the following basic strategies for beginners:

  • Don't rush your moves. Take your time and consider what your opponent's follow-up move may be.
  • Castle your king when possible to place him in a more protected spot.
  • Control the center of the board, to block your opponent from moving.
  • Use all of your pieces. Bring them out of the first row where they can be useful in attacking your opponent's king.
  • Try to plan three moves ahead.
  • Don't attack prematurely, it will allow your opponent to strike back. Be patient and set up your players.
  • Never sacrifice your valuable pieces for one of lesser value.

[source: Chess Blog]

Chess is recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee, and chess competitors must be in top shape to play. Although improvement isn't dependent on physical strength training, experts recommend doing the following mental exercises to improve your game:

  • Play often and learn something from each game.
  • Study rules, strategies and moves by looking at books and online resources.
  • Have fun and don't get discouraged.

Remember: Chess is a fun game. If it weren't, millions of people would not have been playing it for thousands of years.

Originally Published: Mar 23, 2010

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More Great Links

  • Andrews, Todd. "Play Chess Today, Part 1." Play Chess - Free Online Chess Games - May 3, 2009. (March 15, 2010).
  • Andrews, Todd. "Play Chess Today, Part 2." Play Chess - Free Online Chess Games - May 3, 2009. (March 15, 2010).
  • Be Someone Inc.
  • Chess Teacher. "The Top Five Chess Strategies for Beginners." My Chess Blog. April 19, 2009. (March 16, 2010)
  • Eagen, Tim. "A Brief History of Chess." The Chess Page. August, 1997. (March 13, 2010).
  • "FIDE History." World Chess Federation. (March 15, 2010).
  • "How the Chess Clock Works." (March 15, 2010)
  • Masters, James. "The Chess Family- History and Useful Information." The Online Guide to Traditional Games. 1997 (March 13, 2010).
  • Shenk, David. "The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science and the Human Brain" Good Morning America Video. September 4, 2007. (March 15, 2010)