A Playground For Exploring The Power Of Bishops And Knights

I’ve assigned a student reading in Jeremy Silman’s book “The Amateur’s Mind”, and have been trying to expand on the lessons in the first chapter about bishops and knights. I thought about ways to make more concrete the assessment of the roles of bishops and knights in a middlegame. I decided that a good playground for exploring the minor pieces is certain variations of the Sicilian Defense, in which a King side Pawn storm and mating attack does not dominate the themes. (The Sicilian Defense is also great for illustrating ideas about Pawn structure, but that is another large topic.)

It might be counterintuitive to use the complex Sicilian Defense instead of the more simplified middlegames or endings, but I felt that the more simplified ones, being more open, resulted in a lot more position-specific tactical nuances, and therefore a “paradox of choice”. The half-open Pawn barrier positions of the Scheveningen Sicilian seem to me to place more constraints on what the minor pieces can do, and therefore can guide focused thinking about them. Good use of the Bishops, and even more so, Knights, is critical to Black’s counterplay in the Sicilian Defense. So we set up a training game in which I had my student explaining to the best of his understanding, at each move, who had the best Bishop, the worst Knight, etc. And as the game progressed, we stopped at several points to take note of how the assessments had changed and why.

As Black, I quickly achieved a large advantage, but then deliberately made some choices to allow the game to simplify into a drawish endgame, in order to illustrate how an advantage can be lost when previously inactive Knights, for example, become active.

One key lesson we explored was the hidden power of Black’s Knight on d7: how it had opportunities to go to b6, c5, or e5, attacking White’s e4 Pawn or threatening to go to c4. Also, the restraining power of White’s Bishop on g5 was important in the game: it helped White establish control over the d5 square to avoid getting completely overrun.

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.