Ask a non chess playing child what a fork is and they’ll tell you it’s something their parents make them eat food with. Ask a chess playing child the same question and they’ll tell you it’s a tactical device that wins games! The fork is one of the most devastating tactical devices a chess player can have in his or her “player’s tool box.” Now, let’s look at a form of this powerful tactical, the Knight fork!
The fork is a simultaneous attack against two or more pieces. Because the rules of chess allow us to only move one pawn or piece per turn (with the exception of castling), an attack against two or more pieces allows the attacker to garner material. This means the fork can be extremely difficult to deal with, especially for the beginning player. What sets this tactic apart from other tactics, such as the pin and skewer, is that every member of our army (or our opponent’s army) can partake in the fork. Even the pawn and King can get in on the act!
What makes the fork so attractive to all chess players is the idea of attacking multiple pieces at the same time. While more experienced players can often use the pieces being forked to defend one another, the beginner usually ends up losing material, choosing to move the more valuable piece under attack while giving up the less valuable piece. Because all members of our chess army can be used to fork opposition pieces, forks occur more often than pins and skewers. Pawn forks are particularly deadly since the pawn is the piece of least relative value. When a pawn forks minor or major pieces, there is a guaranteed loss of material that can be decisive in the game’s outcome. We’ll start our study of this tactic by looking at the Knight fork which, because of the Knight’s ability to jump over other pieces, is often devastating. Why is the Knight fork so dangerous, devastating and deadly? Because of the Knight’s ability to jump over other pieces, the Knight can’t simply be captured by any of its forked targets (except by another Knight) to eliminate the threat.
The Knight can be a difficult piece for the beginner to master because of its peculiar “L” shaped movement. All the other pieces move along the ranks, files or diagonals so it’s easier for the beginner’s brain to visualize the piece’s movement across the chessboard. The Knight’s movement is counter intuitive to the other piece’s more straight forward linear movement. This makes it difficult for the beginner to spot a Knight fork. Prior to introducing the Knight fork, I have my students do a series of exercises designed to develop their ability to move the Knight around the chessboard. These problems include giving each student a list of target squares to move their Knights to in the least number of turns (moves). Once my students have become young Jedi Knight Masters, we start using our Knights to fork pieces on the chessboard. Take a look at the position below:
Both sides have an even amount of material. When examining a position, the first thing we do is determine whether or not one player has a material advantage. Then we look at pawn structure and the relative positions of the Kings in relation to the pawns and pieces on the board. This helps students with their board vision and piece activity. Beginners have a bad habit of only looking at the part of the board where the action’s taking place, such as the board’s center during the opening. This causes them to miss opposition pieces outside of their limited field of vision that could swoop in from across the board and win material. Beginners also have a habit of not moving their pawns and pieces to squares that afford them maximum activity (controlling the greatest number of squares, blocking the safe advance of opposition pieces or attacking opposition pawns and pieces). It’s white to move and things are about to drastically change! White can employ a Knight fork which will win the black Queen and the game.
While the correct move is easy for an experienced chess player to see, it’s not so easy for the beginner to spot. To find the winning fork, we first have to look at the opposition pieces around the white Knight. We can see that there is a black Rook on e3, the black Queen on g3 and the black King on g7. There are three squares between the black King and black Queen. This is our magic number! We need to have three squares between the two pieces in order to execute the fork. This number works on ranks as well as files. In the case of our example, we have to get our Knight onto the f5 square in order to fork the King, Queen and Rook (what I call a “Royal Family Fork” or RFF). In this example, the f5 square can be reached on white’s next move. Because this fork involves checking the King, his majesty has to get out of check which guarantees winning the Queen. Forks that include a check are the most devastating of all! After my class does a large number of single move Knight forks, we move on to Knight forks that require two moves to achieve.
I built special plastic chess boards out of white Acrylic so I can draw out moves with a dry erase marker in order to plot out the Knight’s movement when planning forks. With beginners, I try to keep it simple so we look for three squares between the pieces we want to fork and literally plot the Knight’s path to the forking square on the plastic chess board (tournament sized so we can use tournament chess pieces with it).
When students start attempting Knight forks, they often lose their Knight because they don’t completely examine the board to see if the forking square is defended. They’ll look at the squares immediately surrounding the forking square but often miss those long distance attackers that loom out their immediate vision. To resolve this problem and help my students develop their board vision, I have them look at every single opposition pawn and piece before considering the fork to see if there is any defender of the forking square. I also have my students see if one of the forking pieces can defend the other piece or pieces being forked. Many young beginners’ forks have been foiled by a forked piece that can defend the position. This is extremely important because my students often find themselves on the receiving end of a fork and knowing how to use a forked piece to defend the other victims of that fork can save the day. After completing our work with the Knight fork we move on to other forks which seem much easier to my students after working with the Knight. I teach the Knight fork first because it is the most difficult to employ. However, it really develops a number of extremely valuable skills and makes spotting other type of forks much easier in the long run. As with my last article on the pin, keep a record of how many forks appear in your next game. Often you’ll find that a well timed fork can decide the game.