The Winning Academy 23: Bishop and knight against a rook

by Jan Markos
9/11/2023 – Chess is a game of imbalances, and depending on the circumstances a piece is sometimes strong and sometimes weak. Jan Markos explains how to take advantage of these imbalances, focusing on the battle of a rook against two minor pieces. | Photo: Alan Light, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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You surely know the biblical story of the fight of David and Goliath. David was small and swift, whereas Goliath was strong, well armoured, and relatively slow. Now let us say that they would compete in running. Who would win? David, of course. And now imagine a completely different type of contest: weightlifting. This time Goliath would be the favourite.

The fights of different pieces are one of the most fascinating parts of chess strategy. If the pieces in your own army differ from those in the army of your opponent, your task is to influence the flow of the game in such a way that your pieces will have the upper hand. Having a "David" in your army, you want a running competition. Having a "Goliath", you want to compete in weightlifting.

Let us look more at the "Bishop and Knight versus Rook (BNxR)" material relation, one of the most common material imbalances in chess praxis. What are the situations favouring the rook? And when are the two minor pieces stronger?

Our first example is from a game of two super-GMs:

Topalov-Anand, Wijk aan Zee 2007, Black to move:

In the diagrammed position, Anand has two pawns in addition to his rook. In most cases, two pawns are more than enough in the BNxR material relation. However, in this specific situation Black is worse despite having enough material. Why?

Well, the position is very favourable for the minor pieces. Firstly, rooks need open files to exert activity, and here they have no files at their disposal. Secondly, a knight feels best on a secure outpost, preferably in the centre. In the diagrammed position, he has got such an outpost on e5.

Therefore, Anand is in trouble. What should he do? Many of my students are trying to attack the white king, playing something like 22…g5?! However, this is rather naïve. In the BNxR material relation, the side with minor pieces is in some sense a piece up. That is why Topalov has more than enough pieces around his king for a successful defence. That is why the …g7-g5 pawn push merely weakens Black’s own kingside.

Anand played a semi-waiting move 22…h6. However, that is also not the kind of a move we are looking for.

The best chance for Black is to play 22…a5!. Why? There are three reasons:

  1. White’s knight is the slowest piece on the board. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense not to play as far from it as possible. So not …g7-g5, but …a7-a5.
  2. Rooks are insensitive to centralization. On an empty board, a rook controls 14 squares from a1 as well as from e.g. d4. With knights, this is different. A knight on d4 controls 8 squares, from a1 it controls only 2 squares. Therefore, the chances of the rooks in BNxR are getting better when the action takes place in one of the corners (or edges) of the board, and getting worse when all the important stuff happens in the centre.
  3. With 22…a5!, Black will probably open at least one file for his rooks.

Here's the complete game:

In the following example, Black made a very interesting mistake:

Macieja-Miton, Polish Championship 2004, Black to move:

Again, the side with the rook enjoys two extra pawns as well. However, in this case White’s chances are much higher, as the black knight has no central outpost available. Miton’s only chance to keep approximate equality is to make use of the slightly weakened position of the White’s king. With the h4-pawn on h2, White would be much better.

As we already stated, the player with minor pieces is effectively a piece up. Therefore, he has also excellent chances for an attack against the king. Having an extra piece is very handy when you want to mate your opponent’s monarch.

Miton thus needs to keep the queens on the board to be able to organize a kingside attack later. For example, the seemingly modest 20…Bd7, planning something like …h7-h5 and …Nc6-e7-g6, concentrating the forces on the k-side, might be a good way to go.

Instead of this, Miton played the flawed 20…Na5?, offering an exchange of the queens. Macieja happily accepted the offer with 21.Qxe8 and comfortably won the endgame.

Here's the complete game:

The last example is also the most complicated one:

Sandipan-Ivanchuk, Gibraltar 2018, Black to move:

This time Sandipan only has one pawn to accompany his rook. However, he has a pawn majority on a queenside, with good chances to create a passed pawn there. And we already know that the play along the a-file or around the a8-corner would suit the rooks, and not suit the black knight.

Therefore, Ivanchuk was standing better, but had all the reasons to be extremely careful. But he was not. That day, the great Ukrainian player was not in his best shape. Black played 16...Qb5? and after the forced tactical sequence 17.b3! Qxb4 18. axb4 Bb5 19.Ra7! Bxf1 20.Rxb7! he got into great problems.

There is a better way for Black. With an extra member in his army, he needs to play actively. However, this time Black has no chances to attack the white king. He needs some other way how to be active: he needs to create a passed pawn.

A passed pawn is a very strong asset for the side with a bishop and a knight. With an extra piece, it is often very simple to push the pawn forward.

So, how should Black have continued? There are several different ways. I like this continuation: 16...0-0 17.b3 Bb5 18.Rfe1

Now Black can play the wonderful 18…e5!! Of course, after 19.Rxe5? Nc6 White loses the exchange. However, after the relatively best 19.dxe5 Black’s d5-pawn turns into a monster, supported by all Black’s pieces. In fact, after 18…e5 Black is already positionally winning.

Here's the complete game:

Material imbalances occur more often than we usually think. In fact, even the very common material relation knight vs. bishop is an imbalance. And there are many more frequent imbalances: rook vs. minor piece, queen vs. lesser pieces, piece vs. several pawns etc.

Club players usually ignore these material relations, assuming that it is not worth studying them. Don’t make the same mistake! In fact, studying these positions will also dramatically improve your understanding of the specific qualities of chess pieces.

Middlegame Secrets Vol.1 + Vol.2

Let us learn together how to find the best spot for the queen in the early middlegame, how to navigate this piece around the board, how to time the queen attack, how to decide whether to exchange it or not, and much more!


Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.