The Winning Academy 6: Hypnotised by the bishops

by Jan Markos
3/2/2022 – The love of most chess players for the bishop-pair is both strong and irrational. We all know that having the "bishop-pair" advantage should be beneficial, but – as discussed in the previous part of The Winning Academy – we barely know how to make full use of them. I would like to show you how this irrational love for the two bishops leads to poor practical decisions. The price players are willing to pay for the bishop-pair is quite often far too high. An arm and a leg. And more.

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Why is that so? Well, we human beings love certainty. When comparing two strategical assets, we tend to overestimate what is well-defined and clear-cut, and underestimate what is vague and hazy. And the "bishop-pair" advantage is very clear-cut. Everyone can spot it. Therefore, we tend to overestimate it compared to hazier assets as "initiative" or "cooperation of pieces."

In this article, we will have a look at three games, in which players got hypnotised by the bishop-pair advantage, protecting it for an extreme price.

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Let us start with a typical Nimzo-position:

Morovic Fernandes – Adams, Chess Olympiad, Istanbul 2000, White to move:

 

This position is equal. White has got the bishop-pair, but Black's minor pieces are very well placed, and he has already started active operations on the queenside. The safest way for White is to exchange immediately the strong black bishop with 14.Ne1, achieving full (and rather dull) equality.

But Morovic Fernandes was not prepared to give up his bishop-pair so easily. Instead, he started a lengthy operation, aiming at repulsing the black bishop from its perfect post. However, meanwhile Adams was not idle and got a nice queenside initiative:

14.Bh3?! b5 15.Nd2 axb3 16.axb3 bxc4 17.bxc4 Ra2!

As you can see, Adams is not dogmatic about his bishops. Even without them you can win a game, provided all your remaining pieces are active!

 

In the diagrammed position White had the last chance to pull an emergency brake. The sober 18.Nxe4 Nxe4 19. Bg2! still leads to a dynamically balanced position, as after 18…Nxc3 19.Qxc3 Rxe2 the black rook would not be safe in the middle of White's camp.

However, Morovic Fernandes still hoped to gain a safe "bishop-pair" advantage. He played 18.f3??, hoping to continue with e2-e4, building up a nice centre. But Adams naturally disagreed. He answered 18…Bc2! 19.Rde1 c5!, broke White's centre into ruins, and easily converted his massive initiative into a full point.

Please note: it was White who decided a few moves ago to invest time and energy to protect the currently useless h3-bishop from exchanging it for the black c2-monster!

And here's the entire game:

 

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In the next example, an experienced GM was not afraid of spoiling his pawn structure, because he thought the bishop-pair will be more than adequate compensation:

Ftacnik – Roiz, German Bundesliga 2008/2009, White to move:

 

With his last move 12…Bg4, Roiz created the threat of Bxf3, blowing up the shelter of White's king. However, Ftacnik was not impressed. Instead of carefully parrying the threat with e.g. 13.Be2, he decided for the active 13.Bf5??, assuming that he is in a win-win situation. Either Black exchanges the bishops, and then White is closer to an endgame with a clear plan against the isolated d5-pawn, or he takes on f3 and then White will enjoy the bishop-pair.

However, White's thinking was too one-dimensional. In fact, the f3-knight is an important piece that protects crucial central squares. Also, after the exchange on f3 the white king will be extremely weak, and his army stuck in the centre will not be able to come to help him. And please, have a short look at the black knights as well. They are very stable and they nicely control the centre. Why should they be weaker than White's bishops?

Roiz of course took 13…Bxf3! and after a few moves it was clear that White's bishop-pair is useless, while the rest of his position is a total disaster:

14.gxf3 0-0 15.Vd1 Qe7 16.Na4 Ba7 17.Bh3 Rad8 18.Nb2 d4

 

The final attack against the weakened White's kingside has just begun. Please note how idle White's bishops are, and how nicely the black cavalry controls the centre.

Here's the entire game:

 

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I use the following diagram a lot when coaching. Would you like to test yourself? Well, so what would you play with Black?

Timman – Speelman, German Bundesliga 2000/2001, Black to move:

 

Many of my pupils intuitively decide for 15…Nf6??, assuming that White must protect his bishop-pair and play 16.Bd3. Then Black gains another tempo with 16…c4 and can be reasonably optimistic about his future.

But wait! Let us free ourselves from this bishop-pair dogmatism! There are also other important aspects in the diagrammed position. Black is a bit underdeveloped, and his king cannot castle. Therefore playing 15…Nf6??, a move that does not help with development, is simply playing with fire.

White therefore should respond actively. After 16.dxc5! Black is in grave danger. The only move that does not loose material immediately is 16…bxc5, but after 17.Rxd6 Qxd6 18.Bf4 Qb7 19.Rd1!! (The threat is stronger than its execution! White does not need to hurry with regaining the exchange.) White is virtually winning.

Back to the initial position. Instead of chasing the bishop-pair, Black should in concentrate on development, or on closing the centre. This gives us three sensible candidate moves: 15…Bb7, 15…Ba6 and 15…c4. Speelman chose the last one, equalised in the next few moves and then went on to win a very fine game.

 

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Of course, this article (together with the previous one) does not want to persuade you that the "bishop-pair" advantage is a worthless, outdated concept. Of course, it is not. Generally, a pair of bishops is a very valuable asset. I just wanted to show that there are many subtleties and exceptions that a player should consider when deciding to gain a pair of bishops in a specific, over-the-board situation.

Learning the general, clear-cut rules is easy. Everyone knows them. What will distinguish yourself from the crowd of club players is not the understanding of the rules, but the understanding of exceptions and subtleties.

There are situations when you should follow the rules. And there are situations when you should simply break them. Dogmatism seldom leads to success.

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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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