Follow TV Tropes


Tabletop Game / Chess

Go To
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."
Irving Chernev

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

For the rules of the game and definitions of the most common terms, see the useful notes.

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 the 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 for a match to go than there are atoms in the entire universe; and it has a play named after it.

The game of chess originated in ancient India, likely in the 6th Century, 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 then to the Islamic Middle East, with several changes made to the rules along the way. From there, the game spread further west to Europe. The game as it exists now came into being in the 15th Century, when it 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 being able to move any number of squares diagonally rather than being limited to exactly two (a debilitating limitation which restricted it to only 8 squares on the whole board, even if it leaped over an intervening piece of either colour).


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 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.

More info 

There are, of course, many other tactics. Others include forks (where one piece, often a knight, is in a position to attack two pieces or more without being threatened 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 while there are still many strong players from Russia, there is (as of 2020) a wide variety of nationalities among the world's top players. At present, the current World Champion is Norwegian Grandmaster 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 Shōgi.

The game provides examples of:

  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: While gambits in general lead to sharp attacking lines, the Danish Gambit, Halloween Gambit and Fried Liver Attack exemplify this trope as they usually leave white's position hopeless if the attack fails. Then there is the habit of lower rank players to play pointless checks even while leaving their own king exposed.
  • Attack Pattern Alpha: There are a (relatively) limited number of ways to start the game and still have a chance of winning. Chess openings are one of the most studied aspect of the game and different ones have been named, so if the white opens with the Queens Gambit, the black might respond with Slav Defence which could lead to Exchange Variation etc. etc
  • Awesome, but Impractical:
    • The queen is the most powerful piece on the board, but is at risk of being harrassed by minor pieces if she is brought out too early.
    • Pawn promotion to a queen, or rook. While it can be decisive, it still requires careful planning, as having too much firepower in an endgame can easily end up in a stalemate instead of a checkmate. In many cases, an underpromotion (usually to a knight) can be way more useful.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Pawn promotion, usually to a queen, usually decisive in a game.
  • Batman Gambit: Obviously happens all the time in Chess as both sides try to bait each other into playing a bad move. A swindle is basically when a player pulls off such a gambit from a losing position.
  • 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.
    • It was once allowed to capture the king (and win immediately) in blitz tournaments if the opponent didn't notice the check being given and made an illegal move.
  • 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.
    • The standard design, material and color of chess sets used in serious competition is all about practicality. Boring practicality. The exact opposite of the fancy, flashy, elaborate chess sets you generally see in fictional media or those that are sought after by art collectors. Those are Awesome, but Impractical.
    • Underpromotion. Sure, having a second queen suddenly appearing at the endline is damn cool, but making it actually useful requires tactical consideration and careful playing. A mere knight or rook, or occasionally but less often, a bishop, can be more useful in many cases (especially the knight, as it cannot be blocked).
  • 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 fact, it's considered rude to announce it as it implies your opponent is too stupid to realize the situation.
    • 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.
  • Cool Old Guy: Many strong chess players continue to compete into their 60s, 70s and even 80s, such as Korchnoi, Smyslov or Lasker.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: The main reason the bishop is weaker than the rook. While both can move as far as they like along one set of directions (rows and columns for the rook, diagonals for the bishop), bishops can only ever land on squares of the same color as they start the game on, and thus can't threaten opposing pieces stationed on an opposite color square. This makes it very difficult to use them to finish off an opposing piece that can move onto such a square.
  • Decapitated Army: Checkmate means an instant loss for the receiving player, independently of any advantages they might have at the moment.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: A valid tactic to use against overly aggressive players, as pieces that become isolated from support are vulnerable.
  • Difficult, but Awesome: The game is notoriously difficult to learn and play well but it’s one of the most famous games of all time for a reason.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: The Queen is the most powerful and active piece on both sides of the board. It has the most dangerous, dynamic and far-reaching moves and its capture can be a brilliant coup by the opposing player. Still, the game is not over nor lost until the relatively passive King surrenders or is immobilized via checkmate.
  • Dub Name Change
    • The bishop piece is given a different name in almost every language.
      • In French, it's called fou, which means "jester" in the game's medieval context.
      • In German and Dutch, it's respectively called läufer and loper, which mean "runner".
      • In Italian, it's called alfiero, which means "flag bearer".
      • In Russian, it's called slon, which means "elephant".
      • In Finnish, it's called lähetti, which can mean "messanger" or "courier".
      • In Spanish, it's called alfil, which is derived from the old Persian pil, meaning "elephant".
      • In Hebrew, it's called ratz, which can either mean "messenger" or "runner".
      • In Croatian, it's called lovac, which means "hunter".
      • In Romanian, it's called nebun, which means"madman".
    • In French, the queen piece is called the dame, which means "lady".
  • Epic Fail:
  • Even the Subtitler Is Stumped: In chess annotation, ! and ? symbols mark good and bad moves (sometimes with !! for amazing/game winning moves and ?? for blunders/game losing 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.)
  • Everything Explodes Ending: Entirely possible in atomic chess.
  • 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". Underpromoting is sometimes taken as a grave insult, since it implies you don't see your opponent as dangerous enough to bother with a queen promotion.note 
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: The pawns in potential. See at Field Promotion.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: God save us from the enemy's queen, the most powerful and dangerous piece on the board. Taking her head on is usually a death sentence for any piece foolish enough to try.
  • Godzilla Threshold: One of the basic rules. If the king is threatened, it must be protected at all costs.
  • Golden Snitch: Some variants do this. Three check chess has the additional win condition that the first player to get three checks in wins. King of the Hill chess has the additional win condition that the first player to get his king onto one of the four center squares wins.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: Some chess terms are borrowed into other languages without a translation, such as Zugzwang (see Stupidity Is the Only Option below).
    • Gratuitous French: English chess terms in particular borrowed quite a bit from French, including en passant capture ("in passing") and en prise (under attack).
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Neither of the sides are good or bad, and don't have any characterization.
  • 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.
    • An older version of this rule required the players to repeat exactly the same moves three times in a row, instead of merely repeating the position.
    • If 50 moves are played without a pawn move or a capture the game is drawn. It was thought when this rule was added to tournaments that all such positions must truly be drawn, but computer analysis has shown that there are indeed a few positions that are forced mates requiring more than fifty moves, however the rule remains in place (in part because some of the discovered positions require hundreds of moves to reach checkmate).
    • In at least two cases, actual grandmasters playing in a tournament asked the referee whether they can castle when the rook they want to use for castling is under attack. Yes, they can.
  • Handicapped Badass: Physical disabilities don't matter as much in chess. For instance, Mikhail Tal had only three fingers on his right hand, and Boris Verlinsky (an old-time Soviet champion) was almost deaf.
  • Highly Specific Counterplay: The castling move was specifically developed to counter the threat created by having the critical king jeopardized when the central pawns are deployed to control the board's center. This leaves the king vulnerable to diagonal pieces such as the bishop or queen. Castling is allowed once per game, which moves the king to one side, safe behind a wall of pawns.
  • Instant-Win Condition: If either King is put in a position of certain doom, the game ends, even if that King's team failed to lose a single piece the entire game.
  • Interface Spoiler: Part and parcel of chess problems and studies. The problem's caption outright tells that there's a checkmate in a set amount of moves (or, in case of studies, that there's a way to win or draw) by force in this position, and you only have to find it.
  • 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 (move it closer to the center of the square) without having to move it.
  • Keystone Army: Each of the opposing sides, as they lose when the King is placed in checkmate.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: It's called "resigning" when you throw in the towel, and it's generally considered proper etiquette to resign a lost cause rather than fight to the bitter and bloody end.
  • Lost in Translation: Many have asked why the Queen is so much more powerful than the King, to whom she would be subservient in an actual Medieval European Court. This is likely because in the origin country of India, the piece represented not a Queen, but the King's Vizier.
  • Mechanically Unusual Fighter:
    • The knight is the only piece that is able to jump over the other pieces during its movement. Its attack pattern is also unconventional, so it very often can attack the other piece types, barring an enemy knight, without leaving itself open to retaliatory attack by the targeted piece.
    • The pawn is the only piece whose movement differs from its attack pattern. In addition, it is the only piece that can upgrade into other pieces.
    • Downplayed with the king piece. Because the objective of the game is to trap the enemy king into checkmate, it's illegal for one to make moves that put one's own king piece in check.
  • 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.

    Garry Kasparov's 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 Garry 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.Note 
  • The Millstone:
    • The famous Smothered Mate (see illustration) where a single knight attacks a king surrounded by its own "protective" pieces who block out all escape squares, allowing this beautiful (and somewhat embarrassing) checkmate.
    • "Back Rank" checkmates where the King is checked by the opponent's Rook or Queen, and its forward escape squares are all blocked by its own pawns or pieces.
    • 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.
  • More Dakka: The fundamental principle behind formations such as Alekhine's Gun, the aim of which is to overwhelm an opponent's defenses with sheer firepower.
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: Between 1948 and mid-2000s, chess world champions represented either the Soviet Union or Russia, with the exception of 1972-75, when Bobby Fischer took the title from Boris Spassky. Even Fischer was called by some "the epitome of Soviet chess school", as he learned Russian specifically to study Soviet chess literature.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Claude Frizzell Bloodgood, chess player and matricide.
  • Never Say "Die": Despite chess being meant to resemble a battle, pieces removed from the board are always "captured", never "killed". The king can't even be captured (where he would, that's checkmate). May make sense if it's understood as the pieces are only removed until the game is over, and then they play all over again...
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Arrogance is one of the deadliest weaknesses a player can have. Some people won't hesitate to take advantage of it.
    • Some openings play out like this. For example, in the Alekhine's Defence, Black wastes turns moving the King's knight to tempt White into building up a pawn structure in the center of the board after which Black attempts to take advantage of White's overextension.
    • In a particularly notorious example, Tony Miles, a grandmaster, defeated World Champion Anatoly Karpov by psyching him out with the seemingly questionable St. George Defence.
  • 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.
    • It is said that time limits for formal play were introduced after an opponent drove 19th century grandmaster Paul Morphy to frustration by spending several hours on one move.
  • 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.
  • Oxymoronic Being: En passant has managed to achieve the state of being an Infamously Obscure rule.
  • Pinned Down: Can happen to pieces that become trapped in a spot where they are not imminently threatened, but cannot be moved without placing them under threat of capture.
  • Press Start to Game Over: The fool's mate, which puts White into a checkmate in two moves.
  • 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 (pin the forking piece or give a check with one of your forked pieces).
    • A similar situation can arise as a result of pieces becoming overworked (used to provide critical defensive coverage to more than one other piece which both become threatened at the same time).
    • Zugzwang is a situation where any move by the player to move will weaken his position — but of course, he has to move.
  • Schmuck Bait: Why the Scholar's Mate works so well against novices. They'll go for the seemingly exposed queen with their knight without thinking... and completely overlook the ensuing checkmate.
  • Stone Wall: Properly deployed, pawns can become this. Although they are slow and not dynamic in attack, their numbers and ability to support each other in adjacent rows can be used to create defensive formations that are impossible to penetrate with more dangerous attacking pieces at anything less than self-defeatingly high costs.
  • 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 directly matter, although it makes life easier for you.
  • Stupidity Is the Only Option: Zugzwang (German for "compelled to move") occurs when any move you make will weaken your position, yet you must make a move because passing your turn is not allowed.
  • Suicide Attack: Frequently a key tactic. Pieces can be used in sequences of moves which will culminate in their capture in order to improve positioning on the board or create a weakness in the opponent's defenses.
  • Surprise Checkmate: It's technically possible to get your own king out of danger and completely trap the opposing king, but this is very rare. It usually requires your opponent to not be paying attention, or is running so low on time that they can't really afford to think about strategy.
  • Switch-Out Move: Castling. 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).
  • 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).
    • The Kings themselves as well, though it's less obvious as they don't get to have a crowning moment of awesome (they already have a crown). It's a common misconception that the King is the second weakest piece, being only stronger than the pawn in spite of their importance, but they are in fact worth 4 points in terms of fighting power. For context, the minor pieces (Bishops and Knights) are worth only 3 points each. The only reason why Kings can't really unleash this power earlier on is because a) their safety is paramount and b) they have an entire army that they should delegate tasks to — but all that changes in the late-middle to end game where most pieces and pawns has been whittled away or busy holding the line, which is the precise moment when Kings need to get off their armchairs and lead on the front lines, frequently to clear the way for their own pawns slaying enemy pawns, and then escort those pawns from the enemy King so the pawns themselves could take a level in badass.
  • Updated Re-release: The "New Chess" rules adopted in the 15th century and currently in use.
  • We Cannot Go On Without You: From each player's perspective, if their own King is ever placed in checkmate, the game ends.
  • We Win... Because You Didn't: It's often possible to force your opponent to draw from a losing position. High level chess tournaments are won by score or just "best out of X games", which encourages players to try for a draw if they're losing.
    • The Armageddon blitz works by this trope. White gets an extra minute on their clock, but if White doesn't win the game outright, Black wins.
  • Whammy: There is a non-luck-based version, the form of zugzwang called the trebuchet.
  • Zerg Rush: Dunsany Chess or "Horde Chess" is a variant featuring a standard chess army against 32 pawns.
    • Can be downplayed in standard chess with attacking sequences that involve sending several pawns at once at an opponent's defenses.

Fictional works about chess:



  • The Royal Game, by Stefan Zweig, is about a prisoner tortured by constant isolation, who eventually manages to secure a book of chess tactics. He ends up playing games against himself to pass the time, which make him very good but at the cost of his sanity.
  • Classic Singapore Horror Stories: One of the stories, Checkmate, is about a Professor and chess expert who is dangerously obsessed with the game, to the point of abandoning his wife and daughters, and ultimately murdering a rival who is better at chess than him.

Live-Action TV


Web Original

  • SCP Foundation's SCP-1875. It's a chess AI with a magnetic chess board that can move the AI's pieces. It has a dial with multiple levels of AI difficulty, with the final setting causing the AI to make illegal moves and bad moves and become violent with the pieces. As for the parts of the AI and chessboard that don't directly involve the game, things get...very creepy, as per SCP standards. It turns out that the machine's intelligence is... not at all artificial.

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: