It’s the Bishop!

I was passing by a student’s game this week and noticed the white Queen in a great position on the board. Passing by a few minutes later, I saw that the Queen had been captured. Upon asking a few questions, I was told that her majesty had been captured by a Bishop. I got an image of Monty Python’s “The Bishop” comedy sketch in my mind and had to stifle a laugh. That got me to thinking about good Bishops, bad Bishops and of course the sneaky Bishop. The Bishop has been responsible for the demise of many junior players’ chess games. Of course, simply knowing that the Bishop is a key player in many junior chess losses doesn’t explain how the Bishop so easily partakes in many material losses and checkmates. The Bishop’s success in junior level games can be explained by discussing board vision.

One of the problems that chess teachers and coaches face has to do with developing their student’s board vision. Simply put, board vision is the ability to see the entire board not just a small segment of it. When we teach beginners the opening principles, we teach our students to pay close attention to the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5) and the squares that immediately surround them. This subconsciously trains the beginner’s mind to focus on the board’s center since that’s where much of the early action takes place. This mindset can cause students to concentrate primarily on the central squares and less on the squares away from the board’s center. The battle for central domination in the opening can also cause beginners to not fully appreciate the difference between short range and long range pieces. This can easily happen because short and long range pieces can be equal in power (not relative value) when positioned close to the board’s central squares (especially when the center is occupied with pawns and pieces as found in a closed game).

The first step in the development of board vision is to examine the differences between short range and long range pieces. Often, beginners don’t fully grasp this difference and its key to proper board vision. I start my “Board Vision” lessons with a look at the short range pieces, the pawn, Knight and King. The pawn is limited in its movement but plays important roles throughout the game (early central control, support of pieces in all phases of the game and possible promotion in the endgame). However, it is a short range piece. The King is also a short range piece who normally doesn’t come into play until the endgame. The Knight is a different story altogether. While the Knight has the ability to jump over other pieces, the way it moves can often require a lot of maneuvering to get from point “a” to point “b” which limits its mobility. The long range pieces are another story altogether. Long range pieces yield great power which is why beginners often bring them out into the game prematurely.

Our long distance pieces are the Bishops, the Rooks and the Queen. The Rooks and Queen are employed later on in the game (in most cases with the exception of developing Rooks to open files or using them to support pawn advances). However, the Bishops are used in the opening as well as the middle and endgames. In the opening we see pawns and Knights on the board usually near the board’s center so many beginners focus their attention centrally. Beginners often don’t differentiate between Knight and Bishop in terms of range (short or long). This is often the case because the action is so centralized that the novice fails to consider the entire board. To break students of this habit, I have them look at every single one of their opponent’s pieces before moving one of their own pieces and answer a few simple questions:

  1. Are any of your opponent’s pieces attacking your pieces?
  2. Can you be checked by any of the opposition’s pieces?
  3. Can your opponent move a piece on the following turn that attacks one of your pieces or checks your King?

The idea is to have my students get used to examining the entire board and the pieces on it. This reduces the chance of a sneaky Bishop attack! Sneaky Bishops are Bishops that sit just outside of the beginner’s often narrow or limited board vision. Often, they are Fianchettoed so they sit on the second rank (for white) or the seventh rank (for black) trying to blend in with the pawns (so I’ve been told by a few nine year old students). The sneaky Bishop always sits just outside of the beginner’s field of vision. Looking at the entire board helps spot the culprit piece!

One thing I try to stress to beginners is power and value of Bishops in an open game (the board is not cramped with pieces). Even though a Bishop and Knight share the same relative value, a Bishop with open diagonals can be more valuable than the Knight. The opposite being true in closed games where the Knight is of greater value because it can jump over pieces when faced with a cramped position. This introduces the topic of good and bad Bishops. You have to keep concepts simple for young beginning students. A good Bishop is one that has freedom of movement around the chessboard. It becomes even better if your opponent’s pieces are on the same colored squares as your Bishop. A bad Bishop has little room to move and faces opposition pieces on squares opposite of its square color. I try to encourage maintaining both bishops (in an open game) while capturing one of their opponent’s Bishops. By removing an opposing Bishop, you weaken their ability to attack on the colored squares that the captured Bishop controlled.

Bishops provide excellent support in attacks and checkmates because they can protect the attacking/mating piece from a great distance. It is no coincidence that the Bishop provides support in the majority of attacks on the f7 and f2 squares. One exercise I have my students do is attacking a lone piece with a pair of Bishops. One student plays the game using the Bishop pair and the other student tries to keep the lone piece safe. This develops coordinated attacking skills and, for the student whose piece is being attacked, greater board vision. We start with a Bishop pair against a pawn and then work through all the pieces including the King. This exercise helps develop both board vision and teamwork between pieces. The student who has to defend against the Bishop pair learns lessons about safe squares and hanging a piece (giving away a piece with no compensation because that piece was put on an unsafe square).

After a bit of practice, beginners will come to respect the power of the Bishop and watch out for those sneaky Bishops loitering amongst the pawns. My more advanced students know better than to ignore the Bishop because I will use the tagline from the Monty Python sketch when a sneaky Bishop comes out of nowhere to capture a piece or help deliver mate: “We was too late.” There’s nothing better than hearing young children saying in unison “we was too late” after a Bishop attack or mate. Here’s a game with a wonderful checkmate involving a pair of Bishops:

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).