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Chess Basics: Chess Board Setup and the Rules of the Game


In the world of tabletop games, chess may be the most glamorous. The iconic battle of strategic thinking promises engaging, unique play each time. Throughout its history, several grandmasters around the world have found success and fame with their talents. 


The wonderful thing about chess is that it’s accessible to anyone – even a complete newbie. Of course, it helps to know where to start! Read on for an easy setup guide and some basic rules to get you started. Then, enjoy immersing yourself in the fascinating world of chess.

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The goal of a chess match is for one player to checkmate the other’s king piece.

How to Set Up a Chess Board

A chessboard setup can be a beautiful thing. Wood, glass, or novelty figurines decorate an inviting flat surface for gameplay. The classic board alternates dark- and light-colored squares, eight across and eight deep, so each player can easily see and plan their moves. 


Setting up a chess board is easy for anyone to grasp – even those who don’t know how to set up a chessboard. But first, beginners must have basic knowledge of each type of game piece. 


Chess Pieces


Each player has one king (the most important) and one queen (the most powerful). There is also a row of pawns that guard all other pieces in the initial few moves. A correct chess board setup includes each of these pieces:


  • One king – sometimes with a crown shape on top of the piece
  • One queen – usually the tallest and also may feature a different crown
  • Two bishops – diamond-shaped
  • Two knights – horse-shaped
  • Two rooks – castle-shaped
  • Eight pawns – usually the shortest and most plain 


It’s important to remember if you’re playing with a niche or specialty set, the pieces may look very different. The descriptions above are only for traditional boards and pieces. Many games decline the customary piece shapes all together in favor of more novel carvings or designs. 

Chess Setup

Once you can identify the pieces described above, you are ready to set up your board. Find which of the two middle squares on the row closest to you matches your pieces’ colors, and set your queen there. The king takes the other middle square. 


Working outwards, surround the king and queen with two bishops. The two next squares belong to the knights, and finally, the rooks take the outermost two squares. A full row of pawns sits in front of this arrangement. 


When set up properly, all sixteen pieces take up the space of the first two horizontal rows. There are then four empty rows in between the dark- and light-colored pieces to allow for gameplay. 


Congratulations, your setup is complete! Now, let’s look at a few of the rules to help you get started on your first match. 

man playing chess

Basic Chess Rules

The players alternate between turns, with white or light-colored pieces going first. Each piece has the choice of moving to an empty space or closing in on one of the other player’s pieces for a capture. If that piece is successfully captured, the opposing player removes their captured piece from the board. 


The goal of a chess match is for one player to checkmate the other’s king piece. Checkmate occurs when the king cannot move to any square without being captured. If the king is not in check, but there are no legal moves, this is called a stalemate and likewise ends the game. 


Before a checkmate, a king must be in check – that is, under threat of capture by the opposing player’s piece. The king then has the option to move, or, if impossible, use another piece to block check so he can be protected. The king may come into check several times during a match without any clear indication of which player will win. 


All the chess pieces cooperate with each other, performing captures (offense) or providing protection (defense). In some cases, it may be advantageous to use one capture-able piece to “bait” the other player into a strategically better position, such as sacrificing a pawn to create a blank row across the board. 


Generally, a player wants to gain control over the center of the board. To do this will take a few moves, as the row of pawns needs to open up so that the other pieces are given an opportunity to advance forward. The rest of the game consists of a decision: which pieces should you use to pursue the opposing player’s king, without sacrificing too many of your own. 

Piece-Specific Movements

Each chess piece has a particular way they are allowed to move. The knight is the most unique, moving in an L-shape (two squares in one direction, then one at 90 degrees from there). Pawns may only move forward unless capturing another piece at a diagonal; on their first turn, they may move either one square forward or two at a time. 

The bishop moves diagonally only. A rook can zoom forward and back as many spaces as it is able without another piece in the way, over a horizontal or vertical plane. The queen, the game’s most powerful piece, can move like the rook but with diagonals of the bishop allowed also. 


Finally, the king can move only one space in any direction from its square. It is able to make captures just like any other piece. Out of the many pieces featured in a chess setup, king and queen are always going to be the two to keep an eye on the most. 

playing chess

Specialty Moves

  • Castling – When all squares in between a king and rook are empty, and if neither piece has yet moved, they may perform a castle. The king moves two spaces towards the rook or edge of the board, and the rook then flanks him on the square closest to the inner side. This provides greater protection to the king, pushing him further into the corner and creating a wall of defense towards the center of the board. If the king is switched with the closest rook, it’s called a kingside castle; if switched with the one further away, it’s called a queenside castle. 
  • En Passant – A special pawn move, this term is French for “in passing.” It can only be done if certain conditions are met, such as the opposing player’s pawn moving two squares into a particular place on the board. The first player is then allowed to move the pawn adjacent instead of directly forward, capturing the other pawn and giving their own pawn free rein to continue up the board. 
  • Promotion – If a pawn succeeds in traveling all the way to the other end of the board vertically, they may trade up to another piece. Typically a player will want to flip to a queen as it is most powerful, but in rare cases (such as a checkmate opportunity) another piece may be chosen instead. 
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