How to Play the King’s Indian Defense (Ideas for White and Black)

A typical begining to the king's indian defense.
A typical begining to the king’s indian defense.

The King’s Indian Defense is a chess opening for black that can be played when your opponent begins starts with d4, the Queen’s pawn opening.

The main idea for black is to let white gain initial space in the center while black develops minor pieces to attack the center later.

This makes the King’s Indian a Hypermodern opening where black delays attacking the center with pawns.

Traditionally, any opening where black starts with 1…Nf6 is considered a variation of the Indian Openings.

What you do next will determine if it turns into a King’s Indian, Queen’s Indian, Nimzo-Indian or other Indian Openings listed here.

 

Here are the main variations you will learn about in this article

Why play the King’s Indian?

I like playing the King’s Indian because it allows you do complete your main idea in (almost) any d4 game.

The only exception to this I’ve seen is the Trompowsky Attack where white develops their bishop on move 2.

No matter what (else) white does, he cannot stop you from achieving this formation.

There are some openings you want to achieve this formation later rather than sooner (London System and Samisch)

The pawn structure that usually arises out of early gameplay in the King’s Indian is preferable for white, but depending on how black attacks the central pawns, black can soon turn the tide.

king's indian pawn structure
A typical king’s indian defense structure for both sides

You are able to fianchetto your kingside bishop quickly, which makes it quicker for your king to find safety in the castled position as soon as possible.

The opening for the King’s Indian is very passive to start, and you are indeed giving up d4, c4, and in many cases e4.

white strong pawn center

While this seems terrifying and against all opening principles in chess, it is still a very sound opening.

The King’s Indian marks a hypermodernism type of opening that attempts to give white a false sense of security with a strong pawn center. By building up your minor pieces, you will be able to attack it with more rigor at a later point.

You are essentially trading your central position for a defensive one that is hard to open up, even after your pawns are pushed forward.

This position will open up and attack the center rather quickly as needed, black simply needs to move the f6 knight first and a lot of attacking chances open up on the queenside diagonal.

Why play the King’s Indian if it is a Passive Opening?

If black’s attack on the kingside works, then it is checkmate. White’s queenside attack only can gain material.

Whoever can get their attack in first is better off.

Here’s a potential pawn structure that can arise in the King’s Indian after black has achieved ne8,f5,f4,g5,nf6.

The goal here for black is to push g6 and h5 to get a ton of pawns attacking the king for a mating attack.

White, meanwhile, wants to play on the queenside with c5.

king side attack in kings indian

Here’s a game I played in speed chess where my opponent neglected to create counterplay on the queenside. This resulted in an easy steamroll on the kingside with my pawns.

 

Let’s take a look at main variations of the King’s Indian

Here are a few of the main variations you may encounter over the chess board.

I will highlight the ideas for both black and white.

Orthodox Variation

king's indian orthodox variation

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be2 e5

Main ideas for white

1. Try to get as much space as possible with c4, e4, d4 pawns.

2. Keep the tension in the center and force black to weaken their pawns.

3. If pawns are fixed by pushing d5 (Petrosian), make attacks on the queenside.

Main Ideas for Black

1. Attack d4 and get the pawn to push to d5, solidifying the center and allowing black to attack the kingside.

This also creates an outpost for the knight on c5 if white pushes d5.

2. Find a way to move the kingside knight to push f5 and attack the center. This is especially strong if d5 has been pushed.

It will ultimately turn into a kingside attack if so.

 

Petrosian System

Pushing d5 in the Orthodox Variation is known as the Petrosian System.

White’s main idea is to push b4 followed by c5 to create an attack at the base of the central pawns (d5).

 

Black’s main idea is to push f5 (like most King’s Indian set ups) and attack the e4 pawn.

 

In some lines, after white responds to f5 with f3, black may push f4, locking down the pawns in a fixed structure on the e, d, and now f files.

This makes a kingside attack even stronger since the pawns are closer to the king.

Black will next try to push g5-g4-g3 and eventually h5-h4-h3 if there is enough time.

Here is a game by Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Tal where d5 was played.

In this game, Tal is able to create a queenside attack by playing c5, attacking the central d6 pawn. Meanwhile, Fischer is able to attack e4 with the f5 pawn push.

Both are working towards their plans on their side of the board with the d6, e5 and d5, e4 pawns fixed in the center.

pawn ideas in petrosian king's indian

 

Sämisch Variation

samisch variation

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. f3

Main ideas for White

In this variation, white will move away from the kingside and castle queen side. This makes black’s usual kingside attack have no game ending targets.

White often also while also getting the queen and bishop on the same diagonal, eyeing the h6 square.

F3 blocks the knight from coming to the g4 square, which is would love to do if the bishop is on e3.

Drawbacks for white

The f3 square is blocking the natural development of the knight that wants to go to f3.

While the pawn island is nice, white delays their development too much to take advantage of moving first.

If black can keep the tension in the center, then the move f3 create more of an annoyance for white because the knight cannot move to f3 like it naturally wants to.

If black doesn’t castle kingside early, this can be a passive opening for white

It ultimately gives black more flexibility how they want to handle the situation and eventually attack the center.

The reason for pushing f3 is to defend the pawn on e4. This means that white is not so willing to play e4-e5 because then the pawn on f3 is very misplaced and not helping out at all.

In fact, that that point, it is only hurting white’s kingside knight development.

Main Ideas for Black

Black should delay castling because of the strong Be3/Qd2 diagonal

queen and bishop in samisch

Naturally, since f3 triggers possibilities of queenside castling and an eventual pawn cascade on the kingside against black, initial counterplay on the queenside is a great idea.

C6 and a6 can be played to get ready for b5, a nice attack on the queenside flank

https://lichess.org/4cZmcc8Y

The f3 pawn means that the pawn wants to stay on e4. This means the e pawn doesn’t want to move forward or capture an eventual d5 pawn from black because it will leave an awkward pawn on f3, forcing the knight to move around f3 by moving to e2.

E5 and c5 are also traditional ways to play in the king’s indian and counter the center.

 

Example Games

Black exploits the weakness of b4 after a4 is pushed

Four Pawns Attack

four pawns attack

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. f4

White Main Idea

Looking to push f5 or e5 and create a strong central pawn push

Drawbacks for white

White’s center looks strong, but is over extended

Weak because white is falling behind in development

The center is overextended, but if black is too passive, it will be a monster center once white can develop the rest of their pieces.

D4 become a weak target (why?) because of the dark bishop

Ideas for Black

Castle because e5 pushed too soon and not developing pieces isn’t strong enough yet

Move knight back to e8 and get ready to attack d4 with c5, forcing d5 and then e6 to attack and then target the e4 pawn.

Option 2 is na6 followed by e5 to get rid of the d4 pawn and get the knight to c5

Black often starts attacking dark squares (d4) but eventually can transfer attack to e4 if the knight is on c5 and the dark squared bishop is blocked in.

Fianchetto Variation

fianchetto variation

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. g3 Bg7 4. Nf3 O-O 5. Bg2 d6 6. O-O Nbd7 7. Nc3 e5 8. e4

The Fianchetto Variation often plays out as if white played the English Opening or a variation of the King’s Indian Attack.

Main Ideas for white

Because the bishop is on the kingside, playing e4 is going to block the bishop in and is not always played.

This takes away the usual c4, d4, e4 pawn center white has and replaces it with a bishop with longer sight.

Main Ideas for Black

 

King’s Indian Attack

king's indian attack

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. g3 d5 3. Bg2

Similar to the King’s Indian, white has opted not to attack the center, and instead attack it with minor pieces while fianchettoing on the kingside.

The major difference here is that white moves first with an extra tempo and can turn this into an attack.

Main Ideas for White

Delay pushing pawns in the center to ensure a quick castle on the kingside.

Prepare for e4 to attack d5 and potentially put kingside pressure with e5 if black does not take the pawn.

Expand on the kingside with f4 to create a kingside attack.

Push h4 and create a kingside attack

Main Ideas for Black

Defend the d5 pawn with c6, with a Slav type of structure

Create queenside pressure with the b and a pawns.

Alternatives to reach the King’s Indian Attack formation

This formation can also be created through other openings like the French Defense.

king's indian attack formation

1. e4 e6 2. d3 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6 4. Ngf3 c5 5. g3 Nc6 6. Bg2

Other Variations: Trompowsky Attack

trompowsky attack

The Trompowsky attack puts immediate pressure on the kings knight, almost trying to force e6 or ne4. Any other response will lead to Bxn and then doubled up pawns. Black can retake with the g pawn, but this exposes the king side and can remove safe spaces for black to castle. It does help black put more pressure on the center however.

Responses can be:

  • Ne4
  • E6
  • D5 to allow the doubled up pawns
  • G6 to almost force the doubled up pawns, but the exchange of the dark squared bishop is ideal for black, even with doubled up pawns. These pawns can give more protection after the eventual f5, opening the bishop.

It’s always nice to also have the chance to push f5 twice, and the knight is already out of the way for the f pawn to be pushed, which is what is desired in the kings indian.

 

Most Tromp players will respond 3.Bf4, not 3.Bh4. The idea is that after f3 and e4, should Black take on e4 he ends up in a Blackmar Diemer where White has an extra move Bf4. 3…g5 is ridiculous against 2.Bf4 unless you intended some type of Basman defense to begin with.

https://lichess.org/APVqOFdy

Which Variation Will You Try Out?

If you’re interested in the King’s Indian, I recommend trying it out.

If you’re a queen’s pawn player (d4) then it’s worth studying these variations to see what you could be up against.

Let me know in the comments which you’ve seen before and which you intend to try.