How An Octopus Knight Can Crush Defenses, Win Chess Games
GM Ding Liren developed an octopus knight more treacherous than the one painted by artist Elysia Myles to force a recent win. Image: Elysia Myles Art.

How An Octopus Knight Can Crush Defenses, Win Chess Games


Several days ago GM Ding Liren developed an octopus knight to score a crushing win over GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the online Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge, a tournament in the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour.

Although the tournament continues until June 3, let’s not wait any further to understand how an octopus knight can be valuable and how it played an important role not only in Ding’s victory but in other significant games as well.

What Is An Octopus Knight?

A strongly positioned knight in enemy territory is often referred to as an octopus. When centrally placed, the knight can reach out to eight squares like an octopus with eight tentacles that can fight in as many directions. In the heart of enemy territory, an octopus knight can paralyze an opponent’s pieces as it aims at both the kingside and queenside. About an octopus knight, Adolf Anderssen expressed: “Once you get a knight firmly posted… you may go to sleep. Your game will play itself.”

Once you get [an octopus] knight firmly posted... you may go to sleep. Your game will play itself.
—Adolf Anderssen

In Chess Words of Wisdom: The Principles, Methods, and Essential Knowledge of Chess, a collection of chess information collected from more than 400 books, author Mike Henebry explains the value of an octopus knight this way: “A knight on the fifth rank is ideally placed as an attacking piece…. The knight generally reaches its peak strength on the sixth rank. On the sixth rank, the knight is usually worth a rook and is often so powerful that it can decide a game.” And decide the outcome it did in the Ding-Duda game.

Kasparov vs. Karpov
Kasparov and Karpov at the World Chess Championship 1985, when an octopus knight helped Black to dominate an endgame. Photo: Wikimedia.

How Did Ding Win With An Octopus Knight?

An octopus knight helped the Chinese grandmaster win on the third day of the preliminary round-robin stage in which 12 GMs were competing. On move 19, Black lands the octopus knight on d3, where it increases the vulnerability of White’s king, which survives just eight more moves before Duda resigns. (The time control was 15 minutes for all moves with a 10-second increment after each move.)

If Ding had not won, he would not have qualified for the knockout phase of the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge. Duda instead was one of the GMs eliminated in the round-robin, and the octopus knight clearly played a critical role in determining which player advanced.

How Has An Octopus Knight Been Prominent In Other Games?

One foremost fan of the octopus knight is GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, who expertly used all its tentacles to win in 2008 in the Baku Gran Prix. GM Magnus Carlsen, five years before becoming world champion, was subdued when Mamedyarov landed the knight on the sixth rank with check. Because of the precarious position of the black king, Carlsen immediately resigned.

Proof that the octopus knight was important before the modern era is shown in the 1892 world championship match in Havana. In a brilliant round-one win, Mikhail Chigorin establishes an octopus knight on d6 with check and then sacrifices it to draw the black king into the open on the sixth rank where it stays vulnerable until Wilhelm Steinitz resigns after White’s 31st move.

Perhaps the most famous game featuring an octopus knight occurred during the 1985 world championship match. In the 16th game against GM Anatoly Karpov, GM Garry Kasparov creates an octopus knight with 16… Nd3, where its tentacles reach out to eight nearby squares and begin to strangle White’s king. For 18 moves, the knight survives at this dominant location until Kasparov chooses to sacrifice it to dominate the endgame and force Karpov to resign.

How Has The Octopus Knight Captured Our Imagination?

In addition to benefiting chess players, the octopus knight has repeatedly captured the imagination of artists (as the top illustration depicts). Perhaps the most creative design has been by Marvel Comics, which created a special chess set with its greatest heroes and villains as chess pieces.

Would your king be intimidated by a knight that looks like Doctor Octopus? Image: Marvel Comics.

In October 2014, as part of this set, Marvel released Doctor Octopus, a black knight with eight treacherous tentacles ready for battle with the other chess pieces that also took on clever personalities and had ingenious designs.

Doctor Octopus is one of 32 creative pieces in the Marvel Chess Collection. Image: Marvel Comics.

However, the comic appearance of Doctor Octopus in this set, which appeals to both comic fans and chess lovers alike, mocks the reality of an octopus knight because it clearly can come alive in a game. Let’s hope that you can bring one to life soon to crush your opponent’s defenses.

Octopus Moster from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
An octopus knight can be as scary as this illustration of an octopus monster from the original 1870 edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. Illustrators: Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou.

Thanks for reading. What do you think? Have you used an octopus knight to deliver checkmate or force an opponent to resign?