Knights Versus Bishops

When we first learn the game of chess, we’re taught the relative values of the pawns and pieces. Pawns serve as the basis for this system of valuation, having a relative value of one. The Queen, the most powerful of the pieces, has a relative value of nine while the Rooks have a relative value of five. Lastly, there are the minor pieces and this is where beginners often run into trouble. Both the Knights and Bishops have a relative value of three. However, this value can fluctuate depending on specific positional circumstances. To merely think of either of these minor pieces (Knight or Bishop) as being equal under all circumstances can lead to disaster! Note, I’m leaving the King’s value out of this discussion because the King is priceless and normally comes into play later on in the game when there are fewer pieces on the board.

It helps the beginner if he or she truly understands the meaning of the word “relative.” As generally defined by the dictionary, relative means something, such as a chess piece, considered in relation or in proportion to something else, such as other chess pieces. This definition should extend beyond merely comparing one piece or pawn to another. It can be used, in chess terms, to compare a piece to a specific situation or position on the chessboard and it is within this idea that the beginner often becomes befuddled.

Knights and Bishops share a relative value based on the limitations of their movement. The Knight is a short distance piece, meaning that (because of its unique yet limited way of moving) it moves rather slowly. The Bishop, on the other hand, can cover great distances in a single move, making it a long distance piece. However, the Bishops can only travel diagonally along squares of the same color. One Bishop starts on a light colored square and the other on a dark colored square. The Bishops can never change square colors. Unlike the Bishop, the Knight can cover both light and dark squares. A Knight that starts on a light square ends its move on a dark square and vice versa. So the slow moving Knights can cover all the squares on the board while each Bishop can only cover half the squares on the board. Knights are short distance attackers or defenders while Bishops are long distance attackers or defenders.

I mentioned that the value of these minor pieces can fluctuate depending on positional situations. To understand this we have to understand two key types of positions, opened and closed. In an open position, the board contains open or partially open ranks, files and diagonals. This means that long distance pieces, such as the Bishops have room to move or mobility. A Bishop can control a great deal of territory in an open position. In a closed position, the ranks, files and diagonals are blocked by pawns and pieces. In a closed position, the Bishop’s mobility is limited. However, the Knight’s special ability to jump over other pieces allows it move around with greater freedom. This ability to jump over other pieces (both friendly and enemy) allows the Knight to ignore traffic jams, especially at the board’s center. Another important consideration is that you cannot block an attack by a Knight, which adds to their value (depending upon the position of course).
Beginners are first taught simple e pawn openings which lead to open games. The Italian opening is one that serves to help teach basic opening principles, which is why many beginners learn it. As previously mentioned, an attack by a Knight cannot be blocked. This is one of the Knight’s special powers, the other being the ability to jump over other pieces. The Bishop has its own special power, in addition to being a long distance piece, the ability to pin. Take a look at the example below:

In this example, the Bishop is pinning the Knight on f3 to its Queen on d1. There are two types on pins, relative and absolute. In a relative pin, as seen in our example, the Knight could move but Black could capture the White Queen, gaining a material advantage early on. In an absolute pin, the piece being pinned is the King, which means that as long as the pin is maintained, the pinned piece cannot move since it is illegal to expose the King to check. I’m using the above example to illustrate a point regarding the relative value of the Knight and Bishop. We know the Knight and Bishop have a relative value of three. However, are the Knight and Bishop involved in our example’s pin really equal in value, given the current position? Our poor Knight on f3 is temporarily stuck there. If he moves, the Queen is lost. The Knight’s mobility has been seriously hampered or has it? We’ll answer that question later on. By being a victim of the Bishop pin, the White Knight has lost some value.

The Bishop, on the other hand, has some mobility along the h3-c8 diagonal. More importantly, the Bishop is doing an important job. He is keeping the f3 Knight out of the game or is he? Having some mobility and performing an important task such as a relative pin, the Bishop appears to be of greater value. Piece mobility is crucial, especially with Bishops. Since Bishops are long distance pieces, they do best when they have maximum mobility which means greater control of territory on the board. This is why it is best not to lock in our Bishops in an open position. Try to give them as much mobility or freedom as possible. Now let’s take a look at another example. I’ve changed things bit to answer the questions asked earlier.

We see the basic position with a slight change in position. The Knight on f3 is still being pinned to the Queen by the Black Bishop on g4. However, White ignores the pin and captures the pawn on e5. Black, using the relative value system taught to all beginners, captures the White Queen with his Bishop. He thinks this is a wonderful gain in material. Why would White give up his Queen? Because he is about to deliver a deadly checkmate! After White’s Queen is captured, The Bishop on c4 captures the f7 pawn, checking the Black King. The King has to move to e7 and White delivers mate with the following move, Nd5! The point of showing you this is to demonstrate that simply using the relative value system to guide you doesn’t guarantee a winning game. Yes, Black did capture a piece of great relative value with his Bishop. However, having more material than your opponent doesn’t mean you’ll win the game.

Using relative value as a strict measure of a piece value leads to mechanical thinking and mechanical thinking can be a bad thing! When my students start a game, I always ask them to assess the value of their Knights and Bishops throughout the game, using the ideas mentioned earlier. Interestingly, I notice that these minor pieces tend to stay in my student’s games a bit longer and get treated with the respect they deserve. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

[Event “Haringey”]

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).