To Castle Or Not To Castle?

To Castle Or Not To Castle?

| 105 | Strategy

As we all know, Hamlet's famous question "to be or not to be?" essentially meant "to live or not to live?" In chess, when you're deciding whether to castle or not to castle your king, in many cases you are choosing between the life and death of your monarch!

"And that's why I am castling whenever possible. It makes my king safe," many inexperienced players would say. And they would be very wrong!

You see, there is a popular misconception about castling. Here are a few quotes I found on chess websites all over the internet: "Every chess teacher will tell you that castling is so essential;" "In general it is always better to castle early;" "The rules of thumb say that it is essential to castle early on;" etc.

While it is difficult to argue with an obvious fact that in most games you indeed want to castle, look at the following game played by two 1600+ players:

Do you see why castling queenside was a decisive mistake? Yes, White moved his king exactly where Black was going to attack him! It is completely opposite to the purpose of castling, which is to tuck your king away into safety!

Do you think only players below a master level make mistakes like this? Well, look at the following high-level game from a playoff which was going to determine who would qualify for the Candidates matches!

How could one of the finest positional players of his time, GM Zoltan Ribli, make such an obvious mistake and castle his king right where he was going to get checkmated? I have no clear answer for this question, but my guess would be that every single chess player must commit this chess crime at least once in his career. It is almost like before a vaccine for chickenpox was invented, every kid would get it and then become immune to the disease. Here is my own example of a wrong answer to the question in the title of the article:

My opponent just played 15. Rhg1, clearly showing his intent to play g2-g4 and start a direct attack on the kingside. Why did I castle, then? Well, I guess I'll keep the answer for my book How To Do Really Stupid Things. Moreover, when I had the chance to trade the queens on move 17 to significantly lessen the coming attack, I didn't do that either. One more example for the book! 

As I already mentioned, this mistake 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, which can be summarized by a simple phrase: Don't castle into checkmate!

So, as you can see, one possible strategy is just to keep your king in the center, which might be dangerous, but it is still much safer then castling into checkmate. Another strategy, which is not always possible, is just to castle to an opposite side of the board. The current challenger for the world championship gives a master class in this next game:

To summarize, while generally you really want to castle in most of your games since it adds safety to your king, sometimes reckless castling achieves exactly the opposite result. 

One of our great world champions, GM Vladimir Kramnik, wants to make it easier for all of us to make this sort of decision by abolishing castling altogether. Only time will tell if he succeeds, so for now remember: Do Not Castle Into Checkmate!

Have you ever checkmated an opponent who castled into your attack? Let us know in the comment section below!

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