The king is the leader of the chess pieces — the most important piece on the board. Chess is all about hunting down the enemy king while keeping yours safe. And to keep your king safe, you need to know all about the movement options you have at your disposal.
Here’s how the king moves in chess.
The king can move and capture enemy pieces one square in any direction. The only exception to this is castling, where the king moves two squares in one move. The king cannot move into check or capture a defended piece, which restricts his movement options.
In this article, I’ll tell you everything there is to know about how the king moves, from beginner to advanced-level info.
- This is How The King Moves in Chess
- How The King Attacks
- The King Has a Special Move
- What You Should Know About Moving The King
- Final Thoughts
This is How The King Moves in Chess
The king can move one square in any direction in chess. Forward and backward, to either side, and all ways diagonally. It’s quite straightforward. Here is what the king’s movement looks like on the chessboard.
As you can probably tell, the king is not very mobile. Being able to move only one square at a time makes for a rather slow traversal. Only the king and pawn are this slow – the next slowest piece, the knight, can move 3 (or what some consider 2.5) squares per move.
Yeah. The king isn’t a very strong piece. However, as you’ll soon understand, he doesn’t need to be – The king’s job in chess is to sit back and relax while the two armies war it out.
The King Can Never Move Into Check
When your king is under direct attack by an enemy piece, you are in check.
The king can never move into check, which means you can’t move your king into the line of fire of an enemy piece. Doing so is against the rules and would constitute an illegal move.
In this position, the white king on b4 is prevented from moving onto the ‘c’ file because of the black rook on c7.
One of the interesting scenarios that can result as a consequence of the above rule is stalemate.
If you didn’t already know, when a king is under check and has nowhere to move, no way to block the check, or no way to eliminate the checking piece, you have a checkmate on the board.
But what if we have a position where a king is not in check but has no legal moves?
This position is a stalemate – which equates to a draw. The white king on h8 is not in check but can’t move because doing so would place it in check.
How The King Attacks
The king’s movement and attack options are the same. Really, the pawn is the only piece with differing movement and attack patterns. All the other pieces, including the king, can capture a piece on a square if they can move to it, with some caveats.
The king can attack up to 8 squares at a time, so he does have some flexibility as an attacker. The thing is, it’s so risky (and time-consuming) to bring him to the frontlines that you should never be using him as an offensive piece.
The King Can’t Capture Protected Pieces
Another reason why the king is a poor offensive piece is because he can’t capture protected enemy pieces. Doing so would be moving into check.
The king can perform some clean up at the end of a trade, but if you don’t have other pieces targeting the same square, the king won’t be able to inflict any damage to the enemy on its own.
The King Has a Special Move
The king isn’t a very strong combatant, but he does have a special move – he can “castle.”
When you castle, your king moves two squares horizontally towards either side of the board. The rook on that end then moves immediately opposite to the king.
It looks like this.
Castling is unique in that it’s the only move in the game where you can move two pieces in one go.
There are a few requirements you need to pass before being able to castle your king, though:
- The king must not have moved before castling.
- The rook being castled with cannot have moved before castling. If one of the rooks has moved, you can still castle with the other rook.
- You cannot castle while in check. You could block the check or eliminate the checking piece and castle on the next move.
- Your king cannot move through a check to castle. The squares your king moves through and lands on must both be safe.
That may seem a lot to digest at once, but play the move a few times in a live game, and you’ll get the hang of it.
Castling is an extremely useful move. I would even go as far as to say it’s among the best moves you can make during the early game.
You should castle early on because it gets your king out of the center of the board and tucks him away in a corner, protected by a rank of pawns.
We’ve already established that the king is a pretty bad attacker due to his slow movement, limited attack range, and inability to attack protected pieces. Therefore, it’s best to keep him as far away from the action as possible.
Even though it may seem like it, castling is not a purely defensive move. Sure, it helps safeguard your king, but it also brings one of your two rooks into play.
The freed rook can be used to pressure an important file or support a pawn’s march.
Since there are two rooks, there are two ways you can castle.
Also called a short castle, a kingside castle involves castling with the ‘h’ rook. The king moves to the ‘g’ file and the rook to the ‘f’ file. You’ve already seen what it looks like above.
This is your standard castle. It’s robust yet allows you great flexibility with your future moves. It also sets up a nice 3-pawn defense line in front of your king, which you can reinforce even further with your nearby pieces.
Short castling will be the way to go in most games. Generally speaking, you only want to avoid short castling if there’s an army ready to storm down your kingside or you want to take a more offensive approach.
Also referred to as a long castle, this move involves the king castling with the ‘a’ rook.
The king moves two squares left to the ‘c’ file and the rook to the ‘d’ file.
You can tell at a glance that this castle is much more vulnerable to attack, particularly due to the weakness of the ‘a’ pawn and the king’s exposure across the diagonal.
It would take at least another move – king to b1 – to get the same level of safety a kingside castle offers.
What the queenside castle lacks in safety, it makes up for in offensive potential. The rook being on the ‘d’ file instantly primes it up for a central attack.
I recommend castling queenside only if it’s a part of your opening, or be ready for a much more aggressive game. If your opponent captures kingside, you’ll likely be sending pawns at each other’s king.
Don’t get me wrong; castling queenside is perfectly fine. It’s just a more high-risk, high-reward move.
What You Should Know About Moving The King
We’ve talked about how the king can move. Let’s put that information to use.
Here are some useful guidelines and principles you can apply in your games to keep your king safe and use him effectively when it matters.
Don’t Move Your King Around in the Early Game (Unless You Know What You’re Doing)
In most games, your first king move should be a castle. If you move your king any other way, you won’t be able to castle at all, and your king will be left vulnerable in the center files of the board.
A trained opponent will easily capitalize on your king’s vulnerability by shredding open the center of the board with some well-timed pawn breaks and bringing their major pieces to the attack.
If you’re a beginner at chess, I recommend castling as soon as possible. Many openings will allow you to castle before the 10th move is played, such as the very famous Italian game.
Once you gather some experience, you’ll be able to identify when you can safely delay castling to complete your other positional goals.
Just remember: If you wait too long to castle, your opponent might launch an attack and prevent you from castling at all.
Your King is Your Most Valuable Piece – Keep Him Safe!
Chess is all about hunting down the enemy king. It’s the fastest and more surefire way to win. The thing is, your opponent will be looking to do the same. And you can’t always have the initiative, so it’s worth making sure your king is well-protected and safe where he is.
After you’ve castled, try not to move the pawns immediately in front of your king. They’re there to physically block the gaze of your enemy’s long-range pieces.
You can, however, move the ‘h’ pawn forward one square in a kingside castle. This will give your king an escape route, eliminating the possibility of a back-rank checkmate.
Your King Has an Important Part to Play in the Endgame
Once the fighting is over and the dust has settled, you need to bring your king out of hiding. He has an important role to play in the endgame.
Generally, it’s safe to bring out and advance your king once your enemy’s major pieces (queen and rooks) have fallen.
In the endgame, you should use your king to escort your pawns up the ranks to get them to their promotion square. To do this, you’ll have to ward off the enemy king by ‘shouldering’ it with your king.
King play is an important, game-winning element of the endgame, and it’s something you’ll master with time.
I’ll answer the most frequently asked questions here.
Can the King Attack in Chess?
The king can indeed attack in chess – one square in each direction. However, his slow movement and limited attack radius make him a poor offensive piece. Not to mention, placing your king in danger is a surefire way to get checkmated if you’re playing against someone who knows what they’re doing.
Can a King Kill a King in Chess?
A king cannot kill a king in chess. Since a king cannot move into chess, the two kings can never be immediately next to each other. There will always be at least a one square gap between the two kings.
Can a King Move Two Steps in Chess?
A king normally moves one square at a time in chess. It can, however, move two steps in one move by castling. Castling is the only instance where a king can move two squares in one move. All subsequent king moves will be one step each.
That’s about it. Now that you know all about moving the king and the importance of king safety, you’ll be able to keep your king safe and punish your opponents when they make an inaccurate king move.
Go play a game or two and apply what you’ve learned! Or check out more of our in-depth guides to learn more about the game.