The Rules of Bughouse

hand handing over chess piece

Illustration: The Spruce / Catherine Song

Bughouse is quite possibly the most popular chess variant in the world. You'll see it being played -- especially by children -- in skittles rooms and side events at any major tournament. The rules of bughouse are quite simple, but the strategies and tactics are perhaps even more complex than in standard chess.

Bughouse is a game played by two teams, usually consisting of two players each. On each team, one player will play white, while the other plays black on a board next to them, across from their opponents. Each individual game requires its own clock. Bughouse is traditionally played with blitz time controls, with each player having five minutes or less to make their moves.

The game begins when the clocks are started and each team's white player makes their first move. After this, the games continue as normal chess games, with the following major exceptions:

  1. When a player captures a piece, they must pass it to their partner. For example: if a team's white player captures his opponent's rook (a black piece), he must pass it to his partner, who is playing black. If a pawn promotes and is then captured, it reverts back to being a pawn when it is passed.
  2. On each player's turn, they may choose to either make a regular chess move on the board or place one of the pieces their partner has passed on the board. There are no restrictions on where pieces may be placed, with the exception that pawns cannot be placed on the first or eighth ranks.
  3. The game ends when any player is checkmated or runs out of time on either board. That player's team loses the game. Keep in mind that a player is not checkmated if they have the potential to block a check by placing a piece there, even if they don't have a piece "in hand" yet; the possibility of their partner passing something to them is enough to keep the game going.

These rules make bughouse a fast and furious game filled with exciting combinations and amazing mates. A player who has several pieces in hand can quickly turn a game around, or checkmate a seemingly "safe" king. While you'll never get to place a piece on the board in the middle of a real chess game, the patterns and tactics that arise in bughouse can help develop your chess vision and creativity.

Bughouse strategy is quite complex, but there are a few key points to remember:

  • Material values are much closer between the various pieces in bughouse than in chess. Queens are still the most valuable pieces, but since every piece can be dropped just about anywhere on the board at any time, everything is dangerous! One popular "point" system for bughouse rates a pawn as 1 point, knights, bishops and rooks as 2, and a queen as 4.
  • Keeping a secure king is critical, as holes and unprotected squares around the king can quickly become occupied by enemy pieces. Once an opponent is placing pieces with ​check (especially knights), it can become impossible to use your own pieces in hand, leaving you virtually helpless to stop the onslaught.
  • Communication is key! Teammates are allowed and encouraged to talk strategy during the game. This can help players understand whether or not they should make trades, or if they should be willing to sacrifice material to get a certain critical piece for their partner.
  • Sometimes, the best move in bughouse is no move at all. With an advantage on the clocks, a team may want to stall on one board in order to force their opponents to make a move on the other. The potential of the stall forces fast action during the game, as both sides struggle to maintain an advantage on the board and on the clock.

Despite how complex this may all sound, bughouse is actually fairly simple to play and can be a great diversion from serious chess. Find a few friends and try a couple games -- you'll soon find bughouse becoming a regular part of your chess routine.