King safety in Chess – From Tata Steel Chess Tournament

King safety in chess should be one of your most, if not the most important priority in chess. The king is your most important piece on the chess board. If your king is captured, you’ll immediately lose the game. You’ll see an improvement in chess when you begin to look after your king’s safety.

How will your results in chess strength improve if you focus on king safety?

  • You won’t put your king in unnecessary danger.
  • When you safeguard your king, other chess pieces start playing more actively.
  • You’ll be able to defend against attacks from your opponent.

So how can you secure your king?

There are 3 strategies you can implement to secure your king. If you’re new to intermediate chess, these should serve as a good starting point. As you play more games, you’ll uncover new strategies on your own.

As examples, we’ll look at games of Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri from TATA Steel Chess Tournament 2021. You’ll learn strategies from the chess elites.

#1 Castling to secure your king

Castling is the easiest way you can safeguard your king. It also has the added benefit of bringing your rook into the game. 

Be careful before you choose a side to castle. Think about it for a moment – Would you put your king in a zone near the opponent’s army? Or would you put your king away from the war zone?  

It makes sense to put your king away from the opponent’s pieces.

Here’s an example between Magnus Carlsen vs Alireza Firouzja, Tata Steel 2021.

Magnus - Firoujza. King in centre
King in the center is unsafe

Carlsen’s king is unsafe. So what does he do? He simply castles.

Magnus-Firoujza, Castling to King Safety!
Castling to secure your king

Like you can see in the above two positions, Magnus’ king is still in the centre. So how does he secure it? Magnus castles and he secures his king in one single move.

#2 Ensuring king safety by pushing a pawn.

Ideally your king sits behind pawns. The pawns provide shelter but they also restrict the movement of the king. For this reason, it’s a good idea to open up some breathing space for the king. How do you do it? By pushing your pawn one small step. 

You may ask why you should do it? Is there really a need to push a pawn? Wouldn’t it weaken my king safety? Here’s why you should do it –

  • Your king needs breathing room. Nobody likes to get smothered by lack of space.
  • Imagine for a moment if all your pieces go for an all out attack and nobody’s there to protect the king. In that case, wouldn’t it be wiser for your king to protect itself? That’s why you need to give it some breathing room from where it can escape if an opponent attacks it. 
  • If a king can defend itself, it also frees up the pieces to go out on an attack. 
  • Pushing your pawn ahead of your king reduces your chances of getting checkmated on the “back rank”. 

Let’s a look at the same game between Magnus – Firoujza but in a different context,

White king restricted by its pawns

White’s king is smothered. It’s pawns restrict its movement.

h3! Giving a breathing room for the White king

So the world champion pushes his pawn and opens up some breathing room for the king. In the future, if Black gives a check on the 1st rank, the White king will be able to jump to h2(provided no Black pieces are eyeing h2). Also pushing the pawn prevents the Black knight from jumping to g4. 

One little pawn push but it’s benefits are numerous – 

  • The king gets a safe square to run to in the future.
  • The pawn restricts the knight from landing on g4.
  • The Queen on a1 and rook on e1 can take on more active roles now.

Simple moves. Many benefits. – This is chess at the highest level.

#3 Run your king away from the battlefield when under attack.

What happens when important men/women are attacked in movies? They’re taken to a safe bunker. The same thing goes in chess. What would you do if your opponent destroys your pawn shelter and your king is open in the battlefield? In that case, stop everything and prioritize king safety. Run with your king to a safe spot, preferable behind pawns.

Attacking play often involves sacrifices which forces the poor old king into the open. To defend your king which is under attack, run away with your king to safety.

That’s exactly what Anish Giri did in his game against Aryan Tari in Tata Steel Masters 2021.

Anish king under attack in Anish-Tari, Tata Steel 2021
Anish’s has an extra piece but his king is under attack.

As you can see, White’s king lack’s pawn cover and the Black pawns are marching towards it. What does White do?

Anish's king flees the battleground
Anish – Aryan, Tata Steel, 2021 : Anish flees with his king

He flees the battlefield and hides behind his pawns. In the game, Anish moves Ke2. Later he pushes his pawn to f3 and hides behind a chain of pawns – his and his opponent’s. Eventually he won the game, thanks to his extra knight. 

You may wonder what to do if you lack pawns to protect your king?

In that case, use your pieces to protect your king. But no matter what happens, protect his majesty.

Final Word on King Safety in Chess

One of your most important goals in chess is to look after your king. There are many different ways you can go about ensuring king safety. But these are the three basic strategies which every strong chess player knows and uses. You can implement them in your games too.

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