Anyone for a game of chess? You must be interested in playing if you’re reading this piece!

If you’re an aspirant chess player who hasn’t yet been able to distinguish a knight from a rook and who doesn’t know why the king has little (or no) value, then this article was definitely written for you. It is our hope that, by the end of this article, you would have encountered, and made sense of,  everything you need to know to start your first game of chess.

If you’re not an absolutely green novice and its is your desire to know the game a bit better, then this article has your name written all over it. You may want to skim over the rudimentary stuff and get straight to the heart of the matter: understanding chess notation.

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Chess: A Concise History

You do not need to know the entire history of the game, although chess does have a very interesting story. Knowing, even just, a smattering of its history can help you visualise certain strategies in the game.

Visualise, for instance, two armies squaring up for confrontation. You would imagine the foot-soldiers, with the cavalry following ….

Playing chess involves the same strategies as ancient battles
Chess mirrors the way ancient battles were fought. Photo credit: tylluan on Visualhunt.com

Battles, across millennia, have generally been conducted along similar lines. In most cases, footmen (infantry) led the advance or charge against the enemy. They were followed by horsemen, who were sent in to battle ahead of the officers and generals. All of these soldiers served at the pleasure of the king and their function was to protect the king.

The origins of chess are not certain, although they go back at least to the 7th century A.D. The game spread from India to Persia (Iran) where it was called chatrang. After the Arab conquest of Persia, chess spread through the Muslim world and was, eventually, introduced to the nations of southern Europe. In the 15th century, the game developed (evolved) into its present form. The appearances and names of chess pieces were changed by medieval Europeans to resemble the English court.

Interestingly, the terms ’check’ and ‘checkmate’ stem from the Persian exclamations Shāh! (King), while a game was in progress. When the king had no room to manoeuvre, shouts of Shāh Mat! (the king is helpless) could be heard. See the similarity?

A study of battles from long ago and the role played by each fighter will help you to visualise your plan of attack better and inform your overall chess strategy greatly!

Chess Pieces Explained

Infantrymen, way back, had very little body armour to protect them and their weaponry was rudimentary at best. It would, however, be incorrect to think of pawns as unimportant and dispensable.

The Pawn

Although the pawn is not very highly valued (counting only one point), an experienced player would definitely incorporate them into his or her overall strategy or game plan. While leading the charge against the opposition, pawns also provide protection for the King and form a framework around which the other pieces can operate (function). Also don’t forget that the humble pawn can put you in the pound seat, when it is promoted to Queen (bishop, knight or rook).

This honour is bestowed on any pawn that manages to reach the eighth rank. Just imagine yourself playing with the massive advantage of two Queens! Thus, strategically, the pawn has value. It still, however, is considered to be a piece of low value as it has no designation. In some cases, in standard chess notation, it may be referred to as ‘P’.

The Bishop

The Bishop, with a notation code of B, is another chess piece which is accorded only a little more value. Although it may be considered to be an adviser to the King, it has little or no value in a battle and, so, its value is kept low at three.

The Knight

A knight is ranked alongside the Bishop as relates to power and value (three). The notation code for the Knight is ‘N’ to avoid confusing it with a King (K) when moves are annotated.

The Rook

A rook has greater value, to the King in particular. The rook (think castle) is valued more, because it may switch places with the King to offer an extra layer of protection to the King. It is important to note that castling, however, has specific conditions under which it is permitted. Because of this service the rook carries a value of 5 points and is notated as ‘R’.

The Queen

Behind every successful man is a woman.

This oft-quoted saying is very true of the Queen. The Queen enjoys an untrammelled range of movement. She can imitate the moves of all other pieces on the board, except the Knight’s. The Queen, thus, has unparalleled long-range aggressive and defensive capabilities. The standard chess notation for the Queen is ‘Q’.

In times gone by, the king wielded great power, but almost never went into battle. His subjects and, his armed forces in particular, existed to protect the king and his interests. The king, annotated as K, thus has no point value since the game ends when the King is trapped (check-mate). His ‘capture’ would, thus, not add to the opposition’s booty, as, like with a battle of old, would end the end the entire encounter.

If you are seriously considering playing chess, you must learn as much as you can about the power of each piece.

Also, you must know how each piece can move and how best you can employ them in your strategies.

Chess pieces look like military figures for a reason
In nicer chess sets, the pieces are modelled on images of past military figures. Photo credit: glyn_nelson on VisualHunt.com

Let’s Examine the Chess Board

The game of chess is broadly based on military strategy. Among the military terms that you will encounter will be ‘rank and file’. This term relates to all the military personnel (soldiers particularly), excluding the non-commissioned officers.

Militarily, soldiers, lined up, were said to be in rank and file; the rank referring to the rows and the file to the columns.

Rank and file have a somewhat different meaning in chess.

First, let us take a look at the chess board. The board is a large square which is further divided into 64 smaller squares which are alternately light and dark. The 64 squares are set out in eight columns and eight rows. To refresh your memory: the rows are representative of ranks and the columns of files.

Simply put, the rows (ranks) run left to right across the board and the columns run up and down. Parallel to the X-axis run the ranks and the files would run as the Y-axis does (bottom to top). Your knowledge of algebra should help you make sense of this.

White always plays first and, therefore, the chess board numbers are denoted starting from the White’s left corner (A1).

                        While ranks are given numbers, files are assigned letters.

It might be a good idea to draw a grid, manually or to create one on your laptop and to print it. Mark the squares on your printed chess board in the following way: mark the ranks (left to right) a to h; and the files (bottom to top) 1 to 8. This will help you visualise moves made in games or opening gambits that you may be researching.

You will notice that the files are recorded in small (lower-case) letters. This is done to prevent confusion, as the chess pieces are referred to in capital (upper-case) letters.

Now that we know quite a bit about standard chess notation and the chess board numbers, let’s have a look at algebraic notation in chess.

Chess notation is the same as military plotting.
Chess notation is a lot like plotting positions; this knight was plotted to land on square c3. Photo credit: Michał Kosmulski on Visualhunt.com

Algebraic Notation in Chess

We have now seen that numbers (1 – 8) are used to denote ranks and letters (a – h, always lower-case) to indicate files.

Before we advance, let’s have a look at the letters (upper-case) used to indicate which piece is in play … or has been moved:

  • Pawn (no designation generally), sometimes P
  • Bishop: B
  • Knight: N
  • Rook: R
  • Queen: Q
  • King: K

Before we launch into algebraic notation in chess, let’s us take a moment to look at the 2020 Netflix period drama, The Queen’s Gambit. This mini-series is lauded with having sparked a great interest in the game of chess amongst many younger folk. It is, of course named after an actual and very popular opening gambit which is notated in the following way: 1. D4 d5 2. C4. Here we have at 1, White’s first move followed by Black’s. 2, so far indicates White’s second move.

Since pawns usually do not have any designation, these moves describe the movement of three pawns.

The Queen’s Gambit consists of a series of moves in which White appears to sacrifice a pawn, at d4. However, Black can’t retain the pawn without being placed at a disadvantage.

There are, at least, three ways in which Black can respond to White’s opening gambit. It can follow the route of invoking Queen’s Gambit Accepted (QGA), or, alternately, go the route of Queen’s Gambit Declined (QGD).

If White responds by employing the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, it captures White’s pawn at c4. This is, in fact, the gambit that White is taking, viz. that Black would seize this piece and open up the board for White to be able to take control of the centre of the board and put pressure on Black. So, notated, this gambit would look like this: 1. d4 d5 2. C4 dxc4.

When Black follows the Queen’s Gambit Declined route, it does not take the bait to capture White’s pawn at c4. It may instead move up his Queen’s pawn one space (to e6) to protect the pawn at c5. QGD reads thus: 1. d4 d5 2. C4 e6.

The above notation refers specifically to pawns. Where other major pieces are involved, the piece's uppercase esignation is used, as well as the destination square's co-ordinate, e.g. move a knight to f3 (Nf3) or move a bishop to e5 (Be5).

In simple terms, chess notation relates how the pieces are referred to using abbreviations for their full names. The very interesting part is, of course, learning your way about the board following a system of co-ordinates and remembering that the notation is seen from White’s perspective.

It will indeed be exciting for you to counter an opponents’ moves because of your newly-learned knowledge of the board, the power of the pieces and strategies that you can employ to counter their attempts to unsettle you. Imagine yourself employing the Scandinavian Defence, the Scotch Gambit or the Sicilian defence. What? Yes, here are gambits that will help to keep your King on the throne!

Learn some of these gambits and surprise friends and family with your knowledge of the game! Make that move right now!

Check it out, mate!

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Trevor

Career teacher turned writer. Passionate about family, running, and the great outdoors.