The Winning Academy 25: How to Turn a Knight into a Monster

by Jan Markos
10/24/2023 – Playing with the knight is easy and enjoyable if the position of your opponent resembles a Swiss cheese. If his pawn structure is full of holes, you simply transfer the knight to the best possible outpost and then enjoy watching how it destroys your opponent's army. However, things get much more difficult when your opponent's position is compact, without weaknesses. What to do with knights in such a case? Jan Markos has some answers. | Photo: Pixabay

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Well, you still can turn your knight into a beast. But you need to be able to actively create the work for it. Usually, this is done by correct pawn play.

Let us have a look at three examples:


The first example is simple, but from a match between two World Champions:

Karpov-Spassky, Candidates Semifinal Match 1974, White to move:

White's d3-knight has got a very nice c5-square at its disposal. However, Black's knight is looking forward to jump to c4. So, what should Karpov do to make his knight matter more? The key lies in reshaping the pawn structure!

Karpov decided to push the a3-pawn to a5. After that, the c5-knight will be hitting the weak a6-pawn, whereas the c4 knight will be useless.

White played 17.a4!. Now capturing on a4 would badly weaken Black's queenside. Spassky therefore responded 17…Bd8. However, after 18.Nc5 Bc8 19.a5 Bc7 20.g3 Nc4 21.e4! it was very clear that White has got the upper hand. Karpov won effortlessly.

Please note that whereas the white knight on c5 is active and safe, the c4-knight has a rather shaky position, especially after …d5xe4.

Here's the complete game:


Karpov had it clear where to put his knight. In the following example, my task was considerably more difficult:

Markos-Caletka, Slovak Team Championship 2017, White to move:

Both my knights are normally developed, but what should I do with them? True, sometimes the f3-knight gets to f5 via d4 or h4. But what to do with the c3-knight? Fortunately, I did play this structure several times before, and therefore I knew that the best square for this knight is – no kidding – d6.

In order to get the knight there, White needs to build up a pawn majority in the centre. Then he needs push a pawn to e5. The rest is simple: Nc3-e4-d6. Please note: When a pawn majority marches forward, it usually creates outposts for knights as a by-product.

I know that such a plan seems to be rather abstract and difficult to push through. But it worked for me in countless blitz games, and also in the present game. I played 10.e4, and after 10…dxe4 11.dxe4 I already had the necessary pawn majority. In 14 more moves, the position changed significantly. Again, White is to move:

I was lucky to fulfil my plan to the very end. The once modest c3-kight now jumps to its dream location: 24.Nd6! and its strength soon proved to be unbearable for Black.

Here's the complete game:


The last example is perhaps the most interesting. In a very important game, Grischuk twice failed to shape the pawn structure in a way favorable for his knight, and unfavorable for opponent’s knights. On the contrary, Ding always found the correct answer:

Ding-Grischuk, Candidates Tournament 2021, Black to move:

Despite controlling the a-file, Black is slightly worse. White has a notable space advantage, and the c6-weakness might tell in a long run. Also, Grischuk's d7 knight is very passive. How should Black take care of it?

The best possible square for the black knight is f5. For the moment, it is difficult to imagine how it could get there. But anyway, it would be nice to have that square under control. Also, the f6-square is quite useful as well: from there, the knight could later jump to e4 or g4.  

Therefore, Black's best option is to play 21…h5!, followed by …Nd7-f6 and …g7-g6. White can try to disrupt this plan by answering 22.f5, but after the strong 22…Nf8! the knight would get new prospects on e6, hitting d4.

Instead of all this, Grischuk played 21...Bf6?!. Ding did not give him a second chance, playing 22.h5! himself. Now the structure on the kingside looks different: White's g-pawn can chase the black knight away from both f5 and f6.

Let us have a look at another position from the same game, twenty-one moves later. Again, Black is to move:

As you can see, White has gained a lot of space on the kingside and attacked the Achilles heel of Black's position, the c6-pawn. Still, Black is not hopeless after the modest 42…Qa6 or 42…Qa8. However, Grischuk was not lucky that day. Instead of defending passively, he took 42...Bxe5? And again, Ding was up to the task, responding 43.dxe5! and freeing the d4-square for his own knight.

On d4, the shy c1-knight instantly turned into a Godzilla, controlling the entire board: attacking c6 and preparing f4-f5 at the same time. Ding won a nice game.

Here's the complete game:


Pawns and knights are the least mobile fighting units on the board. Therefore, it makes sense that they should cooperate closely. Please, remember: when you don’t know what to do with your knight, the answer is often hidden in the placement of the pawns. Change the pawn structure in a smart way, and your knight will be very thankful.

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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.