All beginning players are taught to castle early in their games. The teacher says this as a rule and may also explain a little bit about the importance of castling such as “to get your king safe”. But why exactly is this the case? Let’s look a bit deeper into castling in chess and you may be surprised at some of the new ideas you learn from this article.
First of all, the main two reasons for castling in chess are:
- To get the king out of the center
- To activate a rook.
GETTING THE KING OUT OF THE CENTER
Note that the first reason we will talk about is not “get the king safe”, but it is actually “get the king out of the center.” Just because you castled does not mean that your king is magically safe all of the sudden. There may be times where storm clouds are brewing over our kingside, and our opponent’s pieces are aiming in that direction and it would be a huge mistake to castle kingside, sending our king right into a big attack.
No, the key factor here is getting the king out of the center. Most of the time castling will get your king safe. But that is mainly because a king is not typically safe in the center of the board where pieces from the queenside, kingside AND from the center can attack it easily. Castling restricts your king to one side of the board for a long time. Make sure it is a change in the position that you are willing to live with for a while. There may be times when a king can be perfectly safe in the center of the board, without ever castling at all.
Let’s examine the position above. Should Black castle in this position? General principles would say “Of course! Black must get castled so that his king is safe.” But does castling in this example actually make our king safer than keeping it in the center of the board? Well not this time. If we castled right now, White could actually launch a mating attack with the move Bxh7+! Our king would be much safer sitting in the center of the board at the moment, compared to castling kingside right away and getting slaughtered.
ACTIVATING A ROOK
The second reason to castle is to activate our rook. By it’s nature, castling flips the king and rook so that the rook is closer to the center of the board. Without this move being possible in chess, activating rooks would be much more difficult, because we would have to manually walk the king out of the center of the board, then put our rooks in the center. It would take much longer without castling.
When we do castle, we bring a rook closer to the center where it can be used for many different thing, such as defending a key central pawn, controlling an open file and attacking the enemy king (who is sitting in the center of the board because he hasn’t castled yet!). Castling and activating a rook is also very important when we are ahead in development. This allows us to bring another piece into the game quicker and attack our opponent sooner.
In the position above, White has castled a move or two earlier and has the opportunity to use his rook in the attack on Black’s uncastled king. With the moves Bxe7 followed by Re1, or just doing Re1 and pinning the bishop first, White is using his newly activated rook very well in the attack on Black’s king.
Now that we understand better the reasonings behind castling, we will be better prepared to use it in our own games at the correct time. Remember, castling cannot be undone! You must live with the consequences of the move (good or bad) once you’ve made it.
Read more about general chess principles: “Three Questions to Ask When Trading Pieces”.