The long-lasting feud Between the Bishop and the Knight

Aug 20, 2007, 5:52 AM |

It has been heavily debated whether, the bishop, with its long diagonal range capabilities is indeed stronger than the "darty" knight, or vice versa, so much so that there can almost be said to be a " petty feud" between the bishop and the knight. Quite ironical, isn't it, since considering that bishops, the messengers of God, are supposed to put aside these worldy things such as honour!


Anyway, back to serious business, some grandmasters give the bishop a small plus in its valuation against the knight, namely 3.2 points vs. 3 points or even 3.3 points vs. 3, while others maintain that the value of two minor pieces should be equal. So, how did this argument of Bishops being stronger than Knights come about? 


Firstly, the bishops have the capability to trap the knight if it is on the edge of the board, as shown in the following diagram.



Secondly, the bishop has a capability of controlling more squares than the knight, be it from the center of the board, or the corner! For e.g., on e4, the bishop controls 13 squares while the knight controls only 8! From the corner of the board, say a1, the advantage of the bishop is even more evident, as it controls 7 squares while the knight only controls 2!


However, can we conclude simply based on these two advantages of the bishops that bishops are more valuable than knights? Read on to find out more about when knights are more valuable, and when to keep the respective minor respective piece on the board!


a) Bishops work much better in open positions where there are many unlocked diagonals. Knights, on the other hand, work better in closed positions where they are unobstructed.


b) Bishops are frequently useless when they are blocked by their own center pawns, or when there are many pawns placed on the same colour of the bishop, whereby the bishop earns itself the title of "bad bishop". An example would be in the next diagram, where the bishop is hemmed in by his own pawns and is unable to attack any of his opponent's.



c) Knights are preferential when there are still queens on the board as they can often be used in the formulation of an attack. A popular setup would be the placement of knights on the 5th and 6th ranks to support the queen's attack on the enemy king, (refer next diagram). On the other hand, bishops coordinate better with Rooks in the ending, being pieces of further range. (Just feast your eyes on some of the Fischer endgames and you'll see how he puts his bishop to good use!)



d) Bishops are better than Knights when there are pawns on both flanks of the board. This is attributed once again to the artillery-like ability of the bishop as it functions along diagonals as compared to the knight which can only travel an "L" at each move.


Therefore, in conclusion, a general guide would be to keep your bishops in open positions and keep your knights in closed positions. Don't rush to change your bishop for knight just "because they are of the same value", consider which piece is more practical to have!


There goes. Hope this article is of use to those who are wondering when to keep which piece. Tahdah! My promise to those on the forums are complete!


(Disclaimer: these are just general guidelines, so don't be too alarmed to see these principles being violated! I mean, GMs do have different ideals, an example being GM Topalov, who is said to overrate his bishops so much so that he often gives his rooks for them!)


Tim Wee, Singapore 21/8/2007