A Brief Guide To Chess Variants

Chess players around the world are familiar with 'orthodox chess'. This is a form of chess that uses the same rules, number of pieces and board layouts associated with traditional chess. Many players will stick to orthodox chess, and rigidly adhere to the longstanding format, as this is the type of game that is played on an official and competitive level. These are viewed as chess 'purists', and will dismiss the idea of variants.

However, in recent years, a growing number of chess variants have arisen in popularity. These varieties come in two categories: 'orthodox chess' variants and 'unorthodox chess' variants. Variants basically incorporate new layouts, strategies and techniques into the traditional game.

This is a fun, recreational way to mixup the game and break up the monotony of playing several chess games in succession. While variants aren't for everyone, they are definitely worth trying, particularly if you're a longtime chess player that is looking to experiment with gameplay- or a new player looking to explore different interpretations of the traditional game.

Orthodox chess variants: a play on the traditional

Orthodox chess variants use the same number of pieces, the same board and the same general rules as traditional chess. Most variants will include different layouts or openings, and many are widely regarded as 'official' variants that can help players refine their game technique, while enjoying a new and fun experience.

Orthodox chess variants are very similar to the original game, and in many cases, are used as warmups for matches or in competitive settings. This is because they allow for more creativity than orthodox chess.


This is one of the most popular orthodox chess variants, and one that was first played in 1996, by acclaimed chess player Bobby Fischer. The variant is also, for obvious reasons, referred to as Fischer Random- and basically dictates that the layout should remain the same, apart from the fact that all pieces behind the pawns should be placed in random order. The idea is that one player creates a random layout, and that the opponent must mirror this on their side of the board.

While this sounds somewhat pointless, it's actually a great way for professional players to practice their technique. The random layout means that players can't rely on standard, preset openings- and have to play creatively instead. This is a great challenge for established players, and an excellent way for competing professionals to set themselves an obstacle to overcome.

Displacement chess:

This is a very subtle variant, that suggests that only one or two pieces on the board should be switched or moved out of place. Displacement chess will throw players slightly off balance, and remove the opportunity for preset moves to be played. Much like in Chess960, this forces players to rely more on their intuition than on their normal technique. It also makes the game a little more unpredictable.

The unconventional appeal of unorthodox chess

Unorthodox chess is far removed from the traditional game of chess. There are few limits to what players can do, as there are no restrictions in terms of changing the rules and playing with the mechanics of the traditional game. These are not variants of the chess that would be played by any official federations, and they are used purely for recreational purposes, particularly by those who have an interest in experimenting with the basic principles of chess.

Unorthodox variants definitely have an appeal, however, as they offer a new game to those who are somewhat tired of traditional chess. They also offer opportunities for professional players looking to break outside of their comfort zone, and practice playing freely and creatively, perhaps through a variant that they create themselves.

Beirut chess:

Beirut chess is an entertaining, unorthodox variant that uses the same board and same pieces as traditional chess. However, in this variant, payers are given an 'atomic bomb' that they can detonate at any point throughout the game. Exploding this bomb means taking all the pieces in the surrounding square. Players can win the game by bombing the King, or by traditionally checkmating it.

Beirut chess is a fun, carefree way of adding a little excitement to the game. In this variant, the atomic bomb is kept secret, which adds a genuine element of surprise. The warfare aspect is also a great way to entice younger players, who may not be interested in conventional chess.

Extinction chess:

This unique variant states that in order for a player to win, they must capture one type of the opponent's pieces. Players can choose what type of piece to capture, but it's particularly fun to play this variant with pawns as the pieces that need to be taken. This is purely because there are more pawns, and the game will therefore be drawn out, as players endeavor to capture all of the opposing pawns.

Portal chess:

If you're a fan of magic or science fiction, then portal chess is definitely the variant for you. Portal chess uses certain, marked squares as portals for teleportation across the board. This means that by landing on a specific point, players can teleport to another portal, and move more freely across the board. This, for many players, is just about as far from orthodox chess as one can get- but it's a highly entertaining take on a very realistic game that follows very rigid rule.

Fun in numbers

In addition to the variants mentioned above, there are also chess varieties that can be played by more than 2 players. This is somewhat shocking to purist players, as the idea of more than 2 players participating in one game is very unorthodox.

For this reason, of course, games for multiple players are considered unorthodox interpretations of chess. There are variants that cater to specific group sizes, and that vary widely from the traditional game.


Forchess involves the use of a traditional chessboard, which is essentially its only similarity to orthodox chess.

Four players will participate in this game, and the board will house 2 sets of pieces. As there are so many pieces involved in this game, the board becomes somewhat crowded, and the placement of each piece is therefore critical to success. Once the board is assembled, following a Forchess diagram, there should only be 4 free squares. This is a particularly difficult variant, that is arguably more complex than orthodox chess, purely because of the lack of mobility.


Bughouse chess is a hugely popular chess variant, that involves four players. The players are coupled, and each member of the couple plays an opposing member, on their own board. This variant therefore uses 2 boards, and 2 sets of pieces.

The idea is that each player can capture pieces from their opponent, and donate them to the other team member, in order to ensure that each pair wins both games. Allies in the game will use different colored pieces, which makes them easy to identify against the opponent. This variant is also referred to as 'Tandem' or 'Double' chess.

Business chess:

Business chess is an exciting, multiplayer take on orthodox chess. It's played on a traditional board, and uses orthodox rules, but instead of 2 opposing players- there are 2 opposing teams involved.

Teams may discuss moves, and work together to ensure that they win against their competitors. Business chess is often played in a public, group format; particularly in chess clubs. Aside from being sociable and fun, this variant offers amateur players an opportunity to learn from more experienced team members. As they discuss the logic behind their moves, novices can take note of any preset moves, and benefit from the conversations that take place between team members.

Chess variants: a look to the future

Chess variants are an example of the evolving nature of chess, and a fascinating insight into how globalization has affected the game. Throughout generations, chess has remained consistent, and is still played rigidly by competing players worldwide. However, if nothing else, these variants are an indication of how (as the game spread has throughout cultures and societies) it was changed to fit current and modern trends.

There is no disputing that orthodox chess will remain the most played variant in the future, as it has thrived for so many years, and is viewed as both the most challenging and most intellectual version of the game. Morevover, there is now an entire industry that relies on the traditional game, and on the idea that few variants are played on a competitive level.

However, this isn't to say that variants aren't a useful addition to the world of chess. Many competitive, highly skilled chess players will use variants as a way to train and to practice playing more creatively.

Chess variants can also entice new players, through fun and unusual additions, including warfare elements and magical portals detailed above. This is a great way to generate interest in the game, and later introduce these new players to orthodox chess.

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