Mastering Chess Strategy: How to Win with Only a King

Chess is a game of strategy and skill, with each piece on the board playing a crucial role in achieving victory. But what happens when you’re left with only a king?

We will explore the basic rules of chess, the movements and value of the king, strategies for playing with only a king, common mistakes to avoid, and tips for winning in this challenging scenario.

If you’re ready to master the art of chess with just your king, keep reading to discover how to emerge victorious on the board.

What are the Basic Rules of Chess?

The basic rules of chess include the following when playing according to the International Standard Rules:

  1. 2 players
  2. Each has
    • 1 King
    • 8 Pawns
    • 2 Knights
    • 2 Bishops
    • 2 Rooks, and
    • 1 Queen
  3. Each player gets 40 moves to figure out how to proceed.
  4. There are antagonistic moves where players may
    • capture enemy pieces using specific rules of movement and control, or
    • move pieces to gain a strategic advantage to control the board, reduce or threaten the enemy king’s mobility, or support their own king’s movement using pieces to fill critical squares.
  5. There are non-antagonistic moves (the pro forma game) where players who do not want a decisive result move pieces to attack or avoid attack, moving pieces back and forth until one of the players decides to break the pattern and go on the offensive.
  6. There are three ways the game can end:
    • Mate
    • Draw
    • Resignation

What is the Objective of Chess?

The objective of chess for both players is to checkmate the opponent’s king. Checkmate means that the opponent’s king is threatened by capture and that this threat cannot be eliminated. Whenever a king is being threatened by a direct attack, such as when a piece that if allowed to move would capture the king is adjacent to it, that player has to remove the threat.

This can be done by either moving the king to an adjacent square (called escaping the check or getting out of check), capturing the threatening piece, or placing another piece between the king and the threatening piece (called interposing). A player who is put into check and cannot remove the threat is said to be checkmated and the game is over.

If additional pieces are not available to block the attack when a player only has a king left, the only possible response will be to move the king and try to escape the threat. If the opponent can keep threatening the king with each move, the game can occur in perpetuity and will be declared a draw due to insufficient material.

The King in Chess

The king in chess is the second most important piece on your side in terms of winning and losing. The opponent is always trying to attack your king because checkmate represents the end of the game. The average number of moves required to checkmate your opponent is difficult to calculate but can often be done with less than 50 moves. However, the king is second only to the pawn in terms of simplicity to learn, and is very hard to attack if utilized correctly. For beginners facing a checkmate-in-n situation, trading off all pieces but the king is the most important rule to follow. Once checkmate is avoided, any kind of stalling can potentially allow the opponent to make a mistake they otherwise would not make.

What are the Movements of the King?

The complete chess rules for the king (black or white) movement are simple. The king can move one square in any direction (but not able to move to any square if it is already under attack). The king can also move two squares left or right if castling.

The regulations around this under the Video Series: The King in Chess, Chapter 5 (The Movement of the King) at 1:42, have been laid out by the United States Chess Federation (USCF). Castling is a powerful move that contributes to improved defense of the king since it moves the king away from the center of the enemies advance, which Sholokov emphasizes is important. Article 9.2.2 of the laws of chess, explains that castling must satisfy the three following conditions:

  • The king and the rook must not have moved before during the game.
  • The king is not in check.
  • There are no squares between the king and the castling rook that are attacked by any of the opponent’s pieces.

Once any of these prerequisites is not satisfied, the castling move is untenable. Then simply follow the rules of chess laid out in articles 3 and 4 of the Official Rules of Chess (Effective from January 1st, 2018) to ensure you put up as tough a challenge as possible when down to just a king.

What is the Value of the King?

The value of the king in chess is theoretically infinite because if the king is captured by the opponent, there is no possible move left for the attacking player so the game is lost. There is no value to the king as a piece in the same way that pawns, bishops, rooks etc. have values – as a factor in mathematical calculations of how likely a player is to win based on the pieces in play and their arrangement. Chess is not a solved game, meaning there are so many possible ways a game can go that calculating the value of a piece once it is down to just the king and some pawns is not possible.

Most players extrapolate from middlegame scenarios, and estimate based on the number and type of pawns, as well as the positioning of the king, how strong a winning or drawing position they can build. This does not create a theoretical basis for the king having a numerical value of its own, though. A key point, especially for beginner players, is to treat the king as having no value of its own until it is nearly locked into a corner. There are still fifty moves after a pawn’s capture in which a draw is technically possible, and more experienced opponents know well, making a king capture an absolute priority.

Playing with Only a King

Playing with only a king is challenging in chess. But if the stronger side is losing a chess game, they would prefer to be left with only a king since there is zero probability of checkmate if you do not have any pieces or pawns capable of checking the enemy’s king.

Best practices for playing with only a king include not moving side to side, but moving diagonally and expanding by moving forward, not backward.

What are the Strategies for Playing with Only a King?

Strategies for playing with only a King in chess include the following:

  1. Keep your king at the center.
  2. Avoid the edges so the board has more room to avoid attacks.
  3. Avoid being checked.
  4. Keep defense pieces (queens and knights) around your King as long as possible to maintain mobility.
  5. Build a fortress – not leaving a pawn until the end to build a structure to keep the King defended.
  6. Be aggressive if you have a space advantage.
  7. Utilize opposition (centralizing your opponents’ King so he is the first to one side of the board).

Keeping your King in the middle of the board is the most important tip. Begin with moving it away from the center only after your opponent’s king starts entering the ranks. The key strategy to keep in mind is avoiding being checked and maintain pathway directions as much as possible.

How to Protect the King?

In your journey to understand how to win a chess game with only a king, the first thing to master is understanding how to protect your king. The king should remain behind one of the pawns in front of the pawns, and it should generally not be on an edge but inside the board. The closer it is to the center of the board, the better the king has mobility to block checkmate.

How to Use the King to Attack?

In chess, the king cannot technically initiate an attack as this is done by the other (non-constrained) pieces in the game. However, there are some occurrences in which the king can help to assist with an attack or can help to move the opponent’s king into a position that assists in a future mate. Combinations involving the king are so rare that there is no word for them in chess jargon, and the extent to which the king can be aggressive during the opening is a subject that appears only very infrequently in chess study.

What the king can do in the cases of opening aggression and helping with checkmating attacks is two-fold, often used in conjunction: Gaining central control and attacking opposition pawns, as well as attacking vulnerable enemy pieces for gain of material. The use of the king has been repeatedly demonstrated in Paul Morphy’s games, who was known to physically act out battles between pieces during his games. The following is a notable example from the game where he already had his oponent’s queen on the run.

[White “Paul Morphy”]
[Black “U Amede Moore”]
1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. d3 Nc6 4. Nf3 Bc5 5. O-O d6 6. Re1 Bg4 7. h3
Bh5 8. Nbd2 O-O 9. Nf1 Nd4 10. g4 Nxg4 11. hxg4 Bxg4 12. N1h2 Nxf3+
13. Nxf3 a5 14. d4 Bxd4 15. Be3 Bxe3 16. Rxe3 Qf6 17. Be2 h5 18. Nh2
Qf4 19. Nxg4 hxg4 20. Bxg4 g6 21. Qf3 Qg5 22. Qg3 Kg7 23. Be2 Qh6 24. Qh3
Qf4 25. Qg4 Qh6 26. Rh3 Qd2 27. Rd1 Qxc2 28. Kg2 Qxb2 29. Rg3 Qb4 30. Qf5
Qa4 31. Rh1 Rh8 32. Rxg6+ f6 33. Qxf6#

In the position on the last diagram above, Morphy’s King helps apply pressure to Black’s pawns on the semi-open g-file, then moves in to help control the center and attack opposition pawns on moves 9, 11, 12, 14. Once Black’s pawns are past, Morphy’s King becomes aggressive and strikes, helping to eliminate Black’s threatening pieces on moves 16-20. It even gets in the final move to deliver the checkmate.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Common mistakes to avoid are timing out, stalemating your opponent, putting yourself in check, and trying to win the game. Different platform and tournament settings have different timing rules, but if you are reactionary instead of proactive, you will almost surely force your opponent into a time prize or the game will end in a draw. You should also avoid placing yourself in check, which is unnecessary and requires a valuable move to get out of.

What are the Most Common Mistakes When Playing with Only a King?

The most common mistakes when playing with only a king versus a king and pawn or two kings is allowing the enemy piece to advance into the opposition. This is a situation where both kings have the same number of squares between them to engage, and it is most often recognized in a situation where there is one correct move for each side to make, as shown in example number four above. This is a key phase in the process of achieving the draw in a game with only kings. The best way for a player to learn how to do this is to memorize and follow the process of the 50-move law or threefold repetition until an understanding of the game is fully formed. This is especially important to remember when you are playing with time constraints so you do not urban blow your own clock inadvertently.

How to Avoid these Mistakes?

You can avoid these mistakes by making progress towards the Stalemate Avoided Checkmate. While keeping the previous criteria in mind, try to stretch your stronger opposition by consistently pressuring them. Then utilize weaker opposition support to corral their opponent making sure that the stronger opposition will always be unable to threaten your king with Stalemate.

Tips for Winning with Only a King

Mastering these five tips for winning with only a king can help you win when the odds are against you. Don’t lose your king! Place it in a corner in a central square, and flutter between the two to avoid checkmate. Stand at least a rook’s distance away from the enemy king to minimize check threats. Do not allow your opponent’s king to venture into your area or let them build up a wall. Actively move toward the opposite end of the board at all times. Your goal is to capture one of the opponent’s remaining pieces.

What are the Tips for Winning in Chess with Only a King?

The following are the tips for winning in chess with only a king:

  1. Use your king as offense by getting it into the opposition’s territory. You will be able to control more space and threaten more pieces.
  2. Take your time because cornering the opponent’s king is a long process.
  3. Castle early to put your most powerful piece into a secure position.

How to Stay Ahead of the Opponent?

Staying ahead of the opponent in a king versus king endgame is a zero-sum game, as there are no other pieces on the board to do the work. Keeping the opponent towards the sides of the board and pushing not only your pawn but also your king to the center, such that you will soon be ahead of the opponent, might be the best tactical strategy against an opponent with king opposition.

Keeping opponent king towards the sides
Here is an in-depth analysis of the kings moving from the center to the sides and finally converging at the 5th rank. From this position on, there are no specific clear-cut tactics and it comes down to the strategies discussed earlier, as well as trying to grab the critical central squares (d4, e4, d5, e5).
Catalan Solvitur Ambulando by Suba Mihai

Staying ahead in the center
A position similar to the one above was analyzed by the FIDE Master Irving Chernev in his book Logical Chess Move by Move. In the following position, Chernev analyzed that Black was ahead the moment he occupied d5, though the end result was a draw.
Chernev analysis. Meanwhile, the German Doctor of Mathematics Aaron Nimzowitsch described this race as a zero-sum game. He compared it to a problem in molecular chemistry where two tiny invisible particles racing gets more and more interesting the more the moves decrease.

King and Pawn versus King Endgame Awareness, by GM Jacob Aagaard
At some point in a king versus king endgame, queens will likely be exchanged and the players will face off in an endgame with a king and pawn versus king majority on the same side endgame. Becoming familiar with these endgame positions allows a player to figure out how to advance their endgames farther, eventually leading to winning plans.

Once you have marshaled your forces to the center, as in positions close to this one at the end of the Catalan Solvitur Ambulando there is not a well scientific defined approach to victory. Just choose the opportunities that present themselves and move towards the end.
Converging on d1 or d2
Staying ahead of the opponent can alternatively mean conquering the enemy home squares d1 and d2 while taking control of your own home squares in time. There are positions where just with a hint of the opponent out of position or choosing the wrong path, you will be allowed to put a roadblock in the way of the opponent king.


Barring one’s opponent making a foolish move that allows stalemate, there is no definitive way to win in chess with only a king. After both sides succeed in promoting a pawn to a second queen, the highest chance for the side with only a king to win is to be in the square of an opponent’s square or on a bishop’s same colored square. The losing side has a non-zero chance to win the game in this manner, but it is highly unlikely. The odds of winning are measured in the thousands of times less than a single percent.

Of the drawing tactics, Corridor and Pillbox Defense have the highest probability of success. Corridor has half again as much chance of success, but the isochronal, pawn-chain Preserving the Opposition technique has been scientifically demonstrated to require the most similar set of moves from the opponent.

With no chess assistance available, how to win in chess with only the king as capitalized opponents king to any corner is a strong strategy to set up a draw as it can increase the probability of a stalemate. Alternately, utilize this strategy and block off as many escape squares for an opponent’s lone king as well. Winning either for black or white is not feasible though, except through forced pushes for the draw. Waiting for a threefold repetition of the board position may be the quickest route though to close to two hundred moves or more.

Summary of Important Points

The mechanics basis of winning in chess with only a king requires learning to checkmate with the king and to stalemate with the king. To apply and refine his knowledge, the player should learn W v L, be familiar with basic king movements, and understand terms such as zugszwang, opposition, centralization, hiding technique, Lasker’s maneuver, reserve moves, triangulation, and lobbing. Finally, understand the 128 legal positions that cannot be forced into mate and which you can play for a stalemate.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

Recommendation: if your opponent has a king and one or more pawns and your single king is on his eighth rank (or your first rank if it is a pawn and opponent’s pawn has reached their eighth rank) and you have a major piece (queen or rook) to defend against draw attempts via blockading the pawn while your king takes away squares of the opposing king, do not accept a draw instead you try until the positions become irreversible for any of the sides.

Conclusions: winning with only a king in chess is theoretically allowed in the very unusual case of insufficient material for checkmating, but the likelihood is very low. Most games should result in a draw due to insufficient legal moves, and it is advisable to call a draw if the outcome is clear before reaching the phase where no moves remain.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How can I win in chess with only a king?

Winning in chess with only a king is possible but requires a strategic approach and precise moves. Here are some tips to help you achieve victory.

2. Can a king alone checkmate the opponent’s king?

Yes, it is possible for a king to checkmate the opponent’s king in a game of chess. However, it requires careful planning and execution.

3. Is it necessary to have other pieces to win in chess?

No, a king alone can win in chess. While other pieces can make the game easier, a skilled player can still win with only a king.

4. How should I position my king to increase my chances of winning?

It is crucial to keep your king in the center of the board and not let it get trapped in a corner. This allows your king to have more mobility and options for attacking.

5. What is the most common mistake when playing with only a king?

The most common mistake is trying to rush and attack with your king. It is important to be patient and move your king strategically to avoid being captured.

6. Can a king be used as a defensive piece in a game of chess?

Yes, a king can be used as a defensive piece in chess. It can protect other pieces and also defend itself from opponent’s attacks. However, it should not be the sole focus of defense as it can also be captured by the opponent.

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