The Winning Academy (3): The Art of Exchanging Minor Pieces

by Jan Markos
12/23/2021 – Legend has it that a player who once was analysing with Dr. Tarrasch (pictured), a great believer in the power of the bishops, gave his bishop for a knight and remarked: "Winning the small exchange!" Tarrasch, probably with good reason, felt provoked, and said: "You obviously mean losing the small exchange!" Exchanging minor pieces is a fine and difficult art indeed. Jan Markos knows more!

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In the previous article, we took a look when and why to exchange heavy pieces. With minor pieces, the situation is somewhat different. Firstly, we do not need to take care of the king’s position so much, as minor pieces are usually not strong enough to create real mating threats.

Secondly, the exchange of a bishop for a knight is the only exchange of two different pieces with approximately the same value. Therefore, this exchange is one of the simplest ways to create an imbalanced position.

And thirdly, minor pieces are the first to enter the fight in the opening. Therefore, you will usually see exchanges of these pieces in an earlier stage of the game. When the rooks and the queens are still laying in bed, waking slowly up from their dreams, knights and bishops are usually already in the middle of a fierce battle.

Let us now looks at some practical examples:

Anand-Van Wely, Wijk aan Zee 2001, White to move:

 

This position usually confuses a lot of my students, especially those rated under 2200. They seem to be hypnotized by the advanced black queenside pawns, and usually feel that White is worse, or at least in danger.

However, White is not getting mated here. He has got perfect control over the centre and almost all his pieces (even the h1-rook!) are prepared to help with the defence. On the other hand, the h5-knight is not joining the attack any time soon.

Therefore, White is not worse. But is he better? Anand convincingly demonstrated White´s advantage by playing the seemingly paradoxical 20.Bg4! Nf4 21.Bxf4 exf4 22.Bxd7! Qxd7 23.Qd2

 

Giving up his bishop-pair, Anand transformed the position into a typical “knight against bad bishop” scenario. The c1-knight does not seem to be a mighty piece now, but it will shine on d5 in a few moves. White won convincingly. (Please note that Black can´t transfer his bishop to the long diagonal, as …g7-g6 would run into h4-h5, followed by a mating attack along the h-file.)

What lesson should we learn from this example? Remember: It is not important which pieces are exchanged. It is important which pieces remain on the board. Anand exchanged his pair of bishops for two knights, although two bishops are usually considered to be stronger. However, the resulting material was much in his favour.

And here's the whole game:

 

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There is another lesson we can learn from this game: Do not judge the quality of a piece by its present position only. Try to imagine its maximum potential as well. A strong player sees the beast hidden in the shy c1-knight well before it reaches d5.

In the following example, Black failed to see the full potential of the opponent’s knight:

Ionov-Mikhalevski, European Championship, Ohrid 2001, Black to move:

 

Black played the Benko gambit, but he did not get full compensation for the sacrificed pawn. In the diagram position, he has to fight a difficult fight for a draw. And he has to decide: Should he take the knight or not?

Mikhalevski decided to keep the bishop, which is presently the more active piece. He played 38…Kf8?, allowing the knight to escape from c3. After lengthy manoeuvring, this knight landed on c4, unlocking its full potential, and becoming a much better minor piece than Black´s dark-squared bishop. Ionov won without much trouble.

Black should have taken the knight with 38…Bxc3!, and after 39.Rxc3 Rba8 40.Rcc2 a gruesome task would await White. It is by no means easy to get the a2-pawn moving, and therefore Black has huge drawing chances. By the way, he should keep all four rooks on the board, because after an exchange of one pair of rooks, the white king would easily help the a2 pawn in its way forward.

And here's the whole game:

 

***

Another simple rule, which you might find handy when contemplating exchanges of minor pieces, is this one: If you have more space than your opponent, keep as many pieces as possible on the board. This rule sounds trivial, but I would like to stress that it does not only apply to closed positions. Let us have a look at the following diagram:

Aronian-Anand, Grand Slam Final 2014, White to move:

 

It might seem that in this open position speed will be the most important factor, and that White should not avoid the exchange of the d4-knight and simply play something like 14.Rfd1. However, after 14…Nxd4 15.Rxd4 Bc6 Black’s light-squared bishop gains a nice spot on c6, and Black equalizes. Also, the emptier the board, the stronger the bishop-pair. Every exchange therefore helps Black.

Surprisingly, not time, but space is the factor White should keep close attention to. Aronian played the smart 14.Nb3!, and the c6-knight remained on board, immobilising the d7-bishop. The Armenian went on to win a fine game.

Here it is:

 

***

What would you play with White in the following position?

Nyback-Malakhov, European Club Cup 2006, White to move:

 

Nyback was probably satisfied with the result of the opening. He has got a clear plan: to push his queenside majority. Does Black have any viable counterplay? Well, he can put the knight to e4. Of course, White can respond to …Nh5-f6 with Ne2-c3 to guard that square, but an attacking piece is usually much stronger than a defensive piece.

Therefore White grabbed his chance and played 21.Ng3!. After 21…Nxg3 22.hxg3 the weakness on e4 became irrelevant. There is no black piece that can effectively occupy it. And as a bonus, the h-file is open now and Black might have problems to repulse an attack along this file.

The only thing that might bother us is that White was left with a “bad” bishop, while Black has a “good bishop”. However, in this type of positions it is not so clear that the g7-bishop is really much stronger than the bishop on e3. It is also severely restricted by white pawns.

From this example two lessons should be remembered. First: If there are pawn weaknesses or weak spots in your position, try to exchange any knights left on the board. Second: In very closed positions, the difference between good and bad bishops may become irrelevant.

And here's the whole game:

 

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Exchanges are a dangerous weapon. When playing for a win, do not fear going into simple positions, as long as there is life in them. Look at how Carlsen is playing chess: quite often he transforms the opening directly into a slightly superior endgame, and then tortures his opponent for a long time. And he often brings the full point home.

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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.

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