Although in theory the knight and the bishop are assigned equal value, there has been a discussion for ages about whether one of the two light pieces is superior to the other. The tendency here is clear: the bishop is said to be slightly superior to the knight. But is this true? And is this assessment based on experience? Or is it based on a feeling? In the following, I would like to take a closer look at the characteristics and movement patterns of both chess pieces and present arguments that speak for and against this assumption.
The knight figuratively embodies the military of a kingdom. Its unique movement pattern and difficult predictability are representative of the tactical manoeuvre and element of surprise inherent in military units. The knight represents the characteristic chess piece on the board and is the primary symbol when it comes to the pictorial representation of chess. But is its popularity also reflected in its playing strength?
The strengths of the knight
- Jumping over chess pieces
If other chess pieces are blocked by his own or his opponent's chess pieces, the knight is the only one able to jump over them. Thus, it is able to act flexibly even on a densely occupied chessboard and to use any gaps for its positioning.
- Defence of a diagonal area
Due to its unique movement pattern, the knight can cover two squares of a diagonal within range. With skilful positioning, it can thus prevent opposing bishops from occupying a diagonal and defend the kingside or queenside for its own pawns.
If not completely unpredictable, the knight is nevertheless difficult to calculate, as its movement pattern can take on very complex courses over several moves. Especially under time pressure and in blitz games, caution is advised against it and very often a fork created by the knight decides the game.
The knight on f4 takes the king and queen into the fork. One pawn is pinned, the other would give up covering the queen. The loss of the queen follows.
The weaknesses of the knight
- Low range
Even though the knight can leap over other chess pieces, its movement pattern shows that its use is not designed for range but for a radius. While this makes it flexible and difficult to calculate, it also makes it very slow and sluggish on a rather empty chessboard.
- Compulsion to change the field colour
Due to its movement pattern, the knight is forced to constantly change its square colour. If a square with its current square colour requires its attack, it must reposition itself. But a regrouping leads to a loss of tempo and requires at least one additional move - in the case of tactical manoeuvres usually even considerably more.
A strength that can also be interpreted as a weakness. Since the knight is difficult to calculate, its complexity can also work against your own player. If he is not centrally positioned, there are many pawns on the square and no chess pieces have been captured yet, he can quickly become immobile despite his jumping ability. And as soon as a few chess squares are blocked in his movement pattern, he is not only predictable but also attackable at the same time.
The bishop symbolises spirituality and faith in a kingdom. And the cultural ubiquity of these features is reflected in the unlimited range on the bishop's diagonal squares. Due to the diagonal movement pattern, each bishop occupies one field colour at a time and cannot change to the other colour. Thus, the bishop also symbolises the ambiguity inherent in faith. But is the bishop really the better chess piece compared to the knight?
The strengths of the bishop
- High range
The bishop has a reach that extends to the edge of the board. This makes it a very fast and flexible attacker, especially in middlegames and endgames, which can escape attacks and still develop its potential from a long distance.
- Harmony with pawn structure
Although this strength only ever counts for one of the two bishops, it is nevertheless decisive. If the pawn structures allow it, the bishop can move through them. In the best case, it can even block the king's escape routes with the help of the opponent's pawn structure and create a mate threat, since pawns usually have to defend diagonally and thus suit the movement pattern of the bishop.
- Strong attack threat
The bishop can target the opponent's queenside or kingside already in the opening and force a later attack. Thus, for example, it can prevent castling or at least make it less attractive. It also has the ability to pin opposing pawns and thus weaken them.
With the early alignment of his bishop on the diagonal to the queenside,
Black provides himself with an early attacking option and
at the same time prepares castling.
The weaknesses of the bishop
- Limited movement pattern
Since the knight moves on its diagonal, it is bound to its own square colour. This makes it predictable in the long run and the opponent can base his tactical decisions on it. A good example here is castling, which places the king on a particular square colour and can quickly make the attacking bishop of that square colour a prioritised target. In endgames with very few pieces, the danger from the bishop can be minimised by the opponent moving his moves to the other square colour.
- Danger of blocking
The diagonal movement pattern of the bishops usually leads to one of them being hindered by their own or the opponent's pawn structure. Particularly in courses of play in which pawn structures are consolidated and chess pieces are exchanged late, the bishop initially has a lesser influence on the course of the game.
- Escape routes
Since the bishop often moves far into the opponent's half during attacking moves, its position often shifts to the queenside or kingside. Since it is thus closer to the edge, its escape routes are limited and must be kept clear so as not to make it vulnerable to attack. This circumstance can affect the movement patterns of other chess pieces.
Assessing strengths and weaknesses without setting a context is difficult and very sweeping. Moreover, since the game of chess always changes in the course of a game, similar game structures should be considered in order to develop a more precise understanding. The individual phases of the game lend themselves very well to analysis:
In the early phase of the game, the players bring their pieces into play and, depending on the openings, build up threats and attacking possibilities. Since both players, for tactical reasons, usually do not exchange their chess pieces until the transition to the middlegame, the chessboard is still well filled in the opening. Here the knight can show its strength through skilful positioning and leapfrog other chess pieces. The bishop, on the other hand, is often blocked at the start of the game and only comes into its own when the exchange takes place. Some openings bring the bishop into play early, but always offer the other side the possibility of displacing it. In addition, both players try to gain control of the centre. In this case, the knight can position itself early and does not have to travel any great distance on the chessboard to influence the game. Consequently, in the opening phase of the game, the knight has an advantage, as it is not blocked and is rarely attacked early during the development of the chess pieces.
When both players enter the middlegame, the balance of power shifts a little. The knight is without question an important piece in the attack and is often exchanged, but its positioning is always close to the action due to its small attacking radius, which makes it difficult for it to hold its position or exert pressure on a specific area in the longer term. The bishop, on the other hand, gains influence with increasing exchanges of pawns, as its diagonals become free and it can target the king's flight or important central squares if its positioning is planned early. However, since this advantage also depends heavily on the offensive activity of the knight, no concrete judgement can be made as to whether the bishop or the knight is the better chess piece.
The endgame occurs as soon as the players have exchanged most of their minor pieces and bring their kings into play. The chessboard is empty at this point and the bishop's reach begins to gain value. In addition, the bishop is able to put pressure on the opponent's pawn structures. The movement pattern of the knight, on the other hand, becomes more predictable due to the decreasing interactions with other chess pieces and shows the typical weaknesses of the short range. This enables the opponent either to keep the knight at a distance or to lure the knight into a trap and even render it completely immobile. It is conceivable that the opponent switches between his attacking wings and threatens to convert a pawn into a queen. Another possibility is pawn structures that defend all the knight's attacking squares and thus pin him up on his square. Since the endgame is always a race with pawns and kings, the bishop can have a better effect on the game than the knight due to its increased speed.
A consideration of the three phases of the game shows that in the course of a game and depending on the fullness of the chessboard, the two chess pieces can play to their strengths to different degrees. But where does the prejudice that the bishop is a little better come from? Most likely, this judgement is based on the experience of good to very good players who usually only finish their games in the endgame. Since the bishop gains in strength the longer the game or the more the board is emptied, players who play long games naturally regard it as the better chess piece. For amateur players, who often lose games in the early middlegame due to blunders, it is certainly often the knight itself that brings about a checkmate on a still densely occupied chessboard. It might therefore be advisable, should a chess game prove challenging, to save one's bishops for the endgame. But this would only be very generalised advice.
The discussion about the knight and the bishop is as old as chess itself. I hope that I have been able to give you some good insights into the evaluation of the two minor pieces and that you will be able to weigh up your playing decisions better in the future. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me via my contact form.
I wish you lots of fun playing the game, much success and rapid progress in your learning.
See you soon.