When to Castle

One mistake that beginners often make is not castling their King to safety. Leaving your King exposed on a central file makes it easier for your opponent to launch a successful attack that leads to mate. This is why beginners are encouraged to castle their King to safety early in the game. However, beginners often take the idea of castling early literally and castle as soon as possible which can create problems later on. While King safety is crucial, the beginner can castle too early, ignoring further piece development and end up in a positional bind. So when should the beginner castle?

Before learning when to castle, the beginner should fully know the rules of castling which are fairly simple. To castle there have to be no pieces between the King and the Rook on the side you’re castling on. Thus, on the King-side, you have to move the King-side Knight and Bishop off of their starting squares prior to castling. On the Queen-side, you have to move the Queen-side Knight, Bishop and Queen off of their starting squares. This means you have to develop two minor pieces on the King-side prior to castling or two minor pieces plus the Queen on the Queen-side prior to castling (on that side of the board). You cannot move your King prior to castling, If you do, you can’t castle at all. If you move a Rook prior to castling, you cannot castle on that side of the board. Move both Rooks prior to castling and you’re out of luck (no castling for you). You cannot castle if you’re in check. Lastly, you cannot move your King through or onto a square controlled by an opposition pawn or piece. Looking at this list of requirements, you can see why beginners often panic and castle at the first chance they get!

One important idea, often lost on the beginner, is the idea of Rook activation. I see so many of my beginning students activate their minor pieces to decent squares during the opening and middle games only to ignore their Rooks throughout the entire game. Castling allows you to do two important things. The first is getting your King to safety. The second, which is extremely important, is to activate one of your Rooks. Rooks who sit on their starting squares are inactive pieces. The player with the most active pieces usually has an easier time controlling and subsequently winning the game. Moves that allow you to do two good things at the same time are the type of moves you want to make.

While castling is crucial, timing is everything. During the opening game, both players are fighting to control the center of the board. The only way to dominate or at least equalize control of the board’s center is to carefully but rapidly deploy your pawns and pieces to active squares, those that control the greatest amount of centralized board space. Therefore, before castling, beginners should ask themselves two questions.

The first question: Is my King in present or future danger? Present danger means that it’s your turn, your opponent’s pieces are in attack formation and ready to start checking your King immediately. If so, castling is a good idea. When I say future danger, I mean that an attack on your King is possible during the next one or two opposition moves. Advanced players have a bit more leeway regarding future danger and just when to castle. Future danger translates to “ within the next few moves can my opponent’s pieces attack my King, either forcing it to move, in which case my King loses the right to castle, or force me to weaken my position when I have to defend the King?” Of course, a potential immediate checkmate from the opposition within the next few moves should prompt you to castle if doing so saves the King! If the answer to this question is yes, then castle your King!

If you answered “no” to the first question, then its time to ask the second question, “are my pawns and pieces developed enough to control the board’s center more so than my opponent’s pawns and pieces? Most beginners consider castling before completing their development so the answer to this question is almost always “no.” Time to look at your development.

Many beginners learn the Italian Opening because it provides a relatively clear example of the game’s opening principles. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Bc4…Bc5, both players can castle on the King-side. This is where beginners get into trouble. They’ve been told by their chess instructors or by reading beginner’s books that you should castle early. Beginner’s take things literally, which often inspires them to castle as early as move four in the above opening move sequence. However, the opening is a fight for territorial control and the player that has it has a greater advantage. Advantages, both big and small, win games.

If your King is in no immediate danger, further development is in order. Keep developing pieces to active squares in order to shut down your opponent’s chance at staking a claim to those very same squares. In the opening, it’s all about the center. Just because you’ve developed your minor pieces on one side of your King is certainly no reason to ignore the pieces on his majesty’s other side. Keep bringing those remaining minor pieces into the game. Pieces on their starting squares are not in the game. Those pieces are inactive and activity is the name of the opening game.

Then there’s the question of which side of the board to castle on. Beginners tend to castle King-side because its easier since you don’t have an additional piece to move (the Queen). However, Queen-side castling can be extremely effective. Why would you castle Queen-side? Here’s a good reason: If your opponent has aimed his or her forces at your King-side, castling there is going to put your King directly in the line of fire. Castling on the opposite side of the attack will force your opponent to redirect his or her pieces, which has a price. That price is tempo or time (wasting it). While your opponent is redirecting pieces, you can be strengthening your position or building up an attack against your opponent’s King. Don’t make your opponent’s job easier by castling into an attack or potential attack!

The next time you consider castling, ask yourself those two questions before doing so. If your do, you’ll know if you’re castling at the right time. Castling too early can make a position worse. Castling too late will send your King to an early grave. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Notice how White finds a great way to solve a potential positional problem by castling!

Hugh Patterson

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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).