How to play chess for beginners (start-up guide!)

If you’re new to the intriguing game of chess,

the headline question may very well enter your mind. You’ve seen “something” about chess on TV, read a news article about a current event somewhere, or have simply been introduced to the game by friends or family. Something seemed very interesting about this game, and now you would like to learn it yourself, and maybe even master it one day. But where do you start?

The intention of this article is simply to get you started!

We will look at the setup of the board, how each piece moves, rules (at least most of them), and how the game ends. Also, I want to provide you with a couple of general opening ideas and sound playing tips for your game.

So, this guide will mainly be aimed at the beginner, and it might also give you a couple of ideas that will jump-start your game! Let’s get into how to play chess for beginners! 🙂

Let’s get started: The setup

The chessboard consists of 64 black and white squares. Most boards will have the numbers 1-8 and the letters a-h on them. These show the so-called ranks and files of the board. Is this really that important to know, you might ask? Maybe not very, but it makes it a lot easier for me to explain from here, and later on it will make everything easier for you as well (trust me! 😉 )

That said, let’s get on with the starting position: White’s pieces are always positioned along the 1st and 2nd rank, whilst black’s pieces will start on the 7th and 8th rank, like this:

2D picture for clarityWhat your real-life board should look like.

Let’s do “the easy ones” first: All of white’s pawns start on the 2nd rank, whilst the black pawns do the same on the opposite side of the board, that being the 7th rank. This is our starting defense, and all the bigger pieces start off behind the pawns, that being the 1st and 8th rank.

  • a1/a8: Rook
  • b1/b8: Knight
  • c1/c8: Bishop
  • d1/d8: Queen
  • e1/e8: King
  • f1/f8: Bishop
  • g1/g8: Knight
  • h1/h8: Rook

Now we are almost ready to start the game…

Piece movement

It’s probably a good idea to know how the different pieces move, right? Well, let’s simply get right into that! And quite frankly, this should not be very hard to master. Let’s start with the most important piece:

The king: Moves one square in any direction.

The queen: Moves as long as it can/wants in any direction.

The rook: Moves as long as it can/wants in any straight line.

The bishop: Moves as long as it can/wants on it’s diagonal (one of your bishops will always move on white squares, the other one always on black).

The knight: Moves like an L. Two squares in any direction, then one square in the perpendicular direction.

The pawns: Always forward. From their starting position they may move one or two squares, but after this it’s always just one. The pawns always move straight ahead, and captures one square diagonally.

For all pieces capturing an opponent happens like this: You move your piece as stated above, and if it gets to a square currently occupied by an opponent, you remove your opponent’s piece from this square and put your own there instead.

As a final note in the “move”-section: White always makes the first move in a chess game, then black makes a move, then white, then…well, you get the idea… 😉

Piece value

I also want to mention – just so that you have a general idea when entering the game – how the pieces are valued. The following list shows you what I was taught as a kid, and what’s still the most common evaluation when talking about piece value:

  • King – infinite (lose your king, and you lose the game…)
  • Queen – 9
  • Rook – 5
  • Bishop – 3
  • Knight – 3
  • Pawn – 1

The numbers are the value of a single pawn. If I capture your knight, but you get three of my pawns in return, the position is about equal. The same applies if you take a bishop and a knight from me, but I take a rook and a pawn from you. If you take one of my bishops, but I get a hold of one of your rooks, I’m suddenly two points up, and my position is likely to be better than yours.

These are of course just guidelines for measuring how good or bad your position is, but it’s more than a good enough tool for this stage.

Chess rules for beginners (let’s skip the somewhat more advanced ones for now…)

First and foremost, we need to know what the aim of the game is, which obviously is winning. The questions now are:

  1. How do we do that?
  2. Which rules do I have to follow on my path?

The answer to question number 1 is really just two-folded: Either you checkmate your opponent, or your opponent decides to resign. Question number 2 requires a somewhat lengthier answer, but not nearly enough to deter you from entering the world of chess. I mean, you already got a chess board, learnt how to set up the pieces and even how they move, so what’s a couple of minutes extra to learn what rules you have to follow?

So, here are the few rules it’s important that you follow during a chess game:

  • First off, you have to obey what you’ve already learnt about piece movement, and the fact that each player gets only one move at a time.
  • Secondly, you have to realise that the one piece you cannot lose without losing the game, is your king. Every other piece is replaceable, so to speak. This brings us to the next rule:
  • Be aware of checks! Whenever one of your opponent’s pieces threatens to take your king, our king is “in check”. The check itself is not necessarily dangerous, but requires you to deal with it right away. This means that you have to make sure that your king is no longer “in check” once you’ve done your own move. You must either
    • move your king to a safe square
    • move a piece between your king and the piece that is checking you, or
    • you can – if possible – capture the piece that is threatening your king.
  • The last rule I want to implement into this short set of rules, is the one about promotion. This happens whenever you are able to get your pawn to the other side of the board (if a white pawn gets to the 8th rank or a black pawn gets to the 1st rank). Whenever this happens, someone up there is smiling down at you, as you’re allowed to swap that pawn for a more valuable piece! Pretty much always this means promoting your pawn into a queen. If, for instance, your white pawn is able to get to the square c8, you simply take this pawn off the board and place a queen on c8 instead. That’s an awesome deal, right? Well, it really is, but it’s also really hard to make this happen. Remember, your opponent also knows this, so they will do their utmost to prevent that from happening! (Note: You can promote your pawn to become a knight, bishop or rook as well, but more often than not, you’ll want to get that queen.)
    • Fun “fact”: A lot of the kids I’ve been teaching chess to, view promotion as their main aim for the game. I’ve had more than one telling me after the game that “I lost the game, but at least I got a new queen!” :p

At the end of a chess game

As mentioned before, you win by either checkmating your opponent or by them resigning their position. When you decide your position is so awful there simply isn’t any hope left, you can simply put your hand out and by a handshake tell your opponent that “I resign”. The other way to win a chess game, is by checkmate, and I want to be rather specific on what this means. The definition of checkmate is:

  • Your opponent is in check, and they do not have a legal way of getting out of this check.

This means that one of your pieces is threatening to take your opponents king, and they do not have any of the three aforementioned options available: They cannot move their king to a safe square, they cannot put a piece in the way of the checking piece, and they cannot capture the piece which is providing the check. That’s checkmate and goodnight!

A couple of general tips and ideas

There are so many things you can learn within the universe of chess, and you can spend endless nights learning new stuff. Even Magnus Carlsen is saying he has loads and loads left to learn…doesn’t that sound weird, knowing he’s been the world’s clear-cut number 1 for a decade now? To put it like this: Even he wouldn’t stand a chance against the chessplaying bots out there, and now there are quite a few of them!

Well, we’re obviously not going to go nearly as deep as Magnus into this, but I want to share a couple of general ideas and tips to get your game going:

  • Get out of the blocks!
    • This means moving more than just one piece in the opening. Many beginners will only move their queen in the early stages of game, simply because of its reach and ability to get quickly from one side of the board to the other. If the other player does the opposite, and gets many pieces out of their starting position, they will have no trouble defending against a single attacker, and are likely to cause more harm to the opposing player than what they can do with a single piece.
  • Get at least one of your centre pawns out early (that being your d-pawn or the e-pawn).
    • This will make it much easier to develop your other pieces and get a harmonic game going.
  • Look at your opponents pieces as well.
    • Obviously you want to try to get your own pieces into good positions to make threats to your opponent, but you also need to be aware of what your opponent is threatening to do to you. “Why did they make that last move? Are any of my pieces in danger? Can my piece be captured if I go to that square?”
  • Try to make your pieces work together.
    • Just like a union, your pieces can put on a much greater pressure to your opponent’s position if they work together. This can be a difficult one to master, but practise makes perfect!
  • Have a plan! 
    • By this I simply mean any plan or any reasoning behind your move. “I want to move my piece here, so that I can go there the next move.” “I need to protect my king.” “They are threatening to take my queen, so I need to move it.” Not just move a piece. You don’t need a stellar grandmaster plan all the time, just a meaning behind your move. This is one of the first things I teach my students/kids.
  • The last tip I want to provide in this section, is the one about castling. You might have heard of it, but aren’t quite sure how it works. It works like this: When the squares between your king and your rook aren’t vacated by any other piece, you can move your king two squares to the side, and the rook jumps over the king and lands right next to it, like this:

When you make this move – and it is only one move, even if you’re moving two pieces – you can do it to either side of the board. If you do it towards the a-file, it’s called castling queenside. If you do it towards the h-file, we call it (have a guess!) castling kingside. To give a short explanation of this move, it’s main target is to get the king to a safer place, guarded by pawns towards one of the sides. You want to get the king out of the centre (being the d- and e-files), because it will likely be under heavy fire here later in the game.

Important note on castling: You’re not allowed to castle when you’re in check!

I don’t want to overwhelm you with this list, so let’s just call this enough for now 😉 This should give you some general guidelines for how to set up your game, and some ammo for how to attack your opponent.

Did you win on your first try?

Win or lose, chess is supposed to be fun! I know I’ve had my share of ups and downs with this game, but I wouldn’t have played this game for nearly three decades now if I didn’t have fun! How is it fun to lose, you might ask? Well, the losing part isn’t exactly fun, but that comes with it! You will both win and lose tons of games, and maybe lose more than you win in the beginning.

But!

At the same time you will (probably…) learn and pick up so many things, and hopefully you will pick up something from every loss, and try your hardest not to make that same mistake again.

 

If you enjoyed this read, had a miserable read, got some good tips, have suggestions for improvements, something missing or needing to be covered, or just anything (!), please feel free to leave a comment below or drop me an email on chesslife.siterubix@gmail.com. I would love to help you on your way! 🙂

 

To all of you deciding to try this wonderfully exciting game for the first time:

Good luck and enjoy!

Thank you and good knight,

Joachim

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12 thoughts on “How to play chess for beginners (start-up guide!)”

  1. Hello, great article on how to play for beginners. I have been playing a long time, but never had a formal lesson in my life. I have only, like been playing casually. I have beaten a experienced chess player (teacher of chess) due to the fact that I have been playing long(lucky). Never had I ever have a plan like you stated up here. But I do feel like I have to start taking real lessons and tactic if I want to start competing with the big boys.

    nice article.

    1. Hello sharriv,

      and thank you for many kind words! As you insinuate – or maybe even ‘state’ – you can easily have a great time playing chess without any formal learning. Chess is, at the end of the day, all about having fun, and having fun at the level you’re at! Myself I haven’t had any lessons for years, as I stopped being serious about it when I hit university-age. Up until then I had played a lot of international tournaments, trained with fellow “upcomer’s”, in the hopes of reaching the best level I could. I never really got too far, but I am a decent player today, and moreover, are still just having so much fun with the game I learnt at the age of 7!

      And: It’s never too late to learn, and I wish you all the best in your upcoming chess endeavours!

      Cheers,
      Joachim

  2. It’s a lengthy yet fun read. Chess is a good niche to target and with the way you express, I am sure you are going to strike gold soon. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks Chenglei,

      that means a lot to me! As I started typing, I just got into this flow, and all of a sudden I realised it did turn in to quite the read… I’m glad you found it fun, and well-written enough to go through the whole thing!

      See you around,
      Joachim

  3. Joachim,
    I have many memories playing chess with friends and family (I lost so many games!). It’s such a fun game that my friend and I play over the internet sometimes. One thing I always remember when setting up a board is that there’s always going to be a white square on my right-hand side. That has helped me. Strategies are always difficult for me though. Do you have a strategy that has helped you? I tend to move my pawns out pretty early, followed by some knight movement, bishop if need be, and I’ll use my queen for offense. I can never get my rooks out unless I castle. I guess that’s the name of the game! Thanks for your post! Looks great!

    1. Hello Bobby,

      and thank you for your comment! If it’s any consolation, we’ve all been there! Even the best ones (and by that I don’t mean ‘me’… :p ) lose a lot of games in the beginning… But what you describe is exactly what makes this game so beautiful: It will never go out of date, and you will always be able to play with friends and foes! It’s like biking, really: Maybe you haven’t done it for years, but you haven’t forgotten how to ride one, and you may very well enjoy it a lot even after a long hiatus.

      I have some strategies that might help you, especially if you feel like describing your level a little bit. If you’re at the very start (which I suspect you’re not, since you’ve played for quite some time), a (very) general opening tip is to start with your e-pawn, get your kingside knight and bishop out, and castle! This way you protect your king from the get-go, and you can focus on other things. After castling, another general tip is to leave your pawns in front of your king to protect him. Also, by doing this you’ve come a long way in the “solving the rooks”-issue you describe. Especially early in the game, you want your rooks to work together, staying connected on your back rank. What I’m going to list now has to be viewed as a very general tip, but might be very helpful to have in the back your head when starting a chess game:

      When getting your pieces out in the opening, you generally want
      – your king to be safe in the corner (g1/g8) protected by pawns.
      – your rooks connect at your back rank.
      – your queen hovering around the 1st, 2nd or 3rd rank making threats to your opponent (usually helped by or helping other pieces).
      – your knights and bishops on the 3rd, 4th and 5th ranks.
      – a couple of pawns to help you fight for the centre of the board.

      In short, you try to be careful about your most valuable pieces!

      Hope this helped, and that you’re able to win more games from here! (even if the most important thing is to just have fun!)

      Have a great day,
      Joachim

  4. Thank you for this article. Wow! A lot of information to take in. Thank you so much for breaking it up with your formatting.

    After years of unsuccessfully attempting to teach me to play chess, my husband will be relieved to know I finally have a beginner’s reference to refer back to!

    1. Hello Amy,

      and allow me to say “haha”, because that comment made me laugh! I’m glad you found it helpful, as that pretty much sums up my intention with this post 🙂 There is a lot of information both in this post and when trying to learn chess in general. Just make sure to not do too much at a time, and you’ll hopefully get quite skilled really fast, which will also make the game more enjoyable. Not many things beat seeing improvements in your own game! Let me know if you ever need any tips, and I will try to guide you in the right direction.

      Good luck, and let me know when you beat your husband for the first time! 😉

      Have a nice day,
      Joachim

  5. Hi,
    I don’t know how to play chess, in fact, I thought it’s hard to learn, but after reading your post I would like to try it, thanks for sharing the method and tips with me:)

    1. Any time, Charles!

      I’m happy to hear you found my post helpful, and that it sparked something inside you! 🙂 That’s what my aim is, after all. If you ever feel uncertain or confused later on, just pop by and leave a comment here or email me at chesslife.siterubix@gmail.com. I will be more than happy to provide you with more tips down the road!

      Good luck and happy learning,
      Joachim

  6. HI Joachim, my husband is trying to introduce me to the chess game, however I know nothing about it. I’m so glad that I bumped into this website. It seems like there’s a lot to learn but I believe that I can get used to it by following your instructions “which were good by the way”. Anyway, Thanks for this great post!

    1. Hi Rachel,
      and thanks for the comment. Nothing makes me happier than to hear that I’m able to help someone with my written content here – that’s why I do it after all! 😀

      I will keep posting different material on here, so make sure to come back for other tips and tricks later. Meanwhile, I wish you good luck on the learning process, and hopefully you’ll get a win over your husband one day!

      Happy learning,
      Joachim

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