If you're reading this article, there's a good chance that you are at least interested in playing chess.
If you never learned, we hope that this series of articles serves you well. If you have some experience with playing this game, please let us know your thoughts on this article in the comments section below.
If you're an aspiring chess player who doesn't know a knight from a rook and has no idea why the queen has more power and value than the king, you've found the right article. We'll endeavour to at least touch on everything you need to know to start playing chess.
If you have a passing acquaintance with the game - maybe a friend or relative likes to play, and you want to know more about it, this article is meant for you. You may choose to gloss over the fundamentals and get straight to the meat of things: understanding chess notation.
A Brief History of Chess
Although you don't have to know anything about chess' long history, knowing it helps to understand the game's origins so you can better visualise various strategies.
Sometime during the 7th Century, two armies faced off: the infantry, with the cavalry behind them...
You might think that visual is a bit whimsical but it is exactly what early versions of chess were based on. Those primitive games were played in India; soon that country's players introduced their Persian (military?) counterparts to it.
It wasn't too long before Persian cries of Shāh! (King!) rang out if, during a game, the king was in trouble. Gleeful shouts of Shāh Māt! (the king is helpless!) could be heard when kings ran out of options.
In case you hadn't guess, that's where today's chess players get the words 'check' and 'checkmate' from.
There's a bit of debate about how western chess came to be. The terminology suggests that the Indian/Persian version of the game came to Europe via the Byzantine Empire. However, an equal number of enthusiasts contend that the game as we know it derived from the Chinese game of xiangqi, a much older game of military strategy.
Regardless of exactly where the game as we know it originated - and regardless of which kings' armies fought, wars throughout history were all fought the same way.
The ground troops form the first line of defense, behind which the horsemen fall in. Then come the officers and generals... and they all serve to protect the king.
To train yourself as a chess player, studying ancient battles and the roles each fighter played might help you visualise strategic chess moves.
Understanding Chess Pieces
With only primitive weaponry and little to no body armour, it shouldn't be too hard to imagine the infantryman's role in ancient times but, where chess is concerned, it would be a mistake to believe that pawns are mere throwaway pieces to be used and sacrificed at will.
Indeed, the word 'pawn' does them a disservice. For all that they are of the lowest value and have the least power, an adept chess player will incorporate pawn structure into their playing strategy. S/he may even strive to have a pawn or two promoted - imagine the power of one player having two queens on the board...
Nevertheless, despite their strategic value, pawns receive the least consideration of all the chess pieces. In chess notation, they do not even merit a designation.
The bishop is accorded a bit more value - three points to the pawns' one, but they are still considered a low-power piece. You might think of them as advisers to the king; not particularly effective in battle. Bishops' notation code is B.
Knights are considered on-par with bishops as far as point value and power. Their notation code is N so that knights don't get confused with kings when plays are annotated.
Rooks move up a notch in the power/value scale; they are afforded more movement and, if a player chooses to, it may swap places with the king for an added layer of protection. Note that castling - the move that permits the king to hide behind his rook has specific guidelines; a player cannot castle at will.
For its extra service to the king, rooks are afforded five points; they are notated as R.
The queen could be considered the epitome of the 'power behind the throne' motif. Queens are the most powerful and valuable pieces on the chessboard; they can mimic any other piece's moves save for the knights'. Queens are identified as Q in notation.
The king is not assigned a point value and his power is the reason for the game - just as, for centuries, real armies marched into battle to defend their king's interests. He is designated K in notation.
Before you get serious about playing chess, you should learn more about each chess piece, its power, how it can move and how best to use them to deploy your strategies.
The Chess Board
As chess is a game based on military strategy, you'll hear a lot of military terms associated with the game, 'rank and file' among them. Traditionally, the rank and file of the military were all of the enlisted troops, non-commissioned officers not included.
In military terminology, the phrase also describes all of the soldiers standing row by row (the rank), in long columns (files).
In chess, the terms 'rank' and 'file' have different meanings.
Before defining what they mean in the chess world, let's take a look at a chess board. You'll note that it is a square broken into 64 squares of alternating light and dark colours. There are eight rows and eight columns. The rows represent ranks and the columns are files.
If you remember basic algebra, you might think of chess ranks as running parallel to the X-axis; the files run along the Y-axis.
Regardless of which side of the board your army occupies - light or dark, the chessboard's lower left-hand square will always be A1. However, in chess, light always prevails so, when reading chess notation, remember that it is most likely recorded from the light's perspective.
Ranks are assigned numbers while files are given letters.
Again visualising a chessboard, name the squares along X-axis a - h. Then, starting from the bottom rank, number the squares along the Y-axis 1 - 8. Congratulations! You've just created a gridded map upon which your army will battle.
Notice that files are always recorded in lowercase letters to avoid confusion; the chess pieces are notated in uppercase letters.
Now, with all of the designations explained, we can explore chess algebraic notation.
Chess Algebraic Notation
Admittedly, this article contains valuable nuggets of information amidst a lot of palaver so, before we explain chess notation, let's condense those nuggets into clear, verbiage-free bullet points.
- The chessboard is a grid
- files (columns) are a - h and ranks (rows) are 1 - 8
- Files are always notated using lowercase letters
- How chess pieces appear in notation:
- king: K
- queen: Q
- rook: R
- knight: N
- bishop: B
- pawns: no designation
Now, with all of the needed information laid out before us, let's explain algebraic notation. But first: did you watch The Queen's Gambit?
Besides being a brilliant show and provoking renewed interest in chess, the series is titled after an actual opening gambit, notated thus: 1. d4 d5 2. c4
Keep in mind that pawns have no designation, so this opening describes the movement of three pawns.
For the first pair of moves, the white pawn in the d-file will advance to rank 4; the black d-file pawn will confront it on square d5. White next advances their c-file pawn to the fourth rank.
From there, the gambit may go one of two ways: Queen's Gambit Accepted - dxc4 (black's d-file pawn captures white's c4 pawn) or Queen's Gambit Declined, which results in Black keeping their place in the board's center.
If Black wanted to guard his c4 pawn, s/he might move the b-file pawn to rank 5 but, in the interest of development - advancing non-pawn pieces into play, s/he might consider Nf6 (knight to f-file, fifth rank) in response to White's c4 play.
From there, the game may progress to: 4. a4 c6 5. abx5 cbx5 6.
You'll note that, once again, most of the play is left to the pawns. What does notation look like when development takes place?
In response to the Queen's Gambit, White might invoke the Alekhine Idea: 3. cxd5 Qxd5 4. Nc3 Qa5 5. Nf3 Bg7 6. Bd2 c6 7. e4 Qb6 8. Bc4 Bxd4 9. Nxd4 Qxd4 10. Qb3 Qg7
According to the notation, Black's queen comes into play on its third move, White calls out their knight on the fourth move, Black puts their bishop into play on the fifth move... and so on.
You might wonder how to tell the king's knight from the queen's in notation.
Knights and rooks are particularly hard to distinguish because either of them could land on the same square (just not at the same time!). To avoid confusion, notation will include that piece's file of origin: Nbd2 (knight from the b-file moves to d-2).
Regardless of whether playing light or dark, the notation remains the same. As White always plays first, its moves are listed first in every move pair.
There's much more to be said about chess algebraic notation - its evolution and importance, how checks, checkmates and promotions are notated... those are all subjects we cover in our beginners' guide to chess.