Knight Moves

Out of all the pieces, the Knight is perhaps the most difficult piece for the beginner to master. While the other pieces move in a very linear way, making it easier for the beginner to comprehend, the Knight moves in a non-linear way, which confuses the beginner. Because of this, the beginner often avoids making a Knight move early in the game (the opening) which is exactly when you should be considering the Knight’s entry into the action! When I introduce the movement of the pawns and pieces, I usually do so during a single class, with piece movement/capturing reviews during the next few classes. However, the Knight has his own class dedicated entirely to his movement. When I give my lecture on the Knight, I start by saying “a pair of Knights closing in on the opposition’s King is often deadly and can lead to an early checkmate!”

I make this statement because many of my beginning students think that Knights are simply one of two minor pieces and they don’t have the power of the Rooks or Queen (major pieces). Beginners have the bad habit of trying to checkmate early in the game using their big guns, The Queen or Rooks. Beginners consider minor pieces to be just that, minor in the role they play! However, the minor pieces are instrumental in early checkmates. Just look at the role the Bishop plays in the classic Scholar’s Mate!

Describing the way in which the Knight moves is more difficult because of its non-linear behavior. The other pieces, the Bishop, Rook, Queen and King, move in a linear fashion. They move along the diagonals, Rank and Files. The Knight, on the other hand, moves in an “L” shape. The easiest way to remember the way in which the Knight moves is to remember the phrase “two over one.” What this means is that the Knight moves two squares in one direction along a Rank or File and the one square in another direction, also along a Rank or File. The shape of a Knight’s move is that of an “L” in which the height of the “L” is three squares tall and the width of the “L” is two squares wide. If you set up a chessboard and pieces and move your Knight from g1 to f3, you’ll see that the “L” shape (the L shape in this case is upside down) is three squares tall and two squares wide. This brings us to another critical characteristic of the Knight. It is the only piece that can jump over both friendly and enemy pieces.

This idea of jumping over other pieces is extremely important for a number of reasons. In a closed game in which pieces from both sides are jammed up in or around the board’s center, long distance pieces such as the Bishop, Rook and Queen have limited mobility. The Knight, on the other hand, can simply jump over pieces, allowing it greater freedom of mobility in a closed game. Another often crushing feature of the Knight is that you cannot block its attack. I always drive this idea into the brains of my students. A piece whose attack cannot simply be blocked can be extremely dangerous indeed!

Knights are also excellent at forking two or more opposition pieces and, because of their non linear movement, make it difficult for the opposition to deal with from a visual standpoint. In fact, this non linear movement in itself creates problems regarding seeing a potential Knight attack. When the beginner gets used to moving the pieces, he or she can easily see an attack coming because it’s just a matter of following the movement line of an attacking piece aimed at one of their pieces. The beginner can see that a White Bishop on c4 attacks along the a2-g8 diagonal. The beginner will note that any pawn or piece belonging to Black along that diagonal is subject to attack. The same idea holds true for the Rook or Queen and their placement on the board. However, because the Knight moves in a non linear way, beginners are often the victim of a Knight attack because its movement isn’t as straight forward as that of the other pieces.

One of the chess workouts I employ with my students is a series of Knight Exercises, starting with a lone Knight on the board, on the square a1. I instruct my students to move the Knight to the square h8 in the least amount of moves possible. We do this a few times, changing the Knight’s starting and destination squares. Next we introduce a piece to be captured. The Knight might start out on b2 and the piece to be captured might be on f8. My student’s job is to capture that piece with the Knight in the least number of moves. These exercises go on with more opposition pieces being added. With more opposition pieces on the board, my students have to be careful that they don’t place their Knight on a square that allows the opposition to capture them. What surprises my students the most is the number of turns it takes to capture a piece that is relatively close by. These exercises bring up the point that the Knight, while powerful in many ways, is a slow moving piece.

Junior level beginners have a great interest in attacking the f7 (or f2 square for White) square with their King-side Knight, backed up by their King-side Bishop on c4. We’ll often work through a game using this attacking idea. What my students discover is that it takes the Knight three moves to reach the f7 square and while the Knight is lumbering along to his target square, Black is developing a new pawn or piece with each move. After 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Bc4…Nf6, 4.Ng5…d5, White has wasted some tempo by putting all his or her eggs (so to speak) into one positional basket. While this position could go on to bare some tactical fruit in the hands of a more experienced player, beginners can often end up with a messy position playing either side of the board.

It is better to use your Knights to control the board’s center rather than go for an all or nothing attack on the f7 or f2 squares. I ask my students if they’d rather move the same Knight twice, first to f3 then to g5 which controls eight squares or would they rather develop one Knight to f3 and the other to c3 where they both control a total of sixteen squares, including the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5)? The idea of control a greater number of squares including the four central squares is far more appealing!

The Knight is a very powerful piece that, while difficult for the beginner to master, makes up for this difficultly with its special powers. When teaching beginners, it is extremely important to spend extra time with the Knight. This way, the Knight becomes more of an asset to the beginner rather than a piece to be ignored. Here’s a game to ponder until next week. Best wishes for the New Year!

Hugh Patterson

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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).