When (not) to Castle

We are taught early on that we should always castle, both to get our king to safety and to develop our rook. That is usually sound advice, and one rarely has a valid opportunity not to castle. Naturally, there are exceptions, and today I would like to talk about those.

I’d split those exceptions into four categories:

  1. Player A has advanced his pawns on the kingside/queenside making it a bad choice to castle in that direction – that could be because a) the pawns don’t sufficiently shield player A’s king and/or b) castling would disrupt potentially powerful play with the pawns
  2. Castling would walk into a powerful pawn storm and/or mating attack – admittedly, I haven’t encountered this situation often.
  3. The king is perfectly safe without castling – that one is usually added to categories #1 and #2, but there’s an example of that which we’ll discuss in a moment.
  4. It’s an endgame – in the endgame, king activity is important, and the chances of getting mated are small.

Take this example:

Chernin

Black to move

In this fascinating position, I was black and without hesitation played 20… Kf7!. On f7, the king is absolutely safe, since white has no concrete threats against it. Also, my rook is better off on the h-file, where it could help with kingside pawn pushes. It should not come as a surprise to you that Kf7 is a good move and that 0-0 is not. This definitely falls into category #1. After pushing all those pawns and having promising prospects on the kingside, castling would simply be absurd.

T. Davis

Black to move

In this game, I was up to my usual risky pawn-grabbing business with black and reached this position. I’ve won a pawn, but my development isn’t the greatest, my king is stuck in the middle, and my h6-g5 pawn pushes appear to be more weakening than aggressive. But anyway, what to do with the king? 16… 0-0 is a bad idea on account of Qh5 and Ng4 business. Therefore, I decided to just play 16… Kf8!. It gets the king off the e-file and more importantly keeps the rook on the h-file. The king isn’t weak – it’s shielded by pawns and is surrounded by friends and family. And his majesty can always go to g7 if I feel the need to connect my rooks eventually.

What category does this fall into? It’s probably category #1, as black has been busy pushing kingside pawns. However, in some scenarios, castling kingside would not be a bad idea in this position, while in the first example, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where castling would be good!

OK, what’s the conclusion from those two examples? In both I pushed my kingside pawns, and as a result my rook was better placed on h8 than on f8. Also, in both examples, the black king was safe. Basically, I reached the same goal as castling – I got a safe king and an active rook. When I started pushing my kingside pawns, I threw basic principles into the garbage bin (admittedly with a good reason). This allows us to arrive to a different principle when you have advanced pawns on the kingside, castling kingside often doesn’t make sense.

Another reason why not to castle – you will likely get mated if you do so! In this case, I’m thinking about openings like the Sicilian where black often keeps his king in the middle and plays on the queenside so that white’s kingside pawn storm doesn’t murder him. This is a frequent theme in the Sicilian and a reason why in many situations, black will delay castling until  the right moment.

The Mysterious …Kf8 in the French

In the French Defense, black often plays Kf8, usually in order to protect the g7-pawn. One example is the following main line position:

Winawer Theory 2

The main moves here are 7… cxd4 and 7… Qc7, but the move 7… Kf8!? Is perfectly playable here. Why? Doesn’t it break all the principles?

OK, I probably can’t explain this one in a paragraph, but I’ll try. If black plays 7… 0-0 (which is a theoretical main line), after 8.Bd3, white starts an attack by targeting h7. The attack is not easy to counter by any means. After 7… Kf8, however, white has no clear way of attacking the black king. Black will focus his play on the queenside, and it isn’t easy for white to counter it. The big drawback of Kf8, however, is that black will have a hard time connecting his rooks – still, that’s something he can live with.

As I said above, these ideas with …Kf8 appear many times in the theory of the French. Sometimes they occur in situations where black can’t castle (or won’t be able to get away with it anyway), but even there it isn’t easy to explain. The French, especially the Winawer, is NOT an easy opening to explain using principles.

Puzzles

Before I finish, I would like to leave you with a few puzzles. Come back on Sunday, and I’ll publish the answers in the comments.

Disclaimer: Just because this article is suggesting that you shouldn’t castle, it does NOT mean that in all the puzzles castling is bad. It’s up to you to decide what’s best.

Puzzle 1

Brandon 1

White to move

Is 25.0-0 a good move?

Puzzle 2

Azarov 1

Black to move

How should black respond to white’s last move 22.Bc5?

Puzzle 3

Sveshnikov Theory

White to move

What is white’s best move in this theoretical position?

Puzzle 4

Cuarta

White to move

In this unusual position, is 24.0-0 a good idea?

Puzzle 5

Last but not least, I should finish with another fascinating and unique idea in the French Winawer.

Winawer Theory 1

Black to move

What is the most-commonly played move here? (Give yourself a pat on the back if you find the idea and haven’t seen it before!!)

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