Easy to learn, hard to master – such is the beauty of chess! People of all walks of life have enjoyed this classic game for centuries, in large part because the rules are so simple, yet the possibilities are endless. In the first article of a series teaching you how to play the royal game, you’ll learn how the pieces move. We’ll start with the most important piece in chess: the king.
How the King Moves
The king, marked with a cross-bearing crown, can move in any direction one square. It can move horizontally, vertically, or diagonally (see the diagram above).
In general, you can move your king anywhere on the board, except to squares occupied by another one of your pieces or pawns. This is true for all of your pieces and pawns in fact: they cannot occupy the same square as another. They can take the squares of your opponent’s pieces, however; this is called “capturing.” To capture a piece, you simply replace it with your own and remove the opponent’s piece from the board.
You also cannot move your king on a square where one of the opponent’s pieces or pawns can take it. You can allow any of your pieces or pawns to be captured if you so choose (though it’s usually not a good idea), but it is actually illegal as per the rules of chess to let your king be captured!
How the Queen Moves
Next is the king’s faithful companion: the queen. Unlike her lazy husband, the queen can move any amount of squares in any direction – horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. This makes her the most powerful piece at your disposal by far.
Note that the queen, or any chess piece, cannot split its move. In other words, you can’t move the queen four squares to the left, then two squares up in the same turn. You can only move in one direction per turn.
How the Rook Moves
Next is the rook. The rook, looking like the tower of a castle, is also a powerful piece. It has the ability to zoom all over the board, horizontally or vertically, any number of squares, like so:
Rooks are also one of two pieces involved in castling, described in the section “Castling” below.
How the Bishop Moves
There’s one more piece that can move any number of squares: the bishop. With its tall hat, often marked with a cross, the bishop can shoot up and down the diagonals of the chess board. The bishop does have one curious feature, however. Because it can only move on the diagonals, it cannot move to different color squares. In other words, your bishop starting on a light square will always stay on the light squares, while your bishop starting on a dark square will always stay on the dark squares! This makes having two bishops, which can together cover all the squares, a valuable advantage in a chess game.
How the Knight Moves
Next up is the knight. The knight, resembling a horse on the chess board, is a bit of an odd creature. For one thing, it moves in a way that no other chess piece – not even the queen – can. The knight moves in an “L” shape, two spaces vertically and one space horizontally, or the opposite: two spaces horizontally and one space vertically.
The second curious feature of the knight is that it is the only piece that can jump over other pieces. Every other piece and pawn can be blockaded by its allies or the opponents’ pieces and pawns, but not the knight. As long as a fellow piece or pawn does not occupy it, the knight can jump to any square you wish. Tricky beasts!
Check out this video where GM Judit Polgar talks about the knights and bishops in action.
How the Pawns Move
Now that we know how the pieces move, that brings us to the pawns. These little guys actually have the most complicated rules, but don’t worry – not that complicated! Pawns can move one space forward only, unless its their first move: then they can move two squares (or one square, if that’s all you want!).
Pawns are also the only part of your army that cannot move backward, which is quite an important feature of the game. Any time you move a pawn, you are doing something permanently which cannot be undone!
Pawns can also transform. When you advance a pawn all the way to the other side of the board, you can change the pawn into any piece you want except the king. That’s right, you can even have another queen if you want. And for that reason, it’s perhaps no surprise that a common strategy is to get a pawn to the other side of the board, and stop your opponent from doing the same at all costs!
But maybe the strangest thing about pawns is how they capture other pieces. Normally, to capture an opponent’s piece, you just move your piece to the square where the opponent’s piece is, replacing it with your own. Pawns do the same, but they can only do so diagonally. So, to restate, pawns can only move one space forward (or two on the first move), and can only capture pieces diagonally.
So, what happens if a pawn meets another pawn or piece face to face? Nothing! They simply butt heads, unable to make any progress. While a piece can capture a pawn with forward movement, a pawn can’t do the same. So for this reason, when two pawns meet head to head, they lock up, like so:
The pawns in the diagram below cannot capture each other – they’re stuck there until they get captured. These pawns, however, can capture one another:
Or they can move forward, ignoring each other altogether! Tricky, right?
Capturing En Passant
Well, sorry to tell you, there’s one more tricky pawn rule to remember: capturing en passant. En passant capturing (from the French term meaning “in passing”) is one of two special rules in chess. Remember how pawns have the ability to move two squares on their first move? Well, if they do that such that they land to the side of an enemy pawn, the enemy pawn can capture them diagonally, like so:
Yeah, a little tricky, but that’s the most complicated rule in chess – if you know that one, you’re well on your way to getting the game down!
Remember how I said there are two special rules with regards to how the pieces move? One is en passant capturing, and the other is castling. Castling is the only move in chess where you can move two pieces at once – the king and the rook. You can castle kingside or queenside. In kingside castling, you move your king two spaces toward the closer rook to the king, then put the rook on the other side of the king, like so:
In queenside castling, you move your king two spaces toward the further rook to your king, and then put the rook on the other side of the king, like so:
Castling is an extremely useful move. You get your king safe and your rook a little more into the action all in one move! For that reason, in the vast majority of cases, it’s a good idea to castle early on in a chess game!
Notice that with queenside castling, your king is a little closer to the center of the board. It is therefore a little more exposed to danger. (In chess, the king in the center of the board in the early and middle stages of the game is usually a bad thing, as it is exposed to attacks from many pieces). Queenside castling is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that castling kingside is often preferable to castling kingside.
To castle, a few conditions must be met:
- The king and the rook involved in castling can’t have moved prior to castling – it must be each piece’s first move
- There must be no pieces in the way of the rook and king. In other words, the rook and king must “see” each other in order to castle. This is another reason that kingside castling is usually preferable to queenside castling. If you castle queenside, you have to move more pieces to make it happen.
- You cannot castle through check. This means that if an opponent’s piece threatens to capture your king after you have castled, or ‘on the way’ to the castled square, you can’t castle then and there. For example, White could not castle in this position, because the Black bishop, which can move diagonally any number of squares, controls a square in the king’s path to castling.
Likewise, White cannot castle kingside in this position, because the king would land on a square controlled by an enemy knight. White can castle queenside, however, because no enemy pieces are obstructing them from doing so:
And with that, you know how the chess pieces move! While it is a lengthy article, it is much more simple than it sounds. Try practicing with your own board at home or online; I bet you’ll master the moves in a day. And stay tuned for the next article in the series, where we’ll be talking about the object of the game, checkmate, and the other rules you need to know to play chess.
But if you’re eager to learn more about the basics of chess in the meantime, check out this Chessable course here, where you can practice how the chess pieces move. Or, you can learn how to record and read moves with this post on chess notation.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is the most powerful piece in chess? Without a doubt, the queen! The queen can move any number of squares in any direction, an ability no other piece has. Though it is the most powerful, note that the king is the most important piece: if your king is checkmated, you lose the game.
2. Can you win a chess game in 2 moves? Yes. The quickest possible checkmate in chess is Fool’s Mate, although it is very uncommon. A more common super-quick checkmate is Scholar’s Mate. You can learn common ways to checkmate this Chessable course. We will cover checkmates more thoroughly ina future post.
3. What are the basic moves of chess? It is hard to label any specific move as “basic” – in fact, the variety of different moves and combinations are what make chess the uniquely fascinating game that it is.
4. Which pieces can jump (skip) over others? Only the knight can jump over other pieces – whether it be your opponent’s or your own.
5. What chess piece moves the most? In most games, the pawns move more than any other piece. This is not only because they are more numerous than any other piece, but also because grabbing more territory and controlling spaces with pawns is an important part of chess strategy.
6. Which chess piece moves first? You can move any pawn you want first, or a knight, since they can hop over the pawns. It is impossible to move any other piece, because they are blocked in by the other pieces.
7. Can chess pieces move backwards? Yes. The only one that cannot move backwards is the pawn.
8. Why does White move first in chess? Why White moves first in a chess game is still a bit of a mystery. For hundreds of years, players could move first with Black. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, more and more chess authorities were stating that it is White who moves first.
Perhaps the chess experts of the late 1800s, who were beginning to study chess as a science, wanted some consistency. The pieces are in slightly different positions for White and Black (the king is on the left-hand side for Black and the right-hand side for White). If the first player were to change, opening sequences might be a bit more difficult to memorize or describe in text. Indeed, describing openings in chess notation (especially today’s notation), would be cumbersome.
Interestingly, World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen and top-10 player Anish Giri played a game in 2019 where Black moved first. While evidence does not suggest the “White moves first” rule had its origins in racism, their game was a symbolic push for racial equality. Another great thing about chess: it is a wonderful tool to bring the world’s people together!
9. What are the sixteen pieces in chess called? You can see the name of each individual piece with its picture above. But collectively, you can call the sixteen figures “chess pieces.” However, you will sometimes hear a bit of a nuance in the nomenclature. Chess players sometimes make a distinction between pawns and pieces. In such case, the term “pieces” refers to the knights, bishops, rooks, queen and king collectively. The pawns refer to “the little ones” in front of each piece.
10. Why is the king so weak in chess? The king is not actually weak! Actually, the king is a very strong piece, since it is the only piece besides the queen that can move in any direction. That said, trapping the king in checkmate ends the game, so you have to be careful with the king.
It is usually a good idea to tuck your king away in the corner of the board in the opening and middlegame for that reason. However, when the endgame arises and pieces that can threaten the king begin to vanish, it is actually a good idea to bring your king into the game to serve as an extra attacker.
11. What is the last move in chess? Checkmate is a game-ending move, but it is not the only way chess games end. Chess can end in a variety of ways, which will be covered in a future post. Not to mention, checkmate does not refer to any specific move, but rather a result of a move. So, to answer the question, there are many possible last moves in chess!
12. Which is stronger, a bishop or knight? This is a topic of some debate in the chess world, but the answer is largely ‘it depends on the position.’ In closed games where the pawns lock up the board preventing pieces from moving much, the knight is often stronger. This is due to the knight’s ability to jump over the other pieces.
However, in open positions where the pieces can move freely, the bishop tends to prove more valuable due to its lengthy attacking range. Bishops are also extremely strong when you have both of them and your opponent doesn’t. “The bishop pair”, as it is called, is often a considerable advantage in a chess game. In fact, former World Champion Bobby Fischer was fairly vocal in his preference for bishops over knights in general. Though, his many fine victories with the bishop pair make it hard to argue with him!
In general though, you should view these pieces as approximately equal, but in different ways. Knowing when to trade your bishop for your opponent’s knight and visa versa is a large part of chess strategy.
Keep it Simple for Black