Over the last few weeks, we have examined the fork, specifically how to employ this tactic. This week we will look at the fork from a defensive position. In other words, how do you deal with a fork if you are on the receiving side of this tactic. Defending against a fork can be difficult since the this tactic uses a rule of chess, the ability to move only a single pawn or piece when it’s your turn, to the tactician’s advantage. Since the idea behind the fork is to simultaneously attack two or more of your opponent’s pieces, the player executing the fork can almost always win material. However, there are exceptions to this idea of material gain. The first idea we’ll consider is that of stopping the tactic before it has a chance to be executed.
The best way to stop a tactic such as a fork is to prevent your opponent from executing that tactic. Imagine you have to get in your car and drive to a family gathering that is 500 miles away. You decide to inspect your car and notice that the tires are in poor shape. You could ignore this problem and take your chances or, you could buy brand new tires and all but eliminate the chance of one of your tires blowing out. Without replacing your tires, you might make it the entire 500 miles without incident, but you might end up getting into an accident. However, you would most likely get new tires for your car once you considered the options. This is taking preventative measures to avoid a potential problem.
The same homes true in chess. You can prevent many potentially bad positions by taking preventative measures. What are these measures? The foremost measure you can take to avoid falling victim to a tactic is to really examine the entire board every time a pawn or piece is moved (either your material or your opponent’s material). This is a basic skill that most beginners lack. Beginners tend to rush through their moves. Chess is a game of patience and the patience you exercise during a game will always pay off. Sure, you may not win every time but you’ll play a lot better a game.
We know from previous articles that tactics such as the pin and fork require that the pieces being attacked are lined up along a rank, file or diagonal. While you should always look for any of your opponent’s pawns and pieces lined up on ranks, files or diagonals, take a good, close look at your own pawns and pieces. This is where beginners get into trouble. Note that I’m not trying to belittle beginners. I’m just trying to point out some natural mistakes beginners make during the learning process. Beginners get excited (so do strong players for that matter) when they spot a tactic they can take advantage of. Suddenly, they spot their opponent’s pieces lined up on a rank, file or diagonal, and jump right into the attack. While this sounds like a winning situation, there’s a small problem. They forget to look at their position to check for potential tactics against their own pawns and pieces. While attacking is the name of the game in winning chess, defense is equally important.
The best way to avoid falling victim to a tactic is to keep it from happening. You do this by looking at the interaction between all the pawns and pieces on the board and looking to see if any of your material is in a position to be hit with a tactic. The first step is to look at the ranks, files or diagonals that your pawns and pieces reside on. Let’s say that you notice two of your pieces lined up along a rank. What do you do now? Don’t panic yet! Remember, your opponent will have to get a piece into position in order to execute the tactic. If you’re looking for a potential enemy fork, examine your opponent’s pawns and pieces closest to the pieces you’ve identified as being aligned on a rank, file or diagonal. See if those enemy pawns or pieces can move to a square that allows them to execute the fork. Ask yourself, “how long will it take for my opponent’s pawn or piece to get to the forking square?” Let’s say that you’ve discovered that one of your opponent’s pawns or pieces can fork two of your pieces on his or her next move. It’s your turn. What do you do now?
First, consider the value of the pieces being forked (your pieces) and the piece doing the forking (your opponent’s piece). If your two pieces are a Queen and a Rook, and your opponent’s forking piece is a Knight, your opponent will win material if the exchange takes place. There’s generally an order in which you move pieces out of harms way in such a situation. Start with the piece of greatest value, the Queen. Move the Queen to a safe square. Just doing this stops the fork since there are no long two pieces being attacked. What if it was your opponent’s turn and they move their piece to the forking square.
Both your Queen and Rook are now being attacked and you can only move one piece to safety. Obviously the Queen should be saved. However, there is sometimes another alternative, a more powerful move by you! A more powerful move might be moving the Queen (or Rook) to a square that checks your opponent’s King. Your opponent is forced to deal with the check and after he or she does, you can then move the Rook (or Queen) off of the remaining forking square. This opportunity doesn’t always present itself but always look for a way to make a more threatening move to dismantle your opponent’s fork.
There are times when you’re going to lose material no matter what you try. When in this situation, try to reduce the loss as much as possible. Using our previous example, let’s say that your opponent’s Knight is forking your Queen and Rook. Your Queen is undefended but your Rook is defended by a pawn. Move your Queen out of the line of fire to a safe square. Then, when your opponent’s Knight captures your Rook, use that pawn that defended the Rook to capture your opponent’s Knight. This way, you’re only down two points of material (5-3=2), cutting your losses.
The best solution to a potential enemy tactic is to stop that potential tactic from occurring. This requires patiently looking at every pawn and piece on the board and noting the interaction between them (both your material and your opponent’s material. Always assume your opponent will be on the lookout for tactical opportunities and watch those ranks, files and diagonals. Try setting up some tactical positions using forks. Try to set up a winning tactical play for White and then see if you can figure out as Black, how to stop the tactic or at least reduce the material loss. Also look into tactical apps for your cellphone and work through them. Practice is the key to being a good tactician and learning how to avoid tactical plays. Next week, we’ll delve further into our tactical studies. Here’s a game to enjoy until then.