Understanding the King’s Role in Chess

The king’s role in chess changes as the game progresses. One thing that never changes is that king safety is your number 1 priority in a chess game.

Understanding the Kings Role in Chess blog image

Remember, “Checkmate wins the game.”

No matter how much of a material advantage you have if your king is checkmated you lose the game. However, what defines king safety varies from position to position.

Because the king in chess moves only 1 square in any direction reaching safety is more challenging for this piece than it would be for a rook or a queen. That is why you must be very cautious when moving the king.

One of the greatest attacking players in the history of chess was the American Paul Morphy. Here is GM Axel Delorme using one of Morphy’s games to demonstrate the importance of king safety in chess.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

King Safety in the Middlegame

The best way to assess your king’s safety is through concrete calculation. This applies to all three phases of the game – the opening, middlegame, and endgame.

We know that the king is the most important piece in chess and we have to ensure his safety during the game. That’s why we normally try to castle quickly and to seek a calm place for the king at the edge of the board, behind the friendly pawns.

But this is not a permanent rule that we have to follow in every position.

Even the laziest king flees wildly in the face of a double check  - Aaron Nimzovitch. The importance of the king's role in chess cannot be over emphasized. A double-check is a powerful tactic t use in your games.

There Are Exceptions to Almost Every Chess Rule

The king’s role in chess changes depending on the position. Sometimes we want the king to be a spectator, but at other times we want the king’s role in chess to be more active.

There are some positions where castling will put your king in greater danger!

The next position occurred in a game between Averbakh and Panno. White could play Qe2 to make queenside castling or long castling possible, but this would allow Black to attack the king with the …b5 pawn advance.

King in the center. The king's role in chess changes from the opening, to the middlegame and endgame.
King in the center

White wants to connect the rooks and bring the rook on a1, and the queen into the attack on the kingside.

Because the central pawns are locked we have a closed center, which means Black can’t get to our king. In this position the king’s role in chess changes to being more active.

The locked center is why it is possible to leave our king in the center!

Here is how the game continued after Ke2.

Notice how only the one rook for Black wasn’t on the back rank. When your opponent gets forced back this far look for tactics to win the game before he gets his pieces out.

Take a look at how Averbakh managed to get Black on the backfoot. Studying the games of strong players is an excellent way to improve your game because you can use their ideas in your own games.

They will show you many examples of the king’s role in chess and how to get the best out of your other pieces too!

Yuri Averbakh – Oscar Panno, 1-0, 1954, ARG-URS Round 3, Buenos Aires ARG

In the Endgame the King’s Role in Chess Is More Active

The situation changes when we arrive at the endgame. Mating threats disappear with the limited number of pieces on the board and the king’s role in chess becomes very different.

In light of this, the king can become a powerful attacker. Often you must use your king to support other pieces if you want to deliver checkmate.

Look at how IM Anna Rudolf makes the most of how the king in chess moves to deliver checkmate with two bishops.

The king becomes a very powerful and offensive piece. This is the moment when the king comes out, takes initiative, and actively helps his own pieces.

However, because the king in chess only moves 1 square you must still be watchful for any danger. The limited range of the king makes it hard for him to run away to safety.

The King’s Role in Chess Endgames

White to play

Let’s see one practical example for understanding how important the king’s role in chess becomes in the endgame, and what great leadership he can demonstrate.

Because the king in chess moves only 1 square in any direction getting it into the center is very important!

A king in the center is closest to all parts of the chessboard. This might not be very important to a bishop or rook but it is crucial for the king.

White is in a better position as he has a more active king, advanced pawns, and a good bishop against the knight. However, the realization of this advantage is quite surprising:

1.Be6+! White just gave up the pawn. 1…Nxe6; 2. dxe6 Rxe6 and now the key idea of the combination: 3. Kd5!  White sacrificed the pawn to liberate the d5 square for the king and to get access to the queen’s side pawns. The king goes to c6 and even Re7 will not help as White will also go for Ra3-a7 maneuver. Black’s pawn chain will fall.



  1. Remember that in the endgame the king is a powerful fighting unit and can be a great attacker or defender.
  2. If the queens are gone from the board and there are no mating threats – bring the king into the center. As the king has quite limited range, the center is the best place for him.
  3. Sometimes the queens are exchanged but still there are a lot of pieces on the board that can cause problems for the king. In this case it’s still quite dangerous to put the king in the middle of the board, but at least we can start moving him in that direction. For example we can place him on the second rank, still covered by some friendly pawns or pieces.

Final Thoughts on the King’s Role In Chess

The king’s role in chess might change but king safety is always your number 1 priority. Now that you know about the different roles the king plays in chess you can get the most out of this important chess piece.

There is a lot to learn in chess, but if you give yourself time and are willing to make progress in small steps you will master this game we all love playing.

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