How to Set up a Chess Board (and Learn the Rules)

In this article, I’m going to explain how to set up a chess board and you will learn the rules of playing chess.

set up a chess board

I’ll even answer many beginner chess questions you may be having.

I have included links to popular websites and resources where you can learn all about the game of chess and play online.

If you haven’t played chess in years, or are just looking for a refresher, this will be a great resource for you.

Even if you’re more advanced, there may be some things about chess you didn’t know, so keep reading to find out!

How to set up a chess board

A lot of new players have some trouble setting up a chess board with real pieces. I’ll explain a few things to remember when doing so.

set up a chess board gif

Let’s start with setting up the chess board for white:

  • Make sure a light square is on the bottom right
  • If you’re using a board that has a-h horizontally and 1-8 vertically, make sure that a1 is on the bottom left of the board.
  • Place all 8 ♙ pawns on the second rank.  All other pieces are placed on the first rank as presented next.
  • Place your ♖ rooks on the bottom right and bottom left furthest squares
  • Place your ♘ knights next to each rook ♖
  • Place your ♗ bishops next to each knight ♘
  • Put the ♕ queen on the same color as your pieces (white or black) next to one of the two bishops ♗
  • Place the ♔ king on the remaining square of the 1st file, next to the queen ♕
  • Repeat the above steps on the opposite side of the board for black

When complete, the chess board should look like this:

chess starting board

Follow all of these rules and you’ll set up a chess board on your own correctly every time.

How many pieces are in a full chess set

Each side of the chess board starts with:

  • 8 pawns
  • 2 bishops
  • 2 knights
  • 2 rooks
  • 1 queen (some sets have an extra queen)
  • 1 king.

How many of each piece should be in a chess set

There should be 34 pieces in a typical chess set. Each player will get all of the pieces described above, in addition to an extra queen for each side.

Some chess sets have an extra queen in case you are able to promote a pawn into a queen.  If this happens and you still have your own queen on the board, you will want to use the extra queen to place on the board.

If you don’t have an extra queen in your chess set, you can substitute an upside down rook.

How do you play chess?

The game of chess is played with 2 players on opposing sides of a 64 (8×8) square board. Each player alternates moving (with white going first) one piece at a time of their choice.

Here’s an example of the first few moves of the Ruy Lopez opening, one of the most popular openings in chess.


Each side starts with 8 pawns, 2 bishops, 2 knights, 2 rooks, 1 queen, and 1 king.

The game ends when one player has checkmated their opponent’s king, regardless of how many pieces they have left on the board.

four move checkmate
Example of checkmate with a lot of pieces left on the board. The game is over.

A chess game can also end with a draw in a few different ways listed below, or one player resigning rather than playing out seemingly lost positions.

stalemate
Black has stalemated white. Even with the extra pieces on the board, white’s king cannot move and it is white’s turn.

Can you move more than one piece at a time?

Only one piece can be moved in a single turn.

Either player has the option to choose which piece they would like to move on their turn.

The only exception to this rule is one of 3 special moves involving the king and rook.

When you castle (queenside or kingside) you are moving both the rook and the king, but only using one turn (more on this below).

Who goes first in chess?

In the game of chess, white always goes first.

A lot of people ask why white goes first.

Truth be told, white vs black is just how a lot of boards appear. In older times, pieces used to be red and black because of the types of ink commonly available.

There are tons of variations of chess boards. I even have a Sandman collectible chess board because I love the graphic novels.

sandman chess set

Chess boards come in all types of styles.  Some are hard to make out which piece is which, but most chess sets  distinctly separate each side’s pieces.

old chess set

While the player who goes first may be considered to be playing the “white” pieces, they could just as easily switch colors and play black first. White goes first for consistency of the game.

old chess set
An old, chinese style chess set

The main reason for white and black pieces is to differentiate the pieces by using the exact opposite colors of the spectrum.  As long as the two battling sides’ pieces have a different hue, then the set makes sense to use.

weird chess set

What should your first move be?

There are a ton of different chess openings and none of them are perfect.  The best first move is one that allows you to attack the center and develop your pieces.

The most common first move is the king’s pawn (e4).  It goes along with the main opening principles of chess in a lot of ways.

e4
e4

Other players prefer playing the queen’s pawn opening (d4)

d4 queens pawn opening

There are a ton of possibilities after the first move.  Often openings transpose into one another as well.

My suggestion is to try as many as possible and read some chess opening books to get a better understanding of why they are played.

What are the rules of chess?

Chess can be one of the most complicated games, and therefore it is important both players understand all of the rules of chess.

Basic rules of chess

The basic rules of chess are:

  • White moves first
  • Each player can move any piece of their choice on their turn, alternating turns
  • Each piece moves according to different rules by comparison to checkers where all pieces move the same
  • The game ends when one player is checkmated, a stalemate (draw) occurs, or one player runs out of time
  • The king can never be taken off the board.  Checkmate implies the king is in check and cannot move and the game ends
  • If a king is in check, it must move or the piece that is delivering the check must be captured.  Otherwise, the king will be in checkmate if neither can be accomplished
  • Neither side can capture their own pieces or land on a square their own piece occupies on the 64 square board
  • On your turn, you may capture an opponent’s piece as your move
  • If any of the 8 pawns for either side gets to the other side of the board, that pawn will transform into either a knight, bishop, rook, or queen (it is the player’s choice).

Official chess rules

The two major organizations in the United States that support chess are the USCF (United States Chess Federation) and FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs or World Chess Federation).

Most other countries have their own national chess organizations as well.

While the rules of the game are the same for both, they each have their own official rules to follow for tournaments.

Some rulings may be different if the tournament you are in is considered USCF or FIDE.

Where tournaments that are supported for both organizations, FIDE rules will be in enforced over USCF rules.

Here are the official rule books for USCF and FIDE.

How to win a chess game

To win a chess game, you will need to get your opponent into checkmate, or into a position that is considered losing so they resign.

Chess games can also end in stalemates, or draws, when:

  • Both players agree to a draw
  • One player is unable to move any pieces, is not in check, and it is their turn
  • The board looks the same (3 fold repetition rule)
  • Neither player has sufficient mating material
  • No major piece has moved and checkmate is not achieved within 50 moves (50 move rule)

Some players may resign earlier than they may need to. It’s important to play games out, especially if you’re just starting out.

I often assume my opponent will make the best move even though I won’t, but often I’m surprised when they don’t.

Play to learn every game and you will get better and better at winning chess.

How to get better at chess

Chess is a tricky game, but there’s no better way to get better than to simply play.

By playing games as often as you can, you will start to better understand patterns and reasoning behind moves.

After you’ve completed a game of chess, it is always a good idea to analyze the game to see where you went wrong. Even games you win you may find there were better moves along the way.

Understanding what mistakes your opponent made is also critical to learning more about the game.

The best way to analyze after a game is with your opponent (called a post-mortem). In a post mortem, you gain valuable insight into the mind of your opponent. They may show you things you didn’t even consider along the way.

If you are playing online, you have options to use chess engines (like Stockfish, Komodo, or Houdini) to learn from. It’s important to study independently first after a chess game to see what you see before turning it over to the engine.

How do chess pieces move?

Each chess piece has a different type of movement.

♙♟Pawns are the weakest chess piece (1 point), but by no means the worst. They move forward one square each turn, except for their first turn where they have the option to move two squares.

how pawns move

While pawns can only move forward in one direction (and never backwards) they only attack diagonally forward.

Pawns cannot attack directly in front of them, as can be seen below.

how pawns attack
The white pawns cannot attack directly in front of them.  They can only attack diagonally forward.

♘♞ Knights are the second weakest piece by points (3) but they are amazingly unique with their movement.

They are the only piece that can jump over other pieces.

Think of their movement as an L shape. The knight moves one square in any direction, and then 2 squares perpendicular to that initial square they moved to.

knight 2 squares

This gives knights 8 possible squares to move to in the center of the board, with increasingly less squares the closer to the edge or corner of the board they are.

knight 8 squares

♗♝ Bishops are slightly stronger than knights (3.25 points) and can move diagonally forward and backwards.

bishop movement

They cannot jump over other pieces and each bishop you start with occupies a different colored square for the entire game.

They are confined to the black or white squares that each bishop begins the game upon.

♖♜ Rooks are the second strongest piece (5 points) and can move forward and backwards in a straight line.

rook movement

♕♛ The Queen is the strongest piece (9 points) which combines the strength and movement  of the rook and bishop; allowing her to move diagonally or in a straight line in any direction.

queen movement

♔♚ The King is able to move 1 space in any direction

For a full explanation of how the chess pieces move, check out this article.

What other Special Chess Moves are there?

It is important to understand a few special moves for specific pieces (pawns, rooks, and the king).

  1. Pawns are able to move 2 squares forward on their first move, and only their first move, as mentioned above. This applies to all pawns for both players.
  2. Pawns are also able to capture a pawn when it is next to it (en passant) after the first special pawn move is made (moving 2 squares)
en passant 1
both pawns before the first special move
en passant 2
en passant allows the black pawn to capture the white pawn even though it moved past it.
  1. The third special move is castling, which involves moving the king and rook in the same move.

When castling, the king moves 2 squares towards the rook on either side, and then the rook jumps over the king and lands next to it.

castling 1
castling kingside
castling queen side
castling queen side

For more specifics and rules for castling, look at my piece movement guide.

Chess timers, clock, & rules

Often, chess is played with a chess clock in tournaments or skittle gamesThis style of play adds a degree of pressure to each player, which can lead to sometimes not making the best move, due to time running out.  It applies more pressure to each player.

digital chess clock

If they didn’t have time working against them, there would be no pressure to make a move until analyzing every possibility. Because there are an infinite amount of moves (known as the Shannon Number) that are possible in chess, it makes sense to speed up the game with a clock.

A chess clock works by counting down only when it is one opponent’s turn. When that opponent makes their chess move, they then stop their clock by hitting a button on their side. Now their timer stops and their opponent’s starts.

In addition to checkmates and stalemates, a game ends when one player runs out of time (known as flagging).

Where can you play chess online?

There are plenty of great sites online that you can play chess. My personal favorite is the always free, open source LiChess, but there are other places that offer free or paid memberships as well.

Here are the most common places to play chess online.

When choosing to play on one site over another, I recommend checking out what other features they offer besides playing other opponents.

You may want to choose a website that:

  • Doesn’t cost too much
  • Gives the ability to play against the computer
  • Has a chess engine to analyze games
  • Has an interactive tactics puzzle program
  • Offers lessons and studies
  • Allows you to friend and follow other players
  • Keeps track of your rating as a reference to your skill level

Lichess is an awesome place to get this all for free, but feel free to choose whichever you prefer.

How to Annotate Chess Games?

The reason we have records of grandmaster games over the last few centuries is because players have recorded their games.

This allows us to learn from mistakes of players in the past.

Often you will find an accumulation of games in a database like chessbase or chesstempo. This helps use chess engines so we can learn even quicker and see more common patterns quickly.

What is chess notation?

To write chess notation, each player uses a scoresheet to write down what coordinates of the board their piece landed on.

Here is an example notation sheet from one of my games at the World Open and what the notation looks like:

chess scoresheet world open

Some common annotations you may see after moves to best describe them would be :

  • !! – Brilliant move
  • ! – Good move
  • !? – Interesting move
  • ?! – Dubious move
  • ? – Bad move
  • ?? – Blunder
  • 0-0 – Castle Kingside
  • 0-0-0 Castle Queenside
  • X – capture another piece

Main Types of Chess Notation

Algebraic Notation

Algebraic is the most common way to record chess notation these days. It involves each side writing down their moves by naming the piece followed by the square on the board it ends up on.

  • ♙♟ P – Pawn
  • ♘♞ N – Knight
  • ♗♝ B – Bishop
  • ♖♜ R – Rook
  • ♕♛ Q – Queen
  • ♔♚ K – King

An example would be 1. Nf3 e5.  This can also be written as 1. ♘g2-f3 e7-e5

In this notation, neither player usually uses P or ♟ to write the notation as ♟e5 and instead opt for naming the square. It is assumed no symbol or letter means a pawn has moved.

Each player will also want to describe when a piece moves to a square occupied by an enemy piece.

To do this, you would use the symbol X to signify capture. An example would be 2. Nxe5.

Let’s say that a knight captured a bishop.  You would want to signify this by saying 4. NxB or 4. NxBe5. The B can be swapped for any piece’s notation symbol.

Remember that neither side can capture their own pieces in chess.

How to Read Descriptive Notation: The Old Way

Descriptive notation is a less popular way to record notation these days, but was how most games were recorded before the 1950s.

The pieces are still named in the same fashion as Alebraic notation, except pawns are notated as P this time without the omission of the letter.

  • ♙♟ P – Pawn
  • ♘♞ N – Knight
  • ♗♝ B – Bishop
  • ♖♜ R – Rook
  • ♕♛ Q – Queen
  • ♔♚ K – King

Everything is recorded as either a kingside or queenside piece movement, which is where the confusion comes in.

For each player to move their king pawn (which would be 1. e4 e5) it is now shown as 1. P-K4 P-K4.

Show board

Confusing right?

Essentially, both sides record their moves as if they are recording it from their point of view. The board almost “flips” every time it is white or black’s turn.

To better describe what I mean, let’s look at a few other minor piece movements.

4. R-K1 RQK2

Show board

It can be hard to understand which piece captures which if you are trying to read descriptive notation in your head.

For example, 2. PxP is very hard to understand visually with descriptive while 2. Exd4 gives a better visualization without a board.

For PxP to be written, it assumes there is only one pawn exchange possible on the board, something that can be hard to visualize without a board.

If multiple pawns can be taken, you will see which square has been taken with PxPKP4

When was chess invented and by whom?

Sources say chess was invented in India in the 6th century and more of a game of chance than skill like it is today.

Some say that instead of choosing which piece to move, each player would roll die to determine which piece to move where.

The board in some instances was also much smaller and with less pieces. The game was called Chaturanga which represented India’s military (infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and charioty). These pieces eventually came to be known as the pieces they are today.

Is chess a sport?

While chess is not often considered a sport by many and won’t be seen in the Olympics any time soon, it is an intellectually draining game.

A lot of brain power needs to be expended when studying and playing chess in similar ways to regular sports.

However, the human body works in harmony with body and mind. It is known by many top players, such as Magnus Carlsen, the current World Champion of chess, to keep their bodies in top shape to compete at the highest level.

Did you learn anything new?

Let me know in the comments if you will remember queen on its color or that the bottom right square needs to be a light square for white.

Hopefully this guide is something you come back to to review.

Next steps? It’s time to get started in the openings to learn some basic ideas of what to do.