Castles or not castles?


As we all know, Hamlet’s famous question asks “to be or not to be?” essentially meant “to live or not to live?” In chess, when it comes to deciding whether or not to castle your king, you are in many cases are Choose between life and death for your monarch!

“And that’s why I castle whenever I can. That makes my king safe,” many inexperienced players would say. And they would be very wrong!

You see, there is a common misconception about castling. Here are a few quotes I found on chess websites all over the internet: “Any chess teacher will tell you castling is so important.” “In general, it’s always better to cast early.” “The rules of thumb say it’s important to cast early.” etc.

While it’s hard to argue with an obvious fact that you actually want to castle in most games, check out the following game, played by two over 1,600 players:

Do you see why castling on the queenside was a critical mistake? Yes, White moved his king exactly where Black wanted to attack him! It is completely opposite to the purpose of castling to bring the king to safety!

Do you think that only players under a master level make such mistakes? Check out the following high-level game from a playoff that should determine who would qualify for the Candidates Games!

How could one of the best positional players of his time, GM Zoltan Ribli, make such an obvious mistake and castle his king exactly where he would be mated? I don’t have a clear answer to this question, but I suspect that every single chess player must commit this chess crime at least once in their career. It’s almost as if a vaccine for chickenpox was invented, every child got it, and then becomes immune to the disease. Here is my own example of an incorrect answer to the question in the title of the article:

My opponent has just played 15. Thg1, which shows his intention to play g2-g4 and launch a direct attack on the kingside. Then why did I shut up? Well I think I’ll keep the answer for my book How to do really stupid things. When I had the opportunity on the 17th move to swap the queens in order to significantly weaken the coming attack, I didn’t either. Another example for the book!

As I mentioned earlier, this bug is like chickenpox, once you suffer from it, you usually become immune. Here is my game that shows a correct strategy in situations like this that can be summed up in one simple sentence: Don’t castling in checkmate!

As you can see, one possible strategy is to just keep your king in the middle, which can be dangerous but is still a lot safer than smelling checkmate. Another strategy that is not always possible is to simply castle on an opposite side of the board. The current challenger for the world championship gives a master class in this next game:

To sum up, in general you really want to castle in most of your games as it will give your king more security, but sometimes reckless castling does just the opposite.

One of our great world champions, GM Vladimir Kramnik, would like to make this decision easier for all of us by completely abolishing castling. Only time will tell if he will succeed, so for now, just remember: Don’t lock in checkmate!

Have you ever checkedmated an opponent who smelled your attack? Let us know in the comments section below!

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