Life conditions lately have necessitated finding pastimes that, in normal circumstances, we might not have embraced. Turning into a couch potato is a fine example of such; it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to remain confined at home, doing nothing but watching television.

Indeed, binge-watching entire series in one sitting has become the ironic backdrop to all of the real life we've not been able to partake in. Late show comedians of the James Corden ilk have made light of TV bingeing by reportedly having his staff binge every episode of Game of Thrones in one day.

Speaking of bingeing on regal games... Did you watch The Queen's Gambit?

Of all the shows about chess, Gambit is by far the most popular. In fact, it is the only one of its kind.

Sure, the BBC televised The Master Game back in the 70s, but that show essentially boiled down to televised chess tournaments. And then, there was the anime series in the early 2000s that revolved around a chess motif, but for those that don't watch anime, it likely went unnoticed.

Besides, it only featured elements of chess, the story was about something else entirely. The Queen's Gambit, on the other hand, has been credited with sparking renewed interest in the centuries-old game.

If you count yourself among those who want to learn how to play chess, you've come to the right place. Superprof is ready to help you get started.

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The Power of Each Chess Piece

Upon awakening your interest in chess, whether you turned to your favourite online shop to order a chess set or you dusted off the one from the attic of your childhood (by some miracle, all of the plastic moulded pieces survived!), you need to know what to do with them all.

More importantly, you need to know what each piece can do and what they represent.

No matter the size of the board, you have to know how to set it up
Whether for lawn chess or a standard tabletop model, you have to know the power of each piece on your chessboard. Photo credit: cold_penguin1952 on VisualHunt.com

To set up your board, you may rely on visuals from the Gambit series or turn to internet tutorials. Good on you for taking the initiative but, unfortunately, you'll only get the illusion of chess, not a true understanding of each piece's value and power.

For that, you need to read our in-depth article.

Here, we want to talk about the much-maligned pawn. So under-appreciated it is that, in chess notation, it doesn't even merit a unique designation. Points-wise, it is at the lowest end of the scale; only the king has fewer points.

That's right, the king is given no points, but that's because the whole game is about protecting the king. Once he falls, the game is over so there's no point in assigning him a point value to be tallied after capture.

Back to those low-point-value, non-designated pawns, now.

Far from being the sacrificial pieces their name implies they are, pawns are vital to a chess player's strategy.

It's fairly typical for White to take control of the board's center by playing one of their central pawns. Indeed, the queen's gambit opens with three pawn moves, one right after the other.

Note that controlling the center is a chess strategy that we'll cover more in the next section; for now, let's just say that commanding the center of the board makes it more likely you will win the game.

Let's move on to pawn structure.

Simply put, pawn structure - also called pawn skeleton is a term that describes those pieces' configuration on the board. To misquote John Donne: no pawn should be an island.

Your chances of winning a chess game go down dramatically if your pawns are isolated or relegated to the sides of the board. Backward pawns, those that don't advance in sync with the rest of their rank are also detrimental to your game's outcome.

Individual pawn structures have names, such as

  • Queen's Gambit - the Isolani formation
  • Modern Benoni formation
  • d5 chain; also e5 chain
  • Botvinnik System
  • Stonewall formation
  • Panov formation
  • Hanging pawns

These are just a few of the major pawn structures you might learn. Each has their advantages and disadvantages, depending on whether you play white or black.

Which side you play matters when deciding your chess strategy, too...

Always consider game strategy whether playing western or Chinese chess
For western chess and xiangqi (the Chinese precursor to chess), players and spectators always consider game strategy. Photo credit: LezlieN on Visualhunt.com

Strategic Moves to Make Early in the Game

Taking our cue from the hundreds of idioms that promote good beginnings - 'Well begun is half done' among them, let's discuss the idea that a good opening in chess can predict how the game will end.

Some chess aficionados say that's not the case. Chess games are very elaborate undertakings whose outcomes depend on many factors, from which side of the board you play to your and your opponent's skill levels.

Strip away all of those well-intended phrases about beginnings and you'll see that the opening you play means nothing unless you follow through with a strategic middlegame and press any advantage you have through to endgame.

Naturally, that suggests that playing a good opening allows you to position your pieces for maximum advantage, develop your non-pawn pieces - the knights, rooks and bishops, and, above all, protect your king.

Some openings, such as the queen's gambit aggressively command the center of the board right away while others play out largely on the fringes of center, allowing those pieces to attack from the flank, as it were.

The first variable that determines your opening is which colour you play. White has an automatic advantage because it always plays first; their most frequent opening is moving the queen's pawn up two spaces. That move is notated as e4; we'll explain that in a bit.

1. e4 satisfies two main criteria of early-game strategy: claiming the center and allowing the queen and her bishop to develop.

Other popular openings for White include d4, c4 or moving the queenside knight to square f3.

What about Black openings?

Black openings depend on White's moves; for that reason, their openings are called defenses even though some are quite aggressive. A typical Black opening to e4 is e5, a direct confrontation with White's first-moved pawn.

However, Black is not necessarily reactive. You may invoke the Sicilian defense by moving your queenside knight's pawn to square c5, a move that may catch your opponent off guard. Or you may choose to lull them into a false sense of security by opening with the expected e5, only to get more aggressive later in the game.

The best openings are the ones you can play with confidence.

If you're not aggressive by nature, deploying an aggressive opening strategy might backfire on you, especially if your opponent senses uncertainty that s/he can exploit to their advantage.

As a beginner chess player, there's nothing wrong with playing it safe. Stick with a few openings that allow you to develop your pieces at a pace you feel comfortable with.

As you progress and learn more about early chess strategy, you can broaden your repertoire of opening gambits.

Algebraic notation used today is very simple compared to a century ago
Fortunately, todays' algebraic notation is much simpler than the notation on this 1909 notation! Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on Visualhunt.com

Chess Notation, Explained

If you've a mind to play chess, most likely you can understand basic chess notation after a few minutes of studying it. Like algebra, it is logical in the extreme and elegant in its simplicity.

Not for nothing did we mention algebra; today's most common type of chess notation is algebraic. So what, exactly, is chess notation?

Simply put, it is a written record of every move made during a chess game, including its outcome.

However, as it would be too cumbersome to write 'White moves queen from home position to the square opposite the current position of Black's kingside bishop', notation relies on the board's grid design and a few clever codes. Check out this line of notation:

1. b3 e5 2. Bb2 Nc6 3. e3 Nf6 4. Nf3

  1. White's opening: second pawn from the left up one square; Black moves to the center of the board.
  2. White moves a bishop to where the pawn was; Black moves a knight to square c6.
  3. White moves pawn on file 'e' up one square; Black counters by moving a knight to file 'f', rank 6.
  4. White moves his knight...

Knowing what the letters and numbers stand for makes it easy to understand basic notation. Besides that, you only need to remember that the chessboard is a grid and all of the squares have an address, indicated by a letter/number combination.

Those letters, a-h, denote files (columns) and numbers 1-8 indicate ranks (rows).

You also need to know how the pieces are designated. Fortunately, we've listed all of those codes in our companion article so let's close this one out by listing extraordinary notation codes.

  • a capture is notated with 'x': dxc3 (pawn on file d captures pawn on c3)
  • kingside v queenside knights and rooks: origin file is included in the notation (Ndb2, for instance)
  • check is marked as +: Bb5+ (bishop moves to file b, rank 5, putting the king in check)
  • checkmate is #: Qh4# (queen moves to file h, rank 4; the game is finished)
    • White wins: 1-0
    • Black wins: 0-1
  • castling is notated: 0 - 0 if kingside; 0-0-0 if queenside

Parting shot: castling is a chess move that allows the king and rook to swap places. It is the only time that one player may move two pieces in a single turn, but certain conditions must be met.

Surely, clever as you are, you'll read our expanded article to find out more about which conditions permit castling...

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