What Is a Skewer in Chess?
Skewers, also called “x-ray attacks” are performed on a line with a queen, rook, or bishop. The more valuable piece on the line is attacked and when it moves aside, the piece behind it is lost. Former World Champion Garry Kasparov suggests to think of it as the opposite of a pin, which is when the less valuable target is in front. (Sometimes skewers are also called “reverse pins.”)
Skewers can also be divided into two subtypes, depending on whether the defender has a choice in responding:
- In a relative skewer, the defender is likely to move their skewered piece and give up the less valuable piece behind it, but they have the option of responding another way, or ignoring the skewer entirely. (More on that below.)
- Absolute skewers, by contrast, can’t be ignored, because they involve placing the king in check. An absolute skewer therefore guarantees the loss of material, because the defender is forced, if possible, to get their king out of check.
In general, an effective skewer requires that the piece being skewered not be able to attack along the same line. (In other words, it’s often easier to skewer a rook with a bishop than with another bishop.) That said, a skewer against the queen can create a lot of problems for the defender, especially if the skewering piece is protected.
2 Examples of Skewers
As with other chess tactics, the best way to learn the ins and outs of skewering is by studying practice positions. In the words of Kasparov, “You have to look for the maximum outcome.”
In this first position, white has five absolute skewers possible. See if you can find them all while extracting the highest possible price from black.
Just to review, the possible skewers are:
- Bb3+, which skewers the king and the knight.
- Qg2+, which skewers the king and the rook.
- Qh1+, which does the same.
- Bf3+, which does the same.
- Rh5+, which skewers the king and the queen, which guarantees the loss of black’s most valuable piece.
The point of the above example was just to get you visualizing skewers along different lines. In actual play, you’ll need to carefully lay a skewer one or more turns in advance. In the following practice position, white has the opportunity to lay an absolute skewer. See if you can find it.
The best move for white in this scenario is Rxe6, taking black’s bishop. If black responds by taking the rook with Kxe6, white can force an absolute skewer on the black king with Bh3+, guaranteeing that black loses her queen.
Alternatively, black may respond to Rxe6 with Qxe6. In this case, the white bishop can pin the queen with Bc4. (Remember, a pin is like a skewer, only in the case of a pin it’s the less valuable piece that’s under direct attack.)
How Do You Get Out of a Skewer?
If you find yourself on the wrong side of a skewer, you may not be totally out of luck.
- In the right circumstances it can be possible to escape from a relative skewer, and maybe even gain a tempo in the bargain.
- The best way to escape a skewer may be to put your opponent in check, especially if it can be done with one of the skewered pieces.
- Sometimes it may even be possible to turn the tables by creating your own skewer that forces your opponent to break off or delay her planned attack.
Learn more about chess tactics and techniques in Garry Kasparov’s MasterClass.