The Joy of the Knight

In my time playing chess, I have often found that players prefer bishops over knights. This is especially so for amateur players, who often wish to maintain them at all costs. This most probably has something to do with their long-range capabilities, and the fact that they can easily change their ‘theatre’s of operation’ so-to-speak.

This does make one feel sorry for the knight, however. I often notice that youngsters especially aim to exchange these pieces off at the earliest opportunity. To exchange them for a bishop is seen as a bonus. Often, this seems to be incorporated in to their technique, and even worse, can become a habit. And perhaps it’s not surprising, after all, literature often values bishops higher than knights.

It has never made sense to me, that some authors of chess books wish to encourage those who are seeking to learn, to be so narrow-minded. In my opinion, the only thing that can be taken for granted in our game, is that nothing can be taken for granted. From the first move to the last, a game of chess is a flexible work-in-progress, and even though it is theory rich these days, each one is still full of twists and turns and contains numerous possibilities. Each individual player putting their own perspective on the positions.

Why then, should anyone claiming to be any kind of authority on the subject, seek to inhibit that? Answers on a postcard.

When evaluating pieces, a chessplayer cannot afford to be prejudiced, and should base his/her decision as to which to give up and which to retain, purely on the position — as the maxim says, ‘Play the board’. It goes without saying that one will limit, and even miss, possibilities (in both attack and defence) otherwise.

Having thought about it, I think that many inexperienced players favour bishops over knights due to a lack of understanding with regard to the piece. It is also clear that many see it as a nuisance. A knight, of course, can not switch its arena as easily as a bishop, its development can often need careful preparation and can take time.

However, for the player who is willing to keep an open mind, and give this piece a chance, there are great rewards, for a knight on the right square can be invaluable and have great influence upon a position. So, what kind of square is right for the knight?

— Central. They have the most reach there.

— Outposts/holes. Squares which can not be attacked by a pawn, meaning they are harder to dislodge. Their L-shaped hops make them ideal pieces to occupy holes. As someone once said to me: ‘People who push pawns willy-nilly …. fear the knight.’

— Because they can hop over pieces, knights excell on a crowded board on which bishops may find their potential limited.

I invite the reader to take a look at the following games, both played by former World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov. In the first, (played in his 1985 World Championship Match, against Anatoly Karpov), Kasparov (playing Black) is able to establish a knight on his sixth rank. Notice how this heavily inhibits White’s development and strategy, and ultimately the game. In the second, the mere establishing of a knight to a central outpost, creates unease with his opponent, Vladimir Kramnik. There is an immediate reaction (quite horrid looking it has to be said) which results in an overwhelming attack. If you’ve ever blundered horrendously and dropped your Queen, the game may just make you feel a little better . . .

John Lee Shaw