How Not To Play With The Bishop Pair

In the first round of the annual Pittsburgh Chess Club Championship, I played a game as White in which my aim out of the opening was to acquire the Bishop pair against the Nimzo-Indian and nurse it to victory, as I have done many times successfully before. Unfortunately, I played carelessly and ended up drawing against an opponent 500 ELO points lower than me! (Rounds 2 and 3 have been played, and featured higher-quality chess, thankfully.)

On the principle that poorly played games can be instructive, I decided to write about how not to play with the Bishop pair. More accurately, I’ll show that although White had a clear advantage during much of the game, White missed many chances to increase or maintain the advantage, for various reasons.

I’ve also included the game score for a very recent interesting game from the Gibraltar Masters 2014 featuring the use of the Bishop pair, so that you can look at it and make comparisons, point by point, with the themes in question. This was a game in which White got the Bishop pair and built up an overwhelming position but also lost the thread.

Falling behind in development

One important theme when deliberately playing for the Bishop pair is that of falling behind in development. Nothing comes for free in chess; everything is a matter of tradeoffs. The Qc2 variation of the Nimzo-Indian is particularly extreme, in that White chooses to spend three moves to get the Bishop pair without getting a weakened Pawn structure: Qc2 protects the Knight on c3, a3 causes the Black Bishop to capture the Knight, and then Qxc3 recaptures with the Queen. Three moves is a lot to invest for obtaining a long-term advantage of the Bishop pair.

Close or open the position?

There is a principle that is often taught, that open positions favor the Bishop pair, and closed positions favor Knights. However, this assumes that one’s King is safe. If one’s King is not safe, then an open position may well be “good” for a Bishop but bad for the King! Often, the correct thing to do when one has the Bishop pair but is behind in development is to keep the Pawn structure semi-closed, to buy time to complete development and King safety before then proceeding to open up the way for the Bishops.

Unfortunately, in this game I played carelessly and on autopilot to hasten to complete development and castle, rather than attend to the immediate situation on the board. After Black’s slow b6 development, not only was there a tactical shot I missed against c7, but even beside that, there were opportunities to fix Black’s Pawn structure with cxd5 in order to close off the activity of Black’s remaining Bishop, before proceeding with King side development. This would have guaranteed a very solid advantage.

Being pushed back to save the Bishop pair

After all the inaccuracies, the position after 17 Be1 is still instructive, because this type of position actually does occur frequently when one side does what it takes to keep the Bishop pair. Often it is correct to retreat, even as far back as the back rank, with a Bishop, to save it. Part of playing with the Bishop pair means being patient, temporarily losing the initiative and becoming defensive, in order to wait until your opponent’s activity runs out, and then spring back out.

Loss of patience

Unfortunately, in this game, I lost patience at move 21, when I decided on a plan to “free” my position by opening it up with e4. This was a mistake that resulted in a prematurely open position where Black already had more active pieces. It doesn’t matter whether you have the Bishop pair or not if your own pieces are not all active and coordinated.


Inaccuracies by both sides after the position opened up show how potentially powerful even a Bishop against Knight can be in the late stages of a game. 29 Qe4 for White would have protected vulnerable squares and really showcased the latent power of White’s remaining Bishop against Black’s Knight.

In conclusion, although this was quite an uneven game, I think it is instructive to look at the turning points in order to consolidate lessons on how not to squander the advantage of the Bishop pair.

Two complete games

My game

My complete game is below (and also features some egregious errors in the time scramble at the end, which luckily still led to a Rook vs. Queen fortress draw).

Agdestein vs. Tan Zhongyi, Gibraltar Masters 2014

In this game, White fell behind in development upon acquiring the Bishop pair but kept the position closed, until Black riskily opened it, after which White caught up, starting with 23 Ne3, rapidly mobilized the last developed piece, the dark-squared Bishop, and then had a win in sight but blew it.

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.