Chess Definitions to Consider When Reading this Website
Have you ever been confused when someone said your pieces were “en prise?” Then you’ll want to bookmark this page.
You will come across a lot of articles, books, and YouTube videos that may be talking about chess terms you haven’t heard about before.
Below you’ll find a list of chess terms and definitions to better help you understand what my website and other chess resources are referring to.
- General Chess Terms
- Gameplay Terms
- Board Positions
- Opening Terms
- Endgame Terms
- Special Moves
- Time Control Terms
Table of Contents
General Chess Terms
General terms are useful for any position and can be applied throughout any stage in the game of chess.
Check – Check occurs when a piece is attacking either the white or black king. The king must move immediately or the piece attacking the king must be taken immediately to get away from check. A player does not need to call out check in order for it to occur.
Double Check – Double check occurs when two pieces are attacking/checking the king at the same time. When double check occurs, the king must move because both pieces cannot be taken at the same time..
In order to achieve a double check, you will need to create a discovered check. In this image, the knight moved from d7 to f6 uncovering the queen’s check and creating another check with the knight.
Tempo – Tempo (plural: tempi) is all about the timing of your pieces to gain an initiative. White is said to have a slight edge because white always moves first to start a chess game, and thus starts ahead in tempo.
Tempo has everything to do with distracting your opponent’s pieces and taking their timing away from them. The best example is when one player captures a valuable piece (such as a queen) while also putting their opponent’s king in check.
The king must move or the piece must be captured, thus resulting in slowing down the player and taking away their tempo.
Tempo becomes more crucial in the end game. In many king and pawn endgames, the game can be decided based on tempo. Sometimes you want to give away a tempo in order to win (see triangulation).
Illegal Move – When a player attempts to move a piece to a square it cannot properly move to. Also, a player may try to move a piece while they are in check. This is not permitted at any time.
If this occurs during a timed game, the move is taken back and the opponent of the player who committed the illegal move will have 2 minutes added to their clock.
An illegal move can include a player not realizing their king is in check, and they attempt to move another piece. It can also include a player accidentally moving into check.
In most cases, the player is not trying to cheat, they just aren’t aware because there are other things they are thinking of while in the game.
If an illegal move is made in a chess tournament, play can continue until either player draws attention to it. If it is discovered that an illegal move is played, then players would go back to the position where the illegal move was made. This is why both players must keep notation in chess tournaments.
Fianchetto – A fianchetto can occur when the kingside or queenside knight’s pawn moves forward one square to make room for the bishop behind it.
Finchettoing a bishop gives it the best diagonal on the board and often more protection for your king, or a nice long range attack on the opponent’s rook or king if castled.
Material – Any piece in the game. Having one more knight than your opponent would be seen as an advantage in material.
Book Move – In reference to opening theory, moves in specific openings have main variations. Doing moves out of order or ignoring the “correct” move is said to be going outside of the book moves and lines.
Rating – Your ELO rating is a score that indicates how strong a player you are. Most new players start below 1000 while somewhat more advanced players will be in the 1400-1500 range. Grand masters tend to have a rating above 2500.
The ratings in the USCF and FIDE can be summarized as indicated below with the corresponding titles:
|2300+||A mix of FIDE Master (FM) International Master (IM)|
Note: these values vary with USCF and FIDE, so they can differ slightly depending where you’re playing.
It’s also important to note that the achievement of IM and GM titles are not solely based on ratings. They must also achieve a certain number of “norms” by doing well in tournaments.
While I don’t agree with it, the rating system is differentiated between males and females. It is a similar system as in the above table, but the rating titles are all 200 points less. I believe women are fully capable of achieving the same rank as men without having to make the ratings system not of equal value.
Annotation – How chess games are recorded. Each player records their moves to keep track of illegal moves and so chess fans can study them later. There are many ways to annotate chess, but most revolve around the initial of the piece (K for King, N for Knight, B for Bishop, Q for Queen, and R for Rook) as well as the square that piece has moved to on that turn. Each move of chess is made up of 1 white move and 1 black move.
- Algebraic Notation – Refers to the piece that is moving and its coordinates on the board.
- Example – 1.♘f3 and 1. Nf3 or 1…♝f6 and 1…Bf6
- Descriptive – An older way of recording notation. It describes a chess game from each player’s perspective as if flipping the board rather than from white’s perspective like algebraic notation does.
- Example – 1. P-K4 P-K4
Combination – A combination is a series of moves that occur to create an outcome over the board. An example would be a complex series of exchanges that leads to a favorable outcome either via winning material or getting a better position.
Blindfold chess – Blindfold chess involves playing the game of chess while being blindfolded and your opponent has full sight of the board. Generally Grand Masters and International Masters will participate in this type of play.
Some players compete for the most simultaneous (simul) games played while blindfolded. The current record is held by Timur Gareyev who played 48 games blindfolded. He won 80.2% of the games.
Principles – Principles are a set of theories that help guide players through the opening, middle game, and end game. Principles can also be applied to specific types of endgames like rook endgame principles.
While it is okay to deviate from principles, general play and practice will dictate that deviations are an exception to the rule.
For example, moving a piece twice in the opening is considered going against opening principles, but it is okay if you have a mating net or will win material.
Kingside / Queenside – The kingside and queenside represent the side of the board that either the king or queen begins on, respectively. Even if the king or queen are no longer on this side of the board during their move, they are still considered kingside and queenside.
Open file – An open file occurs when there are no pawns positioned on an entire column of the board (a-h).
Semi-open file – A semi-open file occurs when there is only one pawn positioned on an entire column of the board (a-h).
Rank – A rank is a row of the board (1-8). The term backrank or first rank would be labeled as row 1 on the board for white and row 8 on the board for black.
Resign – Rather than play out a losing game, a player may resign and give up the game. Many times players resign in a winning position because they miss a key move that would save the situation.
Pin – When a piece is preventing another piece from moving because of the piece that is being attacked behind it. Often a piece is pinned when it is between a bishop or rook and the opponent’s king or queen, the most valuable pieces.
If the king would be under attack if the piece moved, then the pinned piece is not able to move at all.
In this picture, black’s knight can move, but it would mean the end of the black queen. On white’s side, the knight cannot move because of the pin endangering the king.
Let’s remove the rest of the pieces to make it simpler to see.
In this case, the knight cannot move since the bishop is pinning it to the king.
In this case, the knight is pinned to the queen, but it can freely move. However, doing so would cause the loss of the queen.
Fork – When two pieces are attacked at the same time. Often a king will be in check by a piece and another piece will be attacked at the same time.
In this scenario, the bishop will be lost from the fork since the king must move. Wherever the king moves, it will be too far away from the bishop to protect it.
Adjust – When a player wants to centralize a piece on the square it is on. The player must say “adjust” out loud in tournament play and then reposition the piece. This signifies that the player doesn’t mean to move the piece, but is only adjusting it.
Blunder – A grave mistake that will forfeit the game or a major piece. Blunders come in many ways, but most commonly they occur when a player makes a huge mistake in a game.
En Prise – (also known as a hanging piece) When a piece is able to be taken by another piece on a given turn it is said to be “en prise”
“Down the Exchange” or “Up the Exchange” – When one player is ahead or behind uneven material. Trading a rook for a knight would be considered “down the exchange” for the player who gave away the rook. The values would be 5-3 by comparison.
Backward Pawn – A pawn that is behind its adjacent pawn and cannot be advanced without being captured.
In this scenario, the pawns on b2 and g3 are backwards because they are too far from their adjacent pawns and cannot simply move without assistance from pieces.
Notice how the black pawns on a7, b6, and c5 complement and protect each other.
- Knight – Each player starts with two knights. They are the only pieces that can jump over other pieces.
- Pawn – Each player starts with 8 pawns. Pawns are the weakest piece, but are also the more valuable at the end of the game because they can be promoted into other valuable pieces. Pawns can move forward only, and attack diagonally.
- Queen – The queen combines a bishop and a rook by attacking diagonally and in a straight line. The queen is the strongest piece.
- King – The most important piece, the king must be protected at all times. Kings can move one space in any direction.
- Bishop – Each player starts with two bishops, a light squared bishop and a dark squared bishop. They each attack diagonally but cannot protect or attack each other.
- Rook – Each player starts with two rooks and they are the second most powerful piece in the game. Rooks attack in straight lines sideways, forward and backwards.
Forced moves – A move or series of moves that must be completed. This often occurs with a series of checks, or a series of moves that would lose material if not taken. Forced moves can often lead to checkmate.
Xray – An xray occurs when a piece could be attacking a piece beyond where it can actually move to. This is known as an xray because the piece would be “seeing through” it with its potential attack.
Notice how the rook sees through its own knight to attack either the king or queen. Also, the queen on a5 has an xray attack through the c3 pawn toward the king.
Removing the defender – Removing the defender is a tactic that involves distracting a piece that is defending another from capture.
In this image, the queen is defending the bishop on c5. White just played a3 and now the queen can no longer defend the bishop and must move away from the protective square it is on. c3 and c4 are unable to be occupied so the queen must retreat to a5, allowing the white bishop to capture the black bishop. similar
Overloaded piece – A piece that must protect more than one square at a time is known as an overloaded piece. The opponent can often create additional attacks on one of the squares, forcing the overloaded piece to abandon the other square it is protecting.
In this scenario, the black queen is protecting the knight on b8 and the bishop on c5. The knight has moved to e8 and is forcing the queen to remove its protection of the knight or the bishop as it cannot move to another square that defends both pieces.
Battery – A battery occurs when multiple pieces, often rooks, line up to attack a single square or piece on the board.
Notice how white has a bigger battery of pieces attacking the knight on e5. Moving the black knight would mean white also has an xray battery on the queen on e7.
Center – The center consists of the 4 central squares of the board in which both players compete for control of in the opening.
Compensation – When an exchange occurs, it is not always even. That is why players who make an exchange for lesser value can be said to get a nice compensation by way of a better position.
Most gambits, like the Evan’s Gambit here, are played with compensation for a pawn in mind.
Control – Control can be applied to both pieces and squares on the board. A square can be controlled despite no pieces occupying the square. This often restricts one side of the board as they are fighting for control of a square which will give them more space and opportunities for attack.
Controlling a piece means that you have sufficient forces defending that piece. If you do not keep control, that piece will likely be captured.
In this image, white has 3 pieces controlling the d5 square and is said to have control of that square. This means black cannot easily play d5 without losing material.
Discovered attack / discovered check – A discovered attack is an attack that is created when a piece moves out of the line of fire. Often, a discovered check occurs when a piece moves and another attacks the king. This usually leads to a checkmate or gain of material.
White has just moved their knight from f7 to h6 resulting in a discovered attack. This will either win a rook for a knight or result in a smother mate.
Passive – A passive move, or inactive move, is one that does not do a great job of seizing the initiative. The position on the board often does not create a great chance for attacks or counter-attacks.
Trapped – A piece that is unable to move and will be captured eventually is known as being trapped. A common piece that can be trapped is a bishop when taking a poisoned pawn. It may not be captured right away, but it cannot escape.
Underpromotion – When promoting a pawn into a knight, bishop, or rook instead of a queen, that player is under-promoting their pawn.
Space – Often seen as an advantage, having more space allows one player to have more options and thus a better position. Overextending can occur with more space, as occurs when pawns advance too far and are unable to be protected.
Transposition – A transposition occurs when a position turns into a similar position based on the pawn structure.
Initiative – Initiative occurs when a player is able to make attacking moves in order to force the game into a preferable position. The defender of the attack often waits for their chance to mount a counter-attack and gain the initiative.
Sacrifice – A sacrifice is when a player gives up a strong piece, or multiple pieces, in exchange for a better position or a checkmate. An example would be giving up your queen in order to expose the king and deliver checkmate.
Skewer – A skewer is similar to a pin, but the piece that will be captured is behind the valuable piece. The best example is when a king is in check by a bishop or rook and by moving another piece behind it will be captured. This can also be understood in a similar fashion to an xray attack.
The king cannot move to f7 because of the white queen’s line of attack, and the queen on g8 is unprotected. This skewer will win black’s queen.
Counter-attack – A counter-attack occurs when one player pauses their momentum to capture a piece, leaving themselves open to an attack or mating net. Sometimes an opponent captures a poisoned piece and ends up losing because they’ve lost the initiative and their opponent creates a counter-attack.
Blockade – A blockade is a defensive tactic that puts a piece in front of another piece to prevent movement, generally blocking a pawn from advancing. This is a strong maneuver against an isolated queen pawn because it holds the pawn in place.
Bad bishop – When a bishop is blocked by a pawn on its own color, it is known as a bad bishop. A bishop that cannot easily come into play is also known as a bad bishop. For example, a knight that blocks all of the squares a bishop can move to is not blocked by pawns, but still considered immobile.
This bishop is blocked by its own pieces on the dark squares and has no good places to move. White should try to open the position with c4 in order to give its dark squared bishop more available squares to move to.
Bishop pair – In an even game, the bishop pair occurs when one player has both bishops and the other has a bishop and knight or two knights. Both players have approximately even point values, but the bishop pair gives a slight edge in many scenarios. It is often preferable, but depends greatly upon the pawn structure of the game.
Opposite bishops – In the endgame when both players have one bishop each and they are on opposite colors, they are known as opposite bishops. These bishops cannot attack each other so this endgame often ends in a draw if there are no other pieces besides pawns.
This game will most likely result in a draw as the bishops cannot make progress.
Zwischenzug (zwish-en-zugg) – Known as the “in between move”, Zwischenzug occurs when one player makes a move, or a series of moves, before completing an exchange. Often this move occurs with check so the opponent is forced to move before the exchange or combination is completed.
The bishop and queen are under attack by the knight. To avoid trading the bishop for knight, white can do an inbetween move and take the pawn on h7 with check, and then move the queen along the same diagonal.
Position – How the pieces are placed on the chess board at any given move. Certain aspects of the game you can pause to analyze and label them as the following terms:
- Open Games (or Tactical Games) – These are games where black responds in symmetry to white’s first move as a pawn promotion. With an open position, more tactics are often available than a closed game may offer. The most common example is e4, e5. Bishops generally have more strength in open games.
- Closed Games (or Positional Games) – Games in which there is not a clear path for both opponents’ pieces and pawns are in a gridlike formation, preventing clear and distinct moves. These positions offer less opportunities for tactics than an open game may. These games lead to more thinking and deeper analysis of both players to attempt to open up the game to their own advantage. Knights generally have more strength in closed games as they can hop around gridlocked pawns.
- Semi-open games – These are openings in which black does not respond in symmetry to white’s first move involving a pawn push towards the center, such as e4. Examples of this would be the Sicilian or French Defense where black chooses to instead create counter play away from e5.
- Flank openings – An opening where white begins by focusing an attack away from the center. The most common openings that include this would be the English or the Benko Opening (g3) where white looks to fianchetto their bishop.
- Sharp – A game that requires exact precision to capitalize on a favorable position.
- Equalize – When both players have an even position. Generally white has a favorable position because they move first and black is playing to at least equalize, if not get an advantage in a game. Equal positions with proper play will end in a draw.
Opening – The first moves of the game that decide what type of direction the game is going towards. Openings can start differently, but transpose into other openings depending on how each player reacts.
Check out these top openings for white and black for more information.
Main Line – When both players follow the main ideas of an opening. A deviation from the main line can be seen as inaccurate if it does not go into a known variation of the main line.
Gambits – An opening in which white or black gives up a pawn in exchange for a stronger position. The theory being that with time being precious in the opening, each move must be executed quickly. Taking the time to capture a pawn, especially with a minor piece that has already moved, can result in losing valuable tempo in developing your pieces.
Hypermodernism – The time period of the 1920s where chess masters developed new ideas and openings where they did not necessarily need to control the center right away. The most common opening here is any variation of the Indian Defenses where black deliberately allows white full control of the center with the d4 and e5 “ideal” pawn structure. Black instead opts to develop with ideas of breaking apart this central control after development.
Development (developing a piece) – Moving a piece off the backrank and into play.
Midgame – Occurs after the opening has been established. Usually pawn structures have been solidified.
Backrank – the 1st row where all major pieces reside. The 1st file for white; the 8th file for black.
Endgame – The end of the game when many of the pieces are off the board. Generally occurs when the queens are both off the board, but not always.
Opposition – When the kings are separated by 1 square. In the endgame opposition can decide the fate of the game quickly.
Distant opposition – when the kings are separated by an odd number of squares.
Zugzwang – Literally meaning compulsion to move. Zugswang occurs when a player must make an unfavorable move because there are no other options.
Trebuchet – The trebuchet is a type of zugzwang that generally arises in king and pawn endgames. The basic example looks like this:
Click here to view a more detailed example of the trebuchet in action.
Triangulation – Triangulation occurs when one player moves 3 moves that effectively “pass” their turn to their opponent.
Click here for an example of triangulation.
The example above shows a pawn hitting the base of the pawn chain and creating a passed pawn on the e file if the black e pawn captures on f5. If the pawn does not take, a passed pawn is created after white plays f6.
Pawn breaks generally occur in the endgame to create passed pawns and possible winning positions.
How a Chess Game ends
- Checkmate – A position in which the king is in check, cannot move, and the piece attacking the king cannot be taken. Checkmate results in an immediate loss for the player under checkmate no matter how far ahead they may be in pieces captured.
View this resource to learn all about check & checkmate
Backrank checkmate – When the king is on the 1st or 8th rank and a rook or queen puts the king in checkmate. Generally the king’s pawn safety can lead to its undoing with this type of checkmate.
- 50 move rule – If no piece has been captured in 50 moves, the game is an automatic draw. This usually occurs when a beginning player cannot checkmate quickly enough with its material
- Insufficient mating material – When one player is unable to checkmate because they don’t have enough pieces. The best known examples are having just a king and knight, a king and a bishop, or a king and two knights. With no other pieces on the board, these scenarios are impossible to create checkmate and the game ends in a draw.
- 3 move repetition – when the board looks the same three different times throughout a game. This does not need to occur in order to be declared an automatic draw.
En passant and its history
To understand en passant means to understand how chess originally worked in its modern form. Pawns were always meant to move one square forward, but this caused games to be much slower than they are currently.
To speed up the game, pawns were given the ability to move forward 2 squares on their first move. This was never intended to allow pawns to jump past other pawns. Therefore, if a pawn uses its special move to move forward 2 squares, and its final destination has a pawn directly adjacent to it, then the defending pawn is able to diagonally capture the pawn as if it moved forward one square.
En Passant can only occur on the move after the pawn makes its 2 square special move. This is because of the history of the move in that the pawn has now had the chance to have moved forward twice to be adjacent to the pawn in the first place.
How En passant Works
With en passant, a pawn is able to capture another pawn if it moves directly next to its opponent’s pawn on it’s initial 2 square development.
Remember: En Passant can only be achieved on the move after a pawn moves directly next to its opponent’s pawn.
Castling queenside or kingside means you must move your king two squares in one direction or the other, and the rook “jumps” over it.
This is all considered one move and is annotated as 0-0 for kingside castling and 0-0-0 for queenside castling.
How to Castle Kingside and Queenside
Castling Kingside or Short Side Castling (annotated as 0-0) in which the king moves 2 squares directly towards the rook, and the rook “jumps” it and moves 2 squares to the left.
Castling Queenside or Long Side Castling– (annotated as 0-0-0) in which the king moves 2 squares directly towards the rook on the queenside of the board, and the rook “jumps” it and moves 3 squares to the right.
The following conditions must be met to castle in chess in either direction
- You cannot castle through check
- The king cannot be in check when castling is completed.
- The king or rook cannot have moved prior to castling in either direction
- The path must be completely cleared between the rook and king. Kingside includes the bishop and knight while queenside includes the bishop, knight, and queen.
Pawn promotion – When any pawn reaches the last rank directly on the other side of the player’s starting side of the board, the pawn can be transformed into a knight, bishop, rook, or queen. All 8 pawns can be transformed if they make it to the other side of the board.
Pawn structure – Pawn structures are what help make chess the game that it is. Hundreds of variations of the board can be almost the same except for the way the pawns are set up.
This is why there can be slight variations in structures but extreme differences in positions from one game to another.
Often, openings will transpose into other openings based on the pawn structure
Pawn chain – A pawn chain occurs when pawns on adjacent files are connected and protect each other.
Pawn island – Pawn islands are groups of pawns that are separated by one or more files. You can have up to 4 pawn islands in one game. Pawns prefer to protect each other and are more likely to be picked off and captured when they are separated since they must be protected by a minor piece, major piece, or the king.
White is stronger here because they have 2 pawn islands while black has three.
Poisoned pawn – A poisoned pawn is a pawn that, when captured, will lead to the loss of material or position for the player who captured the pawn.
Passed pawn – A passed pawn is a pawn that has no other pawns in front of it, or on the adjacent files.
Connected passed pawns – Connected passed pawns are two pawns that have no pawns in front of them, or adjacent to them, and occupy two adjacent files.
Isolated pawn – An isolated pawn is a pawn that is on its own pawn island without any adjacent pawns.
Minority attack – A minority attack is when you have less pawns in your pawn island compared to the opposing pawn island. Common occurrences are 1 pawn vs 2, 2 pawns vs 3, and 3 pawns vs 4.
Majority attack – A majority attack is when you have more pawns in your pawn island compared to the opposing pawn island. Common occurrences are 2 pawn vs 1, 3 pawns vs 2, and 4 pawns vs 3.
A common 4-2 vs 3-3 structure in which white has a majority attack on the queenside and black has a majority attack on the kingside. Black also has a minority attack on the queenside and white has a minority attack on the kingside.
Playing Chess Games with Time Controls
Speed Chess – Chess is often played with a clock with two equal starting times which counts down for each player when it is their turn to move. You can also have time added or delayed based on the time control.
- Delay – Delay stops the clock from running for a specific amount of time. Game 10/2 would delay each move by 2 seconds when the player moves and hits their clock.
- Increment – This adds a certain amount of time to the player’s clock depending on the increment. Game 10 +3 would add 3 seconds every time the player moves and hits their clock.
There are many different time controls and are classified as shown below. All of the definitions below for time controls are according to FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs or World Chess Federation).
Blitz – 10 minutes or less per player.
Rapid or Quick – More than 10 minutes, but less than 60 minutes.
Bullet (or Lightning)– Less than 3 minutes per player
Regular – More than 60 minutes per player
Sudden Death – Classified in this format (40/2 SD/30), sudden death adds time to each player’s clock after a specific amount of moves are played. Many tournaments will be 40/2 which means each player has 2 hours and when they reach 40 moves, an extra 30 minutes is added to each player’s clock.
Skittles – a friendly, non rated game. Often tournaments will have “skittles rooms” to practice and go over previous games in between rounds.