Rule Changes That'll Never Happen, Part 2: Castling

| 41 | Fun & Trivia


For the most part, the rules of chess are simple and easy to explain.  The object of the game, to trap the enemy king, is understandable to a five year old.  The movement of the pieces is straightforward and clearly defined.  The players take turns moving one piece at a time.  When played reasonably well, the game has logic, aesthetics, and a pleasing flow.


And then there is castling - the only move in which a king moves two squares, the only move where two pieces move on the same turn, the only move where a piece jumps over another piece that is in its direct path.  Let's admit it right up front, the move is contrived and funny-looking.


I'll bet a lot of people have wondered how such a bizarre-looking move ever got started.  I know I have.  Here's my guess on how the castling move was invented:


Back in the 15th century, a certain king known as Richard the Corpulent offered a challenge to any member of his kingdom: a four game chess match.  If the king lost, he would award half his kingdom to the successful challenger.  If the king won, the challenger would be put to death.


Now, within the kingdom there lived a blacksmith named John Surly.  Undaunted by the dire consequences if he lost, he accepted the king's challenge.  The blacksmith had been playing chess for years in the village green and had never lost a game.  He had also witnessed many games played by the king against members of his cabinet, and, while Surly had never seen the king actually lose, he had observed numerous games in which the king's opponents had missed crushing moves.  So Surly took the challenge, confident that this was an easy road to riches.


The match opened to considerable fanfare the next day as the king regally advanced his king's pawn.  The game proceeded 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 d6 5. Bxc6+ bxc6 6. d4 f6 7. Nc3 Rb8 8. Qd3 Ne7 9. h4 h5 10. Be3 Rxb2 11. de de 12. Qxd8+ Kxd8.



At this point, the king eyed the black rook that had audaciously grabbed his b-pawn and now threatened the heart of White's camp.  Something had to be done about that rook.  So, King Richard moved his king two squares to the left and simultaneously jumped his rook over the king, announcing check.  Shocked, John Surly said, "Prithee excuse my impertinence, My Lord, but what the hell kind of move is that?"  The king replied, "It is called castling.  The king moves two squares toward a rook, whereupon the rook leaps over the king."  And so the castling move was born.


The next day, the king essayed the type of risky play for which he had invariably won spectacular games against his cabinet members.  The game began 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d5 4. ed c6 5. dc Bc5 6. Bc4 O-O.  "I shall castle," said the king as he made the last move.


Here Surly thought for a bit, then decided that 7. Nd7 would be very clever, dropping his knight into the enemy camp to disrupt Black's attack.  When King Richard replied 7...Nxc6, Surly played 8. Nxc5, figuring it was more important to remove the active bishop, rather than a rook that was not an immediate threat.  When the king played 8...Re8+, ignoring a chance to regain the piece by ...Qe7+, Surly decided he could keep all his extra material by playing 9. Be2.  He was now feeling quite pleased with himself.


The game continued 9...Nd4 10. Nc3 Bg4 11. f3 Rc8.  Surly decided the knight now under attack needed to stay on c5 to watch e4, so he played 12. b4.  King Richard, never one to reject a sacrifice, replied 12...Rxc4 13. bxc4 Ne4.



At this point, Surly hit upon a wicked idea.  He played 14. fxg5, and, after King Richard responded 14...Qh4+, the challenger played 15. O-O and commented smugly, "I am castling Your Highness, just as ye hath done in this game and the last."  The king replied, "That is a nice try, Loyal Subject.  Unfortunately, castling is not allowed while one is in check."


So the challenger was made to retract his last move.  After 15. g3 Nf3+ 16. Bxf3 Nxg3+, he tried to stave off defeat by 17. Qe2, only to suffer the most ignominious of mates after 17...Rxe2+ 18. Bxe2 Ne4+ 19. Kd1 Nf2+ 20. Ke1 Nd3+ 21. Kd1 Qe1+ 22. Rxe1 Nf2#.


When the crowd erupted in thunderous applause (not so much for the king's play as for the stage it set for tomorrow's game), the king could not resist saying to the Royal Executioner, "Better make sure your axe is good and sharp for tomorrow, Bruno."  The crowd roared its approval.


Down 0-2, Surly now had no chance to win half the kingdom and needed two straight wins to save his neck, in the most literal sense.  To make matters worse, the crowd for game 3 was enormous and quite rowdy, continuously chanting phrases like "Off with his head!" and "Whoomp, there it goes!".  Also prominently in evidence was the Royal Executioner, to whom the king had granted a front row seat in Surly's direct line of sight.


The game began 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bc4 Bb4 5. d3 d5 6. ed Nxd5.  Here the king played 7. O-O with regal panache, eliciting wild applause.  After 7...Nxc3 8. bxc3 Bxc3 9. Ba3 Bxa1 10. Qxa1, the crowd roared its approval and began doing the Tomahawk Chop. 



Understandably, Surly found the whole spectacle very unsettling.  At this point, he icily said to the king, "Let me guess, Your Royal Largeness.  I am going to castle here, and when I do you are going to tell me the move is illegal."  The king replied, "That is correct, peasant.  One is not allowed to castle through check."


Unnerved, Surly now committed the fatal error 10...Bg4 (and grammar buffs may wish to note here that this is the first instance in chess literature that the word "fatal" has been used accurately).  The king played 11. Nxe5 Nxe5 12. Qxe5+, bringing a big roar from the crowd.  This led to 12...Kd7 13. Qd4+ Kc8 14. Qxg4+ Kb8 15. Ba6 and an even bigger roar from the crowd.  After 15...c6 16. Rb1 b6 17. Qf4+ Qc7 18. Bd6 Rc8 19. Bxc7+ Rxc7 20. Re1 Surly was helpless.


Pandemonium ensued.  Surly was grabbed, dragged to the chopping block, and beheaded.  His head was placed on a pike and paraded through the town square as the king waved graciously to his adoring public.  A few days later, the rules of chess were amended to include the new rule called castling, along with the circumstances under which castling is allowed. 


Okay, time to return to the present.  You'll recall this article began with the observation that the castling move is contrived and funny-looking.  In spite of that, castling is played in most openings, since the move gets the king out of the center and brings a rook into the game, solving two positional problems in one fell swoop.


And that's the real problem I have with castling.  It's not that the move is contrived so much as it's too convenient.  If the starting position presents a few problems, good.  Chess is about solving problems.  Abolish castling and there'll be more early attacks, more kings caught in crossfires around move 15, more tactics in the opening.


All right, learned colleagues, I know what you are going to say.  This is another rule change that absolutely, positively, will never get adopted.  Grandmasters would need years to learn new opening theory.  Books would have to be revised.  Entire openings would have to be re-evaluated.  The change would cost millions.  So, regardless of how many players like the idea, the change won't happen, no way, nohow.

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