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Chess Terms Explained for Beginners

A polymath from humble beginnings, spiralling. Bit of a wretch.

Learn some common terms used in the game of chess.

Learn some common terms used in the game of chess.

Chess Is a Melting Pot of Languages

Over four hundred years, chess has accumulated a host of concepts and jargon which have been named in various European languages. For a native English speaker, these concepts can seem foreign and alien, even more so because of how they are named.

From German to French and even Arabic, chess has seen a lot of cultural influence over the years, which makes an understanding of these terms highly necessary. We simplify some of the most commonly seen concepts for your convenience below.

A Vocabulary List for Beginners

Bear in mind that this list is purely for beginners. It's not meant for experienced players, who will already be familiar with some/all of these terms.

J'adoube

J'adoube—or the English version "adjust"—refers to the practice of adjusting one's chess pieces on the squares before the game begins. As games at the highest level use the touch-move rule (a piece once touched has to be moved; no other piece can be moved), it is important to get a feel for the pieces and ensure everything is in order before beginning.

The highlighted white pawn can capture the black pawn en passant.

The highlighted white pawn can capture the black pawn en passant.

En Passant

Beginners may know that pawns can either move one or two squares when they are in their starting position on the 2nd or 7th rank, and they can only capture pieces diagonally. For example, in the picture above, the black pawn moves from the f7 square to the f5 square. However, in case a pawn moves two squares, and avoids the capture square of the opposing pawn (in the image, the black pawn would have been captured on f6, and hence has been moved to f5), the opponent can still capture the pawn through a rule known as en passant.

As demonstrated in the image, the e5 pawn can move diagonally to f6, despite the opposing pawn being on f5, and capture it by assuming that it is still on f6. This rule is known as en passant, and it is only applicable in pawn captures by other pawns. For example, this rule cannot be used when knights/bishops/rooks are used to capture pawns.

Exchange Up

The points system of chess is such that pieces are given points based on their strength in the game. A knight and bishop are considered minor pieces and are worth 3 pawns each. A rook is worth 5 pawns, and a queen is worth 9 pawns.

A player is considered to be in an "exchange up" position if they have managed to trade a knight/bishop worth 3 pawns for a rook, which is worth 5 pawns. This effectively means that one side has a material advantage worth 2 pawns.

The white bishops have been developed via fianchetto.

The white bishops have been developed via fianchetto.

Fianchetto

Fianchetto refers to a way of developing the bishop in chess. In the image above, you can see that both the white bishops have been placed on the longest diagonal of the board, where they wield the most power. This practice of placing the bishop on b2 and g2 if white, and b7 and g7 if black, is known as fianchetto of the bishops. This is used in hyper-modern openings like the Catalan, Sicilian Dragon, and others.

Classical, Rapid, Blitz, and Bullet

Time controls are an important part of chess, with each type considered a slightly different variant.

  • Classical chess refers to the original style, where time controls can range from a minimum of 120 minutes per player, with additional time for subsequent moves, to absolutely no time controls, with play being adjourned after significant time. In modern times, the 100 minutes for 40 moves rule is generally applied, and games are finished on the same day, unlike the 1980s and before.
  • Rapid chess refers to a shorter time control where the time allowed is more than 10 minutes, but less than 60 minutes.
  • Blitz chess refers to time controls where the time allowed is less than 10 minutes. Move increments are generally used, with players getting one or two seconds added with every move made.
  • Bullet chess refers to time controls where players have less than three minutes to make all their moves. Hyper-bullet and ultra-bullet refer to 30- and 15-second games.

Increment

Started by the great Bobby Fischer, increment refers to the addition of a fixed amount of time that's added to a player's time after every move made. Generally, in classical games, increments are usually around 30 seconds to a minute per move made, and around 2–5 seconds at lower time controls.

This feature was instituted to allow players to make moves even when their time was running low, and it prioritized good chess under pressure rather than losing on time or blundering under time pressure.

Luft

Luft, the German word for air, refers to the practice of making some space for the king to move in advance, to avoid a checkmate.

This board position demonstrates zugzwang.

This board position demonstrates zugzwang.

Zugzwang

A player is said to be in "zugzwang" when any legal move they make will worsen their position. As demonstrated in the image above, the obligation to move forces the players to worsen their position by moving.

Patzer

A patzer is an amateur player with a low understanding of the game.

Prophylaxis/Prophylactic Moves

This practice refers to the tendency of players to anticipate their opponents' developing moves and not allow them to happen by making moves which nullify them.

Zwishenzug

A Zwishenzug refers to an in-between move where a player forces their opponent to reply (in most cases, a check) before continuing with their planned mode of attack.

Swiss Format

A Swiss format refers to a format where a fixed number of rounds happen between players who have been matched based on a similar score in the tournament. However, care is taken to ensure that no players play each other twice. Pairings are announced after each round, as the results have a direct bearing on them.

The system was first used in 19th century Switzerland, and it is hence known as the Swiss system. The Grand Swiss and the Olympiad are some of the tournaments to use this format.

Caissa

Caissa is the god of chess, and the term was borrowed from an 18th century poem.