Most of us know that castling in chess is a key opening step. We have seen chess games come to an early end because one player didn’t move the king to a safe spot quickly enough.
Most of the time, the basic rules of castling are very important ones to follow. It’s one of the first things new players are taught – castle early!
Castling in Chess – The Basics
Let’s review what the golden rules of castling actually are. In this article, we looked into some of the important reasons for castling early. Castling gets the king out of the center, where it can be exposed and attacked, especially when the center gets blasted open.
At the same time, this also has the added benefit of developing one of your rooks. Instead of being stuck in the corner not doing very much, it’s suddenly closer to the center of the board and has a lot of potential.
This is why it’s generally a good idea to unleash an attack on an uncastled king (only after you’ve got yours into safety!). In many cases, it can even be worth sacrificing material in order to open up a position and get to an uncastled king.
It’s first important to note that there are two castle moves in chess: king-side castling and queen-side castling.
So how does one castle? This special move can only be performed once per game (per side). When there is empty space between your king and rook, your king can move over 2 squares, and the rook jumps over to the other side.
Despite moving the king two squares, and moving two pieces, this is all performed as one move. First, move the king two squares, and only then you can pull the rook over. Remember – in chess, you must move the piece you touch, so if you were to touch the rook first, you would be making a normal rook move! Castling is a king move.
In the example above, White has castled on the short-side, or king-side, of the board. You also have the option to perform this move on the long-side, or castle queenside, following the exact same principles. When there is empty space between your king and the rook, move your king 2 squares towards the rook and then the rook moves two spaces to the other side of the king.
There are some conditions that must be met in order for you to castle:
The rook you are castling towards must not have moved in the game already. It doesn’t matter if you move the rook back to its starting square – if it has moved at all, you may no longer castle that side.
- The king must not have made any moves so far in the game. Once the king moves, it loses its right to castle for the rest of the game.
- You may not castle if the king is checked. Escaping a check by castling is not permitted.
- The king may not move into, or through, a check (diagram, right).
Moving Beyond the Basics of Castling in Chess
Now that we’ve covered the basics, here are some topics that more advanced players can benefit from. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “learn the rules, then break them.” That certainly applies to chess too.
In the past, castling has been a controversial move among top players, and indeed there are examples of grandmasters like Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer winning a game without having castled at all. Steinitz, the first official World Chess Champion, said, “I play my king all over the board. I make him fight!”
Is a Castled King Always Safer?
The answer to this is a definite no. The author of this article notes a few of the problems that can arise from castling:
- It often sacrifices tempo
- The king is sidelined
- Pieces can be in disharmony
His second point might be surprising. Many of us are taught to protect the king at all costs – failing to do so, after all, can easily end in checkmate. The king is fragile and vulnerable.
But it’s important to remember that the king can also be a very strong piece. Unlike the knight or bishop, for example, the king can protect pieces on all the squares that surround it. In endgame positions when there are fewer pieces (and fewer threats to the king!), it can serve as a powerful attacker. In fact, there are many endgames that cannot be won without the help of the king.
Among novices, the king is the most underestimated piece. Many players lose crucial tempo in endgames that feature kings and pawns because they fail to see their potential power. Before castling, consider which stage of the game you are in, the pieces that your king could aid from its current position, the disruptions to your arrangement of pieces that castling might cause later in the game, and whether you’re castling directly into a vicious attack!
Should you Always Castle as Early as Possible?
Castling too early can make your king a target.
It is sometimes possible for your opponent to weaken the pawn structure around your castled king. If you see that you can’t prevent your opponent from creating a pawn weakness, it is best not to castle.
For example, in the symmetrical Italian Opening black castled too early in the following position.
Now white can play 7.Nd5 putting a lot of pressure on the f6 knight.
Because black has played e6, the bishop can’t retreat to e7. This would break the pin and prevent white from creating a pawn weakness.
This is why you must play precisely in the opening. If black played …Nf6 before …e6 after Bg5, he could play …Be7.
A better option for black instead of castling would be to keep the black king in the center for a few more moves.
Developing the bishop with …Be6 would be a good move. Then black could play …Qd7 and castle queenside.
If black had castled queenside, the black king would be much safer. If white captures on f6 with Bxf6, then black can get counterplay on the semi-open g-file.
Here is a game that black won because he did rush kingside castle.
You will notice in the position that the white king is still on its starting square. This means that if black tries the same tactic with …Bg4 white can castle queenside.
White will play Bd3, Qd2, and castle queenside. The white king will be perfectly safe on the queenside.
Capturing the knight on f3 will not be a wise move for black even if it creates a pawn weakness because it will open lines against the black king.
White will be able to use the semi-open g-file to attack the black king.
Just as it’s not always necessary to castle, it’s not always important to castle early – particularly if the position is closed. In his classic Art of Attack in Chess, Vladimir Vukovic writes that postponing or even abandoning the idea of castling can be wise when the center of the board is solidly blocked. That’s because the lines of attack for both players will most likely happen on the sides of the board. It’s best to stay flexible and keep your options open.
Wait To See Where You Opponent Castles
No matter what color you are playing, your king is often safer if you castle on the same side as your opponent. This prevents him from launching a pawn storm.
Castling on opposite sides of the board makes for an exciting game. Black can use this tactic to attack the white king if white castles early.
By delaying castling, you can decide if the game is going to be more tactical or positional.
Of course, in many openings, the strategy is built around castling on a specific side.
For example, in the Austrian Attack of the Pirc Defense, white will castle queenside and attack with his kingside pawns. The sooner the white king reaches the queenside, the sooner the attack can begin.
There are some openings where one side can wait and see how his opponent places his piece. An example of this is the Exchange Variation of the French Defense.
This opening is known to be very drawish. By placing the black king on the queenside, black makes the game a lot more exciting. Of course, black can take the safer option and castle kingside too.
Conclusion: Castling in Chess
Beginner players should follow the guidelines on castling that generations of players have come to through endless trial and error. Most of the time, castling early is the right choice. Remember, the golden principles of the opening are there for a reason! But knowing the guidelines means you can decide when it might be best to break them!
If you’re just starting out in chess, it can sometimes feel overwhelming. You learn how all the pieces move and then you come across some more complicated ideas such as castling! Don’t worry – once you’ve played it a couple of times, it will become second nature.
GM Susan Polgar knows the best way to teach chess – with her 45+ years of experience, she has developed a groundbreaking curriculum for teaching chess in an easy-to-understand way. In just 15 minutes a week, you’ll be on a firm path to chess confidence. GM Susan uses a real physical board as well as a 2D interactive board with arrows and highlighted squares to make ideas simple to understand.