The Two Faces Of Opposite-Colored Bishops

The Two Faces Of Opposite-Colored Bishops

| 16 | Strategy

While going over a game with my student, B.B., I noticed that his position wasn’t particularly desirable. I also noticed that he didn’t think there was much to learn from the wreckage before us, and he wanted to move on to another game. 


I surprised him by saying, “No, no, we definitely need to look at this position since it’s actually quite interesting.”

He looked at me as if I was a talking squirrel and replied, “Come on, it’s completely hopeless. It’s White’s move, my king isn’t safe, White’s bishop can eventually rest on the f5-hole, and I’m a pawn down! What’s to like?”

I said, “You’re missing something. You’ve given up on the position due to the negative things you just mentioned, but you are ignoring the one thing that might save you or, if White plays poorly, even turn the game around and give you the victory.”

“You got into your absinthe bottle before the lesson, didn’t you?”

I assured him that this wasn’t the case and I was dead serious about there being lots of fight left in this position. I then mentioned the presence of opposite-colored bishops and how they often give the defender drawing chances in some endgames even if you’re a pawn down.

He took this in stride and told me that he’s seen that mentioned in magazines and books over the years but never understood why opposite-colored bishops can save the day when your opponent has a material advantage. As soon as I heard that, I decided to turn our lesson into the pros and cons of bishops of opposite colors. 


White is two pawns ahead, his bishop is nicely placed, one of his pawns is close to its promotion square, and his king is far more active than Black’s king. Yet, it’s a dead draw!

Why, because of the opposite colored bishops! White’s bishop is like a ghost: it can’t touch any of the black pawns and it can’t kick black’s king off the g7-square. So, in the face of material and positional superiority, White has to accept that he can’t win.

Black draws by moving his bishop back and forth from b4 to a3 to b4. If White’s king moves to the queenside, then Black can place his bishop on b4 (defending both a5 and c5) and then move his king back and forth between f8 and g7. Once White’s king rushes back to the kingside, Black sticks his king on g7 and starts dancing with his bishop again.

Here’s another example. Black’s two pawns up but the position is dead drawn: 

RULE: If you are defending an inferior bishop of opposite color endgame, it’s often wise to place your pawns on the same color as your bishop since the enemy bishop won’t be able to touch them.

We just saw how opposite-colored bishops can be a real defensive gift, but they can also be a significant offensive force (usually in the middlegame) since the defensive bishop can’t defend what the offensive bishop attacks.
Note how White’s f-pawn was placed on the same color as the enemy bishop, thereby blocking it. If Black had done the same thing, he would have been able to nullify that a1-h8 diagonal:
RULE: In the middlegame, it’s often (NOT ALWAYS, but often) a good idea to place your pawns on the same color as the enemy bishop since those pawns will block the bishop’s diagonal.

Now let’s return to my student’s game. The right mindset for Black is this: “I’m clearly worse, but there’s still a lot of chess to be played. If I can enter a bishop of opposite color endgame a pawn down, I will have good chances to save a draw. On the other hand, my c5-bishop is aiming at the f2-pawn and White’s bishop can’t defend it. My queen is also hitting f2, forcing White’s rook to remain on f1. So anything can happen!”


By mixing the drawing proclivities of opposite-colored bishops with their ability to attack enemy points that the other bishop can’t defend, you can give your opponent hell, even if his position is obviously superior.
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