The Chess King – Royalty Rules the Chessboard

The king in chess stands tallest on the board because without the king, the game is lost. The king in chess must be protected at all costs.

chess pieces the king blog image

Although there are eight pawns, two rooks, two knights, and two bishops, you will find only one queen and king chess piece on each side.

Be very careful and make sure you keep them safe. Since no chess game can continue without the king, it is safe to say the king is the most valuable piece on the board.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

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How the King Moves

A diagram showing how the king can move. The king can move one square in any direction unless the square is under the control of your opponent's piece.
The king can move one square in any direction unless the square is under the control of your opponent’s piece.

The chess king moves a modest one square. However, this is one square in any direction.

In chess, kings are not allowed to move into a square that is controlled by an enemy piece. The king can’t move onto a square or capture a piece where it will be in check as a result.

As in life, there are special rules that apply to the king on the chessboard.

When the king is under attack, it is called check, and if there is no escape from the check, it’s called checkmate.

A very dangerous tactic to use in your games is the double-check. A king attacked by two pieces at the same time is in double-check. 

Sometimes you can move a piece to place the king in check. When this piece moves, it can allow another piece behind it to attack the king as well. This is also called a discovered attack.

A king can capture the piece giving a check if it is undefended, or you can block the check.

In double-check, the king must often forced to move away. 

You will often hear other players talk about checkmate techniques. Read this article to learn more about checkmate and how to checkmate your opponent in the endgame.

King versus King in Chess

A king cannot move onto a square controlled by an enemy piece. This means if the only remaining chess pieces are kings, the game ends in a draw.

This is a stalemate because the black king is not in check and has no safe square to move onto.
This is a stalemate because the black king is not in check and has no safe square to move onto. If the white king moves away and allows black to capture the pawn we will only have kings on the board and this is a stalemate.

One king cannot take another king because it must be next to a piece to capture it. The kings keep each other at bay and prevent their capture.

Because a king can’t move onto a square controlled by an opponent’s piece, not only kings, a game can end in a draw if the king has no safe square to move onto.

In chess, if the king is not in check but there are no available moves, then instead of checkmate, it is a stalemate.

This is a useful tactic to keep in mind if you are losing the game. No matter how much of a material advantage your opponent has, forcing a stalemate will draw the game.

Stalemate is one way to earn a draw if you are behind in material.

To learn more about the stalemate, be sure to take a look at this informative article.

Keeping the King Safe in Chess With Castling

When the king is in the center of the board, it can get attacked from many different directions. There is more space for your opponent’s pieces to attack.

Imagine a king standing in the middle of his throne room. Lots of enemy soldiers can attack from different angles. They can attack from the front, sideways, and from behind the king.

A smart king will quickly move from the middle of the room to a corner. This limits the number of directions the enemy can attack him.

To help you get your king to a safe corner, you can castle in chess.

How to Castle in Chess

Castling allows you to move your king two squares to the side towards your rook. The rook then jumps to the other side of your king.

How to Castle in Chess. The position of the king before and after castling
The position of the king in chess before and after castling

In this video, GM Axel Delorme shows you the dangers you can face if you castle too early. Even in this seemingly harmless position black gets into trouble by castling too early.

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Remember, in chess, there is the touch and move rule. This means if you touch a chess piece, you must move that piece unless it has no moves. 

When castling, be absolutely sure you touch your king first. Otherwise, your opponent can say you are only allowed to move the rook. 

There are special rules to remember about this special move:

Castling Rules
Black’s bishop prevents White from castling.
  • you can only castle once in a game,
  • there must be no other pieces between the king and the rook,
  • the rook and king can’t have moved in the game,
  • you can’t castle if you are in check or if your king will pass through check.

Getting your king to safety is extremely important in the opening. Here is Paul Morphy showing how to take advantage when your opponent neglects to castle.

Schulten J – Morphy P, New York NY, 1858, 0-1

Castling is a valuable move to protect your king in chess. Make sure you are very familiar with how it works by reading this complete guide to castling.

Position of the King

At the start of the game, the king stands on the e1 square. The queen stands to his left and a bishop to the right.

The queen and king chess pieces both have a bishop, knight, and rook next to them.

starting position of a chess game
Starting position of a chess game

The two halves of the board are named after these two pieces. The a to d-files are called the queenside, and e to h-files are called the kingside.

This is why you will often hear people saying, “I castled kingside” or “I castled queenside.”

Sometimes this is known as short or long castling. Short castling is kingside castling because there are fewer squares between the king and the rook.

After castling, the king will either stand on g1 or c1 with a rook next to him on f1 or d1.

The King in Chess Openings

In chess, king moves in the opening are not very common.

Although it is good to castle and bring your king to safety, you must not rush to castle. If you castle too early, your opponent can castle on the opposite side and launch an attack against your king.

If the center is closed, it is usually okay to leave your king in the center for a few more moves. You might delay castling to see if your opponent will castle before you.

Both sides have developed quickly and can soon castle on the kingside.
Both sides have developed quickly and can soon castle on the kingside.

Now you are the one who can choose to castle on the opposite side or immediately begin your attack.

There is a lot of opening theory available nowadays, and it will include when and where to castle.

Still, you need to know why you are castling kingside or queenside and be ready to adapt if your opponent doesn’t follow the theory.

The King in Chess Middlegames

In most middlegames, the kings on both sides will usually have castled. 

King's Indian Defense - here black moves a pawn in front of the castled king but has a defender to compensate.
Unless you are developing your bishop to g2 or g7 it’s best not to move the pawns in front of the castled king

Because the king is looking for a safe haven, it is important not to move the pawns in front of your king. 

These are the f, g, and h-pawn if you castle kingside or the a, b, and c-pawn if you castle queenside. Like many rules in chess, this is not a hard and fast rule but a general guideline.

Sometimes black will fianchetto his bishop by playing …g6 and …Bg7 and castle kingside. It is important to remember the bishop is a valuable defender in such a position. 

There are many openings where white will play similarly with g3 and Bg2. 

greek gift bxh7
Greek Gift (Bxh7)

Another valuable defender is the knight on f3 for white and the knight on f6 for black. 

When this knight has moved, your opponent can often sacrifice a bishop on h2 or h7. The sacrifice is known as the “Greek Gift”.

This is usually followed up with a strong attack involving a knight, or a rook, and the queen. 

You can learn more about this sacrifice in this informative article.

The King in Chess Endgames

The endgame is the time when your king gets to play a much more active role. In chess, king moves occur most frequently in the endgame.

Chess Endgames With Mark Dvoretsky And Jan Gustafsson – Cutting Off The King
In the endgame, it’s much safer for the king to play an active role.

Because there are fewer pieces on the board, it is much safer for the king to move into the open. Obviously, you must still be vigilant and be alert for tactics.

Tactics occur in all three phases of the game – the opening, middlegame, and endgame. Many chess players overlook tactics in the endgame. 

Take a look at this instructive video, by GM Axel Delorme to learn how effective the king can be in chess endgames:

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The king is often needed to support a pawn advance or restrict the opponent’s king in the endgame

Final Thoughts About the King Chess Piece

Without lifting a finger, the king is a chess piece that rules the chessboard. The game ends with his capture, making him the ultimate prize.

That is not to say he doesn’t play an active role in the game. A lot of the play is focused on the king. In chess, king moves must only be taken after a lot of thought.

Your mission is to both keep him safe and to use him to ensure victory in the endgame. Getting this balance right is part of the complexity of this game we love so much.

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