Chess Board Setup: How to Set Up a Game of Chess

Trick question: What is the first move of every game of chess? Setting up the board (correctly), obviously! So, let’s dive right in and save you from the embarrassing mistake of misplacing your pieces before the game even starts 😉. The correct chess board setup is surprisingly simple once you get the hang of it.

For those of you that are in a hurry to jump into battle, here is the correct way to set up a chess board:

Chess Board Setup: This is the chess starting position
Chess Board Setup: This is the Correct Starting Position for a Chess Game

But don’t rush to setting up the pieces right away: the orientation of the board is important! Both players need a dark square in their lower left corner.

Chess Starting Position – Step by Step Guide

From the perspective of the white player, the chess board setup is as follows:

  1. The Board: Both players need a dark square in their lower left corner.
  2. Notation: The a1-square is in the lower left corner of the white player.
  3. Queen: The white queen is placed on the white, middle square of the back row.
  4. King: The white king takes the position right next to the queen – the dark, middle square.
  5. Bishops: The two bishops get placed right next to the king and queen in the back row.
  6. Knights: The knights occupy the squares directly next to both bishops.
  7. Rooks: Both rooks complete the back row with their placement in the corners.
  8. Pawns: All eight pawns are now placed in the row above.

The black pieces are mirrored perfectly, so that each black piece has a counterpart on the other side. That is called a vis-à-vis (face-to-face 👀) position, in case your French is rusty.

Chess Board Setup: Animated Diagram

If you’re more of a visual learner, you might find this animation of the chess board setup useful:

chess board setup - proper starting position animated
This Animated Diagram Shows the Proper Setup of the Chess Board

Indentifying the Chess Pieces

If you’re having trouble identifying which piece is which, the following diagram should help you:

Proper Chess Board Setup - Identifying the Chess Pieces
Proper Chess Board Setup – Identifying the Chess Pieces
  • The king is the tallest piece in chess.
  • The queen is easily identifiable by the crown she is wearing.
  • The bishop is the third tallest piece and usually has a cut on top.
  • The knight is represented by the head and torso of a horse.
  • The rook has a distinct castle shape up top.
  • The pawn is the most numerous and smallest chess piece.

How to Set up Your Chess Pieces on the Board

Let’s take a closer look at how exactly the pieces should be placed on the board. In this section we’ll dive a bit deeper and give some helpful tips, so that you’ll never have to come back to this page for the proper chess starting position (wait, this is bad for us? 🤔).

The Correct Orientation of the Chess Board

Every chess board has 64 squares in total, which is a result of 8 squares horizontally and vertically (8 x 8 = 64, right? 🤓). Each square is unique and has a designation combining a letter and a number. We cover this thoroughly in our full guide to chess notation, but let’s summarize it quickly.

Looking at the board from White’s perspective, the squares are ordered left-to-right alphabetically with letters from “a” through to “h”. Bottom-to-top, the squares are each given a number from “1” to “8”. This results in each square being identifiable through a number-letter-combination.

If your chess board doesn’t have algebraic notation on the sides, you don’t have to worry about this part. Just make sure that each player has a dark square in their lower left corner.

Ok, but what does this mean for the chess board setup? Well, since we want every game of chess to have the same starting position and subsequent notation, White needs to have their lower left square be the one named “a1”. In turn, Black will have their lower left square be “h8”. That way there won’t be any confusion in case you decide to write down your chess moves. Also, you’ll be looked at funny if you set up the board wrong during a tournament, so best avoid that ❌.

Placing the Queen correctly

This is the part most chess beginners get wrong – so pay close attention ✍️. The white queen always occupies the white, middle square of the back row. That’s where the catchy sayings “white queen – white square” and “black queen – black sqaure” come from. Basically, the queens always want to match their outfits, so place them accordingly.

The queen is usually very well recognisable because of her crown. If you’re still struggling to find out which piece the queen is, you should look for the second tallest chess piece, which is always the queen (unless you’re playing with some weird chess set we never heard of).

Proper King Position

The king is the tallest chess piece. That should make identifying the king an easy enough job. The correct position of the king is directly next to the queen, in the middle square of the back row. So the white king should be placed on a dark square, while the black king should be placed on a light square. You should now have your king and queen placed besides each other in the middle of the back row (isn’t that a romantic sight? 💖).

The Missing Pieces

Once you’ve managed to place your king and queen correctly on the board, setting up the rest of the pieces should be a piece of cake. We now have three pairs of pieces that need to be placed on the board: two bishops, two knights and two rooks. All of them go into the back row.

The two bishops are placed directly next to the king and queen on the same row. Both knights now take their places besides the bishops. The rooks complete the back row by occupying the squares in the corners (a1 and a8 for White; h1 and h8 for Black).

This Video Explains the Proper Chess Setup

For all of you, that prefer video over text (we totally get it!), here is Rebecca Taxman with Chess NYC explaining the correct chess starting position:

Chess Board Setup – Frequently Asked Questions

  • What Orientation of the Board is Correct?
    The chess board needs to be rotated in a way that both players have a dark square in their respective lower-left corners. If the board has numbers and letters on the side, the a1-square needs to be the lower-left square for White.
  • Where is the Queen Placed on the Chess Board?
    The white queen is placed on the square d1, the black queen on d8. Both queens occupy the center square on the back row which fits their color: white queen – light square; black queen – dark square.
  • Where is the King Placed on the Chess Board?
    The white king starts the game on e1, the black king is placed on e8. The kings always occupy the remaining center square of the back row, directly next to their queens.
  • How Many Squares Does a Chess Board Have?
    A chess board has 64 squares in total. They are divided up into eight ranks and eight files (8 * 8 = 64).