Bishop or Knight: Which is the Stronger Piece?

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Which is the stronger of the two pieces: the bishop or the knight?

This is one of the questions one is asked most often by novices of all ages. Traditionally, of course, we record the value of each piece as three points – even though they could hardly be more different. The bishop has to stick to one color throughout the game, whereas the knight has to alternate the color of its square every time it moves. Bishops are long-range pieces; knight are short-range pieces. It is quite a contrast.

Despite the material parity, the answer to our original question is always driven by other factors and the standard answer is: ‘it depends on the position.’ Is the position closed, or open? Is the bishop blunted by its own pawns being on the same color as as itself?

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The Battle of Ideas

A chess player’s own experiences will be a guiding light on the murky subject. Some players develop a marked preference for the bishops; others love using the unpredictable knights. We have mentioned before the battle of ideas between the First World Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, and his great rival Mikhail Chigorin. Steinitz enjoyed using the bishops and Chigorin clearly preferred his knights.

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We will be presenting more examples showing the battle in action from all phases of the game in future posts, but we are starting with examples from simplified positions.

Bishops and Knights in the Endgame

Today we are looking at examples of the bishop and the knight fighting against each other in the endgame.

This simple position shows the respective strengths of the pieces.

Bishop or Knight

If it is White’s move, then 1.Ne6+! forks the king and the g-pawn.

Knight Better Than The Bishop

If it is Black to move, then 1…g5? is to be avoided, as 2.Ne6+ is another fork. 1…Bd5! is the star move, dominating the knight.

The Bishop Dominates the Knight

None of the knight’s four moves are safe as the bishop covers b7, c6, e6 and f7. Black is left with the simple job of marching his over to the knight and capturing it, as nothing can come to its rescue.

It is interesting to see how much is happening here, even with very few pieces left on the board.

To help with our initial investigations into the battle between the minor pieces, we are fortunate to have some excellent examples in Yasser Seirawan’s new Chessable course – Winning Chess Endings. Here is one of them.

White to play
Who stands better – and why?

Should this one a draw? If not, who can make progress and how can it be achieved? Spend a little time assessing the situation before reading the thoughts of one for he world’s best endgame players.

The Ending According to Yasser

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100 Endgames You Must Know

According to Yasser:

‘As we can see from the guiding principles, blocked positions favor the Knight. The following examples illustrate these principles. Naturally, not all blocked positions will win for the Knight. 

In this position, White is doing very well indeed. The position favors him for several reasons. The position is blocked by the d5-, e4-, d6-, and e5-pawns, a cir­cumstance favorable for the Knight. Black’s blocked d6- and e5-pawns are on the same color as his Bishop.

Bishop Against Knight Ending

This means that the Bishop is ineffective, because it is unable to attack White’s pawn structure and instead must play a defensive role only. This structure commonly appears from a King’s Indian Defense, a defense I recommend in my course Winning Chess Openings. White’s King is more active than its counterpart. White puts these advantages to quick use and wins the game handily.’

Fast forward a few moves and we can see Yasser’s judgement is correct.

The Knight Outplaying the Bishop

White to play

White plays 5.Nb6!

‘This satisfying move shows the advantage of a Knight over a Bishop. The Knight, being able to hop to all 64 squares on the board, will uproot Black’s King. The threat is Nb6-c8+, winning the d6-pawn.’

After a couple more moves, we encounter a stark reminder of the bishop’s weakness.

Knight Beating Bishop

Black to play

The threat of 8.Nc8+, winning the d-pawn, is renewed. Black is really suffering for his lack of any control of the light-squares and is forced to play 7…Bxb6 to stop the threat. This does not save the game, as after 8.Kxb6 Kd7 9.Kb7 White has established the opposition. Black’s king will soon have to give way, allowing the white king to capture the d-pawn. The position would then be hopeless for Black, as White’s passed d-pawn would decide the game by marching to promotion.

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The above ending is one of many discussed by Yasser in his brand new Chessable course: Winning Chess Endings. A Short and Sweet version is also available.

Winning Chess Endings

Naturally, the course covers a wide range of other subjects in addition to the eternal battle between the bishop and the knight.

Stay tuned for more thoughts on the battle between the bishop and the knight.

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Bishops on the Attack

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