How to Use the Bishop Pair – 11 Key Concepts
Are you too quick to exchange your bishop pair, or struggling to unleash their full power? GM Gabuzyan shows 11 techniques to use to your advantage!
Are you too quick to exchange your bishop pair, or struggling to unleash their full power? GM Gabuzyan shows 11 techniques to use to your advantage!
The bishop pair is a bit like a sniper rifle.
Give a sniper rifle to a special forces soldier and it’s a powerful weapon on the battlefield. But give it to a random person on the street, and they probably won’t know how to hold it, let alone fire it!
While many GMs know how to use and feel the power of the bishop pair, many lower-rated players struggle to. Yet, it’s a key way to outplay your opponents and gain a big positional advantage in your games.
The bishop pair has unique qualities. It can control lots of key squares of both colors on an open board. It can dominate knights. It can support pawn pushes on both sides of the board. And it can create kingside weaknesses in attack while helping you to defend!
If you feel you’re very quick to exchange your two bishops, or you struggle to unleash their full power, then read on and I’ll show you 11 different ways to use them to your advantage!
Many chess players believe that double bishops on an open board are incredibly powerful and are capable of doing the most unbelievable things.
For example, would you believe me if I said that a bishop pair can trap a rook on an open board! No? Then take a look at the position below:
It’s white to move.
If we manage to win the pawn on h4 (right now we can’t as Rf4+ is winning the bishop) then white will have a better position. But due to the pawn on the a-file black will still have some chances to make a draw.
However, there’s a much stronger option for white here, illustrating the power of the bishop pair.
White plays 1.Kg5!!
Now you may think, “and what?”
But take a look at the available moves for the black rook after that move:
On an open board, the rook only has 2 available squares left! The two bishops, along with the king are capable of controlling the rest.
But the problem for black is if they play 1...Rc6, white has 2.Bd5+ winning the rook. And if instead of 1...Rc6, black plays 1...Rf3, then white wins the rook with the same move again!
White plays 2.Bd5 pinning the rook and after 2...Kg2 will be taking it with 3.Kg4.
The players weren’t lying – the bishop pair really is powerful!
Very often we’re told that the double bishops are very strong during an endgame – but what’s the reason for it?
The answer lies with the king! The key advantage being that during an endgame, queens are absent from the board so the king can be safely activated.
Take a look at the position below:
White’s bishop pair is paralyzing black’s position and black has no counterplay. But it’s the king that’s the piece that’s going to create the most decisive threats.
White’s idea is very simple. Bring the king to d6, then move it either to c7 or towards the kingside pawns – depending on where the black king is.
So the first move by white should be 1.Kd5.
Fun fact 🙂 The engine evaluation at this point is …? Can you guess?
+7.50 or even more!
If we turn this positional advantage into a material advantage, it would be like having more than an extra rook.
1... Kg8 2.Bc7
White stops the b pawn and soon will take it using the king and the bishop from e4. The position is completely winning.
So here’s another:
Again, white has a strong bishop pair, and after paralyzing the black pieces, the king will become the most decisive piece on the board.
White plays: 1.Bf4+ Kb6 2.Bd6.
Now white’s double bishops are controlling the board. The b7 and f7 pawns are under attack. And once the knight leaves the d7 square, the bishop is ready to go to f8 and destroy the kingside pawns.
White has a nice choice of how to activate their king. Like in the previous example, they can go towards the queenside or the kingside.
There are unlimited examples of the bishop pair’s power during endgames, and many reasons why they’re strong. Sometimes we don’t use the king but are able to push pawns in front of it, and as there are no longer queens on the board it’s not as dangerous to do so.
Once again, white has a very strong bishop pair and the position is great. So imagine you’re playing as white, which idea would you choose?
For me, I believe it would be great to make use of the kingside pawn majority by playing 1.g4.
The idea is simple. Push and destroy black’s position with the pawns supported by the monstrous bishops on c4 and c3!
We’ve seen the strength of the bishop pair in situations against a knight and a bishop. In the next part, we’ll take a look at some interesting bishop vs knight battles.
Many players also believe that the bishop pair is stronger than the knight pair! However, I’d like to make a small caveat and say that this is only true if certain conditions are met.
As we’ve established, the bishop pair is great on an open board.
So let’s figure out what the issue is with the bishop pair in closed positions:
As you can see, the position is closed and white’s bishop pair is very limited – both due to their own pawns and also because of Black’s.
They don’t have open diagonals, and there’s no opportunity for them to pressure or attack a weak pawn in black’s position.
On top of that, the knights have many outposts, and as we know, these make for excellent squares to place them.
In rare situations, a bishop pair may prove valuable in a closed position. But in general, they’re far stronger on an open board.
Now, let’s take a look at this fun position:
Can you see the power of the bishop pair?
There are no pawns on the board, but the bishops have completely paralyzed the knights!
How about a more practical position that will allow you to see the difference in more realistic conditions.
Here’s the main 2 bishops vs 2 knights difference.
In this position, the two bishops keep an eye on the kingside as well as the queenside. The bishop is a long-range piece so it can play on both sides of the board at the same time!
Meanwhile, the knight is a short-range piece that can’t move quickly from one side of the board to the other.
If the pawns are only on one side of the board, the power of the bishop pair will decrease:
This position is very drawish. The bishop pair is still stronger than the knight pair but it has less value as there’s only one side of the board for them to attack.
This time we’ll start from a game position.
It’s white to move – what would you play here?
There’s nothing wrong if you decided to take the d5 pawn with the bishop, but it’s better to do the same with the queen:
Black has to capture back, otherwise, the pawn on b7 will be lost so after
Let’s take a look at the position now:
As we’ve already seen in parts 2 and 3, the bishop pair works well with the king during an endgame. That’s the reason it was best to play 1.Qxd5 and trade-off the queens.
Another big benefit of double bishops is their long range.
Often, this makes them great at supporting passed pawns, even when they’re located on the other half of the board!
The position below illustrates how easy it is to push pawns when the bishop pair is supporting the advancement:
Just 1.a5 - 2.a6 - 3.Bf2 - 4.a7 and so on until it promotes.
You may say other pieces are also great at helping to push passed pawns, so why exactly is the pair so strong?
Take a look at the next position:
White’s pair on e2 and d2 not only helps to support their own pawn advancement but prevents black’s pawns from doing the same.
Therefore, whether black has a knight and bishop or 2 knights, the result will be the same.
To summarize all the previous chapters so far, we can conclude that in order for the bishop pair to be at their maximum strength, they need open lines.
Using this information, we’ll see a few examples of how to increase its strength:
In this position, white has space and double bishop advantage. However, the bishops on f3 and c3 are a bit limited and would be very grateful if they were transported to the position below:
Here we have the same position, just without white pawns on f4 and e4, and without black pawns on f6 and d6.
When the bishop pair has OPEN LINES, it becomes far stronger!
For this reason, in the first position white should play 1.e5
Trying to exchange pawns in the center and activate their 2 long-ranged minor pieces!
Enough of the endgames! Let’s have fun and test these guys in attack mode.
I’m sure you’ve already figured out that bishops with open lines aiming towards the enemy king are very deadly.
In this example, the power of one bishop is able to weaken the diagonals to make another one stronger.
White can play 1.Qf5 g6 2.Qf6.
With the help of the bishop on d3, black was forced to play 1...g6. But after 2.Qf6!, black can resign as the power of the bishop on b2 causes an unstoppable threat.
Let’s take a look at an example where the bishop pair can break through the pawns defending the enemy’s king.
Here, white’s bishop pair is pointing toward the kingside. The problem is white has no time to play slowly as the knight is attacking the bishop on d4.
Luckily there is a simple and strong tactical option that’s very common in situations like these:
1.Bxh7+ Kxh7 2.Bxg7 Kxg7 3.Qg5+
Black’s king is now naked and after 3...Kh8 4.Re3, white is easily winning. This attacking motif is also known as Lasker’s double bishop sacrifice.
Very often the side fighting against the bishop pair tries to exchange one of the bishops. Meanwhile, the side with the bishop pair tries to decline this gentle offer. In this part, we’ll see both ideas in action.
In the position below, black has the double bishop advantage:
It’s white to move, how would you continue?
Obviously, white has to trade off this strong bishop on e6!
1.Bc4 bxc4 2.Nxc4
Now black is left with a bad bishop and will have problems with their weakened control of the light squares.
Instead of having the power of the bishop pair, now black will be suffering an endgame with a lonely dark-squared bishop.
Now let’s take a look at another exchange example:
It’s white to move. What do you think is the most logical move here?
Naturally, white wants to trade off the light-squared bishop and leave black with the bishop on e7.
Now you may be thinking why do we have this position flipped?
The reason is that it’s black’s turn to make a great choice! 😉
Black tries to keep the 2 bishops. Later on, black will go Kc7 and reactivate the bishop from c8!
Obviously, making decisions like this can vary depending on the exact position. But in general, it’s good to understand the general strategy when playing with or vs a bishop pair.
In this part, we’ve seen how the side with the two bishops should do everything they can to keep them. In the next one, we’ll discuss situations where it may be wise for the bishop pair owner to exchange a bishop.
If you’ve never heard of transformation before, it means changing one form of advantage for another.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few situations where the side with the double bishops decides to exchange a bishop in order to get a different type of advantage in the position.
Here it’s white to move. What would you play?
If you try something seemingly logical like 1.Rc1, black can simply play 1...Nd4 and will have a very playable position.
That’s why white should instead play:
1.Bxc6! bxc6 2.Rc1
With this trade, white destroyed black’s pawn structure.
All of the highlighted pawns are weak and white will very comfortably attack them forcing black into a passive defense. Unexpectedly, even a strong fianchettoed bishop, may be worth exchanging!
Sometimes the bishop pair’s value is so big that the side holding it is ready to be a pawn down and their power is fully compensating for it.
For example, take a look at the position below:
White is a pawn down yet has a huge advantage after the very strong move 1.Qe4 (not allowing 1...Be5 or 1...Re8). Black’s position is paralyzed and the typical idea of playing h4-h5 will prove decisive.
Let’s take a look at an example where sacrificing a pawn makes sense in order to increase the power of the bishop pair:
Here it’s white to move and we need to activate our bishops.
The decision is simple and I’m sure you’ve already guessed the move…
1.f5! Bf5 2.Nf5 Qf5 3.Bd3 Qd7
Now that the bishops are free to control so many squares, black’s pieces are very limited. After Bf4 or Be5, they will be aiming at the king as well.
At this point, the engine evaluates the position as +3.00 – which is usually considered as having an advantage equal to a minor piece!
4.Rbc1 Re8 4.Be5
White controls the open files and open lines. Soon white can start weakening the black king’s position by creating a queen and bishop battery. Meanwhile, the black knights are paralyzed, and the rook can join the attack via e3-g3 as well.
White is a pawn down but in a completely winning position 🙂
Last but not least: imbalance!
Imbalance can be seen in situations where the bishop pair will outperform heavy pieces such as rooks or a queen!
In the position below, white has 2 bishops and 2 pawns vs 2 rooks yet the bishop pair is much stronger:
The bishop on d5 is on a great outpost and is closing the d file. Additionally, the bishops are aiming directly towards Black’s kingside. In such a position, white’s pawn advancement on the kingside with 1. g5 will prove decisive.
Now it's the queen’s turn to be outperformed!
Here the material imbalance is such that we have 2 bishops vs a queen and a pawn! But white is completely winning!
A combination of open lines and the bishop pair’s attacking power means they are simply exceeding the queen’s abilities!
White will slowly try to get control over the f6 square and once any of the knights get there without being exchanged it will be over.
Black lacks any counterplay too.
After 1.Ne4 black’s position is paralyzed and if black tries to create counterplay with 1...c5 activating the pieces, then 2.Ba4 is decisive!
This was an illustrative example but let’s now take a look at a game that happened in a real tournament.
Giri A. - Aronian L. 2018
It’s black to move here and the choice is very interesting.
Instead of running from the d1 rook, black decided to sacrifice their queen!
The reason is black will gain 2 strong bishops while white will be behind in development so the initiative and power of the pieces will be stronger than the queen.
1…hxg5! 2.Rxd8 Rad8 3.h3 Bc5! 4.Bd5 trying to close the d-file
4… Nxd5 5.exd5
White managed to close the "d" file and now wants to play Nd2 to develop the pieces. That means black needs to be really quick, hence why they played 5...e4!
If white accepts it then after Re8 and Re1 white will never be able to move the knight on b1 and it will be lost.
As happened in the game after 6.Qd1 e3 7.fxe3 Rfe8 8.Kh1 Rxe3
Black had a big advantage due to the power of their pieces and control of the open lines.
You can find the full game in my course about the power of the bishop pair.
Don’t give up your bishop pair without a good reason! 😉
Now that you know about these 11 key concepts, you’ll start to feel the power of your bishop brothers in your games!
If you want to learn more, check out my course on the power of the bishop pair where I explain each of these concepts in more detail – with many examples and model games. See you there!
P.S. Feel free to share any thoughts, feedback, and questions in our forum.
Originally published Apr 27, 2021