The Importance of Tactics One

It’s been said that chess is 99% tactics. While this isn’t completely true when it comes to more experienced players, it’s often true when it comes to the games of junior players! More experienced players, both young and old, know how to shut down potential tactical plays attempted by their opponents. If a more experienced player is faced with an opponent who is better at tactical play, they know how to create a closed position that reduces the opposition’s tactical opportunities greatly. However, the beginner often doesn’t has enough experience to follow suit. Many beginners, again both old and young alike, lose games because of a well timed tactical play. This doesn’t mean that this tactical play solely determines the game’s outcome. It does however give the tactician an advantage, one that creates a positional weakness that can fester into a losing game over the long run.

Over the next few articles we’re going to explore a number of basic tactics that the beginning player can employ in their own games. However, it should be noted that, as a beginner, you shouldn’t expect these exact positions to suddenly appear on the board when you play chess. Our examples serve as positional motifs or ideas/concepts rather than exacting positions that you must reach in a specific move order.

We’ll start with the fork. A fork has a completely different meaning within the world of chess as opposed to it’s meaning in the world of culinary arts. A fork in chess leads to a gain of material while a fork in the culinary arts is a utensil you use to either eat with or serve food with! In chess, a fork is one pawn or piece attacking two or more pieces at the same time. Yes, I said pawn because even this seemingly lowly little fellow can engage in tactical forks. Even the King can fork other pieces but not until you reach an endgame position! Everyone in your chess army can fork material which is why the fork is such a powerful tactical weapon!

Perhaps the greatest forking piece is the Knight who, if positioned on a central square, can simultaneously fork or attack up to eight pieces. While the Queen (who travels along ranks, files or diagonals) can also fork up to eight pieces at once , she’s your most powerful piece (in general) which means employing her for tactical duty can be more dangerous that using a Knight! Considering the value of the pieces, it’s better to risk a minor piece for a tactical play than a major piece. You have two Knights but only one Queen! The Knight also has a special power that stops the opposition from blocking a Knight attack or fork and that’s the Knight’s ability to jump over other pieces. This special ability means that you cannot block a Knight when it attacks. This being the case, we’ll concentrate on Knight forks in this first article on tactics.

The Knight is perhaps the most difficult piece for the beginner to master. Remember, the Knight moves in an “L” shape which makes it difficult to follow visually (for the beginner) since the other pieces move in a more linear fashion (straight lines along ranks, files or diagonals). This non-linear pattern of movement can be a bit tricky at first for both the player employing the Knight in a game and the player having to defend against the Knight. However, it’s well worth mastering our horsey friend because of it’s very unique abilities. Let’s take a look at an example of a Knight fork. It’s important for you to keep in mind that forks require being set up. While forks do sometimes present themselves seemingly out of the blue, more often than not, they require being set up. We call this set up a combination. A combination is a series of moves that align opposition pieces on specific squares that allow a tactical play, in this case a fork, to occur. Take a look at the example below:

In the above example, Black makes a move, 1…Qxc3, that the beginner might think is terrible, trading a Queen for a Knight. From a monetary viewpoint (assigning a dollar value to the pawns and pieces rather than relative point values), Black appears to have just traded nine dollars for three dollars. You wouldn’t walk up to a stranger and say “I’ll give you nine dollars if you give me three dollars back” unless you had a really good reason (insanity doesn’t count)! In our example, White jumps at this seemingly lopsided exchange of material with 2. Qxc3. White is certainly happy to have won a Queen for a minor piece, in this case a Knight! However, this is a “set up” move for Black’s tactical play, 2…Ne2+ which turns out to be a fork. Black is simultaneously attacking the White King and Queen at the same time. Because White must get out of check and the forking Knight can’t be captured nor blocked, the King has to move and the Queen is lost with 3. Kf1…Nxc3. Black has employed a fork and is up a minor piece for his efforts. It’s important to remember that this tactical play, a fork, had to be set up employing a combination of moves. Let’s look at another example:

Our first tactical example was more advanced than the type of forks you find in the games of beginners. I included it because it involved an idea we’ll look at in later articles, the concept of temporarily sacrificing material as part of a tactical play. In our second example, we meet a Knight fork that occurs a great deal in the games of beginners, one that involves the King-side Knight and Bishop. This is a forking pattern you’re likely to see quite a bit as a novice player. Why does this fork appear in many games? Because the target square, f7, is the weakest square on the board at the start of the game (White’s counterpart is f2). The f7 and f2 squares are weak because the square’s only defender is the King at the game’s start. If one piece attacks one of these two squares, such as a lone Bishop capturing the f7 or f2 pawn, the King whose job to protect that square either has to move, because he’s in check, or capture the Bishop. Either way he loses the right to castle. When the Bishop attacks the same square but has a piece protecting it, the King cannot capture the attacking piece. In our example, the Bishop supports or protects the Knight who has captured the f7 pawn so the Black King can’t do a thing about it. The Knight has not only captured the f7 pawn but is forking the Black Queen and Rook. Let’s play it through!

The first two moves, 1. e4…e5 and 2. Nf3…Nc6 are standard opening fare. Both players stake out a claim in the center with their initial pawn moves. White attacks the e5 pawn with his King-side Knight and Black develops the Queen-side Knight to defend it. White plays 3. Bc4, the start of the Italian Game. White also targets the f7 pawn with this Bishop move. Black makes a seemingly good move, 3…Nf6. Black’s last move makes sense since both Knights attack all four of the center squares. Since control of the board’s center is a key opening game principle, Black has little to worry about, right? Wrong! When White plays 4. Ng5 a problem suddenly appears for Black! There are now two attackers aimed at the f7 pawn and only one defender, the King! Black plays 4…Be7, hoping to escape his troubles by castling on the next move. However, it’s too late because White plays 5. Nxf7, winning the pawn and forking both the Black Queen and Rook. Worse, yet, the Black Queen is trapped so she’ll be captured on the next move.

This was a simple introduction to one of the many great tactics you should learn in order to improve your game. We’ll look at other forks in greater detail over the weeks to come but rather than provide you with a game to mull over this week, I’ll give you an exercise to do. Set up a chessboard with the pieces randomly placed about the board. Place them on the board very quickly without thinking about where they’re going. After removing any illegal positions such as a King in check, see if you can find any potential forks, either immediately or by using a combination of moves to achieve. You’ll start to develop an eye for forks. Since you’re playing both sides of the board, make sure to try and stop potential forks as well. You’ll learn a great deal about creating and defending against forks doing this. Get ready for another round of forks next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).