Attack and Defense with Opposite-Colored Bishops

Attack and Defense with Opposite-Colored Bishops

| 31 | Middlegame

As you might know, I have decided to change the topic of my column from the psychology of chess to “Attack and Defense”. On we have (or had) columns about endgames, openings, and strategy. I decided to cover the interplay of attack and defense. As Bobby Fischer said, “chess is a matter of delicate judgment, knowing when to punch and how to duck.” This judgment is what we will be covering in my new column. Of course, I will still give psychological insight in my columns, since this is a crucial part of chess. 

In this first article, I will cover attack and defense in a situation where there are bishops of opposite colors. It is likely I will end up coming back to this theme in later articles as well, since opposite-colored bishops are very relevant to the theme of attack and defense.

You may have heard that opposite-colored bishops are drawish – so how does this relate to my topic? It is true that in the endgame they have a great drawish tendency. Witness the following position:

White has two extra pawns, connected and passed. With same-colored bishops Black could resign. But with opposite-colored bishops this is a basic defensive formation that you must know. Black draws simply by moving his bishop on c6-b7-a8. If White ever plays d4-d5, Black takes it. Meanwhile the white king cannot move away to help the d-pawn to advance because it is stuck defending e4, while if the e-pawn advances there will be a complete blockade.

The reason endgames with opposite-colored bishops are drawish is because of the potential for total blockade. The defending side’s bishop can stop pawns dead in their tracks, while the attacking side’s bishop cannot help them to advance. Additionally, pawns can be placed on the opposite color of the opposing bishop, making them invisible.

In the middlegame, on the other hand, opposite-colored bishops have a different effect. With many pieces on the board we are not concerned so much with promoting pawns, as with attacking enemy weaknesses and threatening the king. Since one bishop can attack what the other bishop cannot defend, it is as if the player with the initiative has an extra piece! This makes the initiative very valuable, sharpening the situation and making the interplay of attack and defense crucial.

Let’s now see a game I played recently in the Bratto International Festival in Italy. Unfortunately during this tournament I was in no condition to play chess, as was clear as early as the first round. I was not well and ended up withdrawing after only six rounds. This was a pity since it was one of the nicest tournaments I have played in. The hotel and meals for the invited players were excellent, the organization superb, and the scenery majestic. We played in the Alps, and while playing you can look out the window and see fantastic mountains. I can wholeheartedly recommend this tournament for anyone who wants to play chess in a beautiful environment.

This game was played in the third round against the young Norwegian Nikolai Getz (2385). Having 1.5/2, my tournament had not yet fallen apart although it was clear that I was not playing well. What resulted was an exciting, error-filled, and awful game. Before the opening was even over I managed to blunder terribly:  


I had luckily recovered from falling into an opening trap. Now we have an opposite-colored bishops middlegame which looks simply tremendous for White. The black bishop looks like a big pawn, while the white bishop sits wonderfully on d4, blockading and observing both wings. The white king is also safer. I surely expected to win the game.

Nevertheless, I needed to reorient myself to the new situation. White’s position has massively improved, but it is not yet won – in fact, things are not so clear. The white bishop looks wonderful, but it does not yet coordinate with the other pieces. A crucial element of opposite-bishop middlegames is that your heavy pieces coordinate with your bishop. Here White has no clear targets yet. Notice that every one of Black's pawns is on the same color as his bishop. Normally this is a very bad thing, but in certain opposite-bishops positions this can actually help the defender, since White has no way to attack them! Black has almost no control over the dark squares, so he simply pretends they don't exist!

Very instructive was my opponent’s decision to play 19…exf5. Paradoxically he frees my bishop even more and opens the position with his king seemingly vulnerable. But the counterplay that the open g-file provided was more than worth it. All in all, White has a clear advantage, but Black is fighting. This is how the game continued:

Searching for a win, I intentionally allowed my opponent to carry out his thematic pawn sacrifice, …d5-d4. When there are opposite-colored bishops on the board material is less important than initiative. He desperately wanted to free his bishop and create threats against g2, and I met him halfway in my attempts to sharpen the game. The last part of the game shows how devilishly dangerous positions with opposite-colored bishops can be.

A dramatic conclusion! Black is up a rook and a bishop and also threatens mate in three ways, but White got there first.

A middlegame with opposite-colored bishops is one of the sharpest kinds of middlegames. When both players essentially have an extra piece, the slightest mistake can swing the game one way or another. The game hinges on your understanding of the dynamics of the position.

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