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i heard a rather accomplished chess player say that it's not so important to castle if the queens have been taken off the board early. Is this correct thinking?
I wouldn't use it as a general rule.
Basically: castling achieves two things: gets your king to safety, and brings your rook into play.
Now, if you trade a lot of pieces early, king safety might be less important, because your opponent won't have such a powerful attack. However, castling might still be a good way to bring in your rook. Or it might not: sometimes you need your king as an atacking piece.
So when you're unsure about castling, consider whether your king needs to get to safety, and what's the best way to bring your rook into play.
The king is the strongest piece! It should not be hiding in a corner when it can be leading the Bongcloud Attack!
I think there are definitely situations where castling is pointless, but I wouldn't be dogmatic about it. Even if the queens are off, you may not want to castle. And sometimes the queens are still on and castling is unnecessary.
I actually do not think that's correct because it brings your king to safety, which is the most important thing in the game of chess. But make sure that castling is safe first.
I guess, as with most games, you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. I've sometimes found that castling can lead to the other person strangling your King as he has nowhere to move.
In the main line of the Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defense, Black gains a displaced King but has a hard to break position. There's some lines of the Philidor where Black gains a displaced King but has a similarly difficult position for White to assault. Thus, sometimes - but never a general rule.
The position is usually less sharp with the queen's off the board, but that isn't an excuse to neglect king safty. Put the king where he is safe. In many games the king will be safer on one of the wings. Sometimes, however, the center may lock and the play may turn to attacks with the wing pawns, in which case it might be safter to have the king in the middle. Thats the exception, rather than the rule, however. Most of the time you will want to castle.
Also, when you castle you move one of the rooks closer to the center, potentially uniting the rooks and making it easier for them to move to the part of the board where they are needed, so castling is something of a developing move as well.
I've often found not castling in the Caro-Kann the best way to victory in many ways.
I discuss the reasons for delayed castling here: http://www.cob.sjsu.edu/splane_m/chess/delayedcastling.htm
The exchange of queens does not always mean your king is safe in the center.
As a general rule, you want to centralize the king after the queen and one set of rooks have been exchanged. The exception is positions with the two bishops versus the two knights. Then it is usually ok to centralize the king, even with both pairs of rooks on the board.