How to be Your Opponent's Worst Knightmare

How to be Your Opponent's Worst Knightmare

CM AdviceCabinet

Knights are one of the trickiest pieces on the chessboard. The way they move and where they can end up in 2 to 3 moves is not intuitive to the human mind at all. In this article, I hope to provide some clarity as to how knight endings should be approached by giving you 5 tips to bear in mind.

1. Knights cannot lose moves

Knights can neither lose tempi nor triangulate. This characteristic becomes especially relevant in very simplified endings, where waiting moves are limited or non-existent. In the following puzzle, it is black to play. What is the correct defensive idea and technique?

Despite the heavy material deficit, the position is drawn! The white king is trapped in front of his own pawn and the black king can never be displaced from f7 and f8, which I will refer to as the "safe squares". This is because the white knight can only ever attack one of the safe squares with check. The black king will then sidestep to the second safe square. At this point, white is in zugzwang and must move his knight, losing control of the first safe square.

As shown in the sideline of the puzzle, the first move by black is very important. Playing 1... Kf8 is a fatal mistake. In a few moves, the white knight will end up controlling one of the safe squares while the black king stands on the other. It will then be black who is in zugzwang and must be forced out of f7 or f8, allowing white's king to step out and make progress.

There is an efficient method to identify the correct king move at a glance in such positions: You should move the king to the square of the same colour complex that the enemy knight is on.

2. Knights should defend pawns from the rear

This is easy to understand. When a knight defends his pawn from the rear, the enemy king cannot capture the knight without leaving the "pawn box". If you do not know what a pawn box is, National Master Jerry (ChessNetwork) has provided a fantastic explanation which you can find here.

3. Know the relative king positions that make the enemy knight uncomfortable

In the endgame, the king is a fighting piece which can restrict the movement of the enemy knight. Generally, he would perform best by standing on a square that controls the knight's advancing squares, while making it difficult for himself to come under check. This leaves us with two ideal relative positions for the king. He should be two squares away diagonally from the knight (e.g. c3 to e5) or three squares away on the same file/rank (e.g. d4 to g4).

In the following diagram, the position is equal. If the knight reaches h2 before the pawn does, the draw becomes clear. However, black can make white work very hard for the half point by applying this tip.

4. Forks are a knight's best weapon

A knight in the centre can end up on 9 different squares after one move, including the possibility of moving a piece other than the knight. In two moves, the same knight could end up on 35 different squares! That is more than half the chessboard covered by a measly minor piece. By creating double attacks, the knight can keep the opponent very busy. In this way, the knight can efficiently make two or more moves.

Additionally, forks help knights cover squares of both colour complexes. When a knight is on a light square, he only controls a few dark squares around him. However, if he can land on those dark squares with a fork, he will control many more light squares. This idea is best illustrated with the following cool puzzle.

Despite having 14 legal moves, the black rook is trapped! All thanks to the b7 knight. If the rook moves to a light square, the knight will attack it while unleashing a discovered check. If the rook moves to a dark square, white will bring the knight towards c6 or d7 with a deadly fork on the black king (which would be at b8) and the rook. I will leave you to work out the solution to each of the legal moves as an exercise.

5. Botvinnik's rule

Botvinnik's rule states that "Knight endgames are really pawn endgames. Many of the laws of pawn endings apply equally to knight endings. The same high value is given to king activity, the outside passed pawn, the breakthrough, shouldering, zugzwang, etc."

This rule only holds true when assessing positional aspects of such endings and not when tactics unique to knight endings are present, such as in the following puzzle.

I hope this article will help you approach knight endings with more confidence. Feel free to follow my account for more chess content