Tales Of Bishops And Knights

Tales Of Bishops And Knights

Silman
IM Silman
Nov 10, 2016, 12:00 AM |
29 | Strategy

clement41 wrote: 

My question for you deals with the concept of “accountancy” of tempi; let me make myself clearer: in many instances one side has the opportunity to trade pieces (typically minors) with an imbalance; not only can it be bishop vs knight, but also the imbalance can stem from the fact that one piece has moved several times already while the other has moved less times, perhaps even never; hence one side gains some tempi with the trade. Typically, this would be Bf1 (never moved) x Nc4 (moved thrice), or its symmetrical trade Bc8xNf5.

I recently faced that dilemma as you can see in the diagram. I play Nf5 (I guess a move like Bf4 instead was more flexible, as then I can wait to see what he does with his Bc8 before playing Nf5,  and if ...g6 Bh6) and he immediately took my well-placed knight, then I took on f5 with the queen, etc.

What did Black gain? Two tempi I reckon. What did I gain? A stronger grasp on the light squares. Could you please tell me more about this exchange and its pros and cons?

JSThe first thing people do is memorize the basic rules regarding the bishop vs. knight battle. Those are:

Bishops are usually superior in open positions (because diagonals are often wide open, and bishops are able to leap from one side of the board to another).

Knights are usually equal or superior to a bishop in a closed position (because the pawns block the diagonals). Also, knights are able to jump over pawns, while bishops hit a wall when a pawn is in front of it).

Knights are usually superior to a bishop if all the pawns are on one side of the board. Why? Because the bishops long-range powers are no longer important since the battle will occur on only one sector.

If a knight has a central support point on the fourth, fifth, or sixth rank, the knight will usually be equal to or far superior to the enemy bishop.

A glance will convince you that White’s knight (which is attacking both b6 and e5) is far better than Black’s bishop (which is desperately defending e5).

In the middlegame, the side with a bishop wants to have the enemy pawns on the opposite color of the bishop since that allows the bishop to patrol the diagonal. The side with the knight wants to place some of his pawns on the same color of the enemy bishop since those pawns will block it.

It’s Black’s move but there is no defense.

What a difference a pawn makes!

Finally, in general two bishops vs. two knights heavily favors the bishops (unless it’s a very closed position), and a bishop and knight vs. two knights is usually also in favor of the bishop and knight since two knights have the same power, while the bishop and knight has both the knight’s power and the bishop’s.

Please keep in mind that there are always many exceptions to the rules. So don’t blindly follow them without taking a good look at the position and making sure the rules apply in that particular situation.

Of course, clement41 knows all that stuff. His questions are more advanced.

Let’s return the position after the swap:

His questions: “What did Black gain? Two tempi I reckon. What did I gain? A stronger grasp on the light squares. Could you please tell me more about this exchange and its pros and cons?”

While it’s true that White’s knight took three moves to get to f5 (Ng1-f3-d4-f5) and Black’s bishop only moved once (capturing the knight), in this case White has grabbed a few long-term plusses: two bishops, control of the a2-g8 diagonal, and pressure against f7 (not to mention White’s central space advantage and potential pressure against Black’s d6-pawn via Bf4 and Rad1).

If Black had a lead in development, it might mitigate the White plusses I just mentioned. However, Black’s not even ahead in development! Still, Black’s okay thanks to his nicely placed knight on c5, which will help Black eventually place some pressure on White’s e4-pawn. Also, the other knight might maneuver to e5 by …Nf6-d7-e5 (or …Nf6-d7 with …Bf6 to follow), while the Black queen can take up shop on b6 (which might lead to …Qb4) or c7 (in some cases …Qd7 is possible, seeking a trade of queens).

So, all in all White (after 1.Nf5 Bxf5 2.Qxf5) has a small edge that can easily turn into a serious plus if Black doesn’t energetically seek and execute his own ideas. However, if both sides play properly it’s just another interesting game of chess.

dudejan wrote: 

I always seem to struggle to know where to develop my bishops. For knights the concepts of outposts or placement behind a pawn to double-defend certain squares are quite logical for me. But for bishops I don’t seem to have the same understanding. I think this is mainly because at the time when you need to develop the bishop, it isn’t clear which diagonals are going to open up.

For instance when playing White, developing the dark-squared bishop to e3, f4 or g5 all seems logical, yet somehow I don’t have a structured way of thinking that will allow me to see which is best.

JSOther than the bishop-vs.-knight rules above, I can only say that rules for knights are quite clear, while rules for bishops are not as straightforward as one might think. Of course, if there’s a wide-open diagonal it might well be a good idea to grab it with your bishop. But what about if it’s a “road to nowhere?”

Don't embrace a road to nowhere!

What this tells us is that placing a bishop on a long diagonal isn’t necessarily what you should be looking for. Instead, you want your bishop to place pressure on the enemy king or weak pawns, or use it to simply make certain squares unlivable for the enemy. To accomplish these things, the shorter diagonal is often the correct choice. Of course, a bishop isn’t forced to make use of one diagonal. Often the bishop hands pain to the opponent by using a few diagonals.

Here’s a very famous game where a bishop makes use of two deadly diagonals (a2-g8 and b1-h7) and another long one aiming at the other side of the board. Keep in mind that Fischer was famous for his virtuoso skills with his bishops.

The simple fact of life on a chessboard is that any piece can dominate another piece. With bishops, you need to have faith that they will eventually come into their own. In fact, many battles are all about openings where one side gets a knight and the other a bishop. In those cases neither minor piece might seem better than the other, but it’s your responsibility to make them better than the other.

Other times nothing much is going on but you feel that, down the line, your bishops will blossom if you create the right kind of bishop-friendly-atmosphere.

Here’s an example of a bishop that doesn’t seem to be doing much. Many players just accept it and try to do things with their other pieces. But a well-trained player knows that every piece should be maximized, and no pieces should be left behind!


As I mentioned earlier, many openings create situations where one side has one or two bishops while the other has knights. It’s a never-ending battle, where the person with knights does his best to make them strong, while the other person will be doing everything possible to turn the board into a playground for bishops.

Here are a few examples:

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