How to Defend in Chess: (8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas)

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  • GM Johan Hellsten GM Johan Hellsten

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas

Struggling to defend tough positions against your opponents? Read about these 8 strategies to learn how to defend in chess and become a better defensive player.

Middlegames | 5 min read
How to Defend in Chess –  8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas

One of the toughest areas in chess is defensive play.

Most of us like to attack, and when we manage to finish off the opponent with some beautiful sacrifice, we feel like if we were Mikhail Tal for a day 🙂
In contrast, few of us feel the same excitement when defending our king against the assault from the enemy forces.

However, it is no secret that many attacks succeed exactly due to mistakes from the defending side. In many cases, had the defender played correctly, then he would have resisted the attack, and sometimes he could even get the full point at the end of the day.

From this follows, that many points can in fact be saved in our games if we are able to defend our king more efficiently. And with good results comes joy - once you get used to defending your monarch with success, you will no longer dislike defensive play, believe me 🙂

Next, let's have a look at some basic ideas on how to defend in chess, one by one.

1. Mobilization

When your opponent starts to attack your King, it’s vital to bring pieces to the defense. More so, if there are more attackers than defenders near your King, you’re usually in trouble.

Westerberg J. ‑ Madebrink L., Vasteras Open 2016

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas
White to move

What is Black planning here? Well, 38...Qg3 is the most obvious threat. We can’t prevent it in a good way, for example, 39.Be2?! Bxd5! with counterplay. Time to bring a defender to the action!
38.Be3! Qg3 39.Bg1

Thanks to the presence of the Bishop on g1, White's King is now completely safe.
39...Rc8 40.b6

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas

Black’s attack is over, and White went on to win.

2. Defensive exchanges

If you’re able to eliminate one of your opponent's key attacking pieces, then your chances of a successful defense will increase.

Kozul Z. ‑ Velikov P., Graz Open 1987

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas
Black to move

With no h‑pawn on the board, the Black King feels a bit exposed on g8. One idea to look out for is Qh4 followed by Ng5, another is a Bxg6 sacrifice at some moment. So how can White's attack be neutralized?


Very clever, thanks to the pressure along the c‑file Black is able to swap off the attacker on c2.

26.Bxd3 Nxd3

We can now see Black's concrete point: 27.Rxd3 Qxc1+ transposing to a favorable ending.


A huge tactical mistake.

27.Qh4 Nxc1 28.Ng5 was better, when 28...f6! 29.Ngxe6 Qxe5 30.Nxf8 Rxf8 31.Rxc1 leads to rough equality.

After 27.Ne6 White missed Black’s next move.


Black is not forced to take back on e6, and instead creates a double threat against the enemy pieces on d1 and c1 and the f2 pawn.

28.Rxd3 Qxd3 29.Nxf8 Qd1+

In view of 30.Kh2 Qxc1 White resigned.

3. Blockade

Sometimes it’s possible to frustrate your opponent's attack by blocking their pawns with either one of your own pieces or one of your own pawns.

Laznicka V. ‑ Mammadov Z., Czech Open 2013

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas
White to move

Opposite castled Kings usually calls for attacking play, and White knows what their opponent has in mind: h6‑h5 followed by g5‑g4.


A great blocking move by the Knight.

16...Ngf8 17.g4!

Blocking the black g-pawn as well. Next White launched their own attack on the queenside, by means of b2‑b3 and c3‑c4, and went on to win.

4. Chess Prophylaxis

If you are able to anticipate your opponent's next attacking moves, then you can take prophylactic measures, such as overprotecting weak points in advance.

Topalov V. ‑ Adams M., Las Palmas 1993

White to move

Again there are opposite castled Kings on the board, but this time White can’t really prevent the march of the black h-pawn. That’s why Topalov takes a prophylactic measure.
19.a4! h5 20.Ra3

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas

The Rook now keeps an eye on the kingside, ruling out any sacrifices on g3. In the meantime, White will go for their own attack on the opposite flank.

20...Qe6 21.b4 f6 22.Nd3 h4 23.Nf4 Qf5 24.b5 White's attack turned out to be the more convincing one.

5. The brave King

Sometimes there’s no alternative other than to try to clear a path and march your King up the board to safety.

Cabarkapa N. ‑ Kovacevic A., Serbian Ch. 2020

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas
Black to move

Faced with the terrible threat of 28.Nf5, Black decided to make space for their King to go for a walk.

27...Re6! 28.Qh8+ Ke7 29.Ng8+

Also after 29.Nf5+ Kd7 Black defends.


How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas

The black King is now much safer than on f8!


Here the game followed 30...Qb7 31.Qd8+ Nd7 32.Ne8+ and White kept some attacking chances, although Black prevailed in the end.

However, by 30...Qc6! taking control of the c‑file, Black could have repelled White's attack completely, for example, 31.Qd8+ Nd7 32.Ne8+ Kc5! 33.Qxg5+ Kb4! 34.Qd2+ Ka3 35.Qxd3 Nc5.

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas

Believe it or not, the black King is very safe on the opposite side of the board!

6. The escaping King

This is similar to the previous idea, just that the King moves away horizontally instead of vertically.

Shankland S. ‑ Martinez Romero M., Tromso (ol) 2014

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas
White to move 

White has a huge material advantage, but their King is in danger. For example, 25.b3? Qxa2 is unplayable.

25.Rd2! Qxa2 26.Kd1!

The King escapes to the other flank. The fact that Black gets back some of the material is of less importance here!

26...Qa1+ 27.Ke2 Qxh1 28.Qg3 g6 29.Bd3

The White King is much safer now, and White went on to win.

7. Sacrifices

Sometimes when defending, your only chance to continue the game is to give away some material. In the previous example, Shankland did this.

Here’s another game that features this idea:

Kohlweyer B. ‑ Tolnai T., Dortmund 1988

How to Defend in Chess – 8 Must-Know Defensive Ideas
Black to move

White has just played 16.Bh6, with a strong initiative for the sacrificed pawn. How would you react with Black here? Please, don’t be too materialistic!

It turns out that the natural 16...Re8? loses on the spot to 17.Bc4! Qxc4 18.Nf6+. Luckily, in the game, the Hungarian GM found the best way to go.


Black hurries to develop their pieces and also takes control of the crucial square on f6. The loss of the exchange is a lesser issue.

17.Bxf8 Ne5 18.Qe2 Rxf8

White's attack is basically over, and Black has a pawn and a bishop pair for the exchange. The game later ended in a draw.

8. Counter-attack

There is an old saying that "the best way to defend is to attack", which is exactly what this idea’s about. Instead of worrying too much about our own king, sometimes you should focus on the enemy King instead.

Tal M. - Akopian V., Barcelona 1992

White to move

White's King is being assaulted from different directions. The legendary Mikhail Tal finds the only way out – an attack against the Black King!

31.Ng5! Rxg5

If 31...f6, then 32.Qd8+! Rxd8 33.Rxd8+ Rg8 34.Nf7+ Kg7 35.Rg1+ with mate, while 31...fxe6 would be met in the same way as in the game.


Not 32.fxg5?? Qf3+ and it’s Black who gives mate!


Akopian also indicates 32…Kg8 33.exf7+ Kxf7 34.Qe7+ with a mate to come.


That's it, White picks up the Queen.

33...Rxd8 34.Qxc3 f6 35.e7 White soon won the game.


Final thoughts

Practice makes perfect! To further improve your defensive play, you can watch many more examples of these defensive ideas in our course Defend with Honor.

If you’re a PRO member, you already have access to all our courses, including this one.

Good luck defending!

P.S. Feel free to share any thoughts and ask any questions on how to defend in chess in our forum.

Originally published Jan 26, 2021

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