Why Do Chess Players Touch All Their Pieces Before A Game?

If you’ve ever watched two players face up against each across the chess board, you may have seen them both carefully go down the rows of pieces just touching each piece. Is this something that the rules of chess require or is there a good reason for them to do this? Are you obliged to touch the pieces before you begin? The good news is that there is a simple explanation for this behavior.

Why do chess players touch all their pieces before a game? Chess players touch all their pieces before a game to confirm that they are all on the right squares before they play. This is important as moving a piece from the wrong square when you begin (such as a knight on a bishop’s space) can instantly disqualify you from the game. It’s part of the general etiquette of chess.

Let’s take a look at the rules regarding touching pieces.

Why chess players touch pieces before the game - ChessPulse.com
Why chess players touch pieces before the game – ChessPulse.com

The Rules Of Chess And Touching Pieces

We’ve heard a lot of people online complaining that there are “so many rules regarding touching pieces in chess” but this isn’t the case. In fact, there are very few that relate to touching pieces and they are:

  1. The touch-move rule. This is probably the most important rule regarding touching pieces and it’s one that’s very easy to fall afoul of if you don’t incorporate it into your casual game play too. The rule says that if a player deliberately touches a piece when they are supposed to make a move then they must move that piece though there must be a legal move for them to play (otherwise they may move another piece). The rule also says that if you touch one of your opponent’s pieces first, if you can capture it with a legal move then you must capture it. This rule is always enforced in tournament settings and if you want to force another player to follow the rule, you must call over an arbiter prior to touching any of your own pieces.
  2. The adjustment rule. Sometimes, you don’t put a piece down exactly where you want it and sometimes it gets moved a little when a nearby piece is moved, captured, etc. you are not required to try and guess which square a piece sits on and you may move the piece but before you do so, you must vocally declare “I adjust” or “j’adoube” (this is the French for “I adjust” and the rules of chess are administered by the French-speaking body FIDE) or the same phrase in any local language. You are not permitted to adjust the pieces on the board during your opponent’s move and must wait until you are on your clock time to do so.
  3. The no taking it back rule. You could think of this as the anti-touch rule. If you have released a piece that you are moving and the piece is now on a square that it could have legally moved to – then your turn is over and you may not move the piece to a more advantageous square. You may not retract any legal move once your hand has been removed from it.

Why Do These Rules Exist?

The touch move rule is something that many new players to the game of chess find deeply frustrating. They feel it’s unfair and that it punishes them for making a minor mistake. We, respectfully, disagree with these players.


Chess is a game that involves thinking. Players are meant to visualize their future positions and then work through them in order to improve their own positional play and tactics. If you were able to pick up the pieces and move them around during your turn, without having to commit to these movements, then you would be able to work through the game with far less visualization required. This would be a substantial advantage and change the very nature of the game.

We certainly know that it’s a frustrating rule (nearly every player has infringed this rule at some point and then been forced by their opponent to follow it) but in the long run, it will benefit your chess playing to abide by it because it will force you to do your thinking before you reach for the board to move a piece.

Not that this will stop you from making the occasional blunder, as you can see from our article on grandmaster blunders everyone makes mistakes in chess even the greatest players that have ever lived.

Deliberateness Matters When Touching Pieces

The word “deliberate”, however, is important. If you accidentally brush against another piece whilst clearly moving your hand to grab another piece – then you aren’t compelled to move that piece. You are also not obliged to move a piece if you have declared that you intend to adjust it.

If you find yourself in the unusual situation where it can’t be determined whether you touched your own piece or your opponent’s piece first, tradition dictates that it shall be assumed that you went with your own piece.

Touch And Castling

It is also important to note that these rules are important when castling. Castling is considered to be  king move and if you pick up the rook first then your opponent may be able to claim that you had no intention of castling and force you just to move the rook.

It’s also important to note that you are meant to move both the king and the rook with the same hand and that using the other hand may be considered a signal that you have ended your move and that it was not legal.

In these circumstances, your opponent may be allowed to compel you to move your king just one space as your only legal move.


Touch And Promotion

If you move a pawn to the final rank and then release the pawn so you are not touching it, you may not then move your pawn to another space or change your mind about moving the pawn. However, in technical terms – your promotion of the pawn is not completed until you have removed the pawn from the board and replaced it with a major or minor piece. This must be done once the pawn reaches the final rank and not on a following turn.


Touching All Your Pieces

As you can see, the rules don’t require a chess player to touch their pieces before the game is begun at all. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea to do so. We’ve seen games lost when a player has started with their pieces on the wrong squares and then made their first move – immediately disqualifying themselves.

It’s a good idea to run through each piece and check that it’s on the right square and positioned how you would position it and to ensure that the white square is in the right hand corner of the board as you face it. You don’t want to give away the game for nothing, do you?


Cheating And Touching Pieces

It is not unknown for a player to make a bad move and then try to claim “I adjust” as they move the piece back to its original square. This is very bad form and is considered to be cheating. There was once a Yugoslav Grandmaster called Milan Matulovic who pulled this trick in a tournament. He was forever known to other players as “J’audobovic” for it. Chess players don’t like cheats any more than they do in any other sport.


When Did The Touch Rules Come About?

Chess was once a very serious sport, indeed, because it was common for people to bet on the outcome of a match. Good players earned their livings like this. So, the touch a piece, move a piece philosophy appears to have been introduced during the Middle Ages when gambling on chess was the standard.

Oddly, there was a time when a rule existed that forced a player who could not make a legal move or who had made an illegal move to return their piece to its original square and either move their king or forfeit their move completely! This was abandoned in the 19th century.


Conclusion

Why do chess players touch all their pieces before a game? There is no requirement to do so and in a tournament if you come to a chess board that has been set up for you and you are happy with the layout of the pieces, etc. you don’t have to touch the pieces before the clock begins but most players will do so. It’s a bit of a pre-match ritual that is part of general chess etiquette.

It also allows you to ensure that each piece is sat comfortably in the right position in each square and that you have each piece on the right square. If you start the game with your king and queen reversed, for example, or with the black square in the right hand corner, etc. then if you make your first move as white – you have lost the game. So, it’s useful to just have a check through before you begin.

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