One of the first things any new chess player learns is the relative values of the chess pieces. While most players can quickly grasp that queens are the most powerful pieces and pawns are the weakest, the intermediate pieces cause a little more confusion. Just a little bit of experience shows a new player that rooks outclass the minor pieces, but that leaves one puzzle: how can knights and bishops – two completely difference pieces – both be worth about three pawns?
The truth is that these two pieces aren’t exactly equivalent to each other. Many players pick up the idea that bishops are perhaps a quarter-pawn more valuable than knights; later on in chess understanding, most players eventually learn that the value of these two pieces can vary, and which is more valuable is a product of the position on the board.
Still, that doesn’t explain why these two pieces are worth very similar values. The fact that they are so close to equal in value is one of the great features about the game of chess, so it’s a topic worth exploring a bit. Here’s a look at the advantages and disadvantages of the bishop and the knight.
When it comes to range, it’s clear that the bishop holds a clear edge. The bishop may move as far as it wants as long as it isn’t impeded; meanwhile, the knight is stuck in its own little pattern, meaning it takes several moves to get from one side of the board to the other. This is a large part of the reason why knights must normally be placed in the center of the board to be effective, while bishops can thrive on any open diagonal.
Access to Squares
Bishops, however, have one major weakness: each bishop can only access half of the board, making it useless for attacking and defending squares of the other color. The knight, on the other hand, must move from squares of one color to the other on each move, and can ultimately reach any of the 64 squares on the board. This is a major advantage for the knight in its eternal battle with the bishop.
Advantageous Positions for Each Piece
Assuming you are in a situation where you have a bishop against a knight (or vice versa), that imbalance could prove to be the decisive factor in the game. It’s your job to create a position that best serves your piece or exposes the weaknesses of your opponent’s piece.
If you have the extra bishop, you’ll want an open game that features plenty of free diagonals for your bishop to travel around on. This will maximize the potential for your bishop to control large portions of the board, potentially even cutting the opponent’s knight off from portions of the board. You may also strive for an endgame where there are pawns on both sides of the board, as the bishop can attack or defend both flanks at once.
As you can probably guess, the knight prefers positions that are exactly the opposite of the ones described above! A knight will thrive in closed positions, in which its ability to jump around blockades and locked pawn structures will trump the bishop’s long range – which is useless if there are too many pawns in the way to allow the bishop to travel freely. Similarly, endgames with pawns clustered on one side of the board favor the knight, as the knight’s ability to cover squares of both colors is much more valuable than the range of the bishop in these situations.
Hopefully, these examples will allow you to understand the dynamically balanced powers of the knight and bishop. The next time you’re wondering whether a knight or bishop is more valuable (or whether you should trade one for the other), remember that the answer is “it depends” – and that you should always strive to create a position in which the powers of your piece are more important!