Chess Ability Levels

Getting good at chess involves mastering a huge number of rules, tactics, and techniques. Here's an unofficial checklist of the various things that you need to know, roughly organized according to playing ability or rating:

Level 0

No idea how to play chess.

Level 1 (Rank Beginner Learning the Rules)

You understand:

Mistakes you make: and things you don't understand:

Level 2 (Vague Understanding of Rules)

You understand:

Mistakes you make: and things you don't understand:

  • Incorrect set up of board (wrong pieces sometimes, King and Queen swapped, Knights and Bishops swapped, wrong color squares oriented)
  • Knight jumps a bit of a mystery still
  • Pawn 2-square moves are not only on the start position.
  • Pawn captures diagonally still vague.
  • Castling wrongly (1-square; 3-square; out of check)
  • Don't notice all checks

Level 3 (Basic Mastery of Rules)

You understand:

  • Setting up the pieces mostly correctly.
  • Moving pieces correctly.
  • Checkmating (somewhat understood; rather than take the King)
  • Castling (proper 2-move castling)
  • Pawn 2-square starting move correctly.
  • Pawn captures diagonally; moving forwards correctly.

Mistakes you make: and things you don't understand:

  • Don't notice all checks (even when you make them!)
  • Leave your pieces to be taken often
  • Don't notice that you could take opponent's loose pieces
  • Advanced castling rules (out of check, through check, prior moves)
  • En passant pawn captures (don't know it)
  • Incorrect setup of board (wrong color squares; King/Queen swapped still)

Level 4 (Some Tactical Understanding)

You understand:

  • Take opponent's loose pieces
  • Don't leave your pieces to be taken
  • Checking
  • Notice checks mostly (but not always)
  • Basic 1-move checkmates sometimes seen (back rank mates)
  • Most checkmates are accidental (lots of pieces around King)
  • Very basic openings: double King-pawn opening.

Mistakes you make: and things you don't understand:

  • Don't see all captures for you or opponent
  • Don't see all checks
  • Don't really notice anything the opponent is doing.
  • Don't see any 2-move tactics (pins, skewers, forks)
  • Queen coming out early, too often (and is often lost)
  • Rooks coming out early, often lost.
  • Lots of pawn moves in opening
  • Cannot checkmate with Queen plus other piece
  • Do not recapture swaps (e.g. opponent takes your Knight with Bishop, you should take the Bishop back, but don't)
  • Advanced castling rules a mystery (still castle out of check, through check)
  • En passant still a mystery
  • Castle correctly, but improperly by touching Rook first, or with two hands.
  • Stalemate not understood

Level 4 (Basic Rule & 1-Move Tactical Mastery)

You understand:

  • Pieces and pawns moving correctly
  • Pawn captures, forwards, and 2-move starts done correctly.
  • Pawn promotion to Queens correctly.
  • Castling correctly (and doing so in most games)
  • Checking and Checkmate mostly correctly
  • Stalemate understood (but still not always avoided)
  • Notice checks of King almost always
  • 1-move checkmates (e.g. back rank mate)
  • 1-move captures (detect loose pieces)
  • Responding to the opponent's moves (e.g. seeing pieces that are being attacked)
  • Protecting most pieces; not putting pieces to be taken often.
  • Losing Queen less often. Keeping Queen at home more often.
  • Some idea about openings: move a pawn (double King-pawn or double Queen pawn), move a Knight, move a Bishop, etc. Not moving Rooks early.
  • Developing most pieces (Knights and Bishops)
  • Fewer unnecessary pawn moves. Not moving only pawns in opening.
  • Checkmating with Queen plus other piece (e.g. against a castled King)
  • Scholar's Mate (with Bishop and Queen) occurs or is attempted in pretty much every game.
  • Re-capture swaps usually (exchanging pieces)
  • Biffing pieces with pawns (often but not always)
  • Some castling advanced rules known (e.g. cannot castle out of check)
  • En passant known somewhat (but still not fully understood)
  • Checkmating with Queen-and-Rook vs King, or Rook-and-Rook vs King done fairly well.
  • Knight forks starting to be understood. Others not so much.

Mistakes you make: and things you don't understand:

  • Pawn direction confusion (especially with interlocking pawns)
  • Pawns taking me (still putting my pieces where enemy pawns can take them, even though I'm seeing where I can be taken by enemy pieces)
  • Bishop moves sometimes slide off the diagonal onto the wrong color.
  • Knight moves sometimes are 1-1 or 2-2 (diagonal) rather than L-shaped.
  • Not fully developing all pieces (launching attacks early, forgetting to develop Queenside pieces later even if the early attack is rebuffed).
  • Not knowing how or where to develop the Rooks or Queen.
  • Checkmate by putting Queen right next to King unsupported (where King could capture it; opponent often agrees that it's checkmate).
  • Castling through checked squares rule not known.
  • Castling rights (prior moves by King and Rook) rule not known.
  • 2-move tactics (pins, skewers, forks): still mostly accidental. Knight forks are the best understood, if any.
  • Pawn forks mostly unknown.
  • Discovered checks and discovered attacks a mystery.
  • Get caught by the Knight fork on f7/f2 with Bishop supporting from c4/c5.
  • Castle still often improperly by touching Rook first, or with two hands.
  • Scholar's Mate is not always prevented, or is improperly defended (e.g. g6 Qxe5+ wins Rook).
  • Pawn direction confusion (especially with interlocking pawns). Which way are the pawns going? Where can they capture me?
  • Exchange or capture sequences involving 2 or more captures are calculated wrongly.
  • Capturing pieces if supported by one of your pieces, even if two or more enemy pieces are defending it. (e.g. back rank mate attempts by moving supported rook to a square defended by two rooks and a bishop.)
  • Checkmates correctly using a Queen supported by a piece, but onto a square next to the King where some other piece can take the Queen.
  • King-and-Queen vs King checkmate not really mastered.
  • King-and-Rook vs King checkmate still a mystery.
  • Pawn under-promotion rule not understood (but not important).
  • Resignation never occurs, even if three Queens down.
  • Draw offers never occur.
  • Chess clocks timing a mystery.
  • No real plan.
  • Endgames are mostly a mystery. Except for Queening pawns.