Saturday, May 30, 2015

Foundations of the Two Bishops (Part 3)

In our first two parts we have expounded on the virtues of having a bishop pair. So much that by now, you might start to dread facing against this monster... but no worries! Today, we will be talking about the weaker side of the two bishops, and how you can use these weaknesses to play against them.

Two bishops are typically not considered advantageous in the following situations:

  1. When the advantage of the two bishops is neutralized by a weakness in the position (e.g. holes in pawn structure, exposed king).
  2. When the opponent has an advantage with greater significance than the two bishops (e.g. material superiority, rook on seventh rank, a pawn majority on one side of the board).
  3. When the position is so locked up that the two bishops are rendered immobile.

The first two points are self-explanatory: If you have the two bishops but your opponent is a Queen up, or your king is about to be mated in 3, then your advantage is as good as useless.

A less extreme example can be seen in Position 1:

Checkerboard 28 - Checkerboard 5
Kickoff 2015 Chess Tournament (Round 4)
Position 1: Position after 28. Rd6

Here Black has the bishop pair, but White also has a subtle advantage: He has better rook activity. He threatens to occupy the 7th rank via Rc7 or Rd7, and also plans on playing Be3, tying Black's rooks down to defending the backward b6 pawn. These elements serve to neutralize Black's two bishop advantage, despite the position being open. The entire game can be seen in Example 2 of our earlier article.

Point 3 occurs when the position becomes closed, leaving the bishops trapped behind a wall of pawns. Here, having a knight would be better as compared to the two bishops. In his book "Modern Chess Strategy", Pachman gives an example of how the bishop pair succumbs in obstacle-filled terrain:

Position 2: White's bishops are trapped

Here Black's minor pieces are superior because White's bishop pair are trapped by their own pawns. All Black needs to do is to place his knight on f4, and the bishops can do nothing to stop Black's king from walking into White's position.

However, such cases of both bishops being imprisoned by their own pawns are rare; often one bishop is trapped while the other is free to rake the diagonals. In this case, the opponent has two possible modes of operation:

  1. Put his pawns on the same colour as the stronger bishop, thus rendering both of them weak
  2. Get rid of the stronger bishop by trading pieces.

The former method is similar to what we have explained in Part 2, about restriction of enemy pieces. Here, it is used against the two bishops:

Sokolsky, Alexy - Kotov, Alexander
Moscow 1949
Position 3: Position after 14. c4

In this game Black has the bishop pair. His dark-squared bishop is weaker since it is trapped by friendly pawns, while the light-squared counterpart is not. White's plan here will be to put his pawns on light-squares to restrict Black's stronger bishop and close up the position.

The latter method is deployed in the next example, where White trades off Black's stronger bishop to make the strength of his knights more significant:

Wrapping up

Through this 3 part series we have explored the powers and weaknesses of the two bishops. In an open game, they can be a powerful tool in suppressing enemy movement and supporting the advance of friendly forces. They are even more powerful if steps are taken to restrict the mobility of the enemy pieces. But at the same time, we have also seen how they can succumb to enemy knights in closed positions.

And thus, I wrap up this series of articles on the bishop pair. Now you know better how to handle them in a real game!

Part 1:
Part 2:

"The Bishop Pair" (Video Lecture) by IM Renier Castellanos, March 2015
"Modern Chess Strategy" by Ludek Pachman
"My System (21st Century Edition)" by Aaron Nimzowitsch

Saturday, May 23, 2015

4 tips to help you in your chess training

You come into the classroom for your sessions and games, 2 hours per week. Some of you go for another 2 hours on Monday. Most of you come in to play games and have fun, a few come with the serious mindset on improving your play, and another few sit there wondering what the f___ you are doing with your life.

So how many of you have experienced significant advancement in your playing skills? Perhaps a couple. Maybe 10 people. Or half the team. But definitely not everyone.

Because if you're serious on improving, spending those 2 or 4 hours per week in your CCA is not enough. You will need to take your learning out of the classroom, and incorporate some practice habits into your daily life. And while doing so, you need to know what methods can help maximize your training efficiency so that you will not end up wasting time.

Having said that, here are 4 tips that will help you work out some good training habits:

1. Don't focus all your time on the opening

Many club players love to imitate grandmasters, and invest the bulk of their training into opening theory. Instead of spending their time on tactics, they would rather memorize the first 20 moves of the Berlin Defense or the Sicilian Dragon. But this is not the right way to train.

Dat feeling

Grandmasters can afford to sit before their engines and explore deep opening theory simply because they have perfected everything else. With little chances to win through tactics or straightforward plans, they must rely on gaining that small opening advantage to outsmart their opponent. But at club level, we ought to focus on building our foundations first. It doesn't make sense to gain that +0.3 advantage only to lose it by blundering away your Queen three moves later.

If you wish to train a solid opening repertoire, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the basic plans behind a couple of openings (ideally 2 for White, 2 for Black) that you feel comfortable with. After that, stop. Go and hone your tactical skills and other relevant stuff. You may come back and review your opening repertoire only if you feel it isn't working right for you.

2. Focus on the more important aspects of the game

This is related to Point 1; don't waste your time memorizing obscure opening lines, or complex theoretical endgames that are unlikely to occur in real play. It's like mugging pages of physics equations in preparation for a biology exam; sounds nonsensical, right?

Instead, devote your training time to areas that are more likely to help you in an actual game. In my opinion, the 3 most important aspects of the game that you should work on are:

  • Tactics. Sounds cliche, but I simply can't emphasize more on this. Spotting that winning blow or avoiding a blunder is something that can can occur anytime during the game, and you should be proficient in it.'s Tactics Trainer provides members with 5 free puzzles per day, and that is enough for your practice.
  • Strategy and Planning. Various strategic elements are vital in devising a plan during the middlegame, so it's important to have at least a basic understanding of them. A good way to hone your strategic thinking would be to go through annotated grandmaster games, and understand the plans that both sides are trying to come up with.
  • Relevant Endgames. Imagine the frustration if your opponent blunders a piece, but you can't win the resulting endgame. Check out this article which talks about endgame positions that are relevant to actual gameplay (though I would suggest leaving the Bishop-Knight checkmate to the last, since it's the hardest), as well as this one which explains fundamental endgame principles.

Study the right things, and you will be more confident during gameplay.

3. Evaluate your practice games

You've already been playing 1-2 practice games every Friday. That is good. But blindly playing your game and forgetting it after the match is not going to help you improve. To make the most out of it, it is best to evaluate your game, identifying your strengths and shortcomings from it.

Take a photo of your record sheet before submitting it, and write down a couple of lines about the game: What was your plan, and overall how did you achieve/fail to achieve it, etc. Then you can annotate and evaluate in detail over the weekends. Don' be embarassed by any of your mistakes, for it is through them that you identify your weaknesses and work on them.

If you are keen, you can go one step further and play time-control (and by that I mean at least 25-30 minutes, NOT blitz!) games with a friend or over the internet. Then you can evaluate those games.

I have included a couple of my annotated games below as an example:

Example 1:

Example 2:

4. Have a fixed training schedule

Self-explanatory: Having a fixed plan allows you to learn more than studying haphazardly. At the amateur level, you only need to spend a small amount of time on chess daily; there is no need to spend 8 hours a day studying chess theory. If you do, chances are you will collapse from exhaustion and become sick of the game, unless you're Bobby Fischer.

"2 hours per week is tiring? Do tell me more, brother."

However, keep in mind that regular practice is important: It is better to train for 1 hour per day, than cram 5 hours of training into a single day and forget about it for the next week or so.

Seeing that most of you have your own hectic schoolwork to deal with, coming up with a rigorous training plan might be tricky. If you're unsure on how to devise one, here's a suggestion on what you can provide yourself if you dedicate 1 hour each day for chess:

  • Analyzing an annotated game (20 minutes)
  • 5 chess problems (10-15 minutes)
  • Studying a practical endgame position (20 minutes)
  • 10 minute buffer time

If time is really tight, you can spend 10-15 minutes per day on chess puzzles, and leave the rest to the weekends. It still works, but the point is that it must be done regularly... preferably every day!

Wrapping up

So you know how to maximize your training efficiency after reading this article? Well... go and get started now! (:


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Foundations of the Two Bishops (Part 2)

In Part 2 we will look at another aspect of the bishop pair: Play against the enemy pieces. While in Part 1 we saw how the two bishops triumphed easily in an open position, things are not always so straightforward. When the bishops have no clear target of attack, an alternative plan is to restrict activity of opposing pieces.

The reason behind this is that while having the two bishops allows one to control greater swathes of the board, this advantage will be neutralized if the opponent's pieces are equally-- if not more-- active. Thus, their freedom should be limited to fully exploit the two bishops' capabilities.

Section 1: Restriction of enemy pieces

Take a look at the following position:

Position 1: Black's pieces are shut in

This is one of those dream positions that White would love to achieve! While there is no clear target for his bishop pair, he has been able to roll his front line forward to squeeze Black's minor pieces into a corner. The Black bishop is hemmed in by its own pawns, while the knight is being restricted by White's pawns and dark-squared bishop. This makes the activity of White's bishops even more significant, allowing them to support their advance of the pawns.

The restriction of enemy pieces is part of a strategical plan laid out by Wilhelm Steinitz:

  1. Suitable pawn advances to deny the enemy Knight (and Bishop) of vital operating bases
  2. Pressing the Knight (and Bishop) back into an unfavourable position
  3. Exploitation of the Knight (and Bishop)'s restricted power with an appropriate breakthrough at the right moment

An execution of this plan can be seen in Position 2:

Richter, Bernhard - Tarrasch, Siegbert
Nurenberg 1888
Position 2: Position after White's 19th move

In this game, Black has the two bishops and an open terrain. However, White's knight duo are  powerful if not restrained; they can use outposts such as the c4 and e4 squares to interfere with enemy operations. Thus Black starts advancing his pawns to restrict the mobility of White's knights. The game continued:

19... c5 20. Ng3 h5 21. f3?!

While chasing the bishop away frees up the position for White's rooks, it also cuts off the knight on d2. Nimzowitsch suggested 21. a4 followed by 22. Nc4, fighting back by creating outposts for the knights.

21... Bd7 22. Re2 b5 23. Rae1 Bf8

The two bishops ensure that the rooks cannot breakthrough on the open file!

24. Nge4 Rg8 25. Nb3 Rc8 26. Ned2 Bd6 27. Ne4 Bf8 28. Ned2 f5

Taking away the e4 operational base from the knight.

29. Re5 Bd6 30. R5e2

Staying in Black's position with 30. Rd5 is met with 30... Rg6 followed by Bc6 trapping the rook.

30... Ra8 31. Na5 Rab8 32. Nab3 h4 33. Kh1 Rg6 34. Kg1 Be6

Black's bishops dominate the board, allowing his pawns to advance while forcing White's knights onto unfavourable squares.

35. Rf2 Ra8?

Giving White the chance to use a "subtle resource" (Nimzowitsch), which-- fortunately for Black-- Ricther fails to spot. Going straight for the breakthrough with 35... c4 would have been better according to Nimzowitsch.

36. Rfe2?

Nimzowitsch: "A serious mistake. How could anyone allow ... a5 to be played without a fight? In answer to 36. Na5 Dr Tarrasch gives 36... Bc7 37. Nb7 Bf4 winning time for ... Rc8 and ... c4 by the threat of 38... Be3. He overlooks however, the hidden resource 38. Nxc5! Be3 39. c4 and Black cannot win, as the White Queenside is strong and the dark squares (c5 for the Knight) not less so."

36... a5 37. Nb1 a4 38. N3d2 (D)

Position after 38. N3d2

The hemming-in is accomplished. Now, the breakthrough occurs on the Queenside.
38... c4 39. Nf1

39. dxc4 is met with 39... bxc4 threatening c3, with the dark-squared bishop eyeing the a3 pawn.

39... Rc8 40. Kh1 c3 41. bxc3 dxc3 42. Ne3 b4

And White resigned a few moves later in light of the inevitable breakthrough. I will show the entire game here:

Section 2: Sample Games

The concept of the two bishops was the brainchild of Wilhelm Stenitz, father of positional play. Thus we shall pay tribute by studying how he puts his ideas to work. In the following games, you will witness a classical demonstration on how to restrict the enemy pieces using the bishop pair.

By exploiting his opponent's mistakes (9. f4 and 23. f5) Steinitz was able to hem in his opponent's pieces and fully utilize his bishop pair. In our next game, we will see how he is able to do the same thing even with minimal error from his opponent.


The games you have just seen are classics in the study of the double bishops. We can summarize the following:

  • One way to maximize the two bishops' potential is to restrict the mobility of enemy pieces, be it putting your pawns on the same colour squares as the opposing bishop, or advancing them to hem in the knight.
  • The two bishops control vital squares in the centre, suppressing the enemy and allowing friendly pieces and pawns to advance easily.
  • Sometimes, trading off one of the bishops is necessary to neutralize an opponent's asset or obtain another advantage.
  • To reiterate from Part 1, the bishop pair operates best in an open game.

In our final section, we will explore this topic in a different light: How to play against the bishop pair.

Part 1:

"The Bishop Pair" (Video Lecture) by IM Renier Castellanos, March 2015
"Modern Chess Strategy" by Ludek Pachman
"My System (21st Century Edition)" by Aaron Nimzowitsch

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Foundations of the Two Bishops (Part 1)

"The two bishops are a terrible weapon in the hands of a skillful fighter" -- Aaron Nimzowitsch

You might have heard of the bishop pair. We already know how powerful they can be in delivering a double-bishop checkmate. But as seen from Nimzowitsch's quote, they can only be effective if used properly. And that is what I want to talk about in this series of articles, so that in game-play you won't end up in this kind of situation:

Background image from Wiki

By the end of this series we should be able to understand how to execute the battle both with and against the bishop pair. With these in mind, we would be able to handle it confidently during a real game, and unleash its full potential to crush the opponent.

Section 1: Relative strengths of Bishop vs Knight

The strengths of the Bishop and the Knight differ according to the position. A Bishop is superior in open terrain, where the absence of pawns allow him to unleash his long-range powers. Compare this to a short-range Knight, which would have to hop several steps to reach a distant target. This is illustrated in Position 1:

Position 1: The White bishop is superior to the Black Knight

Here both sides have passed pawns, but White prevails because his bishop can stop the enemy pawn from the distance while Black's knight can't (you can work this out if you are not covinced)! Think about it like an first-person shooter: If you were trying to hit a target 300m away, would you rather spray from a distance with a machine-gun (Bishop) or run up to it with a grenade (Knight)?

On the other hand, the Bishop's long range powers become non-existent in closed positions, especially since he can only attack and defend squares of a certain colour. In such terrain, the short, hopping nature of the Knight prevails, for he can maneuver obstacles and attack any square he wishes. For visual explanation refer to Position 2:

Position 2: White's bishop is trapped

Here the bishop is weak; hemmed in by its own pawns, he cannot make inroads into the enemy position since there is no way he can magically hop onto the light squares!. On the other hand, Black's knight can still hop around and support pawn breaks like b4, or perform maneuvers like Nb6-Na5 to attack the opposing pawns. Back to our FPS analogy: In an urban environment where you are trying to take out an enemy behind a door, I'm sure throwing a grenade would be simpler than lugging a heavy machine-gun into the room. Unless you're Rambo.

Which if you were, you'd be outside breaking fences instead of reading this

So we see that the bishop's strength lies in its long range powers, while its weakness is its inability to cross obstacles and attack/defend squares of the opposite colour. Here I utilize a quote from Nimzowitsch's My System: "Now it suddenly becomes plausible why two Bishops are held to be so strong. The reason is clear, their strength appears doubled, the weakness which we underlined is neutralized by the presence of the "other" Bishop."

To visualize what Nimzowitsch described, look back to Position 2 and drop a White bishop on e2 and a Black bishop/knight on e7. Now White has better chances here, since his light-squared bishop can infiltrate the enemy position and clear the road for his pawns... and his dark-squared bishop.

Section 2: Attacking a pawn mass with a bishop pair

Take a look at the following impossible position (no kings):

Position 3: Lone bishop attacking a pawn mass

Here, White's lone bishop wants to attack a pawn mass. However, the weakness we described earlier becomes obvious: All Black has to do is to play 1... g6 and the light-squared bishop has no targets to attack!

Let's drop another White bishop on c2. Now-- as described by Nimzowitsch-- White's task becomes easier, since his bishops cover squares of both colour. Thus if Black were to push 1... g6, White would proceeds 2. Bb3 f5 3. Bg8 and Black's pawns will fall. Thus we see how the bishop pair works together; one bishop forces the pawns to move and clears the route for his partner to attack them. This phenomenon of two bishops side-by-side has a special name: The Horowitz Bishops. If used properly, they can have devastating effects against an enemy position.

Now let us look at the Horowitz Bishops in action against the enemy king:

Position 4: White to move

Here the White Queen works with the bishop pair to bombard the diagonals: 1. Qe4 threatening 2. h7#, forcing Black to respond with 1... g6. Now the long diagonal is opened for the dark-squared bishop to attack the enemy king: 2. Bd4+ winning the Queen.

Another example of the Horowitz Bishops can be seen after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. d4 exd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Bc4 cxb2 5. Bxb2 Bb4+ 6. Nc3 Nf6 7. Nge2 Nxe4 8. O-O Nxc3 9. Nxc3 Bxc3 10. Bxc3 O-O? (D)

Position 5: Position after 10... O-O

With his 10th move Black has underestimated the ability of the two bishops to rake the kingside. 11. Qg4! g6 12. Qd4! and here mate on g7 cannot be stopped; the power of the bishop pair lies in the pin on f7.

Section 3: Other advantages of the Bishop Pair

Here I highlight another fundamental advantage that the two bishops bring. With greater control of the board, they are able to provide allied pieces and pawns with greater freedom of movement, and in turn restrict the motion of enemy forces by denying them of whole diagonals.

Michell, Reginald vs Tartakower, Saviely
Marienbad 1925
Position after Black's 39th move

In the above position, Black's two bishops dominate the kingside. This gives him an edge in the endgame, since his pieces and pawns will find it easier to advance down the board.

You can take note of how Black's bishop pair allowed his pawns, King and Rook greater freedom of movement down the board. In contrast, White's pieces and pawns were pushed to the edge due to Black's central dominance.

Section 4: Sample Game

I will finish off Part 1 with a sample game highlighting the power of the two bishops in an open position.

To summarize Part 1, here are the following points to take note:

  • A bishop pair is highly effective in attacking a pawn mass, since one bishop forces the pawns to move and opens the diagonal for his counterpart.
  • They also control critical diagonals in the centre, suppressing the opponent's pieces and allowing friendly pieces/pawns greater freedom to advance.
  • These advantages are best exploited in an open position, where the bishop is superior to the knight.

In Part 2, we will talk about other factors to consider when playing with the bishop pair.

"The Bishop Pair" (Video Lecture) by IM Renier Castellanos, March 2015
"Modern Chess Strategy" by Ludek Pachman
"My System (21st Century Edition)" by Aaron Nimzowitsch