After learning the starting position of the king on the chess board, the next step is understanding his movements. If you’re a beginner, learning how the chess pieces move is essential to gain a better understanding of the game.
The rules of chess state that a king is allowed to move one square in every direction (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal). The only exception is the castling rule, which allows the king to move two steps horizontally, together with the rook who ‘jumps over’ the king.
Losing the king means the game is over. So it’s essential to protect him at all costs. That’s not always easy, considering the king is usually only allowed to move slowly across the board.
Let’s explore the ways in which a king is allowed to move, how a king attacks, what your options are when the king is ‘in check’, and what a (simple) checkmate looks like.
A King Moves One Square In Any Direction
For a beginner, it’s very easy to understand how the king can move across the board. Every turn, he is allowed to walk a single step in any direction. This means a king can move one square in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal direction. He is allowed to move forward, backward, as well as sideways.
The king is a bit of an old man, so forgive his royal slowness when he moves to another position:
In a normal turn, taking a single step is all the king is allowed to do. But at the start of every chess game, the king has a special trick up his sleeve. You might have heard of the castling move before. It’s the only time a king moves a bit faster than he normally does.
Castling: The Special King Move
The only time the movement of the king gets a little bit complicated, is at the start of the game. This is when the ♔ King and ♖ Rook can pull off a move called ‘castling’. If a player wishes to castle, four specific conditions should be met:
- No movement: The king and rook may not have moved yet (during the whole game)
- No dangers: The king cannot be in check (i.e. he can’t be under attack by an opponent’s piece)
- Safe passage: The squares the king has to move through cannot be under attack either
- No roadblocks: No pieces may stand in between the king and rook
To castle, move the king two squares to the right or left (horizontally). At the same time, move the rook to the opposite side of the king. Essentially, the rook ‘jumps over’ to the other side of the king to protect it.
Players should remember a few things here that are important. Castling is a special chess move with some very unique features:
- Castling always involves moving two pieces in a single turn: a ♔ King and ♖ Rook
- It is the only move where the ♔ King is allowed to ‘walk’ two squares in a single turn
- The move is only allowed horizontally, from the starting positions of the ♔ King and ♖ Rook
- The player chooses the ♖ Rook they wish to castle with, either on the left or right side
If you wish to learn more about the strategy and specific chess rules behind castling, read this article. For now, let’s focus on the movement of the king. The most common way to castle is to the short side (where the rook is closest to the king).
We call this ‘King’s side castling‘ (notation: 0-0), which is to the right side for white pieces, and to the left side for black pieces. The king moves two spaces horizontally, towards the rook:
After the king has moved his two spaces, the rook ‘jumps over’ the king and lands on the other side of the king. The example above would go like this:
- King moves from e1 to g1
- Rook moves from h1 to f1
However, there is another white rook on the left side as well. That piece is a bit further away, to the side where the queen would be closer. That’s why we call the longer side ‘Queenside’ (notation: 0-0-0). The move looks almost identical, and the king moves like this:
To successfully do the queenside castle move, two pieces need to move in a single turn. First, the king moves two spaces to the long side, and then the rook ‘jumps over’ him:
- King moves from e1 to c1
- Rook moves from a1 to d1
That’s really all that the castling move is. Remember to imprint the four conditions of castling in the back of your mind. These special rules might seem a bit strange and uncomfortable at first. But once you get to know the conditions and the move itself, it will come naturally.
Attacking With The King
Just like any other piece on the board, a king is able to attack and capture. If an opponent’s piece is within the king’s range of movement, the king is allowed to take it under the condition that it is not being defended.
Remember that the piece you want to attack is within the king’s range of movement. Remember that the king can move one square in any direction (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally).
A king is not allowed to put himself in danger to capture or chase down an opponent’s piece. This means that you are not allowed to put yourself in check. Because the rules of chess don’t allow a king to put itself into check, a king is not able to attack and capture the opponent’s king.
King In Check
If an opponent threatens your king with an attack, we say that a king is ‘in check’. This is not a death sentence, but it is a situation of urgency. If your king is in check, you can still turn the game around in your favor!
A king in check has three choices, depending on the board situation:
- Use the king to attack and take the (undefended) piece that threatens the check
- Walk away from the threat by moving the king
- Block the threat by moving a supporting piece between the king and the attacking piece
- Use a supporting piece to attack and take the (defended or undefended) piece that threatens the check
First, the most optimal situation would be to attack and take the opponent’s piece. A king in check is allowed to attack and take undefended pieces. For example, a rook that moves too close to the king for an attack can simply be taken:
A king in check is still able to move like he normally would. Is the threatening piece too far away, or currently being defended? The main goal would then be to ‘run away’ from the looming danger:
Another situation gives more options. Let’s say the rook is out of the range of movement for the king, but still threatens a check. You could run away with the king, but you can also block the attacker’s path with a supporting piece:
One last situation is a bit more urgent. If an opponent threatens a checkmate (the king can’t move or attack anymore), look for other options. Can you capture the attacker with any other pieces? Then do it, even if it’s being defended.
This is no time to be cautious, because the king has to survive at all costs. Take the piece that threatens a checkmate with a supporting piece like so:
King In Checkmate
If there are no supporting pieces to save the king, a checkmate is likely. This is when the king cannot move to escape the threat anymore. Nor can he block it, attack it, or ask for the help of supporting pieces.
A king in checkmate is frozen in position. He is not allowed to move. If the opponent reaches a checkmate, the chess game ends immediately. The king is not allowed to move, this is the final board position.
It goes without saying that a checkmate should be avoided at all costs. The king should be led to safety during the whole game. Don’t move it into risky positions, and don’t give away supporting pieces where possible.
In chess, it’s normal to congratulate the opponent on the victory and playing well, if the other side happens to have won the game. Good sportsmanship goes a long way!