Forking Your Way to Victory

I’ve been writing a great deal about tactics recently because it’s a chess skill that beginners have trouble with. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, successful tactics require making a combination of moves that set the tactic up. While many tactical opportunities suddenly appear in the games of beginners due to poor piece placement by one’s opponent, the execution of tactics in the games of advanced players require a great deal of planning or seeing ahead. Seeing ahead is another term for calculating a sequence of moves. In other words, if I make this move and my opponent makes that move, I’ll be able to make the move that set’s up the tactic. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong! The problem is that the initial move you make has to force your opponent to make a specific move that allows you to execute your tactic. This is what combinations are all about.

Most beginners employ wishful thinking when trying to set up a combination. They make a move and then expect their opponent to make a specific move, no matter how bad that move is. Once their opponent makes this unrealistic move, our beginner executes the tactic. Beginners often forget that their opponent is trying to win the game as well so they’re not going to purposely make bad moves. The only way to ensure that your opponent will make the move you want them to make is by forcing them to do so. This is why checking your opponent’s king is so powerful when used as part of your tactical combination. The check must be dealt with. In other words, your opponent is forced to react to your move in one way.

Another problem beginners have? Try to force tactics every chance they get. The problem with this idea is that you’ll more often than not, damage your own position, leaving your pawns and pieces weak and susceptible to attack. It’s best to keep an eye out for any potential tactics, looking for enemy pieces lined up along the same Rank, File or Diagonal. Only then should you consider employing tactics. As you become a stronger player and can set up combinations accurately, the forcing of tactics will become easier and safer to execute. Being able to set up forcing tactics requires the ability to accurately calculate many moves ahead. One miscalculation and you might find yourself in a losing position. Beginners should start by mastering simple Knight and Bishop forks because it requires less calculation skills and the combination of moves tends to be shorter in length.

In a fork, one piece attacks two or more enemy pieces simultaneously. Pawns can fork and well as the King. The minor pieces, Knights and Bishops, are great at forking because of their low relative value. The Knight is especially well suited because it’s attack cannot be blocked and it’s “L” shaped movement makes it hard for your opponent to clearly see what it’s up to until it’s often too late. Let’s look at the first fourteen moves of a game in which Black employs some powerful Knight and Bishop forks.

Forks can appear anytime during a game. However, they tend to be employed most often in the middle-game. In this game, Black delivers a pair of devastating forks early on. After 1. d4…d5, White plays 2. c4, signally the start of The Queen’s Gambit. Rather than a more traditional move such as e6, Black plays 2…Bf5. This move follows the opening principles (developing a minor piece to control the board’s center) and isn’t particularly suspicious. Play continues with 3. Nf3…e6. White is making principled moves as is Black. After 4. Nc3…Nc6, White’s showing good opening play. However, White’s next move, 5. Qb3, starts the downward spiral. First off, this move does something you shouldn’t do during the opening, bringing your Queen out early. The opening is about minor piece development. Yes, the Queen is targeting the b7 pawn but that pawn is easily defended! Black responds with a move White never considered, 5…Nb4. The Black Knight on b4 is protected by the f8 Bishop and not only blocks the White Queen’s access to the b7 pawn but creates an enormous threat on c2.

White’s Queen move to b3 is an excellent example of wishful thinking. White planned on taking the b7 pawn, then the Knight of c6 with a fork against the Black King and a8 Rook. This would only work if Black made a series of really bad moves, Black did not and White’s game is now lost. White tries a pointless check with 6. Qa4+ and Black responds with the natural, 6…c6. After 7. cxd5, Black doesn’t capture back but instead, launches into a series of game winning forks, starting with 7…Nc2+, forking the White King and a1 Rook. Because the King is involved, the fork is forcing. White plays 8. Kd1 and Black captures the Rook with 8…Nxa1. White continues to pawn grab with 9. dxc6 and Black hits White with another devastating fork, 9. Bc2+, winning the White Queen. White plays 10. Ke1 and Black wins the Queen outright with 10…Bxa4. The games continues with a few additional forks by Black and White finally resigns.

White’s mistake start with bringing the Queen out early followed by moving the King to a light colored square after each fork. Had White moved the King to a dark colored square, Black’s Bishop wouldn’t have been as effective. Also, when the King and Queen were forked, White should have captured the Black Bishop with the Queen and after the Black Knight took the Queen, White could have captured the Knight with the King, reducing the loss of material.

This was an example of one player not looking at the entire board. Had White paid attention to the entire position after 5…Nb4, the game might have ended differently. Instead, White was looking at Black’s side of the board, using wishful thinking to guide the decision making process. This was a rare example of the power of tactics because this doesn’t happen often so early in the game (not to mention the back to back forks). However, it should serve as a somber warning of the power of the fork and a reminder to be vigilant when exercising board vision. Make sure to look at your side of the board as well as your opponent’s side. Also, don’t bring your Queen out early to hunt for pawns! See you next week!

Hugh Patterson

Author: 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).