Opening Principles Part Four: Castling

A safe King is a happy King and this is nowhere more apparent than in the game of chess. If your King is constantly being attacked, you have to defend him which means you’re unable to attack you opponent. Attackers win games while defenders are left holding down the fort! Beginner’s games are most often lost because the novice player doesn’t make his King safe. The way you make your King safe is by Castling. Castling is crucial but when to Castle is extremely important as well. Timing is everything in chess.

Castling is very simple. However, there are some important rules to Castling that we’ll go over first. Castling is the only time you get to move two pieces at the same time. You can Castle either King-side (towards the right for White or towards the left for Black) or Queen-side (towards the left for White or towards the right for Black). When Castling King-side, the King moves from the e file to the g file, remaining on it’s starting rank, while the Rook moves from the h file to the f file. When Castling Queen-side, the King moves from the e file to the c file, while the Rook moves from the a file to the d file, both pieces remaining on their starting ranks. You move the King first and then the Rook (not the other way around) Now for the rules:

The King and Rook, on the side you’re Castling on cannot move prior to Castling. If you move the King prior to Castling, you give up the right to Castle on either side. If you move one Rook prior to Castling, you give up the right to Castle on the side of the board the Rook moved on. If you move both Rooks before Castling then you give up the right to Castle, period. This is why it is crucial not to move either of these two pieces until after Castling.

You can’t Castle until the pieces between the King and Rook have moved off of their starting Squares. Remember, only the Knight can jump over pawns and pieces. All the other pieces can only move when there is space for them to do so. This is why it is important to move a central pawn towards the center early on. Playing 1. e4 allows the King-side Bishop room to get out onto the board which facilitates Castling sooner. On the King-side, you have to move the Knight and Bishop prior to Castling and on the Queen-side, you have to move the Knight, Bishop and Queen. Many people Castle King-side because you have one less piece to move.

This next one is important: You can never Castle through or into check. This makes perfect sense since protecting the King is the name of the game! Thus, if an opposition pawn or piece attacks a square the King either moves through and will end up on after Castling, you cannot Castle until that pawn or piece is dealt with.

Castling does two things. It provides a safe haven for your King and it gets one of the Rooks that would otherwise be stuck in the corner into the game. There’s something you need to consider when Castling and that’s pawn structure. Ideally you don’t want to move the pawns that will be in front of your King before you Castle because they create a wall in front of his majesty. For example, when Castling King-side, you want to keep pawns on the f2, g2 and h2 (f7, g7 and h7 for Black) squares because they can work together to stop potential attacks. If you move them prior to Castling, you’ll leave openings that opposition pieces can exploit. You’ll also want to keep a Knight on f3 for White or f6 for Black because the Knight can work with the King to protect the h pawn as well as keep the opposition Queen off the g and h files. When Castling, don’t Castle if doing so lines your King up with a swarm of opposition pieces. If the opposition has amassed a large force on your King-side, consider Castling Queen-side. Never Castle into a potential attack.

When to Castle: The history of chess is littered with the corpses of games lost due to not castling. Beginner’s are taught to Castle early on, yet in many master level games we see Castling occurring much later. Why is this? Because the master level player knows when to Castle. During the opening phase of the game, both players are developing their pawns and pieces to active squares, building up their control of the center and preparing for future attacks. It comes down to King safety. If your King is safe you can put Castling off in favor of active development. However, you need to take a good hard look at the opposition’s pieces, especially those nearest to your King. Are they able to deliver a successful attack? If there are two attacking pieces, do you have enough defenders. If the King hasn’t yet Castled and he’s a defender, you’ll lose your right to Castle should the King have to get into the action. This would be a time to Castle, perhaps on the other side of the attack or on the side of the attack, only if you have enough defenders. You want to have one more defender than your opponent has attackers. Remember, if you actively develop all your pieces right away (but carefully), you’ll have the option to Castle on either side of the board! Better to have the ability to Castle sooner than later which is why we try to bring a new piece into the game with each move during the opening. Note that you can move your Queen up one square or rank and it doesn’t count as bringing your Queen out early. Bringing your Queen out early can be deadly for the player who dares to exploit her power early on (during the opening).

You should always Castle if you want a safe King. If your King is safe, you have one less thing to worry about. You can get on with the business of building up an attack. If your opponent’s King is not Castled, you have a target. Beginners should avoid sacrificing pieces in order to force the opposition King to capture that piece before Castling, giving up the right to Castle. Many beginners playing White will exchange their c4 Bishop for the f7 pawn in order to bring the Black King out onto the board (after Kxf7). Sacrificing pieces is a skill that take time to develop because it is usually part of a combination of moves and beginners are not ready to think that far ahead. Build up your attacks rather than squander valuable pieces. Next week we’ll combine opening development with Castling. Here’s a game to enjoy until then!

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).