“It is not a move, even the best move that you must seek, but a realizable plan” - Eugene Znosko-Borovsky
To learn how to play chess and become a good player, you need to know more about the game, which involves learning how to play the game, how the pieces move, and the best strategies. Each piece has a role from the king to the lowly pawns.
In this article, we’re looking at the bishop, how it came to be in the game, and the tactics that it can use.
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The Origins of Chess
Chess originated in India. Over 1,500 years ago, the game involved tactics and reasoning and became hugely popular around the world.
While fun, a game of chess is also stimulating on an intellectual level. The game has evolved over the centuries, but it remains based on two armies in a battle.
The legend goes that the game was created by the Brahmin Sissa who was tasked with designing a pastime for the bored king. He created the game, which was called shatranj, to keep the king busy in his palace. The king was so happy that he asked Sissa what he’d like as a reward. Humbly, Sissa asked for a single grain of wheat on the first square, with the number doubling each with each tile of the chessboard.
The king happily accepted. However, he didn’t think about what he was agreeing to. When the vizier did a quick calculation, he realised that this would result in more wheat than the annual harvest. It would effectively starve the country.
Sissa was after 18, 446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of wheat! Even at the current levels of production, it would take over 1,500 years to gather that much wheat. Since Sissa was just messing with the king, he didn’t claim the reward. The king considered Sissa as his equal and the two would play many games of chess over the years.
The Bishop During Chess’ Time in Persia
Before there was the bishop, the piece was known as al fil, which means the elephant.
This could jump diagonally a distance of two squares. Which meant that the piece could only move to 8 different squares on the board. After chess’ predecessor spread through the Arab world to Europe, the elephant was left behind.
In French, the piece was called the fol, which probably referred to the king’s fool or jester. This is was probably an evolution of fil. Either way, the idea of the piece being an elephant faded away and the piece was more in line with the idea of the king’s court and army. After all, chess is a battle to capture the enemy’s king.
The elephant played a similar role in battles to a knight on horseback would and since European armies didn’t have elephants, European players replaced this piece with something that made more sense to them.
Historians still aren’t sure why they chose a member of the king’s court rather than another military position and believe it may have just been down to some simple miscommunication about the names of the pieces.
Certain aspects of the game remain shrouded in mystery, but in the English-speaking world, this piece became the bishop and the piece certainly looks like a bishop’s mitre.
The bishops start on the squares c1 and f1 for white and c8 and f8 for black.
Here’s a quick reminder for beginners. A chess set consists of:
- A board of 64 squares
- 8 vertical lines known as files
- 8 horizontal lines known as ranks
- 26 diagonal lines (13 black and 13 white)
Each player has:
- 1 king
- 1 queen
- 2 bishops
- 2 knights
- 2 rooks
- 8 pawns
The bishop can only move diagonally and never horizontally or vertically. This movement gives it a wide reach across the board and allows it to move quickly across the length or width of the board. However, as it moves diagonally, it can never change the colour of the square it’s on.
A bishop is useful in open positions without pawns blocking its path through the centre of the board. You can place the bishop into the fianchetto, a strategic position that allows it to occupy the main diagonals in the game.
This is one of the hypermodern openings with the bishop becoming a powerful weapon that your opponent shouldn’t underestimate. In this position, castling can be useful.
It would be silly to put yourself at risk of check after just a few moves!
The Good Bishop and the Bad Bishop
You may hear about good and bad bishops. A bishop’s utility depends on where the friendly pawns are positioned.
A good bishop has pawns on its opposing colour while a bad bishop has pawns on squares of the same colour, which means they will get in its way. As pawns are captured, the bishop becomes more useful.
In open positions with clear routes through the diagonal, a bishop can attack the king and protect the flanks against the opponent’s queen. The bishop is a ranged piece but it can only control squares of its colour, which is why the two bishops complement one another well.
When bishops work together, they’re better than a bishop and a knight. The knight’s reduced mobility means that it won’t be able to join the fight as quickly as a bishop. Another advantage of a pair of bishops is that you can sacrifice one for an enemy knight.
With a bit of training and practise, you’ll soon start to see how useful bishops can be, but you won’t become a master overnight so don’t hesitate to play against your friends and family or join a chess club.
There are also plenty of great chess websites where you can play against others and there’s nothing better than practice for getting better at chess.
Sacrificing the Bishop to Open Games
The bishop is often one of the first sacrifices made in matches:
- On f2 or f7 if the opposing king is still in the centre, these pawns are only defended by the king.
- On h2 or h7 and after queenside castling, the sacrifice can open the h-file and bring the queen and knight into the game.
- On h3 or h6 after queenside castling and an advanced h-pawn, which can open the g-file.
It’s important to open certain lines with pawns and sacrificial pieces.
It’s through these files that you can penetrate the enemy’s defences. Pawn placement is as important as any other part of the strategy so consider watching videos online to learn about different strategies.
You don’t need to be Fischer or Kasparov to talk about chess. Here’s a quick anecdote:
Did you know that the world champion Magnus Carlsen lost his first match after 125 games? Any guesses what caused the loss?
Quickly losing his bishop.
Incredible, isn’t it?
Even the greats can lose games through a simple error. Everyone needs to analyse their games, memorise strategies, sequences, and opening, and regularly practise to get better at the game. Regularly playing will teach you how to win or save losing positions.
So are you ready to play?
If you'd like to learn more about chess, get in touch with one of the many talented and experienced chess tutors on the Superprof website. Whether you're a novice looking to learn how to play or an experienced player wanting to improve your game, there are tutors all over the country and around the world who can teach you.
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Face-to-face tutoring is the most cost-effective since it's just you and your tutor and every minute of every session will be spent focusing on you and your learning. However, these types of tutorials are usually the most expensive since the tutor spends time outside of the lessons adapting each session to you.
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Group tutoring is great for those on a budget as you can share the cost of your tutoring with the other students in the class and you'll also have more people to play chess against!
Don't forget that a lot of the tutors on Superprof offer the first lesson for free so consider trying a few before picking the tutor that's right for you.
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