Lesson #1: Trade-offs

“There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it.” —Fyodor Dostoevsky

The economists call them opportunity costs. Anything you do costs you another opportunity to do something else. One of primetime journalists’ favorite lines, “She/He had it all,” is more theatric than fact. The real newsflash: You can’t have it all.

My last confession on studying touches on a common trade-off. You can’t study it all. Therefore, you must find an equilibrium that works for you.

Chess itself is a never-ending opportunity cost battle. It starts with an innocent look down at the board. “Ooh, an opportunity!” Chess is not that hard! So you look to see if it works. In doing so, you notice another opportunity. Pretty quickly you understand why chess players take so much time to make moves. Your move is your most important asset and is the culmination of sizing up the pros and cons.

When we are first taught chess, what were some of our simplest objectives?
1. Checkmate the enemy King
2. Capture more pieces than you give up.
These are the most intuitive. Deliver checkmate and you win. Capture more pieces and your extra firepower can strongarm your way to delivering checkmate…and you win.

Soon after learning the rules, we realize not all pieces have the same value. That’s when us teachers introduce the point system: Even young players are good at counting points. It’s an excellent guide.


The King has no material value; you cannot add him to your sideline collection. But checkmating him on the board crowns you the victor. I have often tried to describe the King as “priceless”—(yes, absolutely a reference to those credit card commercials)—but it’s becoming clearer every year kids don’t watch commercials anymore. Who can blame them?

Knights and Bishops stick out the most. Yes, they are conventionally both worth three points. They are hardly “equals,” however. Each Bishop must stay glued to its original light or dark colored set of squares while the Knight’s movement requires it to alternate square colors each time it moves. Bishops are long range pieces; Knights are short range.

Old debate
One of the oldest chess openings, named after a Spanish player from the 1500s, is still popular today.

White wastes no time in posing the possibility of trading a Bishop for a Knight. There is so much literature on it, most of it quite tedious. Essentially White starts out the game with a decision—to take or not to take—and aims to follow up play accordingly. Is trading the Knight for the Bishop the “correct” idea? With the decision being so early in the game, there is not really a yes/no answer. The generic deflection response, “It depends,” has stood its ground and the debate remains after nearly half a millennium.

I was gifted a first edition copy of Andy Soltis’ 1992 book “Winning with the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation” after a major tournament victory. It contained the subtitle “Fischer’s Weapon,” which I think may have been a marketing strategy to catch the eye of players of all skill levels. I was not an 1.e4 player at the time, so the book itself is in good shape. It also has some good content. Soltis in general is an inspiring author in the sense he never seems to run out of good stuff to write about, whether it be mainstream or a bit esoteric.

He puts it plainly: “You had better like to play the endgame if you’re going to handle either side of the Exchange Variation.”

3…a6 is Black’s most common offer to begin exchange variation, making White choose whether he will take the Knight. 4.Bxc6 dxc6 (universally preferred.)

I’m going to provide a very small sample of resulting positions from games played with this variation. These are from Soltis’ book, in no particular order. I’m hoping to train readers, especially my non-chess players, to approach these articles as a sort of chess funny pages. Don’t stress! If the words aren’t resonating, focus on the pictures. If the pictures aren’t resonating, focus on the words. You’ll catch on.

What’s so critical in opening study is knowing what types of positions you will have to play. Some bare bones observations from the diagrams:
a) Queens are traded early;
b) Pawns do not fly off the board;
c) Black thinks the e5 square is critical enough to be blockaded or controlled (notably with pawn to f6);
d) c-pawns stay doubled long-term;
e) Sometimes Black castles queenside;
f) White often castles kingside.
g) Sometimes Black will not castle;

Poof! Without needing to play through a single variation on an analysis board, you already have a measuring stick for future study.

That’s enough opening talk. Let’s now discuss in general.

Deducing from the earlier statement on short vs. long range, I offer the following conclusions for your consideration:
Knight shines when activity is confined to a small area (short range.) When pawns are on one side of the board, the Knight usually holds an edge.
Bishop is superior when pawn structure is fluid and widely spaced.
Bishops are typically stronger when pawns (including the enemy’s) are on the opposite colored square as the Bishop. This is also critical in the endgame, but also during the guts of the game itself.

Below: Material is even, but without calculating a single move the experienced player can confidently say this is a win for White. The Knight cannot control two sides of the board at one time, while that’s what the Bishop was born for. (The win in this position will come from White being able to promote one of his pawns.) Can my chess players at home find the winning method for White?

To be honest, I had to search a bit for a winning endgame position for the Knight side. They are much less common in practice…but that’s why chess folks have so many books!

Notice how pawns are not on opposite flanks. I’ll let International Master Mark Dvoretsky (1947-2016) take it from here:
“The advantage, of course, is White’s since all his opponent’s pawns are isolated and weak. But this might not have been enough to win, had White not found the following maneuver, forcing the d-pawn to advance onto a square the same color as his bishop.”

Conclusion: In practice, it is much easier to figure out in crunch time how to outplay a Knight when you have a Bishop, especially in the endgame. Be very cautious of trading your Bishop for a Knight at any point. Err on the side of the Bishop. For those early in their chess development, I would recommend that you tell the jury in your head to only sentence the Bishop to trade if they are 95 percent sure it will gain an advantage. And stay tuned! We will likely revisit this Knight vs. Bishop saga in the future.

2 thoughts on “Lesson #1: Trade-offs

  1. Engagingly written. Very conversational. I like the comments that provoke a smile and a thought at the same time.

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