Setting up a chess board correctly is the first step to enjoying an exciting (or relaxing) game of chess. But chess board set up is more complicated than it looks on first pass, as evidenced by the fact that the phrases ‘how to set up a chess board’ and ‘chess set up’ are such commonly searched terms. It’s obviously important to get right in a competitive setting, but even when playing just for fun it’s essential to start off correctly or the game will be entirely different.1
In this article, we cover a couple of tricks for remembering how to set up a chess board and ensuring that you’re prepared for an engaging match. Let’s dive in!
The Basics of Chess Board Set Up
If you’re just here for details and want to get right to playing, here are the bare bones rules to remember when setting up a chess board:
- White on the Right: Always make sure the bottom-right corner square for both players is white. This is an essential rule to remember, known widely as “white on the right.”
- White pieces on ranks (rows) 1 and 2: If your chess board has letters and numbers along the side of the board, the white pieces should start on on ranks (rows) 1 and 2 and black on ranks 7 and 8. For unlabeled boards just remember the first rule ‘white on the right’.
- Rooks on Corners: The Rooks occupy the four corners of the chess board.
- Knights Next to Rooks: The Knights are placed beside the Rooks, towards the center.
- Bishops Beside Knights: The Bishops start next to the Knights.
- Queen on Her Color: The Queen is placed on her color, meaning the white Queen sits on the white square and the black Queen on the black square.
- King Beside Queen: The King takes the remaining square beside the Queen.
- Pawns in Front: Pawns are placed in front on each piece.
When you’re done the board should look like this:
That’s all there is to it; you’re ready to go. But if you’re looking for some tricks to help you remember for next time, read on.
The Chess Story
In our preschool chess curriculum we teach children the chess story. It is a simple story-based way to remember how to set up a chess board. It goes like this, with the pieces being placed as they are mentioned starting on the outside of the board on the back row and moving toward the inside (with the exception of the King and Queen who are mentioned first but placed last):
“The King and Queen are throwing a party. They invite everyone in the kingdom to their castle (place the Rooks, which resemble castle towers, on the corner squares). The Knights come from far away and stay in the castle (place the Knights next to the Rooks). The Bishops are always close the the royalty so they arrive just before the King and Queen (place the Bishops next). The King and Queen arrive fashionably late and of course the Queen’s shoes match her dress. (The last part is a reminder that the Queen always goes on the square of her color.) Finally, once the royals are in place, the members of the kingdom arrive to watch (place the Pawns on the next row).”
Chess Set Up with Letters and Numbers
If your board comes with letters and numbers like the ones in our basic sets, you’re in luck; it makes remembering the setup a bit more straightforward.
- Orientation: Place the board so that the letters are from “a” to “h” horizontally (i.e., left to right in front of the players) and the numbers from “1” to “8” vertically.
- White Pieces: Place the white pieces on the rows labeled 1 and 2.
- Row 1 (from left to right): Rook, Knight, Bishop, Queen, King, Bishop, Knight, Rook.
- Row 2: All pawns.
- Black Pieces: Place the black pieces on rows labeled 7 and 8.
- Row 8 (from left to right): Rook, Knight, Bishop, Queen, King, Bishop, Knight, Rook.
- Row 7: All pawns.
- King and Queen: Finally, the Queen always starts on her own color and the King stands beside her. If your board is numbered you have an additional check you can do. That is, Queens always start on the ‘D’ file and Kings start on the ‘E’ file.
Chess Set Up without Letters and Numbers
Letters and numbers along the side of the board are for algebraic notation and don’t affect gameplay so not all chess boards have them. Setting up the board without labels is just as easy; you just need to pay a bit more attention.
- Orientation: Make sure the bottom-right corner square is white (remember, “white on the right”). The order of the pieces is the same as above. I.e.,:
- White Pieces: Place your white pieces on the two rows closest to you.
- Front row (left to right from the player playing white’s perspective): Rook, Knight, Bishop, Queen, King, Bishop, Knight, Rook.
- Back row: All pawns.
- Black Pieces: Similarly, place the black pieces on the two rows farthest from you.
- Front row (right to left from the player playing black’s perspective): Rook, Knight, Bishop, Queen, King, Bishop, Knight, Rook.
- Back row: All pawns.
- King and Queen: The placement of the King and Queen can be one of the more difficult parts to remember and we don’t have the D/E file checks we have on labeled boards. Instead, just keep in mind the Queen always starts on here own color and the King goes beside her.
Knowing how to set up a chess board correctly is a basic yet critical skill for anyone who enjoys the game. However, it can be deceptively challenging to remember as a beginner. Whether your board has letters and numbers or not, keeping in mind the rule of “white on the right” and remembering the Chess Story will help you set up your board correctly every time. Now that you’re well-versed in chess set up, you’re ready to engage in the game of kings!
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- Editor’s note: In the biz (and Merriam-Webster) ‘chessboard’ is one word, but ‘chess board’ is a commonly used search term by new players so we use it here to reach the searchers that will find it most useful. ↩︎