The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Chess

Get into the game easily with this guide — plus tips from the coach of some of Canada's top players.

Get into the game easily with this guide — plus tips from the coach of some of Canada's top players

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Chess has an undeniable mystique. You've seen it in the movies: Xavier vs. Magneto; Holmes vs. Moriarty; Frank vs. HAL. No dice, no random deal of cards, just mortal enemies locked in a war of wits.

Real chess is (usually) a lot friendlier. According to Vladimir Drkulec, president of the Chess Federation of Canada, people are not drawn to the game because it's a daunting intellectual challenge, but because it's a "good way to exercise your mind" that is "really very doable and very easy to learn how to improve." It's also a good way to make new friends. Nearly all towns and universities in Canada have chess clubs and, if you know where to look, you can find a game nearly anywhere in the world. Weather permitting, you'll be able to find a casual game in Washington Square Park in New York, the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, or Sokolniki park in Moscow. It's fun, it's universal, and it's a game for all ages. That's why we asked Drkulec how to get started in "the game of kings."


Chess is an ancient game. It's derived from a 6th century Indian game called chaturanga which spread to Persia, the Arabian empire, and to the rest of Asia. The game transformed into different local variations such as xianqi in China, shogi in Japan. It arrived in Europe in the 9th century and had reached the entire continent by the 11th. Chess hasn't always had its current nerdy reputation. Because of its habit-forming qualities and associations with gambling, the game was periodically banned or denounced by political and moral authorities. 

Modern chess came into being in Europe near the turn of the 16th century, when new rules allowing greater range to the queen and bishops were widely adopted. It grew in popularity, producing celebrity champions such as the Italian Greco, who was considered the first professional chess player, and Philidor in France who was regarded as the best player in the world in the 18th century and who published the definitive book called Analyse du jeu des Échecs in 1749.

The first international organized chess tournament was held in London in 1851, and was won by Adolf Anderssen. One game played by Anderssen during a break from tournament play is still studied today, and has been called "the immortal game" for its brilliance. Chess became even more popular during the 20th century, which included a long period of Soviet dominance and famous matches between Boris Spassky and American prodigy Bobby Fischer, and later between Garry Kasparov and computer Deep Blue

The game continues to be played at all levels the world over.

What you need to know to get started

There are three main things you need to know to get started in chess. How to set up the board, how the pieces move and how the game ends.

How to set up the board: when starting, it's best to refer to a diagram for the proper set up. The board is oriented with a white square in the corner closest to each player's right-hand side. The eight pawns are placed on each player's second rank or row. On the back rank, the pieces are arranged, starting from the corners moving inwards: rooks, knights, bishops, king and queen. The queen is placed on her own colour square (black queen on black) and the king on the opposite colour. Each piece should be standing across from an identical piece on the other side of the board.

How the pieces move: There are six different kinds of pieces in chess, all which move in different patterns: pawns, bishops, knights, rooks, queen, and king.

Pawns: Can move forward one space or two spaces if they have not yet moved. However, they can only capture pieces by moving one space diagonally and forward. Pawns are also exceptional in that if they reach the opposite end of the board, they can be "promoted" to any other piece (except a king).

Bishops: Bishops can move diagonally in any direction until they meet another piece (they cannot "jump" over other pieces).

Knights: Knights move in an L-shape: two vertical and one horizontal or two horizontal and one vertical. Knights are the only pieces with the power to "jump" over other pieces, meaning that they can move despite any pieces between their current square and destination square. Non-knight pieces must stop or capture if another piece is in their path.

Rooks: Rooks can move vertically or horizontally in any direction until they meet another piece.

King: The king can move one square in any direction, but cannot move into check.

Queen: The queen can move in any vertical or diagonal direction until she meets another piece.

Capturing: Pieces can capture or take an opposing piece by moving onto the square occupied by that piece. The captured piece is removed from the board. 

In addition to the basic moves, there are a few special moves that must also be learned. These are: en passant; promoting a pawn; and castling.

Although there are a relatively limited number of moves in chess, getting used to them takes time. If you don't know the moves already, the best way to get started is to learn them one at a time, taking the time to practice with each piece before attempting a full game. has a fantastic site for learning the moves which includes a video and practice exercises for every piece. 

When you do start playing, it can be helpful to keep a "cheat sheet" of the moves on hand. 

How the game ends:

Checkmate: the main way of winning a chess game is by "checkmating" the king. Any attack on the king is called a "check." A check which cannot be escaped is checkmate and wins the game. Drkulec begins chess instruction by teaching starting players how to checkmate with different pieces and it's worth doing some practice yourself so you understand how to win. has some checkmate practice drills here.

The game can also be won if the other player resigns or runs out of time.

Draws: If a player whose turn to move it is not in check but cannot move any pieces without moving into check, this is a stalemate and the game is a draw. If the exact same position repeats three times, then the game is a draw. If 50 consecutive moves are played in which no pieces are captured and no pawns are moved, the game is a draw. Players may also agree to a draw at any time.

What you need to have to get started

To start in chess, you'll need a chess set (board and pieces) and an opponent. Chess sets come in all shapes and price-ranges, from dollar store travel sets to hand-crafted antiques, to novelty boards for almost any theme. A unique board can be a beautiful thing, but if you're beginning in chess, start with a traditional piece design. This will help you learn to recognize the pieces in their most common form which will make it possible for you to play anywhere. It will also be simpler for new opponents who are not familiar with the set to play against you. A standard roll up chess set with plastic pieces is a great start. They are easy to carry and are available at any games shop.

Although chess sets are very easy to obtain, Drkulec pointed out that technically you don't need one. Sites such as offer free lessons for beginners, as well as both automated and live opponents to play against. According to Drkulec more and more players are starting out online and coming a long way before they invest in a board.

What you need to do to get started

Set up the board (see above) and decide who goes first. White always goes first, so playing white is a small advantage. This is usually done by having one player hold pieces of different colour in closed hands. The other player picks a hand, and plays the colour of the piece held in that hand.

Top tips:

Drkulec has been teaching chess for years and has coached some of Canada's top players. Here are his top tips for beginners.

Develop your pieces: "Get out all your pieces before you go on any adventures," said Drkulec. All of your most powerful pieces begin behind a row of pawns which block them from moving. The object of the opening (beginning phase) of the game is to "develop" these pieces, freeing them up so they can be used for attack and defence. Key steps in development are: pushing centre pawns; moving the knights out from their initial position; castling; placing your bishops on long diagonals; and moving your queen. Drkulec recommends starting by moving one of the centre pawns (those in front of the king and queen). This frees up diagonal lines for the bishops to move along.

Don't move your queen out too early: The queen is the most powerful piece on the board, so it can be tempting to get her out quickly to begin an attack. However moving her too early also puts this valuable piece at risk. You don't want to engage the queen before some of the lesser pieces are developed enough to back her up.

Stay alert for big mistakes: Drkulec told us that you can play 49 good moves, but one stinker can lose you the game. Therefore consider each move and make sure you're not doing anything catastrophic before you make a decision. "Evil never sleeps," said Drakulec, "and neither should you."

Don't just look at the piece that moved, look at the piece behind the piece that moved: It's easy to focus on moving parts. However, chess is all about combining many pieces in an overall strategy. Often, when one piece moves, it frees up an attacking piece behind it. Keep an eye open for these "discovered" attacks.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.