If we were to suggest just one chess strategy for beginners to focus upon – that would have the biggest impact on their chess – it may well be that complicated area known as the bishop vs. knight imbalance.
So let’s spend today absorbing the essentials of this strategy.
Chess Strategy for Beginners – Are Bishops Better than Knights?
If you were to ask most masters – or even the regular guys at the local chess club – you might hear them tell you that bishops are worth more than knights.
But that’s all they’ll say.
It’s partially right, but it’s also slightly misleading for learners. So let’s look a bit deeper for the truth.
I believe the best way to explain this bishop vs. knight imbalance is that:
“Bishops and knights are worth the same, but bishops are more often able to use their strengths…”
To understand what I mean fully, let’s consider the following table.
In the table on the left, we can see that bishops and knights are indeed both worth the same in numeric value, but they have different “strongest positions” based on conditions present in the position.
Knights work best in closed positions and bishops are superior in open positions.
And since open positions occur more often in chess games (a position becomes more and more open with each pawn exchanged), people tend to generalize and say that bishops are always better.
So When are Knights Better?
If bishops are better than knights, how do we explain the following position?
In this position, we can see that white’s knight is a fantastic piece and can hop around inside the blocked pawn chain via the strong e5, d4 and g5 squares.
With the support of the white king, this advantage might even be decisive already.
Consider, for example, if the white king got to the e5 square (via an f2-e3-d4-e5 march), and white planted his knight on d4/g5, it’s clear that black would become very passive.
On the other hand, black’s bishop is obstructed by the pawn chain, and even if it gets out (via a6), it’ll find no targets.
As we can see, a bishop is no match for a knight on his home turf (closed positions).
But what methods can we use to help our knights reach full strength? Well since they can only be at their best in closed positions, we need to make sure they have good squares! Otherwise, they’ll have no room to move and get either pushed backward or squashed. Consider it like a rock climber needing to have footholds in order to keep moving upward.
Give Your Knights Powerful Squares!
Here we see former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik in a complicated middlegame position.
The pawn structure is symmetrical and black controls the open c-file with his rook.
The main imbalance in the position is the dynamic between the white knight and the black bishop.
So how can white claim a dominating outpost for his knight?
The great champion played 33.g5! exchanging the black f-pawn and freeing the powerful e5 square for his knight.
This idea alone (if absorbed well) could be a game changing chess strategy for beginners to raise their ELO significantly.
But Bishops are Usually Stronger?
In most cases, yes, but never forget the hidden power latent in your knights…especially in blocked positions as we’ve seen above.
Moving on to bishops…
Here is an example of why everybody in the club (and their brother) will agree that bishops are superior to knights.
When we see positions like this, it’s clear why people might stress the overwhelming power of bishops.
On this completely open board, the bishop stands dominant, and this poor helpless knight on the edge is actually trapped.
It can’t move!
With this example in mind, any time you have a bishop and catch an opponent’s knight hopping too close to the edge, keep your eyes open for the chance to trap it in a manner similar to this.
But it’s very rare that we’ll reach such a dominant bishop vs. knight position as the one above.
So how do we know if our bishop is better than their knight? How do we make our bishop better than their knight?
Here are some tips…
Fewer Pawns = Stronger Bishop
If you have a bishop and your opponent has a knight, a simple method (and a key chess strategy for beginners) to get your bishop into a position of dominance is the following:
- Exchange pawns (without creating too many weaknesses): With fewer pawns on the board, there will be more open lines. Open lines = Bishops that fire across the board like a laser!
- Make sure you have targets (stuff your bishop can attack): Even a bishop that fires across the board like a laser beam is going to be shooting blanks without a clear target.
So let’s see a couple of examples.
Here we see a bad bishop!
No matter where he goes, this bishop will not have very much to do.
On the other hand, white’s knight on c5 is a simply fantastic piece.
Unsurprisingly, white won this game easily.
And here we see a beautiful laser beam bishop!
Black’s bishop on g7 is truly breathing fire down the a1-h8 diagonal, and despite being a pawn ahead, white lost quickly.
White’s knight on c3 is vulnerable, his pawn on b2 is vulnerable, and even his king is potentially weak.
Black essentially has domination (or potential domination) of all of the black squares thanks to his killer bishop.
From the examples above, we must admit that it’s essential that bishops have long diagonals and clear targets for them to be effective.
But how do you get into a favorable bishop vs. knight position in the first place?
I’ll illustrate this with a very clear example position.
Entering a Favorable Bishop vs. Knight Scenario
If you evaluate a position to have the conditions favorable for a bishop (open lines, targets on both sides of the board) you’ll need to force your will on the opponent to get the most of it. A strong opponent will never willingly enter into an inferior position. So let’s see how to do it.
Before: White Forces the Bishop for Knight Exchange
With the move 33.Ne6! white has forced black to capture his knight and will enter a position where his powerful light-squared bishop dominates the black knight.
Entering this scenario is an example of excellent positional judgment from white and is a key chess strategy for beginners to remember.
White has rerouted his bishop to the b3 square where it will exert tremendous influence over the entire kingside.
In combination with white’s queen and rook, this advantage was enough to win quickly.
To Sum Up (plus some advice)
We can see from all of the examples above that bishops and knights have unique strengths and weaknesses, but this doesn’t mean we can justify saying that one is better than the other.
To really raise your Elo, you need to work on mastering these two pieces and developing an intuitive feel for their little idiosyncrasies and how to maximize the power of each… in whatever position you find yourself in.
This is one chess strategy for beginners to really spend a significant chunk of time mastering because the rewards for your chess will be tremendous.
To streamline your learning process, you can actually master this strategy in a single day, by grabbing yourself a copy of Play Positional Chess Like a Grandmaster by GM Damian Lemos.
This course alone will save you literally months of hard work.