The Misunderstood Knight Fork - Part 1: Greed
Forks are one of the most useful tactical tools in chess (not to be confused with cutlery). Most people view forks as a way to attack more than one enemy piece at a time and, by doing so, winning a decisive amount of material. While that’s true, there’s actually a lot more to forks than that!
This is Part One of a series on Knight forks. I chose horse attacks since they are common, at times surprising (the Knight moves in mysterious ways), and in many cases lethal. In other words, Knight forks are something everyone needs to master.
Though forks are often synonymous with chowing down on enemy stuff, they can also be used as a defensive tool, as a means to simplify into an endgame or superior middlegame, or as a prelude to a nova-hot attack. In Part One we’ll start out with the Knight fork’s raison d’etre: leaping into an unapologetic orgy of material gain.
Here are two kinds of greedy Knight forks that leap to one’s mind:
This is known as a “family fork”, though attacking the enemy King, Queen, and just one Rook would still earn the name. Most view it as something akin to a nuclear strike and when an amateur does get it, he envisions a mushroom cloud hanging over the black side of the board. However, we’ll soon see that though a family fork appears to be the “End of Days” for the opponent, this isn’t always the case.
A far more common Knight fork is the simple double attack of the enemy King and Rook:
Black’s in check, the only way out of check is to move his King, White eats the poor Rook, and black’s dead.
One might think that only beginners walk into basic “eat everything” forks, but this isn’t true. The following game is a case in point:
White’s an Exchange down for a pawn, but a quick look will convince you that something has gone horribly wrong for poor old Tarrasch. His King is in the middle, c7 is being eyed by white’s Knight, the King on e8 and Rook on a8 offers up the most common forking pattern, white’s Queen is X-raying down the h1-a8 diagonal (taking aim at the a8-Rook!), and one can clearly see that the Hammer of Thor will descend on black’s head at any moment.
The obvious 16.Nxc7+ Qxc7 17.Qxa8+ Qd8 18.Qxa6 is also an easy win, but 16.Bg5 (which brings white’s Rook into play with gain of time) is much stronger.
Most accurate. In the actual game, Lasker decided to have an early meal with 17.Nxc7+ and after 17…Kd8? (17…Kd7 18.Nxa8 Rb8 19.Qxf7+ Qe7 holds out a bit longer, but is also hopeless) 18.Nxa8 Tarrasch resigned, no doubt wanting to get away from the board (and the humiliation of being seen with such a position) as quickly as possible.
Both 17...Kd7 and 17…Kd8 are met by the crushing 18.Qxf7.
Here we get to see a strange thing about forking positions: It turns out that one Knight fork often leads to another (I don’t know why… it’s just one of the mysteries of the universe)! In the present case the threats of 19.Nxa8 and 19.Qxa8+ are obvious, but another, all new fork threat has appeared: 19.Ne6+ forking the King and Queen!
The triple threat of 19.Qxa8+, 19.Nxa8, and 19.Ne6+ is more than anyone can handle, but we’ll make one final move for Black.
Getting the Queen away from the g5/f8 forking pattern while simultaneously defending against Qxa8 (Black would love to trade Queens and chop on d4 via 19.Qxa8?? Qxa8 20.Nxa8 Bxd4). However, the crafty Knight isn’t done with Black yet!
19.Ne6+! and the King and Queen are forked anyway! 1-0.
One of the beautiful things about Knight forks is that they give you a glimpse into the Knight’s amazing versatility. Our next example (a Family Fork!) demonstrates this in a simple but elegant manner:
Here’s another Family Fork (just to show you that these things occur more often than most would believe):
One might think that, since a basic fork is often deadly, a massive fork should be an instant “lights out” situation. But this just isn’t the case!
Clearly one shouldn’t panic in the face of a fork, no matter how devastating it might appear to be. At times you can allow it, and at other times you have to avoid it like the plague!
Here’s another case of avoiding panic in the face of a massive fork:
So far we’ve focused on the classic Nc7 fork (with other forks somehow appearing afterwards). But Knight forks can (and do!) occur anywhere on the board:
That was obvious, but our next position, with the same Rook placement, seems a safer bet for Black. Or is it?
Though Knight forks can just “appear out of the blue” (you look around the board, your eyes widen in surprise and pleasure, and you say, “Hey, I can fork his King and Queen!”), more often than not they are just one cog in a greater combinative vision:
Finally, just because you have a fork doesn’t mean you should play it. In the following game White played a “brilliant” fork (meaning it’s inferior), but missed a much subtler and better one.
Now it’s time to strut your stuff. That’s right, it’s PUZZLE TIME!