There has always been a debate as to which is the stronger piece between the knight and the bishop.
Unfortunately not even the strongest chess player can answer this question firmly (though he leans more towards the bishop!). But we can follow some general guidelines which can help us decide which piece will be stronger in the given position.
In this article, I’ll show you some studies and classics played by world champions to help you understand the guidelines much better.
Let’s first look at scenarios where the knight is preferable:
Where Knights Reign Supreme!
When the play is only on one side
As we can see in the above position the action on the chessboard is only limited to the Kingside.
1.Kh6 White advances his king and then plans on activating his knight later on.
1…Kh8 2.Nh4 Kg8
Black does not have much choice and has to shuffle around with his king. If 2…Bg83.Ng6#.
3.Nf3 The knight starts his journey! 3…Kh8 4.Ne5
5.Nc6 Kh8 6.Ne7 Bg8 7.Ng6#
The play on one side suits the knight as it is a short range piece and can dominate the bishop in a small part of the chessboard.
When the position is of closed nature
Alekhine, Alexander – Yates, Frederick
London BCF Congress London (10), 1922
The knight is also preferable when the position is closed in nature, that implies that there are no (or almost none) open files or diagonals.
In the above position there are no open diagonals. There is the open c-file but White has complete control over the file.
Alekhine masterfully uses his knight to dominate the bishop. Play out the moves and you’ll appreciate the game yourself!
As we saw from the game, White’s knight on e5 was placed right in the centre controlling many important squares and dominating Black’s pieces. On the other hand the Black’s bishop wasn’t able to create any problems for White, since it was always stuck behind the pawn chain.
When the Knight has a Secure outpost
Fischer, Robert James vs Gadia,O – Mar del Plata, 1960
Another situation where the knight is preferable is when the knight has a secured outpost in the centre. In the above position the square d5 is a secure outpost for the knight as Black cannot attack it with any pawn forcing the knight to move back.
Let us see how the knight dominates after reaching the outpost.
20.c3 Be7 21.Ra1 f6
If 21…Bf822.a4Rb823.axb5Rxb5 (23…axb524.Ra7) 24.Rxa6Rxa625.Qxb5.
This is a blunder…
And White wins the rook after 23…Qxe7 24.Qd5+ Kh8 25.Qxc6.
Enough of the knight! Now let us see the other side of the coin.
When Bishops Are Preferable
When the play is on both sides of the chessboard
As the knight was able to dominate when the play is on one side of the board, generally the Bishop will have its say over the knight when the play is spread out all across the chessboard.
In the above position the knight is stuck to the defence of the a8 square as Black has to keep preventing White’s pawn from queening!
Let us see how the game progresses.
1.a7 Kg4 2.Kf2
On 2.Kh2, there follows 2…Kf4 3.Kxh3 Ke5 4.Kg4 Kd6 5.Kf5 Kc7 6.Ke5 Na8! 7.Bxa8 Kb6 with equality.
2…Kf4 3.Ke2 Kf5
If 3…Kg3 4.Ke3 Kh2 5.Bb7 Kg1 6.Kd4 h2 7.Kc5 and White wins!
4.Ke3 Ke5 5.Kd3 Ke6 6.Kc3 Kd6 7.Kb4 Kd7 8.Kb5 Kc7 9.Ka6 and White wins.
The bishop is a long range piece and from the above example we could see how the bishop influences the chess board.
When the position of open nature
Topalov,Veselin (2813) – Kramnik,Vladimir (2743)
World Championship Elista (9), 07.10.2006
When the position is of open nature ( that is there are open files and diagonals) the Bishop is generally stronger than the knight.
In the above position, White has the potential to open up the diagonals for the bishop’s by playing either e4-e5 or d4-d5. It’s played between two former world champions, Topalov and Kramnik!
This is a strategic surrender. Now White gets a very strong center.
30…Qb7 was better as it prevents d5 and keeps Black in the game. But already in a practical game, such moves are tough to find. Now, White slowly builds up the pressure. Thanks to his bishops and extra space, Black is tied down!
Instead of it, 35…c5 would have been more stubborn.
36.Rdf1 Re7 37.Be3 Nh7 38.Rxf7!
If Black goes 38…Rxf7 39.Rxf7 Qxf7 40.Be6, and the pin wins it all! This is one advantage of having 2 bishops, you can dominate the play on the diagonals!
As you saw, when it comes to knights vs bishops, there is no easy answer to which piece is stronger. Both the knight and the Bishop have their strengths and weaknesses. Every position is different and also there are many other factors which could influence which piece reigns supreme.
The ones given above should give you a good starting point to base your decisions on!
This article has been written by Ojas Kulkarni who’s a 2200+ elo-rated player.