By Donny Gray
In over 30+ years of teaching, nothing instills fear into a student more than when I say, “Time to learn the bishop and knight checkmate!” Usually the response is something like “NOOOOOOOO!!!!”
Even high-rated players have an unnatural fear of this ending. Every chess player’s nightmare is having this position come up in a tournament game. The nightmare is complete with spectators watching and the clock ticking away.
Grandmasters have failed to win this ending! GM Vladimir Epishin and former Women’s World Champion GM Anna Ushenina are two that have this dubious distinction.
The only time this ending came up in a game of mine was online in a 5-minute game. When I had 60 seconds left on the clock, all of the pieces disappeared except my knight and bishop. Since I have tortured students with this ending year after year, I was able to win by checkmate–to the astonishment of my opponent.
In a tournament I once attended, I saw a 2400+ rated player and a 2500+ rated player playing an intense ending on one of the top boards. The 2500 player was losing slowly but surely, but had a great idea. He sacrificed all of his pieces just to give the 2400 player the famous knight-and-bishop ending. Since there was only about 5 minutes on the clock, he was gambling that his opponent could not do the mate in time. He was correct! His opponent ran out of time trying to mate, and of course the game was a draw.
One of the most common things I hear is, “No need in learning that, it will never happen in real life.” Perhaps. But learning it can help you in many ways. Learning how to control the king with so few pieces can also be very helpful in middle games, not just at the end. True, it may never come up, but if it does you need to at least know a little something about it or your nightmare will become reality.
First let’s take a look at some of the facts of this ending.
1. It is classified as one of the four “basic” checkmates. A basic checkmate is just your king with bare material against your opponent’s king that can result in a forced checkmate. The four are king and queen, king and rook, king and two bishops, and of course king, bishop, and knight.
2. Even in the worst possible position of your pieces, this checkmate can be forced in, at most, 33 moves. This gives you 17 moves to work with since you must have mate before the 50-move draw rule kicks in.
3. Checkmate can only be forced in the corner that is controlled by your bishop. It is possible to mate in the wrong corner or on the edge of the board, but it cannot be forced there.
4. This ending occurs approximately once every 6000 games.
5. Thanks to computers, we know that checkmate in this ending can be delivered in 460 different ways!
6. The two most popular methods of winning with the knight and bishop are the “W” method, analyzed by Philidor in 1749, and the “Triangle” method, analyzed by Daniel Deletang in 1923. The “Triangle” method takes about 10 more moves but is less complicated.
When I teach students this mate, I do not try to load them up with variations or methods. I try to get them to think about what is needed. So when and if this ending occurs, they can try to remember the thought process.
I will not go into showing you how to force the king to the wrong corner, as that is where everyone wants to go anyway. If they go to the correct corner, then there is hardly any work to be done.
Lets start with the king trapped in the wrong corner.
The black king must be forced to a corner that is the same color of your bishop. So we are going to force it to the square a8 in this example. There are two ways black can respond to this: he can always try to go back to where he came from, in this case h8; or at some point he can try to make a run for the opposite corner, in which case would be a1.
In our first example, we will look at when the black king constantly tries to go back to where he came from. What we have to do is control each square on the back rank one at a time. This will force the black king to the other corner.
We have now controlled h8. Seven squares to go.
1. … Kg8
Many times in endings such as this you must “waste” a move. We need to control g8 with our bishop, but can not at the moment. As soon as black moves, however, we can.
2. … Kf8
We now control g8. Six more squares to go.
3. … Ke8
And here is where black could have tried to run to a1 by playing Kd8, but instead continues to try to go back to h8.
Now we control f8. Five more squares to go.
5. … Ke8
Keeping the black king on the back rank
7. … Ke8
Just in time to control e8 and force him closer to the correct corner. Now only 4 more squares to go.
8. … Kd8
9. Nc5 Kc8
Yet another “waste time” move. Now black has a choice of two unpleasant moves. If Kb8, he is just moving straight into the corner that we can mate him. His only other choice is…
10. … Kd8
Controlling d8. Now only 3 more squares to go.
11. … Kc8
Now we control c8. Only 2 more squares to go.
14. … Kb8
Once the black king is trapped to only 2 squares, it is easy to see the mate coming. Just get the bishop beside the king and then it is mate soon.
And there we have it. The king and bishop are beside each other. We need now only to get the knight to be able to control b8 and the bishop to control a8.
17. … Ka8
And the knight delivers the mate. Nice.
Now we will go back in this example to move 4 to see how to do this problem if the black king tries to run.
The problem with this plan is he has to pass by the correct corner in his quest to get to a1.
This move and the move Nd3 will create a very nice wall.
6. … Kb6
And there it is. A very nice wall made by the king, bishop, and knight that contains the black king. It is almost the same technique that we used in the first example.
8. … Kb6
And now we have the king trapped with our king and bishop. Mate will now soon follow as in example #1.
18. … Ka8
And here the bishop delivers mate.
In closing, I would like to show a Grandmaster game where the bishop-knight mate occurred.
It was the 1997 World Under 20 Championship in round 12. I will give the entire game so you can see how this came about.
1997 World Under 20 Championship Round 12
White: Tal Shaked 2500
Black: Alexander Morozevich 2590
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nc3 e5 4. e3 e4 5. Qb3 Nf6 6. Bd2 Be7 7. Nh3 b6 8. cd cd 9. Nf4 Bb7
10. Bb5+ Kf8 11. Be2 g6 12. f3 Nc6 13. fe Na5 14. Qd1 de 15. O-O Kg7 16. Rc1 Rc8 17. Nb5 a6 18. Na3 Rc1 19. Qc1 b5 20. Qe1 Nc6 21. Bd1 Qd6 22. Bb3 Nb4 23. Nb1 Nbd5 24. Nc3 Nb6 25. a3 Rc8 26. Qe2 Nc4 27. Be1 Qd7 28. h3 Ne8 29. a4 Ned6 30. ab ab 31. Ncd5 Bd8 32. g4 Kg8 33. Nc3 Bc6 34. Na2 Na5 35. Bc2 b4 36. Nb4 Bb5 37. Qf2 Bf1 38. Qf1 Nac4 39. Nfd5 f5 40. gf Qf5 41. Qf5 gf 42. Bc3 Bh4 43. Ba4 Kh8 44. Nc2 h6 45. Kf1 Rb8 46. b3 Nb6 47. Nb6 Rb6 48. d5+ Kh7 49. Bd4 Rb7 50. Bc5 Bg3 51. Nd4 Rf7 52. Ke2 f4 53. ef Bf4 54. b4 Bg3 55. Ne6 Rf5 56. Bc6 Nc4 57. d6 Nd6 58. Bd6 Bd6 59. Be4 Bb4 60. Bf5+ Kh8 61. Kf3 h5 62. Kg3 Be1+ 63. Kf4 h4 64. Kg5 Kg8 65. Kg6 Bf2 66. Be4 Be1 67. Bc6 Bf2 68. Be8 Be1 69. Bf7+ Kh8 70. Nd4 Bf2 71. Nf5 Be1 72. Bc4 Bf2 73. Kf7 Be1 74. Bd3 Bf2 75. Ne7 Bc5 76. Ng6+ Kh7 77. Nxh4+ Kh8 78. Kg6 Kg8 79. Nf5 Bf2 80. h4 Bh4 81. Nh4
After White’s 81st move, we see how Shaked won the game.
Kf8 82. Kf6 Kg8 83. Nf3 Kf8 84. Ne5 Kg8 85. Nf7 Kf8 86. Bh7 Ke8 87. Ne5 Kd8 88. Ke6 Kc7 89. Nd7 Kc6 90. Bd3 Kc7 91. Be4 Kd8 92. Kd6 Ke8 93. Bd5 Kd8 94. Bf7 Kc8 95. Nc5 1-0
After White’s 95th move, black resigned. Let’s see why.