The enormous popularity of Netflix's The Queen's Gambit has propelled chess into the international spotlight better than any film, book, tournament or player ever has.
It may have something to do with the protagonist being female; after all, the chess world boasts a mere 37 chess players who are women versus pages and pages of male chess players. Whether there's any truth to that idea is immaterial. The important thing is that, thanks to that show, chess is going mainstream.
So, if you're scouring online marketplaces for the finest chess set you can buy - or scouring your attic and cabinets for that set you've had since childhood, you'll want to know how to play once you find what you're looking for. Arguably the best place to start is by learning about each piece: what it can do, how much power it has and how it can impact your play.
Stop your chess clock and gather 'round as Superprof explains the power of each chess piece.
A Brief Overview
Chess, as we know it, is only about 6 centuries old; it derives from a Chinese game called xiangqi, which could mean either Elephant Game or Figure Game because the ideogram representing those two words are the same. China adopted the game sometime in the 7th Century CE, drawing on an even older game played in India and Persia.
Fundamentally, chess is a game of military strategy designed according to the armies of the day.
When you think about chess through the lens of history, it makes perfect sense that pawns would be first into battle, the queen could move about virtually unrestricted and that the king must be protected at all costs.
That might help to explain why, although the queen has regenerative powers - once a pawn moves to the eighth rank, it gets promoted to the 'rank' the promoted pawn's player desires, the game is decided only on the king's options - stalemate or checkmate.
Note that, often, promoted pawns become queens but they could also be promoted to knights, rooks or bishops, as the promoted pawn's player decides. However, there can only ever be one king per player, so a pawn should never be promoted to king.
Thinking of chess in historical terms also helps explain why the pieces occupy the places they do.
The rooks represent the stronghold's walls, thus must stand on the outside of the line-up. The knights, with their ability to hop over obstructions and travel long distances, needn't be as close to the sovereigns as possible. The bishops, presumably doubling as advisers, should stand next to their masters while the queens, who would face each other in reality, also must face off on the board.
That entire regal row stands behind a line of pawns.
Usually first into battle and largely considered expendable, the pawn nevertheless plays a huge role in a player's chess strategy. One may, for example, prefer openings that see the king's pawns move forward two squares for a face-off (the Spanish opening, Italian opening and others) or invoke the Sicilian Defence.
For all of their potential power, pawns are the least mobile chess pieces. They are allowed a double-square move only once, when they leave their opening position. After that, they may progress only forward, one square at a time, unless attacking. Then, they may move diagonally, but still only one square at a time.
Even the king has greater latitude in movement, for all that it too can move only one square at a time. Still, it can move in any direction and onto any colour square...
Keep in mind that pawns may only attack on the diagonal; if they confront an opponent's piece head-on, their progress will be blocked until that piece moves. Such attacks are not limited to opponents' pawns, though. They can attack other pieces.
Pawns, for all of their utility, are only accorded one point... unless they can traverse the entire board, after which they can be promoted.
Of course, before discounting pawns as completely disposable, you should find out more about common chess strategies, implemented early in the game, that rely on pawn position...
Think again about a medieval king's advisers: they were long on knowledge and possibly quite adept at laying out strategy but, as far as action is concerned, they were happy to let others do the dirty work. The same might be said for chess bishops.
They may only move diagonally, and they must stay on their colour, meaning the black bishop next to the king can only travel on dark squares while the white bishop next to the queen may traverse the board only on light squares. Despite those limitations, bishops may travel as far as they wish, stopping only when capturing a piece.
Or when it reaches the position the player intends.
Like most other pieces, the bishop cannot jump over pieces of its own colour. That might explain why the Spanish Opening is the most common; it frees up white's bishop and queen without given black the same advantage.
For its relatively minor power in the game, each bishop is accorded three points.
This is the only chess piece that cares not whether there's anything in front of it. The knight, with its unusual pattern of movement, may jump over any other piece, white or black.
Knights travel two squares at a time: one lateral/straight and one diagonal, essentially forming an L-shape. They may move forward, backward or sideways but they are unparalleled at commanding the board's center.
In just two moves, either player's (queen) knight may take the E4 position, a valuable, strategic square that could help determine the outcome of the game.
Oh, you will probably need to know what we mean by E4; why not consult our article on chess notation?
Nevertheless, knights are considered a minor piece; their worth, like the bishop's, is limited to three points.
How would a medieval city with no walls defend itself? How would a chess king fare without fortification from its outermost piece?
The answer to both of those questions is: not well.
With the rook, we're getting into some serious power!
It moves horizontally or vertically for as many squares as you wish, as long as its path is not blocked by a piece of its own color. Additionally, it provides a secret 'out' for a king in trouble. The move is called castling, in which the king and rook (almost) change places. Castling may only take place if:
- neither the king nor the rook has moved from their starting position
- there are no other pieces between rook and king
- the king is not in check
- the king will not pass through any squares under attack
- the king will not land on a 'danger' square
Obviously, castling can only happen once per game. It is this tactic and the rook's versatility that accords it its five-point value.
Here is where true chess power lies! The queen has the most mobility - she can move like a rook or a bishop, whatever your strategy demands. Indeed, the only piece she cannot mimic is the knight; its moves and powers are unique.
Also, she cannot leap over other pieces on the board.
Still, the queen is the power behind the throne. She is accorded a full nine points and is (or should be) every player's goal for capture.
Fun fact: because of the queen's powers, the game is sometimes referred to as Mad Queen Chess. It may also explain why Netflix chose The Queen's Gambit for its title, as opposed to The King's Gambit or Ruy Lopez...
Although the most important, the king is by no means the most powerful chess piece. It can only move one square at a time - albeit in any direction and is constantly under threat. Furthermore, if he's under imminent threat, a warning must be given that he's in check.
Each side can only have one king; a pawn cannot be promoted to king. A king cannot be captured, once he runs out of safe spaces to move to in his limited fashion, the game is over.
Technically, a pawn could be promoted to king but your game will invariably end in a draw. Besides, don't we know what happens when two kings claim the same throne?
Conversely, if the king can continue to move indefinitely to avoid capture but cannot defeat his opponent, the game is considered a draw.
The king is not assigned a point value.
The book that The Queen's Gambit is based on was published in 1983. The story is set in the late 1950s / early 1960s and describes the feats of a savant female chess player.
This story oddly parallels Bobby Fischer's trajectory in the chess world.
He came to prominence in the era Queen is set in and won his first-ever Grandmaster tournament when he was just 14... coincidentally close in age to Beth Harmon.
One plotline involves Beth's struggle with substance abuse, which she uses to mask or mute her mental health issues. Bobby Fischer never availed himself of drugs or alcohol (that we know of) but struggled with his mental health for most of his adult life.
Finally, The Queen's Gambit is having the same effect as Bobby Fischer had after beating Boris Spassky in 1972: a new generation of game enthusiasts are now indulging in what the New York Times calls "a similar chess mania".
Are you such an enthusiast? Learn more about Beginner chess strategy...