Dr. John Watson: In real life. People don't have archenemies.
Sherlock Holmes: That sounds a bit dull. So what do people have in their REAL lives?
"Sherlock" (TV Series 2010-)
The last three weeks we concentrated on endgames that feature the arch-arch enemies: bishop vs. knight. The topics that we covered include piece sacrifice and connected passed pawns. One can choose numerous other topics where bishop and knight fight for superiority and publish one hundred more articles. The opportunity cost of doing so is high because our goal is to be a better overall chess endgame player and not just bishop vs. knight endgame player. This is why this is the last article in this series and a good opportunity to share my personal experience.
It was not easy to find the appropriate examples from my games because in most cases by the time the bishop vs. knight endgames emerged, one side was already winning. The two examples that I will show today are nothing special but they show the idea that it is never too late to lose the game especially if the opponent grinds the position until the very end.
Let us start from the first game played some four years ago against Asa Hoffmann at the Marshall Chess Club in one of the weekend tournaments in New York. Those of you who have played at the Marshall have probably met Asa - he has been on the NY chess scene since Fischer times. Asa is especially dangerous in fast time control games, where over the years he has accumulated many GM-scalps. He is fast and resourceful which makes defending especially unpleasant.
Unfortunately, in our game I was on the defending side and low on time. His position is better due to the strong knight on c5, where it limits the movement of my bishop on c8. The bishop is not only limited by the knight but also by the pawns located on the light squares. On a positive note, if I manage to trade some pawns and let my bishop out things will not be so bad. White will try to get the king into the game and to create a passed pawn or weaknesses in my position. At the same time, I will try to hold the position together by shouldering his king with mine and by looking for an opportunity to push the pawns forward.
We have reached a critical position where black must answer a question: how to stop the b-pawn? White is threatening b5-b6-b7 and because of the earlier misstep with the king, I have to forget about the possibility of stopping the pawn with my king. I can give up the bishop for the pawn but only on the condition that the d3- pawn will be exchanged. It is easily said but not that easily accomplished. If I ever play e4, there can follow d4 and after I push d4 white can keep controlling the e4-square. One poor decision here can cost black the game but fortunately for me by the method of elimination, I found the right set-up: the bishop needs to be on d5 where it controls the important e4-square and prevents white from queenning the pawn. After my bishop ended up on d5 there was little that white could do to play for a win but Asa found some interesting ideas that prolonged the fight.
While in the previous example one had to have a good sense of dynamics and had to calculate many long lines in the next examples the play is dull for the first fifteen moves. Both opponents are testing the grounds, sizing up the territories they can capture and looking for weak spots in the opponent's camp. With every pawn push one gives up squares behind but captures those ahead. How far should one let the opponent move her pawns? These types of questions had to be answered in the first part of the game. For white one of the major questions was whether to leave the pawns fixed on the same or opposite color as her bishop is. The advantage of having the pawns on the color of the bishop is that the bishop can defend them but the disadvantage is that they limit the bishop's mobility; and vice versa for the other case. The game also shows how having the knight is an advantage over having a bishop in fixed pawn structures where the pawns are on the same side of the board.
White lost the game because of two bad decisions. The first decision that caused a headache for white was fixing the pawn structure with the g4 move and the second was giving up the pawn. Objectively, the position was equal for a very long time but after g4 it started deteriorating a bit because out of nowhere my knight got an excellent forepost on f4 from where it completely tangled up white pieces. On this note we will finish the bishop vs. the knight endgames and turn to bishops endgames.