How to Play the King’s Indian Defense

How to Play the King’s Indian Defense

As one of the most combative openings in the entire game, the King’s Indian Defense is the favorite choice of many players. It’s a perfect opening if you want a complex game, with chances for both players to win.

I first studied the King’s Indian Defense several years ago, mainly because it was played by some of my favorite players (Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov), but in fact I didn’t quite understand its intricancies.

I only played it a few times in real tournaments, and with bad results. I knew something was wrong with my understanding of it.

So, I decided to make tabula rasa of my knowledge, and to go through the effort of studying again, from scratch. Like if I had never seen a single position coming from it.

The results have been amazing! I scored 3.54 in tournament games and my online statistics are about 50% wins, 30% losses. Keep in mind that 50% wins with Black is huge!

In this post I am going to provide a very very detailed analysis of the King’s Indian Defense. I will focus on the sub-variations that have many traits in common, and my objective is that after reading this post you will not need any book, and will already know how to handle many many positions.

Therefore, sit tight and let’s start!

General ideas and key concepts

Before going into deep analysis of variations and specific tactical / strategic patterns, I really want to discuss a few keys points with you.

It’s good common sense that you first need to understand the overall ideas and concepts of a opening, before studying the actual variations. I could not agree more, and the point I am trying to make here is that this concept is even more important for the King’s Indian.

Contrary to some common belief, the King’s Indian is NOT a all-in opening, where you either deliver checkmate or die.

Sure, there are many many famous games going like this: White attacks on queenside, Black attacks on the kingside, lots of material is sacrificed and one of the two sides wins thanks to some brilliant tactics.

That can happen to everyone, sure. But let me get straight to the point: if you want to play the King’s Indian just for the brilliancy prize, then forget about it.

When you choose the King’s Indian you are setting in for a very long, hard fought, positional battle. You will be on the cramped side and will have to know how to maneuver and regroup your pieces in less then half chessboard. About 3 rows, to be precise.

Sure, as the game goes on, the pawn structure can be such that you have to break free on one side and from there lots of tactics can arise. But this is not the most common case.

Let me tell you once more, because I think this is vital to understand the overall opening: The most common scenario is where Black suffers lack of space for long long time, but craftily places her pieces in the right spots, usually in the last three rows. Then, after long maneuvering and suffering, she possibly finds the pawn breaks that escalates the game.

And maybe then, only then, the fun starts. Or… you loose like a idiot in the next 5 moves!

Let’s take a look at a very common position:

A very common position in the King's Indian

This is a extremely common situation, where White does not close immediately the center, because they don’t want to give Black free hands to prepare the f5 pawn-break.

On the other hand Black is not sure about what to do, she does not want to give up the center with exd4 (which, as I will show later, is the best option!) and therefore simply holds on with a solid setup: pawns on a5, c6, d6, Qc7, Nd7.

This approach is absolutely correct, and I am showing it here because it should clarify that if you play the King’s Indian then you have to be okay with a long positional game. Maybe there will be fireworks, after long time, but maybe there won’t.

Let’s move on, and I want to collect a few important key ideas. Fix them in your mind.

  • Although White has many ways to approach the King’s Indian setup, they all share many ideas in common, which is a good point for Black. Common patterns are easier to understand and remember.
  • The best approach for White, from positional point of view, is to conquer space in the center, by replying with d5 whenever Black plays e5 (or c5). - However, a lot of players, especially in the 1800-2300 Elo range, don’t like to define the position so early, and therefore prefer to hold on the center.
  • Thus, Black must know in advance how to handle position where White refuses to close the center. These position are extremely important from a practical point of view. You must know how to maneuver your pieces in the King’s Indian structures.
  • If given a chance, Black should play exd4 and free her pieces, mainly the Bishop sitting on g7.
  • In closed positions with h6, g5 and White’s bishop in g3, Black often finds a way to play Nh5. From there the knight should aim to f4 and NOT exchange in g3. This is a very common mistake.
  • However, if the central pawns structure resembles more a Benoni Defense, then Nxg3 is obviously the correct move.
  • The positions where White decides to expand on the kingside too, with early g4, h4, are very dangerous for Black. These are examples where Black needs to be very fast. I will show many examples of them.

List of main variations

With the above key ideas well fixed in our mind, let’s move on and take a look at the list of variations that I will analyze in this article.

My idea is to analyze in deep details four important variations that share many traits. The objective is to master these 4 variations, by understanding the main ideas for both sides and how to apply them concretely.

  1. Classical Variation: The oldest, but still most played, variation where White take all the space he can in the center, with pawns on c4, d4, e4, followed by Be2 and 0-0.
  2. Samish Variation: Another old line, slightly less fashionable today. White wants to reinforce e4 with a pawn in f3, and then quickly castle queenside with Be3 and Qd2. Then he wants to checkmate Black’s king with h4, h5,…
  3. Petrosian Variation: The most principled approach, from positional point of view. White closes the center by taking all the space he can with early d5 pawn push, without giving Black a chance to open up his bishop with exd4.
  4. Makonogov Variation: Very trendy variation these days, White starts a very early space-grabbing maneuver on the kingside, with h3, g4, and often castle queenside.

These are the variations that I will analyze in detail. For each of them, I will share with you the key points of my own personal opening repertoire, and will give you access to my PGN file. I will describe the variations that I found to be the most precise with Black, and explain why.

Building a Opening Repertoire is a heavy task, especially if you practice chess part-time because you have a full-time job like me. I remember that just for the King’s Indian, and just for the “simple” task to compile the file with the main variations, I spent several weeks.

So grab all information you can from this post, and it will save you a lot of time in the future. You can also take my .PGN file and merge it into your own Opening Repertoire. Feel free to use it as you like! I also wrote two very detailed posts on How to Choose a Opening Repertoire and How to Study a Chess Opening with the Computer.

King’s Indian: Classical Variation

Let’s take off with the first moves that lead to the main starting position of the Classical Variation.

After 6. Be2, Black mainly continue the game with the e5 pawn-push. This is also my recommended line, however I want to mention briefly that 6. … c5 is a viable alternative.

When Black plays 6. … e5, White has a few alternatives. He can:

  • Take 7. dxe5, so entering the Exchange Variation.
  • Grab more space and close the center with 7. d5, so entering the Petrosian Variation.
  • Hold on the center with several moves, such as 0-0, Be3, among others. This is the Classic Variation.

The second bullet point leads to a totally different variation, that I analyze in detail below. The third bullet point is indeed the main focus of this section. So, what about the first point, the so-called Exchange Variation?

First of all, Black should not be afraid at all of this variation, and can simply prepare it. It contains just a few ideas and is known to give easy equality to Black.

However, I want to make the point the Black may want to avoid the Exchange Variation! In fact, if you decide to play the King’s Indian defense as a way to get a complex, double-edged game, then you should not be happy with the Exchange Variation, because it gives positions that are difficult to move far from full equality.

Therefore, my recommendation is to start the line with 6. … Nbd7, instead of 6. … e5, and only after White’s reply (most likely 7. 0-0) then to play 7. … e5, where the exchange in the center does not lead to the Queens’ exchange anymore.

Take a look at the comments in the chessboard that follows.

In my opinion, and more important according to statistics, White is very likely to continue with the “hold-on the center” strategy. The point is that the Petrosian variation leads to a more forcing type of position, where Black has a very clear plan (and you will be well prepared for it if you keep reading!), and many White players tend to avoid these situations.

So the real question now is: How to deal with White’s strategy to keep tension in the center? After lots of analysis with the computer, and exploring previous games in this variation in the database, my answer is;

If Whites misses the shot to grab space with d5 then don’t give him a second chance and open up your powerful bishop in g7 by playing exd4!

Many Black players will not like this suggestion, because they believe it leads to simplification, pieces exchange and a dull position. The truth could not be more distant. Take a look at the following line, for example.

It does not seem dull anymore, does it?!

The truth is that, by opening the center, Black sets the stage for a very complex street-fight, one where she has fair chances to grab the initiative, in particular thanks to the strong Bg7.

In the previous diagram 10. f3 by White is probably a suboptimal move. In my opinion 10. Bf1 is more accurate. Let’s take a look at some variations.

Here’s a list of few take-away ideas in this line.

  • Nh5 is very often a key resource in Black’s position. It opens up the way to the f-pawn, it harasses the White’s Bishop in f4 and also opens up the way to the kingside for the Queen (Qg5, or Qh4).
  • Opening the center is good for Black’s pieces!
  • c6 is often a “must-do”, in order to keep White’s knights away from the d5 and b5 square.
  • Black can play either on the queenside (Qb6, and attacking b2 and c4 with Be6 and Qb4), or on the kingside (Nh5, f5 and Qg5 often).

Finally, I want to share with you the full PGN file for this variation from my personal opening repertoire! It contains many many more variations and lots of comments that I hope will be useful for you.

Feel free to download the full PGN file and use it at your own risk! You can also view it directly in LiChess (mobile app included).

King’s Indian: Samisch Variation

The Samisch Variation of the King’s Indian defense is quite popular, although not the most popular.

In my opinion, the reason is that many White players are actually afraid of the King’s Indian in general, so when they play against it they try to keep things as much as possible under control.

On the other side, in the Samisch Variation things may go out-of-control very soon!

The whole point is that White wants to support e4 with f3 (instead of Nf3) and then use the same f3 pawn to support the further pawn-pushes g4 and h4. The idea, clearly, is to checkmate Black’s king.

Let’s take a look at some variations, just to get a taste of what the lines look like. As I suggested in a previous article, it is often beneficial for our brain to quickly “scan through” a game, even if we don’t deeply understand it quite yet. The “diffuse mode” of our brain will work in the background anyway.

By looking at the few lines in the chessboard above, you should now be familiar with the main ideas of the Samisch Variation:

  • White will almost invariably develop with f3, Be3, Qd2, Nge2.
  • My recommendation for Black against this development, and also the line I had most wins with, is a immediate Nc6, followed by a6, Rb8 and b5, to counterattack as soon as possible on the queenside.
  • In about 99.9% of the games White will play h4-h5, to open the h file and then penetrate with Bh6, Bxg7 and Qh6. I will show examples of this in the next chessboard.
  • Black has two ways to react to this plan: trying to stop it by playing h5 herself (but so exposing the kings to the crushing break g4), or ignoring it and continuing working on the queenside.

In my practice I have found most success with the second approach (a quick a6-b5), rather then slowing things down on the kingside.

Let’s now take a closer look at typical ways to attack and defend.

With these few more variations you should have spotted a couple of other key concepts:

  • If Black dismisses White’s attack, and let him play Bh6 and hxg6, then the Nf6 becomes the only pieces to defend the h7 point.
  • This is why the most dangerous idea to watch out is e4-e5! that will undermine the knight in f6.
  • The alignment of pieces on the d-column, makes difficult for Black to play e5 herself, because after d4xe5 she cannot capture d6xe5 if the Queen is - still in d8 and white has Qd2 + Rd1.
  • Therefore Black has first to move her queen away from the d-column and the best square is a5, NOT b6. Keeping an eye on the fifth row is more important than the b-colum.
  • If Black is about to play e7-e5 and thus safeguard the Nf6, then White must act fast even at the cost of sacrificing the pawn in e5. This will open up the position completely, e-column included, and then it will be all about calculation.

Here is again the full PGN file from my own Opening Repertoire for the Samisch Variation, that you can copy and download for free, or just watch online.

King’s Indian: Petrosian Variation

The Petrosian Variation of the King’s Indian was made popular by former World Champion Tigran Petrosian.

Petrosian was known for his very sound approach to the game. He understood positions very well and would often go for the most accurate move from a strategic/positional point of view.

It’s not a surprise, then, that the Petrosian Variation of the King’s Indian defense is, from a purely strategical point of view, the “best” variation White can choose: as soon as he gets the chance, White grab all the space he can in the center, locks Black’s bishop g7 behind its own pawn (e5, d6, c7) and prepares a queenside expansion with c5.

Things are not so easy though, and practice has shown that, even with less space and a “bad” bishop Black has got a few strategic ideas that give a promising game.

Let’s start as usual with the first few variations for this line, that give us a feeling of what is going on over the board.

The first, obvious point, is that pushing the central pawn all the way to d5 gives the square c5 for the black’s knight in d7. White counts on driving the knight back with b4, which is also useful to prepare the break c5.

However, timing is all in chess. When the knight lands on c5 White must protect e4 before doing anything else. And this gives time to Black to secure the c5 square (at the least for a while), by playing a5.

From strategic point of view the Petrosian Variation is “simpler” than the others, because the objectives for the two sides are almost always:

  • Pushing f5 for Black, with initiative on the kingside.
  • Pushing c5 (or b4-c5) for White, with initiative on the queenside.

During my analysis I have found something extremely interesting. The main move for White (that is, the move that occurs most often in practice) is 10. Bg5. However, this move leads almost by force to a very comfortable position for Black!

This suspect was recently confirmed to me, in person, by GM Libiszewski during a tournament, and I want to share this short story with you.

A friend of mine played against this GM with the White pieces and chose the Petrosian Variation. My friend is about 2100 Elo and has a lot of experience with the Petrosian Variation (mainly because I play the King’s Indian against him!). Nonetheless the GM, a French guy, played at the speed of light and after about 15 moves was already better. He then went on winning the game convincingly.

Thanks to my previous studies and job, I can speak French quite well. So after the game I spoke with the GM about several details of the game, and in particular the Opening, and he confirmed to me that if White wants to play the Petrosian Variation then he should choose a different approach.

This is an enormous opportunity for the Black players in my opinion, because, as I said, 10. Bg5 is still the most played line all around the world!

Let’s take a closer look at the exact variations I discussed with that GM.

Looking at these simple lines we can draw some important conclusions:

  • Black must aim at a quick h6-g5 and Nh5-Nf4. It’s important to understand that eliminating White’s light-square bishop is the best idea for Black. Do NOT touch the guy in g3, because it’s already quite sad. Do NOT help your opponent by exchanging his bad pieces.
  • The pawn in g5 must often be pushed even further, to g4, because it takes squares away from White’s pieces and opens up the diagonal for the Black’s queen, which may then land on g5.
  • Keep in mind the beautiful resource Nc5-a6! (like in some variation above). It seems paradoxical to retreat the knight, but the idea is that White’s knight in d3 is not well placed, so Black’s should not exchange it.

With these ideas in mind, you are now ready to explore the entire study, in form of the full PGN file for the Petrosian Variation from my own Opening Repertoire. You can just copy and download the entire file. Remember that you can also open it in in my LiChess account, it’s accessible to everyone.

King’s Indian: Makonogov Variation

The Makonogov Variation of the King’s Indian defence is a very deep line that has become trendier in the recent years.

I quite like this line, with both colors! The approach from White’s perspective is to play all over the board.

In many King’s Indian variations White gives up (more or less intentionally) the kingside. In the Makonogov Variation, instead, White attacks first there, by playing a very early h3-g4.

I am now going to explore this line more in details. However, remember that one of the most successful player with this line, in recent times, has been Tomashevsky. So, if you want to explore this variation further, you can check out his games.

Let’s start with a few moves, as usual.

The board above gives a good example of the dangers Black must be aware of, when playing against the Makonogov. If Black is not careful, and well prepared, he can end up in a passive and almost loosing position without even realizing what is going on.

Here is another example of this.

In the above example Black’s has quite simply followed general principles. Develop pieces, break the center with f5, etc.

This is not the most accurate strategy against the Makonogov! Black must act very fast on the queenside too, to avoid to get a cramped position. In fact, if you look at the final position in the last example, White is about to launch a powerful attack on the kingside, whereas Black has no easy way to open lines on the queenside.

Let’s now take a look at some good ways to fight the Makonogov Variation with Black in the King’s Indian.

Basically, from the variations above, you should understand that in order to fight the Makonogov variation Black must be ready to provoke a crisis all over the board. Facing White with his own strategy!

Moves like a4 and b5, as early as possible, create some space and some available squares for Black’s pieces. If you wait too long to play these moves then White will play a4 and block everything on the queenside, while having free hands on the kingside.

Keep these ideas in mind while exploring my own repertoire in the chessboard below. Feel free to download the entire PGN file if you prefer!

Conclusions and additional references

In this post I went into the details of four variations of the King’s Indian defense.

These are four very important and commonly played lines, that share between them many important ideas and patterns. Therefore it is natural to study them together.

I have also given you free access to the PGN files for each variation from my own Opening Repertoire. I hope you’ll find it useful!

Additionally, here’s a few names of GrandMasters that you want to keep an eye on, following and studying their King’s Indian games, as I also suggested in my article How To Practice Chess With A Full-Time Job.

  • Evgenij Tomashevsky, for the Makonogov Variation.
  • Ding Liren, probably the most well know expert as Black player in the King’s Indian.
  • Arkadij Naiditsch, less well known but fantastic King’s Indian Player.
  • The old good classic: Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov.
  • Teimur Radjabov, who used to be the best chess player on the planet on the Black side of this opening. He has changed repertoire in the recent years, but you can find his old games online.

Have fun!