King Safety in Chess – A Decisive Factor

As one of the three most important opening principles that I mentioned in this post, king safety is definitely an idea that will lead to quick wins or losses if it is neglected. The most common way to do this is to castle. In the majority of games, both players will castle, and the reason for this is to tuck your king away in the corner, to connect your 2 rooks and to give yourself the option of opening up the centre without the fear of your king coming under attack.

Basic Ideas about King Safety

  • In most games you should castle, to get your king out of the centre of the board.
  • Once castled you should not advance the pawns in front of your king, because these pawns are there to protect your king.
  • Watch out for potential piece sacrifices that may be used to open up your king’s position. 
  • If you play the moves g6, Bg7 and 0-0 or any version of that – This is called fianchettoing – Then you have to watch out for wing pawn attacks, based around h4-h5.

The Damiano Gambit – An Opening Trap

To demonstrate just how important king safety is, I will show you an opening trap where this theme quickly wins the game. It also highlights the fact that the h5-e8 diagonal (and h4-e1) can be weak diagonals, and by moving your f-pawn early on this can run into problems.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 f6? 3. Nxe5! Offering a whole knight to open up this weak diagonal. … fxe5 ( 3… Qe7 4. Nf3 4. Qh5+


Black now has 2 options that are equally inadequate. 

Option 1: 4… g6 loses a rook after 5. Qxe5+ Qe7 6. Qxh8 Qxe4+ 7. Kd1 White is winning in this position, because of a having more material than black.

Option 2: 4… Ke7 5. Qxe5+ Kf7 6. Bc4+ d5 7. Bxd5+ Kg6 8. h4 and white isn’t even material down. White has 3 pawns in return for the knight, which is considered to be an equal exchange, however black’s lack of king safety is atrocious, and white has an easy attack.

Paul Morphy Highlights Opponent’s Exposed King

In this game, which the unofficial world champion Morphy (1837-1884) played against an amateur, black did not castle his king and as a result came under heavy fire early on. It is typical in such games that the better developed side will attempt to open up the position to their advantage. This is exactly what Morphy did, even for the sake of a pawn or 2. Here it is:

 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. b4!?  The Evans Gambit. The idea is that you sacrifice a pawn to gain time on your opponent. They are faffing around moving already developed pieces to and fro, meanwhile you can rapidly develop your own pieces and start an attack! If you play this opening you have to play with energy and keep up the threats, otherwise you will just be a pawn down.

 Bxb4 5. c3 Gaining a ‘tempo’ (move) on the bishop. Bc5 (Also possible are Ba5 and Be7. These 2 moves are better than 5… Bc5, because Bc5 loses another ‘tempo’ after the inevitable d4) 6. d4 exd4 7. cxd4 Bb6 

Let’s have a look at the position that has arisen out of the opening. White has a strong control of the centre that is uncontested by black, and white can castle whenever. However black must move his g8 knight out of the way before he can castle and this will take time. White’s c4 bishop is aggressively placed; aimed at f7. Black has made quite a deplorable mistake in principle. In most cases, you should not move the same piece more than once in the opening, but black has moved his dark squared bishop 4 times already. This wasting of moves is at the expense of a lack of development, and also a lack of king safety. Morphy quickly brings this to light…

 8. O-O Na5 9. Bd3 d5?

This move opens up the a4-e8 diagonal on which white’s bishop can operate. This also exposes the black king. An improvement is 9… Ne7 10. Nc3 0-0 Now the black king is much safer. This would be a roughly equal position. 

 10. exd5 Qxd5? (10… Ne7 was better, returning the pawn, to castle as soon as possible) 11. Ba3

This is a critical point to take note of. The bishop on a3 prevents black from castling, and so the black king is doomed to remained exposed in the middle of the board. 

 Be6 12. Nc3 Gaining a tempo on the black queen – It is clear to see that Morphy was all for playing with energy and being extremely resourceful with his moves. once the queen moves, the centre will open up. …Qd7 13. d5 Bxd5 14. Nxd5 Qxd5

White is completely winning now. You can use this position as a puzzle if you like…

White to play and win.

 15. Bb5+! 

Sacrificing a piece to open up the central files. A brilliant way to break through. Re1+ is an equally strong move, and if you found this, then you should be just as proud.

 Qxb5 16. Re1+

This position is hopelessly lost for black, because the black king is so exposed.

A Dangerous Gambit Against the Dutch Defense

In this following game, black accepts white’s gambit and as a result his king comes under heavy fire. For the sake of a pawn white gets active play, and since black neglects his opening principles of development and king safety white gains a winning position quickly.

1. Nf3 f5 (1… e6 2. d4 f5 is a safer move order.) 2. d3
Nf6
(2… d6 3. e4 e5  is a way to avoid
the gambit.) 3. e4 fxe4?! (3… d6 is a safer alternative) 4. dxe4

 Nxe4 5. Bd3 Nf6 Black has already forgotten an important opening principle – You shouldn’t move the same piece more than once in the opening (without good reason). The knight has moved 3 times!

White has a development advantage and an easy attack after
this. (Better was 5… d5 to get the light squared bishop into the game.) 6. Ng5!  g6 This move prevents the trick of Nxh7 when there is a threat of Bg6# 7. h4 Undermining the g6 pawn.


Rg8 Getting the rook off the h-file, where there were tactics of hxg6.  8. h5 d5 This move has arrived too late. White already has the makings of an attack. 9. Nxh7 What would happen if black takes the knight 9…Nxh7? 


White would play 10. Bxg6+ The only response is 10… Rxg6 (10… Kd7 is not an option.) 11. hxg6 Nf6 12. Rh8 is winning there.

 9… Bf5  Trying to consolidate the position. 10. hxg6 Qd7 11. Nxf6+ exf6 12. Qe2+ Be7 13. g7 This move comes with 2 threats. Can you see both of them?


 Nc6?? A blunder. White was
threatening not only Rh8, but also Qh5+. ( The only move for black was 13… Bxd3 14. cxd3 Nc6 when black is still much worse, but does not lose immediately.) 14. Qh5+ Picks up the loose bishop on f5. And black can resign with a clear conscience. 

Conclusions from the Game

  1. In gambit openings you don’t have to accept the sacrifice. The whole point of the sacrifice is for your opponent to gain time against you, and to rapidly develop. The lack of a pawn gives your opponent more mobility too, for example losing a pawn can open a file for your rook to get into the game. 
  2. If you do accept the sacrifice, then you should try to develop as quick as possible, and to find safety for your king. It is often possible to do this, but if you can’t, then accepting the gambit was probably not the way to play in the first place.
  3. In the Dutch defense opening, black has to be careful of his weakened h5-e8 diagonal, because of potential checkmate ideas early on. Remember that with every pawn move you are creating certain weaknesses. It is understanding the extent of significance of these weaknesses, and managing them that will make you a stronger player. 
  4. Avoid moving the same piece several times in the opening, because this wastes time, and deprives your other pieces of development.

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