Put yourself into the shoes of the White player in the game below.
This was a game played between Retí and Wolf, Teplitz-Schönau 1922. In the initial position of study (after White’s move 15), your pieces are protected. You’ve got a few lines of attack available to you. Seems like you can relax, right? But wait: look at the king. Chess, after all, is a game about the king. It is always the first piece you should look at when you’re weighing the strengths and weaknesses of your position.
Notice that the king is still in the center of the board. Black’s king, on the other hand, has had the common sense to castle into safety. Believe it or not, this single difference will mean White’s defeat. In this case, the weak king outweighs any strengths you might have.
So the question is: how do we protect the king from disasters like this?
Don’t worry! Saving the king and even playing to its strengths will be much easier once you know the following tips.
Castle Early to Protect the King
As the game above demonstrates, an un-castled king has a target painted on its back.
Many players focus on controlling the center. This is a good goal, but should never take priority over the safety of the king. Early casting is an important early step in every game. And remember – castling is not just a defensive move. It also develops a rook, one of your most powerful pieces, out of its lonely corner.
When deciding which way to castle, kingside or queenside, you’ll need to weigh the value of your rook against the value of stronger defenses for your king. Kingside castling tends to be safer, while queenside castling allows the rook to gain the d-file, which is often key to devastating attacks.
The Pawns Are Defenders of the King
After you castle, move the pawns in front of your king only after careful consideration. A pawn can’t move backwards, so any move you make is permanent. The pawns make up a crucial defensive line, and moving them without very good reason creates weaknesses around the King. A wily opponent might tempt the pawns with sacrificial offers, because the threat of checkmate often outweighs material losses.
This isn’t to say moving them is always a bad idea – far from it. You may need to move a pawn in order to create a safe space, or luft, for your King if your opponent threatens a back-rank checkmate.
I’m sure most of us have played a game that ended with a rook on the back rank, trapping a hopeless king behind a barrier of his own pawns.
So, when deciding whether or not to move one of your king’s pawns, just remember that they are critical pieces and your opponent will do everything possible to break past them. There is no rule against pushing them but do so with caution.
The King in a Pawn Storm
Don’t think a pawn storm is the end of the game. Like real storms, they often fizzle out after a few rumbles. In fact, if you notice your opponent launching a storm with their kingside pawns, you can plan for a counter-attack. Pawn storms often end up being “all or nothing” attacks that can leave weaknesses in their wake.
That said, it’s important not to underestimate those pawns. Strung together, they can create chaos. Even if they don’t manage to wring a checkmate out of the position, they can seriously cramp your position. Make sure you have your pieces ready to aid your kingside defense, and move your pawns strategically to block advances.
Here’s an example that demonstrates the power of a pawn storm that punishes White for castling queenside (Fischer-Larsen, 1958).
In this game, that weakened king weathered a pawn storm backed by an intimidating queen and pair of rooks. It was an eventful and exciting game that turned itself around and surprisingly ended being a win for White, so we recommend viewing the whole thing.
Use Your King in the Endgame
Many beginner players are tempted to keep their king cooped up in the corner even when the game is entering its final stages. Once the game leaves the middlegame, pieces are traded and you enter the endgame, its time to activate your king.
World Chess Champion Emanuel Lasker (he was world champ for 27 years!) argued that the king is one of the strongest pieces in the endgame, even stronger than a bishop or knight. He said the king is worth a knight and a pawn. This is because it’s so versatile, and can either defend or attack nearby pieces with ease.
Sure, leaving the king out in the open is unwise early in a game, but now that the other pieces are off the board, the king isn’t under threat as it was earlier. Get it out into the middle of the board. In fact, in any pawn endgames, you can’t win without it.
Stalemate: the King’s (Second) Worst Nightmare
Even grandmasters have been known to overlook stalemates. It’s easy to lose sight of this possibility because stalemates often happen late in the game. In other words, they happen when you’re tired. You’ve been crunching strategies for ages. Complex mid-game attacks have come and gone.
It’s important to force yourself to check for stalemate options at the late stage of a game, even when your brain would rather focus on other things. Before making a move, make sure your opponent still has a move available. You don’t want to throw away a guaranteed win, a queen up, because you accidentally remove all the squares for the opponent king to move to.
Here’s a guide that gives in-depth analyses of sample games that ended in stalemates. Try to visualize each ending before you play through the moves.
At the beginning of this article, we discussed the vulnerabilities of the king. But remember that it can also be crucial for strong attacks later in the game – and that’s what makes it such a complex and important piece to master. If you’d like to boost your knowledge of king strategies even more, browse our other articles on zugzwang, direct attacks on the king, and shouldering. And let us know in the comments if you know of any other chess tips for the king that deserve a mention!
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