How to Play Chess – The Complete Beginner’s Guide

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Businessman playing chess

Chess is a challenging, complex game that’s built upon a simple foundation. Using the best chess sets, two players will go head-to-head making strategic moves to make a checkmate. Learning the ropes and rules of the game can be challenging for beginners, simply because there are so many rules surrounding which pieces can move where. In this beginner’s guide on how to play chess, I’ll go over the basics of chess, chess strategies, and how you can master the game.

Setting Up Your Chess Board

You can’t play the game if your board isn’t set up correctly. The pattern around the chess board alternates between dark and light squares. There are a couple of key points to remember when you’re setting the board up. On the bottom right-hand corner there’s always a light square and the queens should always start on a square of the same color. Once you keep these two important rules in mind setting up the rest of the pieces is pretty simple.

The pawns should be set up across the second rank. Starting from the outside, you’ll place a bishop, knight, and rook on the first rank. This will leave a square for the king beside the queen.

Rules of the Game

The rules of chess are what makes this game so unique and complex. Like with any other game, learning the rules is an excellent starting point. There are several interesting concepts, such as promoting pawns to pieces of greater value, allowing a piece to jump over another, or earning a draw by getting a king stuck without a legal move.

While these moves may sound complicated, you’ll soon become familiar with how each piece works.

Recording Your Game

Recording your games can be very valuable when it comes to learning how to become a better player. You can analyze your games which will help you learn which areas you need to improve in. Additionally, keeping a record of a game during a tournament can help settle disputes and can be necessary if you want to claim a draw.

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Chess Piece Value

chess pieces on black background

When you’re learning how to play the game, it can help to learn the hierarchy of the pieces. There will be several instances where a piece of greater value is given up for one of lesser value, but you’ll learn about this as you become a better player. For example, if you sacrifice a rook for a knight this is referred to as an exchange sacrifice. It also means you have given up a piece that’s worth five points for one that’s worth only three.

A beginner should use the relative values to protect their important pieces from attacks. This will guide you in keeping an equal position when you’re first learning how to play the game.

Rook: 5 points

Bishop: 3 points

Knight: 3 points

Pawn: 1 point

Queen: 9 points

The king does not have a point value.

Playing to Win

While it’s always important to have fun when you’re playing a game, most people learn how to play the game with the intention of winning. There are a couple of ways you can win at this game: If you checkmate your opponent or your opponent resigns.

When you directly capture or threaten your opponent’s king, you’ll call it a check. This can be very useful since it means your opponent must spend a turn dealing with this check. If you find yourself in check, a king can be defended by blocking the attack, moving the king, or capturing the attacking piece. If you’re unable to do any of these moves, then the check will become a checkmate and the game will be concluded.

Unfortunately, with chess, you may still be ahead in material, but you can still lose the game. Checkmate will end every match even if you are the one with more pieces on the board.

There are some common checkmate patterns that are good to know. Make sure you study them as you learn to play the game.

During the game, if you find yourself in a helpless position, you can always resign as a sign of good sportsmanship. By resigning, you’re conceding the win to your opponent.

The Phases of Chess

For a beginner, it’s good to have a basic understanding of every phase of the game. Below are some basic guidelines that can help you familiarize yourself was how the game is played so it’ll be easier for you to learn how to play well.

While the endgame usually begins after queens have been exchanged, you can have a queen and king endgame. Additionally, you’ll find that there are openings where the theory extends into the middlegame as well.

The three phases of chess include the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame.


The opening involves the first few moves of the game, when a player is bringing their pieces out and getting their king to safety. This is where everyone begins their journey when they’re learning how to play. When your first learning how to play the game, you don’t want to spend too much time studying the opening. You’ll make more progress if you concentrate on the middlegame.

However, it’s still important to know how to reach the middlegame and still remain in a comfortable position. This means you need to know the basics.

In the opening, you should concentrate on three things:

  • A sound structure
  • King safety
  • Development

Even at the beginning of the game you’ll need to search for threats. Developing the king-side pieces to castle sooner is great, but you’ll need to defend your center pawn first.

A great way to begin the game is by advancing either your D-pawn or E-pawn. Next, develop your bishop and your knight so you can castle.

Developing a sound opening is crucial but you should avoid becoming obsessed about studying this phase.


Boy playing chess

The middlegame is a phase that’s considered the heart of the battle, where pieces will engage with each other. Players will also spend a significant amount of time maneuvering their pieces in order to gain an advantage. Improving your middlegame technique is crucial. Once you’ve developed your pieces and have gotten your king the safety, you’ve reached the middlegame. There’s quite a bit to learn about this phase and becoming good at it can take a lot of practice. Fortunately, you don’t need to know a lot if you’re playing against another beginner.

Avoid making some common blunders during this phase of the game, ask yourself why you’re making a particular move, and do you need to make that move?

Making certain that your pieces are well defended at all times is another good habit you should develop. While it’s impossible to keep every piece defended throughout the entire game, you need to reduce how often this happens. When you advance a piece where it’s not defended always ask if there’s any way for your opponent to attack. Look for your opponents undefended pieces and keep your pieces safe.


During the last phase of the game, also referred to as the endgame, you’ll attempt to convert your advantage from the second phase into a win. However, if you’re behind in material, you’ll hold on for a draw. The endgame often begins after most of the pieces have been exchanged. Pawn endgames and rook endgames are the most common.

Learning how to win a pawn endgame will be crucial. When a player knows which pawn endings are won they’ll know when to exchange their remaining pieces. This knowledge can help prevent exchanges. Instead of a player swapping pieces and ending up losing in the endgame, they’ll keep as many pieces on the board as possible.

Keep in mind, many chess games end in a draw. If you know you can get a draw, switching from the middlegame to an endgame can be a great tactic. Learning how you can save a match this way is a great skill to master once you’ve become familiar with the rules of the game.

One bishop and a king can’t deliver checkmate, so you’ll have to exchange all of your pawns, so the game will be a draw. It’s important to know which pieces can and can’t deliver checkmate.

Studying the endgame is a vital skill that many people overlook. Perfecting your endgame technique can prevent you from losing an advantage you earned it in the middlegame or it can earn you a draw.

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Mastering Winning Strategies

You can improve your chess playing skills using time tested tactics and strategies. Learning and mastering some of the most common tactics and the fundamentals of a chess strategy can give you an advantage in your next match.

Common Tactics

Tactics in chess are short term calculated sequences of moves that result in checkmate or the win of material. An in-depth understanding of tactics is crucial to winning the game and building a strong strategy. At club level, most games are decided by tactical mistakes.

Learning these basic tactics will help you in a couple of ways; allowing you to take advantage of the mistakes your opponent makes while avoiding your own.

For the beginner, there are four basic tactics to be mastered.

Fool’s Mate

Fool’s mate is the fastest way a player can checkmate, and it also capitalizes on some key mistakes made by in opponent.


For forks, knights are the best pieces since they can take out a couple opposing pieces in a single move. However, you can use any piece on the board for this strategy.


An opponent’s pieces can also be pinned, using bishops, rooks, or queens to pull off this powerful move.


This it is a tactic that’s the complete opposite of a pin. A skewer is when a player forces a valuable piece to move. At the same time, the opponent will leave a lesser piece open to attack.

Choose the Right Strategy

old man playing chess

There isn’t a chess player alive that’s able to calculate an entire game from start to finish. Even top computer programs running on their fastest hardware are only able to see a limited number of moves. Aside from what you’re able to calculate, you will need to rely on your own unique strategy to guide you in finding the best moves in any given position.

Creating a chess strategy will include a wide range of concepts, from elevating a position to valuing the pieces. Mastering these skills can significantly improve your understanding of the game. For example, a bishop is pretty powerful and can be one of the best pieces for both offense and defense.

Important Moves

Your first moves will always be the most important. Over the course of the history of the game, the first few moves have been studied extensively. In fact, there’s an ongoing debate as to the right way to start out.

Once you’ve mastered the rules of the game and feel confident in your ability to take on an opponent you’re ready to create your own personal strategy and check out some of the most popular sequences:

Ruy Lopez

This is considered the top defensive strategy and it’s a great way to take full advantage of the board.

Sicilian Defense

The Sicilian defense is a strategy that will rely on a single move, and it opens up a wide range of possibilities. With this strategy you can easily throw off your opponent trying out one of the more unusual openings.

Finish Off Your Opponent

While many new players think that studying endgame strategies is too much of a hassle, in the end, brushing up on your endgame knowledge can take you far. Having a better understanding of this phase of the game can change a losing position into a winning one. After you’ve played the game for a few months, you’ll start to learn several checkmate patterns appear over and over. For many, this is one of the many interesting aspects of the game and why a player’s ability to recognize patterns is often key to winning

If the game has reached an end where only your queen or king is available, you must be prepared with a checkmate strategy for this situation.

How to Become a Better Player

You won’t get far in chess unless you’ve mastered the basics. By now you probably know that every chess piece can only move a certain way. For example, the pawns can move straight ahead but they are only able to attack on an angle, using one square at a time. The bishops can move at an angle but they’re also able to move more than one square to time, while the knights move is L shaped. The castle can only move in a straight line that can go to the side, back, or forward, while the queen can move in any direction for any number of squares.

Unfortunately, she’s not able to move two directions in one move. Kings tend to move at a stately pace, only one square at a time in any direction. Memorizing this in the beginning can give you an advantage if you’re playing against another beginner. However, if you haven’t bothered to learn the rules surrounding piece movement and you play against a better opponent you may find yourself quickly embarrassed.

Opening with a Pawn

Moving the pawn in front of the queen or king two squares forward is a great way to open a game. A pawn can only move two squares on its opening move. This move will open pathways for the queen and bishops to enter the game. These pieces move on an angle and are not able to get onto the field if a pawn is in their way.

Get the Bishops and Knights Out

Before you move your king, rooks, or queen, move your bishops and knights toward the center of the board. The goal is to get these pieces out from behind pawns, so they are able to attack.

Be on Guard

Once it’s your turn, always think about your opponent’s last move and what you think their next moves will be. Is the opponent laying traps to capture your pieces? Consider the moves that would threaten your opponent’s king or capture your opponent’s men first. Before you play a move always double check it. Ask yourself if the move you intend to make will leave you unprotected?

Save Time

Don’t waste it. Avoid making too many moves with your pawns or picking off your opponent’s pawns.


Castling is a move that will allow a player to move their king safely, bringing their rook into play. Once all the squares between the king and rook are unoccupied a player can move their king two squares towards the rook, as the rook moves to the square located on the other side of the king. If one player neglects to castle, the other player can launch an attack on their opponent’s king. Castling is the only move in which more than one piece can be moved in a turn.

Winning the Endgame

Once you’re down to just a few men, the endgame will begin. During this phase, the pawns will become much more important. If you’re able to advance one of your pawns to the farthest row away from you, that pawn will become a queen. This is a huge success. Allow your king to attack as long as the king remains out of reach of your opponent’s remaining pieces and does not let himself be checked.

A king will be in check when an opponent threatens to use one of their pieces to capture the king on the following move. If you find that your king is checked and there’s no other way to remove the threat, you won’t be able to capture the opposing piece that has him in check, and you’re unable to block the check by moving another one of your pieces, this means the game will be lost to checkmate. The goal is to checkmate your opponent before he is able to checkmate you.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to play chess isn’t something that you can learn or master overnight. You have to start at the beginning, learning how to set up the board, learning the rules of movement for every piece, and then studying all three phases of the game. Once you’re ready, you can progress to practicing common chess strategies until you’re able to create one of your own. This will take time and skill. The complexity of this game is one of the biggest reasons it’s remained a popular pastime for hundreds of years.