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Chess Corner - Comparing the Minor Pieces

In our previous column, we looked at pawn structures, and how your pawns, when organized well, can be a great advantage to you. In this column, we’ll discuss the next higher piece: the knight. Or is it the bishop? In this column, I would like to contrast these two pieces and show their strengths and weaknesses.

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It is fine to think that one is stronger than the other. A lot of people, when asked, would say that a bishop is stronger than a knight. Some would say the opposite. No one is really correct about this, for these pieces’ value depends entirely on their positions. For example, bishops are stronger in open positions, while a knight is the piece you need when both armies are cramped together and there isn’t much room. There are many other strengths these two pieces have, and I have some of them listed below.

Let’s start with the bishop. For a number of reasons, it can be stronger than a knight: 1. it is usually quicker, and can reach a square up to four times quicker than a knight; 2. it can give strong pins and skewers, while a knight can give none at all; 3. it can attack and defend from a faraway position, while the knight must do so up close; and 4. it can corral any knight on the edge of the board. Corraling a knight is a way of trapping it on the edge of the board (see diagram 1 above). White’s knight has four squares to which he can move: b7, c6, e6, and f7. However, there is one obstacle: Black’s bishop is in such a position that attacks all four squares.

The greatest thing that makes bishops stronger is their strength in numbers. A bishop pair is much, much stronger - definately more than twice as strong - than either of the bishops standing alone. A bishop pair can be a very powerful weapon, especially in the endgame. If the game comes to it, it’s even possible tō checkmate your opponent’s lone king with two bishops. I have even defeated two rooks with a bishop pair!

The knight is the piece I normally prefer, with its unique power and forking ability. Knights: 1. can jump over pieces, while a bishop must go around them; 2. can access all the squares on the board, while a bishop can only access half of them; 3. are stronger than other pieces when the two armies are in a position with not much room to move (see diagram 2); and 4. can give forks stronger than any other piece can give.

There are two reasons why knights are the best forkers. First, they can fork eight units at once. Rooks and bishops can only fork four pieces at once, and pawns only two. But the thing that makes a knight fork deadlier than any other is this: Knights are uncatchable. When forked, none of a knight’s “victims” can take your knight back, except for a fellow knight. This is the beauty and strength that makes a knight fork powerful.

Bishops and knights both can be strong pieces. They are the main fighting pieces in the opening, are strong in the middlegame, and can be the key to winning in the endgame. They just acquire their power in different ways.

I have been contrasting the bishop and knight in this column, but in this week’s puzzle, they must work together. In two moves with White to move first, can you see how to checkmate Black’s lone king?

Answer to the previous puzzle: Black starts out with a discovered check: 1… g2+. White is forced to play 2. Ke2, allowing Black to promote. But Black’s not stopping there: after 2… Qxe4+ 3. Kf2, Black can play 3… gxh1/Q and win shortly. But better than that is to win immediately with 3… gxh1/N#! and White is finished. This puzzle can be found in Chess Openings: Traps and Zaps, by Bruce Pandolfini (1989).