Touch Move Rule

The “touch move rule” or just “touch move” is a common rule in tournament chess. It means that you must move a piece that you touch. Generally, the idea is that you cannot pick up lots of different pieces, think about moving them, put them down, and move something else. If you pick up a piece, then you are supposed to move it.

Touch move is a common rule in tournaments, both rapid play and slow playing game tournaments. Ask your tournament official if you are not sure if the rule applies.

Social players can use touch move, but it is less common. Social play is about having fun, and using an annoying rule is not so much fun. But it’s up to you and your friends.

Touch Move Rule Details

The touch move rule is actually pretty complicated. Here are some of the issues:

  • Touch Your Piece, Move Your Piece: If you touch a piece, you have to move it. Although you can move it to any of its possible legal squares. Note that it doesn’t matter if you touch a square with your piece, that doesn’t force you to move it to that square, and you can still choose another square. So long as you don’t “drop” the piece, don’t let go of it, so you haven’t actually finished your piece by putting down the piece.)
  • Touch Enemy Piece, Must Capture: If you touch an enemy piece (before touching any of your pieces), you have to take it.
  • First Touch: the first piece you touch is supposed to be the one you move (or capture).
  • Legal Moves Only (?): In tournaments where you cannot play illegal moves, if you cannot legally move a piece that you touch, you are then allowed to play any other legal move. So the “touch move” rule doesn’t really apply if the only possible moves would be illegal. But if there’s even one legal move, no matter how bad, you have to play it. (But in tournaments, like lightning chess, where you can play illegal moves, then you probably can play an illegal move after a touch, and, for example, your King might then get captured.)
  • Dropped Piece Finishes the Move: If you touch a piece, and then move it to another square, and then let go of that piece (dropping the piece onto the square), then your move is supposed to be finished. You aren’t even supposed to be able to move that piece anywhere else. You’re done with that move, assuming it’s legal.
  • I Adjust”: Some chess players fidget with their pieces at the start of a game, re-adjust every piece you move, and also like their Knights to be facing forwards. If you don’t want the touch move to apply, such as you are fixing up the arrangement of your pieces on the squares like this, then you have to say something. Usually people say “I adjust” or just “adjust”/”adjusting” or the fancy French version of “J’adoube” is also officially permitted.

Disputes

As you can imagine, the touch move rule is a common cause of disputes amongst younger players. And even some howling amongst the older cohort!

Advanced Examples

So here’s an example about touch move:

  • QUESTION: You pick up your Knight, touch it down on a square while holding it, then change your mind and put your Knight back on its original square. How does the touch move rule apply here?
  • ANSWER: Well, you have to move your Knight, since you touched it. But only if you legally can move the Knight. But you can move the Knight to any of its squares, even though you touched it on a destination square, you didn’t actually let it go. And if none of the Knight moves are legal, like it’s pinned to the King, then you don’t have to move the Knight, and you can then play any other legal move with any piece or pawn.

Must Take!

And an example about the “must capture” version of the “touch move rule”:

  • QUESTION: You touch an enemy rook, picking it the rook, you are planning to take it with your Queen, then you change your mind because you realize that this would lose your Queen, so you want to play some other move instead of taking the rook. You put the enemy rook down on its original square. How does the touch move rule apply?
  • ANSWER: Well, you have to capture the rook if there is any legal way to do so. But you don’t have to use the Queen if there’s another of your pieces or pawns that can capture the enemy rook.

Castling Move

There are some fancy aspects of this touch move rule:

  • Correct Way to Castle: The “correct” way to castle in chess is to use one hand, not two. And you have to touch the King first, not the Rook. This rule is horribly ignored in beginner chess, so a lot of latitude is allowed here.
  • King 2-square Move: If you touch the King and move it 2-squares, and then put it down on the destination square (letting go), has the move finished since you did “drop” the King? Yes, you have to castle, if legally possible, and if not, then you have touched the King and it must play another legal King move if possible.

Obscure Touch Move Issues

There are actually some more mind-splitting complexities to think about:

  • Accidental Touches?: If you accidentally brush a piece with your elbow, on the way to picking up a different piece, should the “elbow touch” (accidental touch) be the “first touched piece” for the touch move rule?
  • Clothing Touches?: If it’s your clothing, like a hanging sleeve, that “touches” the piece, should the touch move apply? Obviously, it’s also an accidental touch.
  • Two Pieces Touched at the Same Time: If you touch two pieces at once, like picking up both the King and Rook pieces to do a “castles move”, to which piece should the touch move rule apply? One? Both?
  • Touching Enemy and Your Piece? If you try to do a capture, picking up the enemy piece, and then your piece, have you done two touches, and you must take the piece with your touched piece? And what if you then realize that the capture is illegal, how does the touch move apply? Must you still capture the enemy piece? And what if the enemy piece cannot be captured legally, but you could legally move your own touched piece somewhere else? Must you move your piece?
  • Two Pieces Touched in Sequence: Same idea with two of your pieces: If you touch one piece, then another of your pieces, but the first cannot be legally moved, are you required to move the second piece?
  • Off Board Touches: If you’re about to Queen a pawn, does it matter which piece you pick up off the board? If you touch a bishop off the board, do you have to do “underpromotion” to a bishop? What if you touch an enemy piece off the board?
  • If you accidentally knock over your King, have you resigned? Is it touch move?
  • If a King falls in a fortress, and nobody saw you touch it, did it really move?

Feel free to annoy your official tournament referee by asking about some of these types of details. Fortunately, these oddities don’t occur often in real tournaments.

Related Chess Rules Topics

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