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Elementary endgames (Part 9)
The strengths and weaknesses of the minor pieces are particularly pronounced in solo combat.

One of the curiosities of chess is that the Bishop and the Knight, whose moves are so different, have the same approximate value. The relative strengths and weaknesses of these pieces are particularly pronounced in endgames where they face each other in solo combat.

We've already seen minor pieces in action in several other articles on elementary endgames (see the link box at the bottom of this article):

  • Part 4 : Piece plus Pawn vs. equivalent piece without Pawn.
  • Part 6 : When an endgame position is an exception, there is often a Rook's Pawn involved.
  • Part 7 : Outside passed Pawn with minor pieces.

As in our previous article on Rook endgames, our guide is the great Estonian grandmaster Paul Keres. Writing about these endgames Keres said,

[You] may feel that our basic positions are of limited value, as they hardly ever occur as such in actual games. This is faulty reasoning; although many endings never reach this stage, these key positions are a vital part in any analysis, and a player must know them thoroughly before even beginning to understand more complex endgames.

There are four broad categories of minor piece endgames.

  • Knight vs. Knight
  • Bishop vs. Bishop of the same color
  • Bishop vs. Bishop of the opposite color
  • Bishop vs. Knight
Let's look at examples of each. The positions and analysis below are from Keres' Practical Chess Endings and are numbered accordingly.

Most of Keres' positions were taken from games between the world's leading grandmasters. In case you're wondering why we have endgames from played by top GMs in an article titled 'Elementary endgames', Keres chose these positions because they illustrate basic positional factors which feature in minor piece endgames. See the accompanying PGN file (link box again) for the complete games from which Keres took his examples.

Knight vs. Knight

Instead of giving a lot of analysis, we're going to outline the most important features of Keres' examples. His own analysis took several pages for each position.

Keres 327
Lasker - Nimzovitch, Zurich 1934

Material is even with three Pawns on each side. Keres made the following observations.

  • The h-Pawn is strong because Knights have trouble against an a- or h-Pawn. If the White King moves to the Kingside, the Queenside will be undefended.
  • The Black King has a strong central post on e5.
  • The Black Knight is well posted.
These factors are decisive; Black won.

Keres 330
Pillsbury - Gunsberg, Hastings 1895

Material is even with seven Pawns on each side.

  • White has a protected passed Pawn on c5, which Black can blockade with Nc6.
  • Given time, Black can create a passed Pawn on the Queenside.

Keres said, 'We have here a position in which dynamic elements are more important than static ones. If it were Black to move, 1...Nc6 would hold everything. However, in chess we must always examine concrete tactical possibilities along with positional considerations. In this case, White can immediately disorganize Black's position by attacking the Pawns on e6 and d5.'

Pillsbury played 1.f5!. If 1...gxf5 2.gxf5 exf5, then 3.Nf4 wins the d-Pawn. White won after a series of fine tactical blows.

Keres 332
Barcza - Simagin, Budapest 1949

White is a Pawn ahead and has an outside passed a-Pawn, but there are more important positional considerations in the diagram.

  • Black's centralized pieces support the passed d-Pawn.
  • The White Knight is badly placed on a7 and can't help defend against the d-Pawn.
After 1...d3, Black won.

Keres 333
Marco - Maroczy, Vienna 1899

Black has an extra Pawn which can't advance.

  • Black's King is well placed. If the a-Pawn and the Knights were removed from the board, Black would win.
  • The White Knight is passively placed.
Black played 1..Nd3 and won.

Bishop vs. Bishop (same colors)

Keres 281
Capablanca - Janowski, New York 1916

Black's defense is not complicated. If the White Bishop leaves the a1-h8 diagonal, the Black King will play Kg8-g7-g6(xP). The Black Bishop can then be sacrificed for the b-Pawn, leaving a drawn King and Bishop vs. King ending.

As soon as the White King attacks the b-Pawn, Black will play ...b4. To win the Pawn, White must then move the Bishop off the a1-h8 diagonal, triggering Black's defense. If the b-Pawn can advance to b6 without being taken by the Black Bishop, White will win.

The diagrammed position is a draw. In testimony to the difficulty of so-called elementary endgames, Janowski went astray, permitting Capablanca to win. Then Capablanca, one of the greatest endgame players of all time, went astray, handing the draw to Janowski. Then Janowski resigned in a position that he could have drawn!

Keres 284
Keres - Lilenthal, Tallinn 1945

White has an extra Pawn, but with the Pawns all on the same side of the board, the Bishops are less effective. Keres said, 'In such endgames, Black's trouble is that he has a number of continuations, none of which directly loses, but which do not give a clear draw. Practice tells us that in such situations it is easy to make a mistake.'

Black could have drawn, but lost his way in the complications and then lost the game.

Keres 288
Smyslov - Keres, USSR ch 1951

Keres used one of his own games to illustrate the concept of the Bad Bishop. In the previous diagram, each player has six Pawns, but Black has two advantages.

  • White's Queenside Pawns are on the same color as the White Bishop.
  • Black's King has an excellent post on e5.
Regarding Pawns on the same color as the Bishop, Keres said
Although such Pawns can of course be defended more easily by the Bishop, a grave disadvantage is that all the squares of opposite color are seriously weakened. This allows the penetration of the enemy King who can be stopped only by the opposing King. Thus it is usually advisable to place one's Pawns on squares of opposite color to one's own Bishop.
After 1...Bb1 2.a3 a5 3.Bd1, the White Bishop can't move without losing the b-Pawn. Black won.

Bishop vs. Bishop (opposite colors)

We saw in Elementary endgames (Part 7b) : Outside passed Pawn with Bishops that Bishops of opposite colors often lead to draws. In the following diagram, White can't win despite having two extra connected passed Pawns.

Keres 290 : Draw

Black shuttles the King between f5 and g6. White can't break the blockade and a draw is inevitable. The following diagram is almost the same as the previous, except the Black King is on g8. This gives White the time to prevent a blockade.

Keres 290+ : White wins

Atter 1...Bd3, attempting to hold the f- & g-Pawns, White plays 2.f5. If Black plays 2...Bxf5, the b-Pawn falls and White wins.

In most endgame positions, connected Pawns are superior to disconnected Pawns. With Bishops of opposite colors the strong side is often better off with widely disconnected Pawns. This makes it harder for the weak side to restrict the advance of the Pawns.

Keres 291
Nimzovitch - Tarrasch, Bad Kissingen 1928

White has an extra Pawn. Since the Black Bishop can't defend the Kingside Pawns alone, Tarrasch tried to defend by moving the Black King to the Kingside, which lost. After 1.Kh2, the best defense was 1...Bb5 2.Kg3 Bf1, when White has to give up the g-Pawn to make progress.

Keres 293
Averbakh 1951

This position may look hopelessly drawn, but White has a sequence of surprising moves, starting with 1.Kg5 Kf7 2.f4!, which win. The key is that White can create a passed f-Pawn which, together with the a-Pawn, spells trouble for the Black Bishop. See the PGN game score for the complete solution.

Bishop vs. Knight

Keres said,

  • 'The Bishop is superior to the Knight when the center is open and there are Pawns on both wings. The advantage of the Bishop is also clear when the Knight has strayed into the enemy camp and is threatened with capture.'; and
  • 'The Knight is often superior to the Bishop when the position is of a more closed nature or when the Bishop is restricted by its own Pawns. It is here that the Knight can exploit its ability to control squares of either color.'

Keres 295
Marshall - Nimzowitsch, Berlin 1928

The diagram shows a position where the Knight has been cut from the rest of its forces. Material is even and the position looks drawish, but with 1...Kd5, Black prevents the Knight from escaping via c5. Black captured the Knight within a few moves, managed to keep a single Pawn, then won the ensuing endgame

Keres 298
Chekover - Lasker, Moscow 1935

This position shows the advantage of the Bishop with play on both the Queenside and the Kingside. Black won a Pawn on the Queenside, created a passed a-Pawn, and won.

Worth noting in the previous diagram is the position of the Bishop on e5 relative to the Knight on e2. The Bishop covers four of the Knight's target squares : c3, d4, f4, and g3. In this way the Bishop dominates the Knight.

Keres 299
Kan - Keres, Moscow 1955

Although material is even and White has two passed Pawns, White is in trouble for the following reasons.

  • Both passed Pawns are easily blockaded.
  • The Pawn on c4 is under attack.
  • The Pawn on f5 is easily attacked by the Black King on e5. If the King were there now, White would be in zugzwang.
  • Black has a passed b-Pawn and the chance to create a second passed Pawn on the Kingside.
The game was adjourned in the diagrammed position, where ...h5 was the sealed move. White, a strong master who had hours to study the position, played 1.Bd5 and lost. Keres claimed that 1.Bf3 would have drawn.

Keres 301
Henneberger - Nimzovitch, Winterthur 1931

This position shows Knight vs. a bad Bishop. The Bishop must guard the c- and g-Pawns from e1 whenever the Knight moves to e4. Black wins by playing the Knight to b1 and forcing zugzwang. The move ...a3 held in reserve provides the necessary tempo at the critical time.


See the associated PGN file for all of the game continuations. Even a casual study will prove rewarding.

 More of this Feature
• PGN for this article
 Related Resources
• Part 1 - Elementary endgames
• Part 2 - Pieces in combat, no Pawns
• Part 3a - Major piece without Pawns vs. Pawn without pieces
• Part 3b - Minor piece without Pawns vs. Pawn without pieces
• Part 4 - Piece plus Pawn vs. equivalent piece without Pawn
• Part 5 - King and Pawn
Part 6 - Rook's Pawn
• Part 7 - Outside Passed Pawn
• Part 8 - Rook plus a lone Pawn vs. a Rook
• Part 9 - Strengths and weaknesses of the minor pieces
• Part 10 - Endgame Studies