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The Beautifully Useless Chess Piece

The Beautifully Useless Chess Piece

Strong and weak squares are a cornerstone of chess strategy. The definition of a weak square is very simple: it is any square that cannot be defended by a pawn. Usually such a weak square in our opponent's camp is the ideal place to put our pieces.

Therefore our opponent's weak squares are actually strong squares for our pieces!

In most cases it is the knight who benefits the most from being placed on such a strong square. I bet you can immediately remember dozens of such examples from your own games.

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the winner of the recent Sinquefield Cup, produced a textbook example of such a knight.

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Photo: Maria Emelianova.

Black was pretty much doomed right out of the opening! So, the moral is simple -- put your pieces on such strong squares and crush your opponents, right? Well, not necessarily.

Look at the following game:

The beautiful knight on d4 was standing there most of the game until Black resigned. GM Bent Larsen's comment is very instructive. He said that he really wanted to ask a simple question: What was the knight on d4 doing there the whole game? 

We can see a similar story with bishops. Who doesn't remember Lasker's famous Be3 that cut his opponent's position in two halves?

Now compare it to the bishop on d4 in the next game. Yes, the bishop can be kicked from there by e2-e3, but then it moves to the equally strong c3 square. Yet the result is very disappointing for Black:

By the way, the future world champion Boris Spassky fell victim to the same misconception. He spent a lot of time moving his bishop from g2 to a very strong c6 square. As the result, his beautiful bishop on c6 was completely out of play and the king became underprotected:

In his last encounter vs. the world champion, the Russian GM Karjakin had a similar "strong" knight on c3.  Unfortunately for him, while his whole kingside was collapsing, this beautiful-looking knight was just helplessly sitting there till the end of the game. 

I am sure that you have already solved the mystery of why sometimes beautiful-looking pieces can be a liability rather than an asset. Just compare the Nd5 and the Nd4 from the first two games of this article. While MVL's Nd5 in the first game was tirelessly working the whole game, Donner's Nd4 in the second game was completely ineffective.

The same can be said about every single "beautifully useless" piece that we saw in this article.

So, next time you are about to place one of your pieces on a supposedly strong square, ask yourself: "What is it going to do there? How is it going to benefit my main strategic plan?"

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