The king is the most important piece on the chessboard. It’s the only piece that can not be captured and the one piece that the whole game revolves around. Thankfully, the movement of the king in chess is a very simple one, probably the simplest of all pieces.
So, how does the king move in chess? The king in chess can move in any direction one square only if this square is not threatened by an opponent’s piece, and the king only has a special move called castling in which it can move two squares to either side of the board and have the rook jump over it to come by its side.
In this article, we are going to discuss how the king moves in chess, and explain all the important concepts about the king, so keep reading.
Importance of the king on the chessboard
The first thing you probably have learned about chess is that the result of the chess game is tied to the king. If your king gets checkmated, you lose, and you win if you give a checkmate; if either king ends in a stalemate position, the game is a draw.
Therefore, it’s easy to see that the king is literally the most important piece on the board, and it’s the one piece where your whole army falls if it falls.
This is made even worse by the fact that the king’s movement is very limited. The king can not protect himself, practically speaking, and it can not escape danger as quickly as we would like it to since it can move only one square.
Now that we’ve got this covered, let’s look at how the king moves in chess:
How does the king move in chess?
The king can move in any direction on the chessboard, but they can move one square only per turn. The king can only move on squares that are not under the influence or control of any of the pieces of the other side, including their king, as this would put the king in check, and it’s legal for the king to move to a square where it would be in check.
Here is an example of a king that can move to any of its surrounding squares:
In the position shown in the diagram above, the orange arrows show all of the possible moves for both kings.
Now, let’s add some pieces and look at how this would look in a practical game where some of the surrounding squares are illegal:
Notice how, in the positions above, for
- The white king: The c4 and d5 squares are illegal as they are under black’s influence (with the knight and pawn, as shown by the arrows). Moving into either of these squares is illegal as it will put the white king in check.
- The Black king: The b8 and c7 squares are illegal to move to as they are under white’s influence with the Bishop on f4.
This is pretty much it for the basic movement of the king, but the king has one special move that we must discuss.
What is castling?
Castling is a special move in chess where the king can move two squares to either side of the chessboard and have the rook of this side jump over the king to come by its side. Castling is the only move in chess where two pieces move in one turn, and it has a few rules that must all be true for castling to be legal.
The rules of castling are as follows;
- Neither the rook nor the king has moved before, so castling must be the first move for both.
- The king must not be in check.
- The squares between the rook and king must all be vacant
- The squares the king will travel to and pass by must not be in check.
If all those conditions are met, the king and rook can castle. Here is what castling looks like:
Assuming the following position:
Here, white can choose to castle to either side. All the squares between the king and both rooks are vacant and not in check.
If the king castles kingside, he will move from the e1 square to the g1 square, and the h1 rook will jump over the king and end up in the f1 square. We’ll get this position:
This is what is called kingside castling and has the symbol: O-O.
Kingside castling is the more popular form of castling in chess games since it’s easier and faster to move all the kingside pieces to make this possible, which is what most e4 openings are all about; develop the kingside bishop and knight and castle, then the middlegame begins.
The king may also choose to castle queenside, and the difference here is that the queenside rook will move three squares to end up by the king’s side while it moved only two squares in kingside castling.
When castling queenside, it looks like this:
The symbol for queenside castling is O-O-O.
In most chess games, both sides castle on the same side, and this often happens to be the kingside. However, in some games, you may find that they castle on different sides, and these games tend to become very aggressive and turbulent quickly, as each side tries to open up the flank in which the other side has their king on and deliver checkmate.
The following is a very common position that arises from the Caro-Kann defense:
This position comes after the moves:
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5. Ng3 Bg6 6.h4 h6 7. Nf3 Nd7 8. Bd3 Bxd3 9. Qxd3 e6 10. Bf4 Qa5+ 11. Bd2 Bb4 12. c3 Be7 13. c4 Qc7 15. O-O-O Nf6 16. Qe2 O-O
Here, this game is about who can expose the other side’s king with “pawn storms” and deliver the checkmate.
A pawn storm, by the way, is an attack with many pawns that aims to exchange pawns or even sacrifice a pawn (or a few pawns) to open up the side where the opponent’s king is. A pawn storm is a very dangerous strategy as it can indeed open up the position very quickly.
If your opponent launches a pawn storm on the side with your king, the most appropriate response is to also launch a pawn storm on their king or in the center to force them to play the same game of attack and defense.
What is a check?
A check is basically a threat to capture the king. Of course, you cannot capture a king, but a check forces the opponent’s hand to do something about their king.
When one side’s king is in check, they are legally obliged to resolve this check by capturing the checking piece, blocking its path to the king, or moving the king to escape the check.
Let’s see what this looks like:
In this position, the white side has three legal moves only:
- Block the check with Bf2
- Move the king to h1
- Move the king to f1
Any other move will be illegal.
What is a checkmate?
The checkmate is a check that you can’t do anything about. In a checkmate, the king will not have an escape nor a way to take the attacking piece(s) or capture them.
It’s similar to a threat to a piece that will be captured in the next move, and there is nothing you can do about it.
In this position, the king can not escape the black queen’s check, nor can it take or capture the queen. This is a reasonably simple checkmate.
What is a stalemate?
A stalemate is when one side has no legal moves, but their king is not in check. A stalemate results in a draw, and it’s one of the trickier concepts that you should master when you are starting to play chess.
Here is what a stalemate looks like:
The white king here has no possible moves as the black queen traps it, yet it is not in check, so despite the material advantage of black, this game is a draw.
Opposition is when the two kings oppose each other with one square between them. The side that does not have the move is the one that has the position, and the one that has to move is at a disadvantage as it has “lost opposition” and must give way.
Having the opposition is key to winning king and pawn endgames, as the side with the pawn must have the opposition if they want to promote their pawns.
Let’s look at an example of this:
In this position, whoever has the move is at a disadvantage. If it’s the white’s turn, they have to move, and the black side will simply follow them and keep the opposition, forcing a draw as they will keep successfully blocking the white pawn.
However, if it’s black’s turn, they are going to lose. If black plays Kg8, white will respond with Ke7, and if black plays Ke8 instead, white will respond with Kg7. In both cases, white will control the f8 square and be able to push their pawn to the f8 square to promote it.
Diagonal and distant oppositions
The kind of opposition we have discussed so far is direct opposition, which is the basic form of opposition, but there are two other types of opposition you should know about, which are diagonal and distant opposition.
To make things simple: Both diagonal and distant oppositions are forms of opposition that will eventually lead to direct opposition; however, knowing their patterns early can help you gain the direct opposition more easily with tricks like triangulation or wasting moves.
Here is an example of a diagonal opposition.
Unlike direct opposition, whoever has the move here is at an advantage. If it’s white’s turn, the king will simply step into f7 and later will promote their pawn, but if it’s black’s turn, they can play Ke8, gain the direct opposition, and block the path of the white pawn to promotion.
Now, let’s look at what distant opposition looks like:
Similar to direct opposition, whoever has the move here is at a disadvantage because the other side will be able to gain the direct opposition easily. Go ahead and play it on your board and try to see all possibilities, or play it with an engine.
If you put this position as white to play, the engine will always be able to draw the game, while if you play it as black to move, the engine will always win as white.
FAQs on the king in chess
Can the king move two spaces?
The king can not normally move two spaces, but it may only move two spaces to either side during castling, assuming that the king is not under check and neither are the two squares the king is going to travel. It also must be the first move for both the king and the rook for castling to be legal.
Can a king move in chess without a check?
Yes, the king can move when they are not in check. A check is not a condition for the king to be able to move, but if the king is in check, something must be done about it, and no other moves can be played. A king in check can move or block the check.
Why can the king move only one square per turn?
There are a few theories as to why the king may only move one square per turn. A popular theory is that the king acts like the leader in a battle, so he must stay behind and move slowly and cautiously to stay safe and be able to direct the forces and coordinate the battle.
Another theory suggests that the king’s movement has been intentionally restricted so it becomes weaker as it would be incredibly difficult to checkmate a king that can easily escape or defend itself, which would’ve made the game even more difficult than it already is.
Can the king attack in chess?
Despite its limited movement and range, the king in chess can actually attack. While the king can not deliver a check itself, the king can be a supporting attack piece. This is common in simple endgames but very rare in middlegames, where the king can be in severe danger if he steps into the middle of the board.