III. Knights vs. Bishops and Combinations
The following are additional general principles and concepts to keep in mind regarding playing with the Knights:
- A Knight can be extremely active (mobile) because of the wide territory on the board open to it, being able to jump over pieces and pawns in leaps and bounds. In a closed game where pawns in the central files are blocking central squares reducing effective powerful center play and providing blocks against Bishops, Knights are usually very effective because of their ability to jump over pieces and pawns. Therefore, generally Knights are superior to Bishops in closed games. A sizable pawn chain creating a wall of pawns can shut down a Bishop on the diagonals, but not the Knight because it can just jump over the wall.
- In open games where pawns are not blocking central files and diagonals, generally Knights become less mobile because Bishops can control the diagonals and be able to defend and attack from positions far from the Knights and the main battle area on the board.
- While a Knight only has a maximum of eight squares to which it potentially may move, attack/capture upon, and/or defend on the chessboard, the eight squares are widespread in a somewhat circular pattern. Unless blocked in by one or more of the player’s pieces and/or pawns, the Knight always has a minimum of at least two squares to which it potentially may move, attack/capture upon, and/or defend.
- In endgames where pawns are on one side of the board, Knights are often better than Bishops because of the Knight’s ability to move in succession and attack different color squares while the Bishop is locked into the same color squares throughout the game.
- Knights are often developed in most openings to the c3 and f3 squares for White and the c6 and f6 squares for Black. If pawns have been advanced from the diagonally adjacent squares in front of the Queen and King (d2 and e2 for White, and d7 and 37 for Black), this opens the possibilities of Bishop pins on the Knights against the Queen and King. Knights at c3, f3, c6, and f6 also restrict development of the Bishops through the central squares in front of the Queen and King (d2, e2, d7, and f7).
- A King Knight developed to f3 for White and/or f6 for Black is considered to be developed to the most natural home for the King Knight, where it can provide the greatest defense for a King castled to the Kingside. A King Knight at f3 for White and/or f6 for Black provides defense and protection against a Bishop sacrifice at the critical squares h2 for White and/or h7 for Black. A King Knight at f3 for White and/or f6 for Black also provides defense and protection by acting as a blockade against a vertical attack through the f file at the critical squares f2 for White and/or f7 for Black.
- A Knight is the best piece with which to block the vertical advance of a passed pawn, yet be able to remain more active (mobile) because of the Knight’s ability to jump over other pieces and pawns.
- Knights are better generally at creating forks and fork checks, and may do so in more ways, than Bishops.
- An opposing player cannot entomb a player’s Knight without the player making bad moves which block one or more squares from being open to move his or her own Knight to in the event of a trap being laid by the opposing player.
- Because Knights can jump over other pieces and pawns, their potential attacking and defending capabilities are enhanced generally over the linear pieces like the Bishop when there are more pieces and pawns on the board.
- In an endgame, a pair of Knights generally does not work as well as having two opposite colored Bishops (the optimal pair of minor pieces called a Bishop pair when the player has only one or no Bishops on the chessboard) because the Knights do not compliment each other’s power as effectively as the Bishops do, which can control adjacent and multiple diagonals while spread far apart across the board. This is emphasized by the principle that while two Bishops together with a King can force checkmate on an opposing King, two Knights and a King cannot force checkmate but can mate if the opposing player moves wrong.
- Similarly, two Knights are less optimal than having a Bishop and a Knight, because in this later combination each piece’s power provides the player a wider range of active play…the Bishop can control diagonals and be active while protected from far from the center of play while the Knight can provide defensive and offensive capability in close by jumping over pieces and pawns.
- Also, two Knights together can present situations where a player’s Knights can be forced back into bad positions with little mobility by a good opposing pawn structure and positional structure for opposing pieces, along with active pawn play and pawn pushing, by the opposing player.
- Finally, unless a Knight is an opposite color square as an opposing Knight, it cannot attack and capture the opposing Knight.
Coupled with working together with another Knight and/or other piece(s) and/or pawn(s), is the ability of a Knight to create situations for a player to draw a bead on the opposing player’s pieces and/or pawns creating additional threats of attack/capture, for obtaining center board control, gaining positional superiority, and creating mating patterns and mating nets. Let’s examine two different positions on a chessboard.
First, in the next diagram the position shown is for a game with the standard French Defense where White has made bad moves and not protected his or her Kingside from Black’s threatened attack against Black’s g7 pawn and Queen Rook. Examine the position on the chessboard and identify why White’s fifth and sixth moves are bad, and the opportunities White has opened up for Black.
The Black Queen’s threatened attack on the g file was directly aided by the earlier double attack against White’s d4 pawn with Black’s Queen Knight at c6 and pawn at c5, buttressed by Black’s Queen developed to g6 providing additional attack support against White’s pawn at d4, the base of White’s central pawn chain. Black’s goal is two-fold (1) attacking and threatening to take control of the center of the board and gain positional superiority by breaking White’s central pawn chain (and pawn couple); and, (2) threatening a Queenside attack against g7 and White’s Queen Rook. In this position White (perhaps being unfamiliar with the French Defense) makes a common error for beginners and not only blocks the defense of his or her pawn at d4 provided by Black’s Queen at d1 with Black’s move of the King Bishop to d3, but thinking to provide further defensive support for d4 badly moves his Queen’s Bishop to e3. Black can now have a early field day, stopping for a nice lunch of gobbling up some of White’s pawns and/or pieces.However, White has laid a potential trap for an unwary or inattentive Black. Look at the diagram again before proceeding, do you see the trap?
Black has White’s pawn at d4 attacked three times, while White now has e4 only protected by the Queen Bishop at e3 and King Knight at f3 because White’s King Bishop at d3 is now blockading defense by White’s Queen from d1. A tempting opportunity for Black – engage in a pair of trades and exchanges in the line [6. …cxd4 7. Nxd4 Nxd4 8. Bxd4 Qxd4] and Black would go up in material count (a pawn=1 and a Knight=3, a total of 4, for a pawn=1, a Knight=3, and a Bishop=3, a total of 7). Did you see the trap? [9. Bb5+!! … and capturing Black’s Queen on the next move with White’s Queen from d1 because Black has to move Black’s King or block the check with Black’s Queen Bishop moving to d7 – a nasty little trap for an unwary or inattentive Black in the French Defense].
Knights may be especially effective for working with a Queen, or a Rook, for creating checkmate. While these will be covered more throughly in other tutorials such as the Checking and Checkmating tutorial, for now let’s examine a second position to show how Knights can work with a Rook to create a mating pattern and a mating net aided by a Queen sacrifice. This position was examined and reviewed in The Queen tutorial in regard to a Queen sacrifice, and shows one of the exceptions to the general principle from above that in an endgame a pair of Knights generally does not work as well as having two opposite colored Bishops.
With White’s move Qe6, White threatens a discovered checkmate on the next move (Nf5#) because the Queen blocks out Black’s Rook at a6 from defending and protecting across the sixth rank and blocking the check by White’s Rook at h3 and blocks Black’s Queen’s Bishop at c8 from capturing Black’s Rook checking from its position at a6.The limitation of a Bishop moving diagonally coupled with the Knight moving in its non-linear pattern generally do not allow them to work as well together as the combinations of a major piece and a Knight. As noted early, however, an opposing lone King can be put into checkmate by a Knight, a Bishop, and King working together with few or without any other pieces or pawns on the board, although it may take many moves to reach checkmate.
Now, lets look at a diagram of a different board position to examine how a Knight may be used to force an exchange for an opposing Bishop which is particularly effective. Look at the next diagram, with White to move. First, analytically who should win this game and why before White moves? Second, what is the best move for White to make, and why?
The above position shows just how damaging a lack of King safety and the failure to castle leaving the King exposed to attack along the center files can be to a player, and the inferiority which doubled pawns can present. Black obviously is in extreme danger of losing this game because of the deadly lack of King safety, failure to castle, and attacking possibilities for White through the center files. However, the really interesting part of this game was that Black won! Yes, Black won. It would not seem logical that Black should win, but White ran out of time!!! Black noticed White’s serious time pressure and played a stalling game for a win on time. The strategy paid off, because White being time pressured did not adequately examine the position on the chessboard and failed to make the key Knight move which is the focus of the second question…White’s best move is with the Knight.Nf5!! This brilliant Knight move accomplishes the following:
- threatens capture of Black’s King’s Rook at g7 with check (Nxg7+); and
- threatens capture of Black’s rear pawn at d6 in Black’s Doubled Pawns in the d file (Nxd6+) creating a Knight fork check getting Black’s Queen’s Rook at c8; and
- opens a discovered threat to freely capture Black’s forward pawn at d5 in Black’s Doubled Pawns in the d file with White’s Queen’s Rook from d2 (Rxd5); and
- opens a discovered threat to freely capture Black’s pawn at a7 with White’s Queen’s Bishop at e3 (Bxa7).
With that single Knight move, White forces Black to engage in an exchange of Black’s Queen’s Bishop for White’s Knight by forcing Black into capturing White’s Knight at f5 with Black’s Queen’s Bishop at d2 (Bxf5) to counter the threats against Black’s Rook at g7 and Black’s rear pawn in the Doubled Pawns at d6, allowing White to freely capture Black’s Queen Bishop at f5 with White’s King’s Rook at f1, thereby further accomplishing:
- doubly attacking Black’s forward pawn at d5 in Black’s Doubled Pawns in the d file with free capture because Black has no way to stop it, by both White’s Queen’s Rook at d2 and King’s Rook at f5 (either Rdxd5 or Rexd5), with the followup threat to capture Black’s rear pawn in Black’s Double Pawns at d6 as well; and
- creates a Bishop for White against a Knight for Black effectuating the basic principle for endgame strategy and play that generally it is better to have a Bishop against a Knight, rather than a Knight against a Bishop; and
- retains the threat to freely capture Black’s pawn at a7 with White’s Queen’s Bishop at e3 (Bxa7) from the original second discovered threat.
The above attacking lines create even more possibilities for White showing application of additional basic principles. For one example, after the exchange and Black’s next move and Black not moving the King’s Rook at g7, White has the followup possibility of not capturing either White’s pawn at d5 or White’s pawn at a7, but instead moving White’s Queen’s Bishop to d4 blocking forward advance of White’s forward pawn at d5 in Black’s Doubled Pawns in the d file and again threatening capture of Black’s King’s Rook at g7, with the followup added possibility of White doing Re2+ and retaining the threats to capture White’s pawn at a7 with White’s Queen’s Bishop from d4 and Black’s forward pawn at d5 in Black’s Doubled Pawns in the d file with free capture by White’s Rook at f5 because Black has no way to stop it. Throughout all these lines, White’s King would simply sit and observe from its strong safe position at c1. The cascading devastation to Black from that single Knight move by White opening multiple threats and attacking lines through combinations of pieces working together would have been marvelously crushing for White. A very nice example of how examining the chessboard using pattern recognition to locate and exploit combinations can be crushing to an opponent especially one who has failed to adequately defend and protect his or her King, the importance of effective management of a player’s time clock, and the significant damage time pressure can wreak on a player’s game.Now we turn to Knight Forks and Fork Checks.