Can the king attack in chess? (8 Directions a King Can Attack)

Your king is the most valuable piece on the board. If he gets trapped by the enemy (checkmated), you lose the game, which gives him a ton of inherent value. If you’re new to the game, you would think that the king would be able to hold his own in a fight. I mean, he’s the king, after all. 

So, can the king attack in chess? Here’s what you need to know. 

The king can attack pieces within a one-square radius of him. In other words, he can strike one square in every direction, including the diagonals, totaling eight squares. The king can’t capture pieces that are defended, nor can he ever get in range to attack the enemy king. 

If you want to know more about the king’s offensive capabilities, you’re at the right place. The king seems like a simple piece at first glance, but there’s more to him than meets the eye. 

The King’s Offensive Abilities Are Rather Limited 

I’ll be rather straightforward about this: The king isn’t a very good attacker. A large part of that has to do with his attack range. 

The King Can Attack in All 8 Directions

The king can only attack pieces that are, quite literally, right next to him. He has a one-tile attack range. This means he can attack the eight squares around him at any given time (less if he’s at an edge).

The king on e3 can can move and attack d2, d3, d4, e1, e3, f2, f3, and f4. 

Yeah. That’s mediocre, at best. Only the king and the pawn have a one-tile attack range. The next best piece, the knight, has a three-tile attack range (some see it as a 2.5-tile range because of the knight’s unorthodox movement pattern).

All the other pieces can travel any number of squares within their movement pattern. 

The king can also only move one square at a time. It’s true that he can move in any direction he wants to, but that doesn’t make up for his lack of movement speed. 

Even the minor pieces, worth three points each, can move multiple squares with each turn. They can make their way around the chess board and get to areas of interest much faster, which is critical in a fast-paced chess game. 

You should never bring your king to the frontlines (I’ll explain why shortly), but even in a situation where it wouldn’t be a disaster, you would likely have to spend several moves bringing your king closer to the action, one square at a time. 

All the while, your opponent will have the chance to mobilize his stronger pieces and acquire a much better position than yours. 

Okay. So what’s the key takeaway here?

Don’t expect your king to capture a lot of the enemy pieces. Let your soldiers do the fighting. 

The King Can’t Capture Defended Pieces

Even when an enemy piece is within your king’s capture range, you won’t be able to capture it with your king. You can still capture it with another piece, just not your king. 

If you were to capture a defended piece with your king, you would be making an illegal move since you would be putting your king directly into check, which is against the rules of the game

Online chess apps wouldn’t allow you to make such a move, but if you were to do so in a tournament, you could receive a warning or be penalized. 

  • In this example, you have the white pieces, and it’s your move. 
  • The rook on d4 is being defended by the bishop on g7.
  • As you can see, the white king on e3 cannot capture the rook on d4. Theoretically, if it were to do so, it would come under check by the g7 bishop. 

However, this does not mean the white king is useless in this position. As I mentioned earlier, you can still use other pieces to capture the defended piece. 

  • In this case, our c2 knight is primed and ready to capture the d4 rook. 
  • After we do so, black can recapture using their g7 bishop. 
  • We can then capture the bishop that lands on d4 with our king. 

The key thing to understand here is that the king still counts as an attacker in this position. It’s just that it can’t initiate the trade. Luckily for us, there’s a handy knight on c2. 

Can a King Attack While in Check?

When you’re in check, you must get out of check. There are no alternatives. If there are no moves possible that will get you out of check; you lose on the spot by checkmate. 

So, can a king attack while in check?

Well, it’s quite apparent. Based on the criteria above, a king can attack while in check only if the resulting move gets the king out of check. 

Here’s what that would look like. 

In this position, the white king on e3 is in check because of the bishop on d4. Fortunately, the king can simply capture the d4 bishop without a problem. 

The bishop is undefended, and the king will be out of check once it lands on d4. 

Now, you’ll really only see a scenario like this unfold at the end of a series of captures. It’s rare that an opponent would blunder a piece like this by moving it next to your king for no other purpose than to ‘check’ you. 

Usually, when your king comes under check, you either have to move your king out of the line of fire or block the attack using another piece. 

Should You Use Your King To Attack The Enemy?

Okay. We’ve talked a fair bit about what a king can and can’t do. But what about what a king should do? Lead his army by example, perhaps?

Nope! Not in chess. 

You Must Keep Your King Safe

Chess … is a pretty difficult game. No one really knows what they’re doing, at least not until they reach a relatively high level of play. 

There are only so many moves that the human mind can calculate, which is why we use principles to help us make correct moves without too much calculation.

Many of these principles have to do with the safety of the king. 

The king is priceless. No amount of material or positional advantage can justify putting your king in serious danger. If you bring your king out to the frontlines, you’ll end up checkmated nine times out of ten. 

At least in the early game, you should not look to attack the opposing forces with your king. What you should look to do instead, as dictated by one of the aforementioned principles of the game, is to castle as soon as you conveniently can.

Castle Your King Early On

Like en passant, many casual players of the game don’t even know castling exists! Which is baffling, considering how important it is. 

So, what is castling? 

When you castle, you move your king and a rook in a single move. Both pieces have to not have moved before.

Your king moves two squares toward the target rook. Then the rook jumps to the other side of the king. Confused? Here’s what it looks like on the board. 

This is a kingside castle. It’s also referred to as a short castle. 

As you can see, castling your king tucks it away in the corner. It’s protected by the three pawns in front of it and can call on the nearby minor pieces for assistance if the need arises. 

As the cherry on top, castling will also develop one of your two rooks. 

I recommend you castle your king early on. If you delay, the enemy can launch an attack to catch your unprepared king out in the open. 

Bring Your King Out in The Endgame

Once you’ve castled your king, you can leave it be. Focus on playing the game with your other pieces. Then, once the dust has settled and the major pieces (rooks and queens) are off the board, you should consider bringing your king out of hiding. 

It’s the endgame where kings shine. You don’t have to worry about checkmate anymore, and you can use your king to escort any remaining pawns up the promotion ladder. 

Final Thoughts

The king can indeed attack in chess; it’s just that his attack range is limited to the eight squares directly around him. The king is a weak attacker, and bringing him out to fight can very well cost you the game. 

I recommend castling your king at the earliest opportunity and keeping him tucked away until the endgame. Once the major pieces are off the board, you can use your king for offensive, defensive, and escorting roles.