Why Can’t You Capture The King In Chess? Explained

Chess is like a battle between 2 armies. At the start, the armies are poised and ready to fight. In ancient India to the computer age, the military has used chess as both a metaphor and even as training for warfare.

Given that chess is a representation of two armies at war, wouldn’t the point be to take out the enemy king?

If you are an inquisitive person, you may wonder why it makes sense to go to battle if at the end you can’t capture the opponent’s king?

Is chess just a pointless war where the pawns (like people) are sacrificed to the elites, but the kings are ordered to be left on the board? And, are the kings and rulers all on the same team in the end? Haha, perhaps it’s true in the real world. But in chess, it’s not what you may think. Here is what you should know:

Why Can’t You Capture The King In Chess?

The obective of the chess game is to place your opponent’s king under attack such that your opponent has no legal moves. This is called checkmate.

The reason why you can’t capture the king is because the goal is to deliver checkmate. Therefore, capturing the king would be deemed illegal. If this should happen, the position immediately before the irregularity must be reinstated. 

Once there is checkmate on the board, theoretically the king would inevitably be captured on the next move, so there is no point in continuing the game to capture the king. Therefore, checkmate ends the game.

For example, in this position below, white delivers checkmate on f7. There is nothing the black king can do to escape being captured on the next move (if the game should theoretically go on with black to move). Hence, why the game ends in checkmate.

In the event that your opponent puts or leaves his king in check, you should not capture it. Capturing the king is a common mistake among beginner players, but you should not do this (per article 1.2 of the FIDE laws of chess).

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For example, in the position below, white played the illegal move knight to f3 after black just delivered a check with his bishop on b4. Rather than having the black bishop capture the white king, FIDE wants the position to be reinstated just before white played the illegal move knight to f3. 

Just because your opponent may leave his king under attack or expose his king to an attack doesn’t mean you should go ahead and capture it (no matter if it is a blitz game).

Instead, if your opponent makes an illegal move endangering his king, he should take back that move and play a legal one instead. Two minutes shall be added to your clock for each illegal move your opponent makes.

If 3 illegal moves are made by the same player, the arbiter shall declare the game lost by this player, per article 7.4 (b). In some tournaments though, 1 illegal move is enough to end the game. So you should always consult with the tournament organizers on the amount of handicaps that are given.

However, in faster time control such as blitz, you can claim an immediate win if your opponent has left his King in check per FIDE Rule B. 3(c). but not after you’ve captured it.

If the king is captured in chess, the position immediately before the irregularity shall be reinstated according to 7.4 (a) of the FIDE rules of chess. 

In other words, your opponent must withdraw leaving his king under attack or exposing it to attack and play a legal move instead.

If the position immediately before the irregularity cannot be determined, the game shall continue from the last identifiable position prior to the irregularity. This is more common in blitz games when the pieces become displaced from their squares and no one can remember the position since the moves aren’t being recorded.

Are Both Players At Fault?

Yes, the only reason why a player would capture the opponent’s king is if the opponent left his king in check. The opponent would have made an illegal move, but the other player would also be at fault for not pointing out the illegal move.

Moreover, in blitz games, you will not be able to claim victory if you captured your opponent’s king after he left it in check. Therefore, it’s important that you pause the clock and point out the illegal move if you wish to claim victory.

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Neither players can claim victory if the king is captured because both of them are at fault. 7.4 (a) of the FIDE rules must be followed if such event occurs. That is, to reinstate the position before the irregularity occurred. 

What Other Pieces Cannot Be Captured?

Pretty much every other piece can be captured in chess besides the king, so long as it is a legal capture. For example, if a knight wants to capture a pawn, but that same knight is helping to block a check from the opposing side, then that knight cannot leave from its square to go and capture the pawn as it is pinned.

Therefore, you cannot break a pin to go and capture another piece as it would be deemed illegal since the king would be exposed to being captured.

The white knight on f3 cannot capture black’s d4 pawn as the bishop is pinning the knight to the king

What If No One Notices The Illegal Move?

In some cases, a player may leave his king under attack or expose his king to an attack and neither of the players notices. He could also have castled when either his rook or king has already been moved before.

This could somewhat be problematic, as they may not notice until the end of the game. If the results have not been declared, the players would have to replay the game starting from the position where the illegal move was made.

There is a funny but interesting story where this phenomenon took place.

In April 1995, the 64-year-old former world title challenger Viktor Korchnoi was still quite a strong grandmaster. At 2635, he was ranked 25th on FIDE’s official international rating list. No one would have blamed him for retiring after his long and successful career, yet despite his age, he continued to travel around the world to play his favorite game.

Of the top 50 players in the world at that time, only three had played more rated games in the previous rating period. What else could he do? “Chess is my life,” as he titled his autobiography.

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In the second round of a tournament in Slovenia, paired against the younger and lower-rated German GM Stefan Kindermann, he played the opening in his usual uncompromising style. Unfortunately, this time around, he got into serious trouble.

In the diagram position, White (Kindermann) has a very significant advantage. Black (Korchnoi) has moved his rook from h8 to g8 and back again, meaning he can no longer castle. Thus, his king is stranded dangerously in the center.

So Korchnoi bluffed. He calmly picked up his king and moved it from e8 to g8, signaling his intention to castle, then transferred his rook from h8 to f8.

If Kindermann didn’t notice, Korchnoi knew that this illegal move would result in a dramatic improvement in his prospects. (In fairness, it appears that Korchnoi himself may not have realized that he had violated the rules.)

Sure enough, it never even occurred to Kindermann that his great opponent could have made such an elementary mistake. Both players continued as if nothing had happened.

However, their clocks soon began to run out. By twenty moves later, the game had dissolved into an epic time scramble.

The players’ hands raced to make moves quickly enough; pieces were knocked over; and ultimately, no one could remember how the board was supposed to be arranged.

Following the rules, Kindermann and Korchnoi retraced their moves from the game notation to recover the position. It was then that they realized what had happened.

Normally, this would have resulted in the players having to replay the game starting from the position where the illegal move was made. This might very well have resulted in a victory for Kindermann. But after hours of intense battle, the German grandmaster was exhausted. He generously offered a draw instead.

With relief, Korchnoi accepted.

Final Verdict

I hoped this article was able to explain why the king can’t be captured. In most cases, this occurs when the player leaves or put his king onto an endangered square.

If this should ever occur in your game, you now know not to take the king, but instead to summon the arbiter and state where your opponent made the illegal move. In blitz games, you can automatically claim victory, but in classical chess with longer time controls, your opponent may be granted up to 3 handicaps.

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