Bishops in Chess: Make the Most of Them

The bishop in chess is a minor piece with devastating range. Unlike knights who can end up fighting each other for the same outpost, bishops work together harmoniously.

Improve Your Middlegame Play Better With Bishops in Chess

It’s not uncommon for a player to sacrifice the exchange to keep a fianchettoed bishop or obtain the bishop pair. Sometimes a player will even offer the exchange for a bishop that defends a weak complex of squares.

Many factors influence the dynamic value of bishops in chess. You will gain an edge on your opponents by learning how to use your bishops more effectively in your chess games.

We’d all like to play with the bishop-pair in our games, but there will be games when we must play against them. Learn how to fight against the bishop pair from former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov.

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Playing With the Bishop Pair in Chess

Why is the bishop pair an advantage? There is more to it than the belief the bishop is inherently stronger than a knight.

Bishops need each other to cover all the squares. Almost every chess player has experienced the frustration of having a single bishop and his opponent’s pieces on squares the bishop cannot attack.

In the next diagram, the black bishop cannot attack any of White’s kingside pawns.

Kingside Pawns On Opposite Color Squares To The Black Bishop
Kingside Pawns On Opposite Color Squares To The Black Bishop

In chess, you can transform one advantage for another, and the bishop pair is no exception to this rule.

It is important to remember that the bishop pair is a long-term advantage because you might obtain them in a closed or semi-closed position. In these positions, it is essential to consider the potential to open the position.

Anatoly Karpov made excellent use of the long-range of the bishop pair to completely dominate the queenside and support the advance of his a-pawn. The bishop on f1 was defending the pawn on a6 when John Nunn resigned.

Anatoly Karpov – John Nunn, 1982.10.07, 1-0, Interpolis 6th Round 6, Tilburg NED

The bishop pair is such a powerful weapon – do not hesitate to sacrifice a pawn to open the position!

Sometimes it’s worth sacrificing more than a pawn to get the bishop pair. 

Getting the bishop pair advantage can be worth sacrificing the exchange.

Marc Santo-Roman – Mikhail Gurevich, 1993, 0-1, Clichy Round 8, Clichy

The Advantages of the Bishop in Chess

The most apparent advantage of the bishop is long-range. This long-range is why beginners are advised to develop knights before bishops – a bishop can be active on its starting square.

After 1.e4, the bishop on f1 can control squares all the way to a6. A queen cannot control as many squares as the bishop after a single pawn move at the start of the game.

The bishop has longer range than the queen in chess after 1.e4
The Bishop Has Longer Reach Than the Queen After 1.e4

When your opponent exchanges a bishop for one of your knights, take advantage of the squares that the bishop defended. If your opponent exchanges his light-squared bishop for one of your knights, he will find it more challenging to drive your pieces away from the light squares.

Use Disappearing Moves to Create Targets or Weaknesses

One way to induce weaknesses and increase the power of your pieces is to make use of ‘disappearing moves’. For example, instead of playing Be3, you might play Bg5, and after …h6 retreat the bishop to e3.

The pawn on h6 becomes a target for your bishop, and if your opponent meets h4 with …h5, he weakens the dark squares on the kingside. In particular, the g5-square becomes a perfect square for one of your minor pieces.

The Byrne Variation of the Pirc Defense is a good example of this strategy. After 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bg5 h6 5.Be3 we reach this position:

the Pirc Defense Byrne Variation
The Pirc Defense Byrne Variation

Also, keep in mind the h6 advance weakens the g6 square, which you can target with your light-squared bishop on the b1-h7 diagonal. 

Yes, in the Pirc Defense, g6 blocks the diagonal. However, after …h6 or …h5, the g6 pawn is only supported by one pawn (f7) instead of two (f7 and h7).

Alexander Filipenko used the weak dark squares on the black kingside in his game against Ilja Makarjev, especially after Makarjev exchanged dark-squared bishops.

In fact, Filipenko won the game by using a knight fork on a dark square – f4.

Filipenko, Alexander V – Makarjev, Ilja, 2021.12.17, 1-0

The Power of the Fianchetto Bishop in Chess

Many chess openings use the fianchetto to activate the bishop on the long diagonal as early as possible. The two longest diagonals on a chessboard are the a1-h8 and the h1-a8 diagonals.

Fianchettoed bishops are powerful pieces no matter what color you are playing!

Take a look at how Garry Kasparov used a double-fianchetto to dominate his game against Tiviakov. Also, notice how Kasparov gave up his bishop-pair advantage to remove a crucial defender and enter an opposite-colored bishop position.

Tiviakov tried to muddy the waters by giving up his queen for a rook and a bishop, but Kasparov’s advanced passed a-pawn proved decisive.

Even though it didn’t work against Kasparov, giving up material to remove a powerful attacking piece can make it more challenging for your opponent to win the game. The longer the game continues, the more likely he will make a mistake.

Sergei Tiviakov – Garry Kasparov, 2001.01.13, 0-1, Corus Group A Round 1, Wijk aan Zee NED

Opposite-Colored Bishops in Chess

You are quite likely right thinking you can draw many endgames with opposite-colored bishops. Tempting as it is to adopt this approach against stronger opponents, there is one vital factor to keep in mind.

Drawing an opposite-colored bishop endgame is only possible if you survive the middlegame!

A stronger opponent is aware of your good drawing chances in the endgame and will most likely do whatever he can to win in the middlegame.

Remember that opposite-colored bishops favor the player with the initiative in the middlegame!

Playing with the initiative, especially with opposite-colored bishops, gives you an advantage many chess players underestimate. Defending becomes much more complicated when you have weak squares and no bishop to cover them.

The biggest threat might not come from the bishop but other pieces that can access the weak squares.

White played 21.f5 attacking the bishop. What would you play in this position as Black?

Entering an Opposite Colored Bishop Position Isnt Always the Right Decision
Would you enter an opposite-colored bishop middlegame?

Exchanging pieces in a cramped position is something every chess player is taught. In light of this, Black’s choice of 21…Bxb3 makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately for him after 22.Bxb3 there is no way to open the position with …d5. White will have no trouble playing his pawn lever g4 and mobilizing his heavy pieces.

Not to mention, the position of Black’s king makes this an extremely dangerous attack to defend. This game was played between Christopher Lutz and Lubomir Ftacnik.

Lutz’s bishop on b3 became so powerful it allowed him to sacrifice his queen for the bishop on f6 and trap the black king in a mating net.

Christopher Lutz – Lubomir Ftacnik, 2001.03.10, 1-0, Bundesliga 2000-1 Round 10, Hamburg GER

There is a good reason why you will often hear that attacking is easier than defending in chess. When you are playing an opposite-colored bishop middlegame, you could be on the defensive for a long time.

The longer you are forced to defend, the more likely you will make mistakes!

In opposite-colored middlegames in chess, if you gain the advantage, it’s likely to prove long-lasting since there is no way for your opponent to exchange bishops.

Be Both Cautious And Courageous With Exchanges

Avoid exchanges if you have the advantage and keep major pieces on the board to support your bishop and occupy the weak color complex.

Furthermore, by improving your middlegame play with bishops, you can plan ahead and avoid exchanges that increase your opponent’s advantage.

For example, if your opponent can use his bishop to attack weak squares or seize a diagonal, try to exchange a knight for the bishop. Don’t let him exchange his knight for your knight and leave you with no way of defending a weak color complex.

Another way to defend an inferior position is to sacrifice material and look to create a fortress. Ask yourself, “Can I create counterplay by sacrificing the exchange?”

Fortune, they say, favors the bold. Rather than suffer a slow but sure loss, try exchanging your queen for a rook and his powerful bishop.

There is more chance for your opponent to make an error in an unbalanced position.

Instead of meekly submitting to the inevitable defeat, think of how good it will feel to give up material and draw the game.

You might still lose the game, but always try to make your opponent work hard for a victory.

In Conclusion

Bishops in chess can rule the chessboard when used wisely. Although we tend to think of them first and foremost as an attacking force, they can prove highly effective at tying down your opponent.

The bishops can attack pieces in your enemy camp even while safeguarding your king.

We seldom give a second thought to exchanging our knight for a rook, but when it comes to giving up a bishop, we often think twice, especially if we have the bishop-pair or control a diagonal.

Learning how to use your bishops effectively in the chess middlegame will help when it comes to your opening repertoire. Before deciding on an opening, play through several games to see the typical middlegame positions.

The bishops aren’t always better than knights in chess. However, bishops will serve you well if you prefer open positions with active piece play across the board.

Obviously, you don’t become a world champion in chess without knowing how to get the best out of all your pieces, including the bishops. Learn how to become an all-around better player from a chess legend.

The Anatoly Karpov Method provides you with 15-hours of chess instruction from not a world chess champion. Along with learning to use your pieces better, the course covers strategy, endgame play, pawn structure, defense, and more.

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