Posted by: Wayne Robinson | January 7, 2012

Games – Chess

Arthur Saul's guide to playing chess
Declared illegal by ecclesial lawyers in 1633, modern chess rules fundamentally date from the 15th century.


The game is played on a square chequered board of 64 squares. The pieces for each player consist of eight Pawns, two Rooks, two Knights, two Bishops, a King and a Queen. The board is placed between the two opponents so that the near right-hand corner square is white for both players. The modern chess piece shapes were defined in the mid 19th century, earlier forms can be seen here.

Preparation and Objective

The objective of the game is to capture the opposing player’s King. The King is never actually taken; instead the aim is put the opponent’s King into a position such that the opposing player can do nothing to avoid the King being taken next turn. As soon as this happens, the victorious player who has just moved says, “checkmate” and the game is over.

Basic Play

Players take turns to move a piece of their own colour. White moves first. Each piece is moved according to different rules but no two pieces can occupy the same square. If a piece moves so that its final position is a square occupied by an opposing piece, the opposing piece is “captured” or “taken” and is removed from the board. It is not compulsory to capture. Any square that could be moved into by a piece is said to be “attacked” by that piece. When a piece is moved to a position that attacks the square occupied by the opponent’s King, the King is in “check” and the player who moved the piece must clearly say “check”.

  • King – moves one space in any direction diagonally or orthogonally EXCEPT that the King cannot move onto a square that would put it in to check.
  • Queen – moves any number of spaces in any direction, but cannot jump over another piece (c. 1475)
  • Rook – moves any number of spaces orthogonally but cannot jump over another piece. Note the use of the letter “D” for “Duke” in the woodecutte above.
  • Bishop – moves any number of spaces diagonally but cannot jump over another piece (c. 1500).
  • Knight – moves one square orthogonally and then one square diagonally. The Knight is the only piece that can jump over other pieces (the move is unchanged since its introduction 1500 years ago).
  • Pawn – The first move of a Pawn can be either one square or two squares forward. Thereafter, the standard move of a pawn is to one square forwards. However, the pawn is the only piece that moves differently when capturing: a Pawn takes another piece by moving forward one square diagonally. The Pawn move, advancing two squares on its first move instead of one, was first introduced in Spain in 1280.

Special rules

En Passant (introduced mid 15th C)

If a Pawn in the fifth row is in the situation where an opposing Pawn moves next to it by moving for the first time and opting to move two squares, the Pawn in the fifth row may take the opposing Pawn by moving forward one square diagonally behind the opposing pawn. The Pawn takes as though the opposing Pawn moved only one square instead of two. En Passant is French for “In passing” so, in English, the Pawn is “taken in passing”.

Castling (this version c. 1620)

Once per game, a player may choose to “castle” instead of a playing standard move. Castling is effected by moving both a Rook and the King in the same move so that they cross over each other but this special move can only be done if the following criteria are met:

  • Neither the King nor the Rook have yet moved.
  • There are no pieces between the King and the Rook.
  • The King is not in check.
  • The square that the King moves over is not being attacked by an opposing piece.

If the above are all true, a player can castle by moving the King two places towards the Rook and, in the same move, repositioning the Rook next to the King on the square that the King moved over. Castling is usually done to protect the King behind a row of Pawns and/or to move a Rook into play alongside the other Rook since a pair of Rooks is a powerful combination.

Until 1561, Castling was two moves. You had to play R-KB1 on one move and K-KN1 on the next move. In the 1777 edition of Philidor’s Analysis of Chess, the rule for castling is as we know it now, but with this footnote: “The old way of castling in several countries, and which still subsists in some, was to leave to the player’s disposal, all the interval between the King and the Rook, inclusively, to place there these two pieces”.

Promotion of Pawns (this version c. 1600)

If a Pawn reaches the eighth row, that Pawn is immediately promoted by replacing the Pawn with another piece – Queen, Rook, Bishop or Knight at the player’s discretion. Normally, a player chooses to replace the Pawn with the most powerful piece, the Queen. There is no problem with having more than one Queen or more than two of the other pieces on the board at the same time. Although Pawns rarely do get promoted, the threat posed by a Pawn nearing the other side of the board can be a useful tactical weapon.

In the 15th century, promotion to allow more than one Queen was considered improper because it symbolised adultery. In Spain and Italy in the 17th century, the Pawn could only be promoted to the rank of Queen. In France and Germany, promotion was limited to any piece that had been lost.



When a piece is moved so it puts the opposing King in check, the King must get out of check in the next turn. There are only three ways to do this:

  • The attacking piece may be taken by the King or another piece.
  • Another piece may be moved between the attacking piece and the King (unless the attacking piece is a Knight).
  • The King may move to an adjacent square that is not under attack.

If the King cannot move out of check in one of these ways, the player who puts the King in check says “checkmate” instead of “check” and the game finishes.


Stalemate can happen in one of three ways:

  • One player proposes a stalemate and the other player agrees to the proposal.
  • A player’s King is not in check but that player cannot move without placing the King in check.
  • The same position of pieces is repeated three times with the same player to move each time.

The 1614 English publication, Saul’s Famous Games of Chesse-Play states: “He that hath put his adversary’s King in a stale, loseth the game, because he hath disturbed the course of the game, which can only end with the grand Check-mate” Holm, writing in 1688[1], agrees. This English interpretation of stale mate persisted in the London Chess Club until 1820.


Once it is believed that the opposing player will inevitably win, a player will normally resign to save time. A player traditionally resigns by tipping over his or her King.

Further Reading

Bird, H E, Chess History and Reminiscences London, 1893. Project Guttenburg ebook 4902
Cotton, C, The Compleat Gamester all editions from 1674. Google Books has the 1725 edition for free.
The Chess Variant Pages
Early Modern Whale – Homo (non-)ludens: a 17th century preacher renounces chess

[1] Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory, 1688



  1. Declared illegal by lawyers??

  2. Well spotted. That should read “declared legal”.

    In 1291, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham (1230-1292), banned chess. It was declared legal again in 1633 in order to tidy up a number of untidy loose ends, like the ban being ignored and the game being actively promoted by the to be King in Basilikon Doron (1599).

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