The Knight must be the most fascinating piece in the game of chess. It moves and attacks in a funny direction at a short distance. Recently The Chess Improver published a post “Knight moves” discussing the special issues that the Knight raises when it comes to visualizing what it can do and how it can do it. Today, I expand on the theme of Knight moves, by beginning a discussion of subtleties in planning and in the flow of a chess game that arise because of the special way that Knights move.
Because of the fixed and odd (vs. even) parity of its movement, a Knight often has to make at least two moves to radically reorient itself to protect or attack particular squares. The time-consuming nature of such maneuvers means that deciding to redeploy a Knight involves considering the tradeoffs of the loss of time:
- In a closed position, there may be enough time to redeploy without falling victim to a sustained attack that may prevent the successful completion of the maneuver.
- In a more open position, the loss of time may be just enough to allow the opposing side to force a radical and advantageous reconfiguration of the position (often on the area of the board where the Knight has vacated control).
This sounds abstract, so I’ll give some examples of both situations.
In the position below, taken from Jeremy Silman’s book “The Amateur’s Mind” (p. 66), the position is rather closed. Black is obviously very passive and surely must be lost. The interesting thing is, if you give this position to a chess engine, it may take a while to figure out a way to actually win for White, because its evaluation function may simply have White just shuffle pieces around aimlessly rather than aim for a breakthrough sacrifice. As humans, I believe that we can more naturally generate an entire plan to win, and then calculate it out to determine that in fact it works.
I give a sample winning continuation (there are clearly many other ways to win, including breaking through on b6 instead) in which White calmly takes the time to maneuver a Knight backward from d3 to e1, then forward to f3, and then sacrifice the heroic Knight for two Pawns enabling White’s Bishop get to g5, and then with White’s major pieces coming in on the open h file, the game is basically over.
The tricky thing in an open position is that temporarily redeploying your Knight by having it go backward or sideways is that your opponent does not have to stand still and do nothing in return while you improve your position. Very often, a Knight maneuver temporarily worsens your position, in some sense. I believe that this is what makes chess so fascinating. Pawns never move backward. Queens, Rooks, and Bishops can move “backward”, but the kind of backward that they move is such that they still keep their eye on what was forward (or diagonal or sideways): a Queen retreating from d4 to d1 still aims all the way down the d file, but a Knight that retreats from d3 to e1 relinquishes control of c5 and e5.
In some previous posts, I already gave examples of slow Knight maneuvers that took time away from development and allowed the other side to come up with disruptive threats.
A post about a Knight maneuver in the opening showed how an early redeployment by Black of a Knight from c6 to e7 to g6 resulted in tactical disaster, but required White to be aggressive in punishing the maneuver: if White played “normally”, then Black got a quite decent position.
Both Sides Manoeuvering Knights, Maintaining A Rough Balance
In the recent Anand-Carlsen FIDE World Chess Championship match, we saw examples of Knight maneuvers that did not lead to much. This does not necessarily mean that they should not have been tried: in chess, when the position may well be balanced, one has opportunities to try something. And often, one tries to improve a Knight’s position. But sometimes, an idea is just too slow.
For example, in round 6, Anand tried to reposition both of his Knight to point to Black’s King side (Black’s Knight on f6 as well as the d5 and f5 light squares) with Nh2 to Nhg4, and Ndf1 to Ne3, but this took so much time that Carlsen easily neutralized the plan, by doing a Queen maneuver to e7 and then to e6.
The interesting thing is that in this game, Carlsen also played a time-consuming Knight maneuver, a thematic Nb8 to Nbd7, which is a solid defensive setup. Anand could have taken advantage of the time to play b4, for example, instead of also engaging in Knight maneuvers. So the question of whether a Knight maneuver is good is subtle, and I think is one of the most interesting aspects of human chess. It’s not that b4 is a winning plan or a great one; it’s just that Knight maneuvers often allow a possible transofrmation of a position (in this case, the Knight no longer being on c6 led to weakening a5, for example).
A Bad Knight Manoeuver
Finally, an example of Knight maneuvers that have to be classified as strange and unwarranted. This is from round 4 of Anand-Carlsen. Anand wasted a lot of time moving Knights around and was in danger in this game. Ne1 “undefended” e5, and then after Nd3 that Knight didn’t do much and ended ignominiously on c1. The other Knight also did not fare well, after going to e2 and allowing the a2 Pawn to be lost. It was not a good game for the knight pair.
(But, in case this post gives the wrong impression, Anand has historically been one of the great players of the two Knights. Future posts may explore examples.)