Tabletop Game / Chess

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White to move.

"Of chess it has been said that life is not long enough for it, but that is the fault of life, not chess."
William Ewert Napier (1881-1952)

This article is about the game. See Chess for The Musical.

Chess is a Turn-Based Strategy tabletop board game, and is one of the most influential games in history. It is Older Than Feudalism at very least; it has more scholarship and study devoted to it than any other game, with only Go coming close; it contains more possible directions a match can go than there are atoms in the entire universe; and it has a play named after it.

The game of chess is thought to have originated in India, possibly as a teaching tool for educating royalty in the practice of leading an army. Its exact origins are Shrouded in Myth; at least one legend attributes the very first game of chess as a reenactment of an actual battle. Whatever its exact origins, the game quickly spread westward into Persia, and from there (with a little help from Islamic invaders) to the Middle East and Europe. The game as it exists now came into being in the 15th century, when the game was overhauled to increase the maneuverability of the pieces and reduce the amount of time it took to play a single game. The most notable changes were the Queen changing from being able only move one square at a time diagonally to being the strongest piece on the board, Pawns being able to move two squares on their first move, and Bishops now able to move any number of squares diagonally rather than being limited to exactly two (an incredible limitation which restricted it to only 8 squares on the whole board, even if it did leap over an intervening piece of either colour).

Chess is played on a checkered board with 64 squares in an 8-by-8 arrangement. The initial setup is literally a Mirror Match; Black's set up is the reverse of White's, so that the respective Kings and Queens appear to be facing one another. (The simple mnemonic is that the Queen is fashionable and "her dress matches her shoes", meaning she should always start on a square of her own color.) Another mnemonic is that Dames are set up on D squares (algebraic notation). The board is orientated so that both players have a white square at the bottom right of the board from their perspective ("white on the right") - getting this wrong is indicative of either a complete beginner in Real Life or a Critical Research Failure in media (unless depicting complete beginners).

The King is the heart of the player's force. If he is ever in "check," a position in which he can be captured on the next turn, his player must take action to protect his King; it is literally against the rules to leave the King in check. He must either move the King out of the line of fire, interpose another piece between King and attacker, or capture the attacker. The King is also not allowed to move into or through check (the latter of which can only happen while castling). This is how victories are accomplished in chess: you trap the opponent in a situation where not only is his King in check, but all the (otherwise legal) moves available to him result in him still being in check at end of turn. This situation is called "Checkmate" and the first player to lock down the opponent's King in this way wins the game.

Now, however, you can have the opposite of checkmate, a no-win situation where neither side has the power to defeat the other, one can put the other opponent in check but they can keep escaping, or, they set up the board so that the other opponent who is not now in check would have to place their king in check to make any legal move (which itself is an illegal move). This is called a "stalemate" and it means the game is a tie or "draw."

Pieces include:
  • Pawns: Representing infantry, each player starts with eight of these, filling the entire second row forward from each side. They move one square forward at a time, except for an optional two squares when moved for the first time; when capturing another piece, they must move one square diagonally forward to do so. Beginning players tend to write them off as useless and obstructive, but players of skill know they are one of the most critical parts of the game. If a pawn makes it all the way to the farthest row on the board, they're instantly upgraded into any other piece of their player's choosing apart from the king, usually a Queen. note 
  • Rooks: Two per player; famously shaped like castles. Originally representing war chariots or siege towers. They can move any number of squares forwards, backwards, left, and right.
  • Knights: Two per player. The horses; probably the most recognized board game piece in the world. Represent armoured cavalry. Their move pattern is unique among the pieces in two ways: First, rather than take a direct line along a single rank, file, or diagonal, they move two spaces along any rank or file, plus one space at a right angle. Second, they ignore (i.e., can "jump over") other pieces along their move path since they are thematically passing them on a horse. These unique attributes give knights peculiar tactical advantages and disadvantages, in that they are the only pieces that can threaten a queen without putting themselves in danger but they are also the most frequently pinned pieces since they can't attack a piece that is pinning them, and they have only middle-ranged attack.
  • Bishops: Two per player. Have a top shaped like a bishop's miter. They originally represented war elephants, but such were unknown in Europe (Hannibal Barca notwithstanding) and the imagery eventually aligned to the environment. Can move any number of squares diagonally.
    • In French, they're called fou (the fool, or jester). In German, they're Läufer and in Dutch, they're loper (both meaning runner). In Italian, Alfieri (Flag bearers). And in Russian, slon (elephant). In Finnish, lähetti (messenger/courier). Go figure. On the other hand, in Spanish, they're called "alfil" (derived from Arabic, derived in turn from old Persian "pil", meaning "elephant"). In Hebrew, they're called "ratz" (runner/messenger), similar to the German, Dutch and Finnish versions (which is understandable, seeing as most of the early Israelis were German born). In Croatian, they are called "lovac" (the hunter). In Romanian, they are called "nebun" (the madman) for some reason.
  • Queen: One per player. Usually the second largest piece, and tends to have a small knob on its coronet-shaped top. Can move any number of squares left, right, forwards, backwards, or diagonally, thus combining the powers of rook and bishop.
  • King: One per player. Traditionally the tallest piece, with a cross on top. Can move a single square forwards, backwards, left, right, or diagonally. Again, your goal as a player is to make it impossible for your opponent to prevent his king from being captured. If neither side can accomplish this, the game is a draw. A weak piece in the beginning and middle of the game, but surprisingly strong in the end game.

The analytical and strategic nature of chess has led to the popular assumption that being good at chess is a sign of unusual intelligence. The Chessmaster gets his name from his ability to manipulate people and events as if they were pieces on a chessboard as well as his ability to "think three moves ahead." Shows with a rather cerebral and complex plot may employ Chess Motifs to abstract the details of the unfolding story. Finally, it just so happens to be the preferred game of The Grim Reaper (except in the Discworld, where he can never remember how the little horse-shaped pieces move).

There is a great deal of scholarship on how to play chess, including ideas on the best way to respond to to a kingside pawn, a rook, the Nimzo-Indian Defense, or an opponent who's just had a cheeseburger. Without boring you, there are several basic ways to figure out who's winning at any given moment. The player with the material advantage has, simply, more or better pieces ("material") to his name. The player with the positional advantage has more control of the board. The player with better development has more pieces in position to strike or defend, an important consideration when your stronger pieces start way back at home row and (even worse) have their movement options limited by your own pawns. And the player with "initiative" is the one trying to win, while the other is trying to not lose—he's struggling to keep up and avoid becoming their opponent's Unwitting Pawn. (Or make their opponent into one...)

Here's where the real insanity comes up: advantage in one area can make up for disadvantage in the others. Worse, in some cases, having any of these advantages can actually be a disadvantage: there are situations in which you lose because you have an extra pawn, or because it's your turn. So you gotta pick and choose — especially since it's difficult to have an advantage in all these areas at once (unless you're way better than your opponent). That said, chess has an Unstable Equilibrium and once a side gets too far behind, they can only hope their opponent blunders the game away. Accordingly, experts frequently resign before an inevitable checkmate.

Chess gives us the oft-misunderstood word "gambit". In chess parlance, a "gambit" is an opening strategy in which material is offered in exchange for positional advantage. While all strategy is about taking risks, a gambit has nothing to do etymologically with something being a gamble. It's actually derived from an Italian wrestling term, dare il gambetto, which describes a type of leg tripping motion. A gambit is a strategy which exchanges a disadvantage of one type in exchange for an advantage of a different type — and not a bet, wager, or crazy stunt with a Million-to-One Chance of success. In games that start out as a Mirror Match, a gambit instantly makes the situation highly asymmetrical, but it remains unclear which player's advantage will ultimately prove stronger. If a plan gains a clear overall advantage for one player over the other, that's not a gambit, it's just a mistake on the part of the losing player and/or superior play from the winner.

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There are, of course, many other tactics. Others include forks (where a one piece, often a knight, attacks two pieces or more without being attacked himself, so if you save one, you lose the other), pins (when a piece cannot move as if it did a better piece behind it would be captured), skewers (a variation of a pin where a valuable piece is attacked and forced to move out of the way, leaving room for an attack at a less valuable piece behind it) and sacrifices (gambits Up to Eleven in where a strong piece, even the Queen, is given away for a decisive advantage, usually for an attack against the enemy King), which generally take advantage of overloading and interference among the opponent's pieces. Chess strategy has a language all of its own.

Though the modern game has long been dominated by players from the former USSR, and there are still many strong players from Russia, there is (as of 2014) a wide variety of nationalities among the world's top players. At present, the current World Champion is Norwegian Grandmaster Sven Magnus Carlsen, who also has the highest Elo rating in history. But note that 2005 was the last year any human was able to beat the best chess-playing computer in the world.

Related games include Shatranj, Xiangqi, Janggi, Makruk, Sittuyin, and Shogi.


The game provides examples of:

  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Pawn promotion, usually to a queen, usually decisive in a game.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Unless it's a draw, the game ends this way. The king has no way to escape, but you'll never see him getting captured.
  • Boring, but Practical: Pawns. Not as fun as the other pieces, but pawn positioning is very important, to the point that whole schools of strategy have been made on optimal use of pawns to control the board. As individual pieces they cost very little material-wise for being able to deny (usually) two squares and are often important for protecting other pieces.
  • Calling Your Attacks:
    • The rule commonly followed at the amateur level is that the player who places their opponent in check must announce "check" as they make the move. In tournament play, this isn't a rule though.
    • In "Memory Chess", where one or both players must play by the board they can imagine in their heads, calling out or writing down what piece goes where is the only way to play.
  • Character Death: Any piece that gets captured stays off the board for the rest of the game.
  • Even the Subtitler Is Stumped: In chess annotation, ! and ? symbols mark good and bad moves, with ?! specifically meaning "dubious but not completely bad." However, !? has the general meaning of "interesting," which usually means that the annotator can't figure out whether it's good or bad, but it is interesting. One grandmaster joked that it's the mark of a lazy annotator who doesn't want to work out whether the move was good or bad. (It's also sometimes used for Crazy Enough to Work plans in a losing game, which is not quite this trope.)
  • Field Promotion: Pawn promotion; a pawn that reaches the opposite side of the board is promoted to any (non-King) piece of the player's choosing. Naturally, most players take advantage of promoting to Queen. Anything else is designated "underpromotion".
  • Guide Dang It: While most people can tell you the general rules, some rules only have impact in late-game play and are therefore rare enough to encounter that people tend to forget how exactly they work.
    • The En Passant maneuver ("in passing"), where a player with a pawn in position to capture an enemy pawn if it moves forward one space, and the opponent moves it two spaces forward to evade the capture, the offensive player may move his pawn as if to interrupt the defending pawn "in passing". This rule can only be taken advantage of immediately after the defending pawn moves forward.
    • The "threefold repetition" rule - that either player may declare a game drawn if the same position occurs for the third time - is a particularly egregious example. The rule refers to a position, rather than a move, repeated three times. At this point, a draw may be taken (this normally happens when moves are repeated but doesn't have to). There have been a few high-level cases where a player has unintentionally let this happen.
  • Irrevocable Order: The touch-move rule. Once you pick up a piece with the intention of moving it, you have to move it. If your move is illegal, you have to take it back but still have to make another with that same piece if possible. However, by first saying "I adjust" (or "J'adoube" in French), you can touch a piece on your turn to adjust it without having to move it.
  • Mechanically Unusual Fighter: The knight's movement of exactly two squares seems limiting, especially since it's the only piece which cannot capture an adjacent piece, but the odd pattern of its movement means it is the only piece which can threaten a queen without being threatened in return, and its ability to leap over pieces means it's the only piece which can checkmate a king behind a wall of his own pieces.
  • Metagame: Chess has a metagame, evolved over eons of play. One might say that the metagame is the game. If you have ever played in any organizationally-sanctioned tournament, held anywhere at all, at some point in your life, it is guaranteed that every move you made was dutifully logged via algebraic notation, and then almost certainly dissected down to numbingly exhaustive detail, so as to understand every available nuance of both how you played then, and potentially will now.

    Gary Kasparovs' famous rematch versus Deep Blue in 1997 involved a curious metagame factor. In the first game, Deep Blue made a puzzling play that was really just a hole in its heuristics - it is only as good as its program. This threw Kasparov for a loop. In the second game, Deep Blue made a second error, which Kasparov did not see and cost him the game. Some of the reports basically amounted to Gary being unable to believe the machine could screw up so badly. He attributed the moves to deep insight and thought himself out of a draw, turning it to a loss.
  • The Millstone:
    • The famous smothered mate where a single knight forces a king into a corner, surrounded by its own "protective" pieces who block out all escape squares, allowing this beautiful (and somewhat embarrassing) checkmate. There are countless other checkmates where the King's only escape(s) are blocked by its own pieces, the most common of which (among relative novices) is that of the King being mated by an opposing Queen or Rook on the back rank because he's hemmed in by the three pawns in front of him.
    • This is also part of why beginning players tend to be cavalier about discarding their pawns: why waste a turn on them when you could be using it to deploy your more powerful pieces? Oh, right: because they're in the way. In this case, it's a subversion; pawns are vitally important to your position, and trying to "get them out of the way" is a mark of a rookie.
  • Mook Promotion: Pawns, if they get across the board, can become queens, bishops, rooks, or knights.
  • Obvious Rule Patch:
    • The "same rank" rule of castling (curing a Good Bad Bug).
    • Also, the 50 move ruleExplanation , which at one point, was itself patched, patched again, and then finally unpatched.
    • You used to be allowed to promote a pawn to one of the other player's pieces or leave it as a Pawn. You could also move into triple check (only check and double check counted as check) and checkmate with an illegal move.
    • En passant is a patch on the two-square initial pawn move, which was created because the early game was so slow.
    • Chess tournaments enacted the "no talking" and "touch-move" (no taking back moves) rules because of players distracting each other or outright screwing with each other, such as making moves then immediately taking them back several times in a row. Further sportsmanship rules were added to deal with non-verbal means of getting under an opponent's skin.
  • One-Hit-Point Wonder: Any piece can capture (or, in the case of the King, check or mate) any other piece with a single attack. Rank doesn't matter; a pawn can capture a queen just as readily as a queen can capture a pawn.
  • Sadistic Choice:
    • Forks (where one piece threatens two pieces) and skewers (where a valuable piece is threatened, but moving it would expose another piece to attack) are this; you're going to lose something unless you Take a Third Option.
    • Zugzwang is a situation where any move by the player to move will weaken his position - but of course, he has to move.
  • Straight for the Commander: Because both sides are a Keystone Army, your only win condition is to take out the enemy king. Taking out other enemy pieces doesn't matter, although it makes life easier for you.
  • Switch Out Move: The King and one of their Rooks may exchange places one time during the game (this is the only time a King can move more than one square).
  • That One Rule: The "en passant" move of the pawn is the most frequently overlooked or forgotten rule in the game. And for a newbie, thinking that you can move your piece to safety, only to discover that it's not actually safe, can be extremely frustrating.
  • Timed Mission: Most organized competitions give each player only a certain amount of time to make all of their moves. If a player's time runs out, that player automatically loses.
  • Took a Level in Badass: The pawns when promoted by getting to the opposite side of the board, are exchanged for any other piece (except for a second King).
  • Updated Re-release: The "New Chess" rules adopted in the 15th century and currently in use.
  • Warrior Monk: The Bishop is a member of The Church, regularly rushing out into the middle of the battle with the other warriors. (Sandbox note: does not fit the "Western version", put it in "other")
  • We Cannot Go on Without You: From each player's perspective, if their own King is ever placed in checkmate, the game ends.


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