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Learn About Chess
By Phil Smith   
November 30, 1999

Adjournment – A game unfinished at the end of the playing session that is resumed at a later time; the last move is sealed in an envelope. Adjournments were gradually phased out in the 90’s, partly because players could now use powerful computer programs.

Algebraic notation– system for labeling a chess board so that each of the 64 squares is denoted by a number and a letter, from a-1 to h-8; files (left to right) are a-h and ranks (top to bottom) are 1-8. Algebraic notation has replaced descriptive notation in the past 30 years.

Bishop – Piece that moves diagonally as many squares as it wants. It’s worth about the same as a knight, and significantly less than a rook.

Black - player with the black pieces; black moves second, a major disadvantage when playing an experienced player.

Blindfold chess- Playing chess without sight of the board, indicating the moves orally in algebraic notation. Usually played in friendly exhibitions for fun and publicity.

Blitz – chess games with extremely fast time limits, usually five minutes per player

Blunder - very poor move, sometimes indicated on scoresheets or published analysis with two question marks; in contrast, an excellent move may be followed with one or two exclamation points.

Board one (also first board) – the highest ranked player on a team

Castling – A special, composite move in which the king moves two squares toward the corner, while the rook jumps to the square adjacent to the king. Castling brings the king to safety and centralizes the rook, and experienced players castle in almost every game.

Check- the King is in immediate attack. The king must escape check by either capturing the attacking piece, fleeing, or blocking the check with another piece. It is not possible to capture an opponent’s king.

Checkmate- a position in which the king is in check and cannot make any legal move to get out of check. Few professional games end in checkmate, because players tend to resign long before checkmate. Often abbreviated to mate.

Chessbase- Company founded in 1987 in Germany by Frederic Friedel. Chessbase developed software, which organizes millions of chess games and allows players to sift through all games played by a particular opponent or in any opening. Virtually every professional chess player uses chessbase regularly. is a popular chess news source on the net, run by the same company.

Chess clock – a double push-button clock to keep track of the time each player spends on a game; after moving, players stop their own clocks and start the opponent’s

Closed position- Type of position in which there are few pawn trades and pieces are locked in behind pawn structures. Players who like long-term planning thrive in closed positions. See open position.

Compensation- Compensation is what you get in return for a material sacrifice. Typical types of compensation could be a lead in development or superior pawn structure. Also see sacrifice and material. “He sacrificed a Knight, but he didn’t have enough compensation.”

Cook - An unintended solution of a chess problem. The term may also be used more generally to refer to a refutation to published analysis.

D-4 - White moves the Queen’s pawn two squares on the first move. The second most popular first move choice, most often the choice of strategic players. Top American players such as Igor Novikov, Alexander Onischuk, Yury Shulman, Susan Polgar and Irina Krush favor D4

Descriptive notation- Notation system, which labels squares relative to each side’s pieces. For instance, 1.e4 in algebraic notation translates as 1.PK4 in descriptive. (Pawn to King 4). In our analysis session, my octogenarian opponent started spouting out variations in descriptive notation.

Dragon - An opening set-up for black in which the pawn structure supposedly resembles a dragon. A very risky and aggressive system. The Dragon is a subvaration of the Sicilian. American Grandmaster Sergey Kudrin is feared as a violent practitioner of the Dragon.

Starting position of the Dragon

Draw- Result in which the outcome is undecided or deadlocked. A draw is worth half a point. There are many ways to achieve a draw, e.g., upon agreement, when there is insufficient material for either side to give checkmate or when the position is repeated three times.

E-4 -Moving the King pawn two squares on the first move. E4, usually the choice of attacking players, is the most popular move by a small margin, just ahead of D4. Former World Champion Bobby Fischer and unofficial champ Paul Morphy were both loyal 1.e4. Today, top U.S. players such as Larry Christiansen, Nick DeFirmian, Anna Zatonskih and Alexander Stripunsky prefer 1.e4.

Elo ratings- rating system (now used by FIDE and USCF) to estimate the relative strength of chess players based on previous results; named after Professor Arpad Elo. The Fide and USCF ratings are separate systems although they use similar formulas-it is more difficult to obtain a FIDE rating, because it requires international play. If you do get a FIDE rating, chances are it will be slightly lower than your USCF rating. Important U.S. tournaments like the World Open and the U.S. Championship are Fide rated and USCF rated.

Endgame- the phase of the game in which the material is reduced (usually queens are traded) and the result often settled; it’s important to memorize the most common ones.

Exchange – Sometimes “exchange” is used as a synonym for trade, but it also refers to a common material imbalance, involving the difference in value between a Rook (5) and a minor piece, Bishop or Knight (3). When an experienced player says: “I just sacrificed an exchange”, she means that she willingly gave up a Rook for a bishop or Knight, for some sort of tactical or positional reason.

Expert – player with a USCF rating from 2000 – 2199; the category just beneath master

FIDE (Federation International Des Echecs)- The worldwide chess federation, founded in Paris in 1924. FIDE assigns international ratings, awards titles, and organizes the most prestigious tournaments, including the Olympiad and World Championships. The president of Fide since 1995, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is also the president of Kalmykia.

Fish – slang for a weak chess player

Flag - indicator on a chess clock that drops when a time is reached- even when using digital clocks, players often shout out “flag” to announce a victory on time.

Fools’ mate - black checkmates white in two moves; very rare, since it requires white to play the worst moves possible.

Final position of Fools’ Mate

Forfeit- A player forfeits a game if he or she is an hour or more late to the game or runs out of time before arriving (in the case of a shorter time control.) You can also forfeit a game by cheating, use of a cell phone in a tournament hall or forgetting to record your result.

Gambit – opening that involves the planned sacrifice of material

GM - grandmaster

Grandmaster – The most distinguished title in chess, awarded by FIDE. A grandmaster is usually rated between 2500 up to 2851.

IM - international master

International master- the ranking just below Grandmaster, usually rated between 2400 and 2500, and also awarded by FIDE.

Kibitzer – Players who hang around post-mortems or skittles rooms, offering often colorful, and sometimes unwanted advice or comment.

King- The centerpiece of the game and the only chess piece that cannot be captured. The King moves one square in any direction. Because the King must be carefully guarded against checkmate, the King is rarely used as a fighting piece until the last stages of the game.

King’s Indian Defense- A popular and aggressive defense against 1.d4. Otherwise known as the K.I.D.

Bobby Fischer, former American World Champion played the King’s Indian
whenever he got a chance.

Knight- In many languages, the knight translates to “horse”. A short-range but tricky piece, which moves in an L-shape. The knight is the only piece that can jump over other pieces, making it particularly valuable in closed positions.

Knockout– event in which a player is eliminated after losing a match. Each round, the field is halved.

Line - synonym for variation, often used when talking about various opening possibilities.

Master - player with a rating over 2200, as awarded by the USCF. A Life master is a player who competes in over 300 games with a rating over 2200. A Senior Master is a player with a USCF rating over 2400.

Material – pieces and pawns. Material is counted by a relative value system, which players use as a guideline when deciding whether to trade one piece for another. A large disadvantage in material often prompts experienced players to resign, because extra material is often the means to inevitable checkmate. The pawn, the least valuable piece, is counted as the basic unit, 1 point. Other approximate values are knight (3), bishop (3), Rook (5), Queen (9). Because the king cannot be captured, he is not assigned a point value.

Middlegame- the phase of the game between the opening and the endgame, where a player must rely on creativity, intuition, and calculating abilities.

Grandmaster norm (International master norm) - a performance over the 2600 (2450) level, three of which are required to become a grandmaster (international master.)

Olympiad – Biennale team tournaments contested by teams representing the members of FIDE. The first Olympiad was held in London 1927.

Open position- Positions in which there are many open files and diagonals, and fewer locked pawn structures. Often incites quick contact between enemy pieces, resulting in tactical play.

Open tournament – A tournament that is open to all comers, though there is often an entry fee.

Opening- the first phase of the game in which the pieces are developed. Strong amateur players have the basic ideas and moves of their openings memorized. Professional players memorize larger numbers of openings and variations, and often develop new, never before played ideas, novelties. The names of openings can come from great players who invented or mastered the systems, such as the Najdorf Defense. Or they can refer to the opening’s origin, such as the Berlin or English Opening. This glossary presents some of the most popular openings. For a more comprehensive and in depth survey of various chess openings, consider MCO written by Grandmaster Nick De Firmian. There are more books on openings than any other phase of the game, so you should be able to find at least a few books on even the most esoteric openings.

Pairings- A table of who plays whom in a chess tournament, posted on a tournament wallboard. Players with white are listed on the left side of a pairings list, and players with black are listed on the right. In the United States, most tournaments are structured in the Swiss system, in which players with similar results are paired against each other. Players usually alternate their colors each round. Tournament directors once calculated pairings by hand. Today computer programs are used almost exclusively. See also Swiss system and wallboard.

Pawn- The weakest piece on the board. Each player gets eight at the beginning of the game. Pawns are the only chess piece that cannot move backwards.

Pawn promotion – the exchange of a pawn that reaches the 8th rank (last row) for another piece, almost always a queen.

Pawn structures - locked formations, which determine the pace of the game; often set up early in the game.

Performance rating – The rating level at which a player performs in a single tournament. For instance, a master (2200) level player, has a 2500 performance rating if she has a tournament which would be average (e.g., three losses against 2500 players, and three wins against 2500 players), and would not result in a rating point gain or loss, for a player rated 2500.

Point - a unit used to give the result of a chess game; win, 1; draw 1/2; loss 0; in a 15 round tournament, a player who wins 8 games (8 points), draws 5 (2.5 points) and loses two (no points) has a total score that can be written 10.5 /15 or 10.5 – 4.5.

Post-mortem- analysis following a game

Provisional rating- An unofficial rating used for a player who has competed in very few tournaments. Because the sample size of the player’s results is so small, their rating is considered official only after they’ve completed 20 games.

Queen- The most valuable piece in chess, which can move on diagonals (like bishops) and in straight lines (like the rooks). In Medieval Europe, the queen was the weakest piece on the board, and her sudden change in powers in the 16th century quickened the pace of the game. The presence of queens allows for spectacular mating attacks and heightens the value of king safety. Trading queens alters the nature of the game, usually transforming it into an endgame.

Rapid chess - games with time controls that range from about 25 minutes a player to 60 minutes a player. This is in between the super fast pace of blitz, and the classical time controls which range from a total of 2 to 3.5 hours for each player.

Rating - numerical values used to rank chess players. A rating is a good estimate of the playing strength of a player, especially when the player is active. Classifications according to the USCF rating system include: senior master 2400+, master 2200-2399, expert 2000 – 2199, Class A 1800-1999, Class B1600-1799 to Class J under 200. Ratings go up when you win and down when you lose. How much they change depends on the rating of your opponent. (You win more for defeating a player higher rated than you) When a USCF member has played fewer than 20 rated games, his or her rating is provisional.

Resign – to give up by declaration. Often players resign in view of inevitable checkmate or a tremendous disadvantage in material. (For instance, a rook)

Rook- The most valuable piece besides the queen. The rook moves in straight lines and is particularly powerful in the endgame.

Round robin- an event in which everybody plays everybody.

Ruy Lopez- One of the most popular openings in chess, named after a Spanish priest who wrote a book on the opening in the 16th century. Also known as the Spanish opening.

Sacrifice – voluntary surrender of material in exchange for other advantages. Also see compensation. “ I sacrificed all my pieces and bazoom!! I got checkmate!”

Sandbagging- when a player artificially lowers his or her rating so that he or she can play in weaker sections at big money tournaments, therefore increasing his or her chances of winning money. If caught, sandbaggers can lose their USCF memberships for life.

Scholar’s mate - A four-move checkmate that shows up frequently in scholastic tournaments. See Basic Tips for a demo and how to avoid it.

Scholar’s mate-Don’t let it happen to you!

Score sheet –written record of a game. Both players keep score during a tournament game; moves must be written as they are made unless a delay is allowed due to extreme time pressure

Sicilian Defense- The Sicilian is the most aggressive way to meet 1.e4, and entails responding by pushing the black c-pawn two squares. It is also the most popular defense against 1.e4 outpacing the classical favorite 1…e5 in recent decades. The Sicilian has many different subvariations, such as the Dragon, the Najdorf, the Sveshnikov, the Kalashnikov and the Pelikan. Many players are afraid of the Sicilian because of the large body of theory thought necessary to play it well.


Skittles room - room for post-game analysis. In contrast to the strict silence observed in tournament halls, skittles rooms are often loud with many kibitzers voicing their opinions.

Simultaneous ( abbreviated to simul) - an exhibition in which a strong player is invited to take on many opponents at once. Can appear amazing to a lay observer, but depending on the strength of her opponents, simuls can actually be easy for a master chess player. The master doesn’t really think hard on each board as much as make an instant intuitive decision. This is usually enough for her to win.

Strategy - long-term planning and maneuvering

Style – A commonality between the opening systems, tactics and strategies a player favors. Adjectives such as quiet, balanced, sharp and aggressive are common ways to describe style. E.g., A sharp style is one that favors tactics and risky openings and variations. Talk of style can be misleading, since in many positions all strong chessplayers would choose the same move.

Swiss system – A popular tournament format for large fields, used for most open tournaments. Before the tournament, players (or teams) are ranked according to their ratings, and assigned seed numbers. In the first round, Players are paired according to their seeds. If there are ten players in a Swiss system, in the first round the number one seed will play the sixth seed, number two will play number seven, and so on. In following rounds, players are matched with opponents with the same or similar scores. A player and opponent can meet only once.

Tactics - short operations requiring proficiency in calculating that force checkmate or a quick win of material.

Three-move repetition – the same position appears three times with the same player to move; either player may claim a draw.

Time control - pre-determined time limit for a player to complete moves; if exceeded the game is lost. Time controls range from blitz games where each player has only three minutes to classical games, in which each player has three hours.

Time pressure – When a player is forced to make a large number of moves in a short time, or else her time will run out and she will lose, regardless of how strong her position is. Time pressure often causes blunders.

Touch-move rule - player who touches a piece must move or capture the piece

Tournament director (TDs)- Tournament directors are in charge of determining pairings and prizes and moderating any disputes or claims. In U.S tournaments, there is often a low ratio between players and tournament directors. Therefore, players often have to behave well and refrain from cheating on the honor system.
I wanted to claim a draw by three move repetition, but I couldn’t find a TD. Luckily my opponent just agreed to it.

Trade (pieces) –Mutual agreement to give up pieces for opponent’s pieces, usually of the same value. (e.g.) a rook for a rook or a knight for a bishop.

USCF – United States Chess Federation. A non profit organization founded in 1939, devoted to promoting chess in America. The USCF assigns national ratings, organizes national tournaments and publishes the magazine Chess Life. Their headquarters are located in Crossville, Tennessee. The USCF executive board, a team of six to seven influential volunteers, who are elected democratically by USCF members, makes major decisions. Click here or go to About USCF to find out more about the organization.

Variation - long strings of projected moves

Wallboard- At organized chess tournaments, there are wallboards, which display the pairings, results and score tables for each section. After a game, players are responsible for posting their results on the wallboard. They write 1 next to their name for a win, ½ for a draw and 0 for a loss. In very prestigious tournaments, there are often enough tournament directors to personally record the results.

White - player with the white pieces; White moves first, a definite advantage for an experienced player.

WGM , WIM- Women’s Grandmaster, Women’s International Master

Women’s Grandmaster- (Women’s International Master)- gender specific titles awarded by FIDE to women. The average performances and ratings are lower than the regular titles, and therefore the titles are controversial.

Women’s World Championship - World Championship in which participants are female. The first women’s World Championship was a round robin held in London 1927 (won by Vera Menchik), in conjunction with the first Olympiad. From 1952 to 1998, a challenger was determined in a series of candidates’ tournaments and matches. The challenger would then play a head to head match against the title holder. Since 2000, a three week long knockout format has been instated, under which four new Women’s World Champions have since been crowned (2000, Xie Jun, 2001, Zhu Chen, 2004 Antoaneta Stefanova and 2006 Xu Yuhua) Hungarian-American Grandmaster Susan Polgar is the only American woman to win the Women’s World Championship title. In 1996 Susan unseated Xie Jun from China in a match held in Jaen, Spain.

World Championship- Organized by FIDE and open to both men and women. Official world champions include only one American, Bobby Fischer. Paul Morphy from New Orleans is considered the unofficial world champion before Steinitz.

World Champions

Willhem Steinitz 1886–1894, Austria
Emanuel Lasker 1894–1921, Germany
Jose Raul Capablanca 1921–1927, Cuba
Alexander Alekhine 1927–1935+1937-1946, Russia/France
Max Euwe 1935-1937, Holland
Mikhail Botvinnik 1948–1957 +1958-1960+1961-1963, U.S.S.R (Russia)
Vasily Smyslov 1957–1958, U.S.S.R (Russia)
Mikhail Tal 1960–1961, U.S.S.R (Latvia)
Tigran Petrosian 1963–1969, U.S.S.R (Armenia)
Boris Spassky 1969–1972, U.S.S.R (Russia)
Robert J. Fischer 1972–1975, United States
Anatoly Karpov 1975–1985, U.S.S.R (Russia)
Garry Kasparov 1985–1993, U.S.S.R (Russia)

The World Championship has been marred since 1993 now by disagreements over who is the champion. It started with a split between FIDE and an organization, PCA, founded by the reigning champ at the time, Garry Kasparov. Between 1993 and 2000, Karpov and Kasparov both claimed to be World Champion.
Since then, many of the top players in the World refused to play in FIDE knockout World Championships held in 2000-2004. These knockouts produced four champions: Alexander Khalifman from Russia,Viswanathan (Vishy) Anand from India, Ruslan Ponomariov from Ukraine and Rustam Kasimdzhanov from Uzbekistan. However, during all these years, many considered Vladimir Kramnik to be the true World Champion, since he defeated the champion of champions, Garry Kasparov in a match. (London, 2000)
In 2005, the mess was partly settled by a super strong eight player round robin held in Argentina. Veselin Topalov from Bulgaria emerged as the winner. A match between Topalov and Kramnik is scheduled for 2006. When that match is over, the chess world will have an uncontested world champion for the first time in over a decade.