16 September 2018

Knights before Bishops

Most chess players have heard the rule that one should deploy a knight towards the center before moving a bishop. The standard move order in the Spanish opening is a good example--for White, a center pawn, the king's knight, and then the king's bishop. The Italian opening follows the same sequence. Likewise, in many lines of the Queen's Gambit, White will deploy both knights before moving a bishop. In other lines one knight comes out and one bishop a move or two later, while the other minor pieces await developments that reveal their best square.

However, in the London System, White plays the queen's bishop on the second move, and may bring out both bishops before a knight moves. Likewise, Black's first minor piece to come out in the Caro-Kann is a bishop.

Erik Kislik states that knights before bishops, "is not a very useful rule" (27) in Applying Logic in Chess (2018). This rule is the first of ten that Kislik quotes from the work of some unnamed grandmaster, presented as rules for beginners. He makes an important point:
Rules in chess assume 'all else is equal',but all else rarely is equal, so we need to judge ideas based on specific circumstances. Most of the time, advice given to amateurs is in the form of rules. Chess is a concrete game though, and more often than not, this advice is too stereotypical to be of much applicable value.
Kislik, Applying Logic in Chess, 26.
Kislik runs through each of the ten rules, offering his views of how each develops principles in certain circumstances but falls short in others. His analysis is almost completely verbal, with few diagrams and analysis of specific positions.

The Review

John Hartmann sold me Kislik's book through his review in Chess Life ("Logical Ambition," CL, September 2018, 20-21). Hartmann calls Kislik's book "one of the most interesting titles to appear in recent years, ... also one of the most maddening" (20). Hartmann notes that the cover, with a flowchart for making decisions in chess, is "misleading": "There is nothing in the text that resembles a flowchart for thought" (21). Kislik's view of logic and reason is more modest.

Another book on my shelf offers flowcharts, Paata Gaprindashvili, Imagination in Chess: How to Think Creatively and Avoid Foolish Mistakes (2004). I reviewed it here on Chess Skills in February 2017. The core of that book is found in the quality and difficulty of the exercises. I have found the flowcharts marginally useful.

Hartmann's comments took me back forty years when some fellow undergraduates were taking a course on logic and making the efforts to systemize thought in terms like, "if p, then q". I did not find such an approach to logic any more useful for learning to think than studying semiotics for learning to read and write. The notion that seemed to represent this more modest view of logic, which Hartmann quotes from later in Kislik's book, that chess errors always can be explained clearly, was enough to interest me in the book.

Hartmann also notes that, "there are multi-page stretches unsullied by diagrams or analysis" (21).

Kislik's Assessment

After declaring the rule "not ... useful", Kislik highlights both its merits and shortcomings. He starts out noting that the corollary to the rules that, "developing bishops early on is suboptimal ... is definitely not true" (27). What matters, he suggests, are the reasons. Kislik highlights piece coordination, the principle of improving the worst-placed piece, and flexibility. The last is where the rule's merits become evident. The knight on g1 usually finds itself well-placed on f3 early in the game, but the optimal placement of the bishops is less certain.

His views on this rule and those that follow are thought provoking and worthy of attention. Nonetheless, his discussion seems incomplete. He laments the instruction methods for beginners that proclaim these rules without, "making sense of the principle or idea, or understanding where it came from" (26). My way of thinking about "where it came from" drives me towards historical explanations. Kislik does not offer any history of these rules.

In Common Sense in Chess (1917), Emanuel Lasker offers the text of lectures that he presented in London in 1895. In the first of these lectures, he develops four rules--including knights before bishops--through concrete analysis of several short model games. Five years ago, these rules and games, as well as a few others that I selected, comprised the core of my lessons for youth players over several sessions (see Lasker's Rules).

Rule Independence

Erik Kislik is not original in his suggestion that concrete analysis of specific positions should take precedence over abstract and universal rules. This idea was well-expressed in John Watson, Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy: Advances since Nimzowitsch (1998). Even so, strong Grandmasters who teach young players still promulgate these rules with the understanding that their pupils will need to learn how and when to violate them. I recall during a tournament broadcast a few years ago, hearing Peter Svidler discuss his struggle with both promoting and resisting the teaching of such rules. These rules have a purpose even though in the long-run they can retard development.

Consider the very common position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5

White to move

Many youth players will not reach this position because they would have played 3.Nc3. While this move is not inherently bad, young players will make it by rote, often oblivious to the moves played by Black. They will often play it without thinking. Kislik's underlying notion, it seems to me, is that even at this early stage of the game, it is critical that reasoning must be part of every move. Whether one plays 3.Nc3, 3.Bc4, 3.Bb5, 3.d4, or some other move, it must be rooted in understanding.

From the diagram, most of the youth games that I have witnessed continue 4.Nc3. Master games, on the other hand, more often proceed with 4.d3 or 4.c3 (which violates one of Lasker's rules). In my play, I favor 4.c3 as more dynamic, and I usually will follow it with 5.d4. However, as more and more opponents fail to exhibit the greed that leads to disaster in the Greco Gambit, I am shifting towards 5.d3.

In my play and in my teaching, I teach students that it is okay to play 4.Nc3 (or 3.Nc3), even though I think there are stronger moves. What is critical, I urge is that these moves are made with thought and understanding, not simply played by rote. In the end, that's the point of these rules for development: they are guidelines that assist our thinking, not rules that direct our play. I think Kislik agrees.


  1. An interesting post. I had never head of Kislik nor his book, but it seems he is a 2344-rated IM and a succesful trainer, with a couple of GMs as his "prodigies", so to speak.

    In fact, after following a couple of links, I realised that I had heard of him before via the blog of Dan McKenzie ( in 2007[http://www.danamackenzie.com/blog/?p=685 ] and in 2009 [ http://www.danamackenzie.com/blog/?p=11 ]) the latter even has a comment from August 2018 about the book Kislikhas just had published, so someone else has also been o his trail !

    The blog posts describe him as a "Chess Hobo", since at that time, his life was more-or-less filled ( obsessed, dare I say ?) with chess. He described his goal at that point ..."to read every book written by a living master rated over 2600. (He doesn’t think that lower-rated authors are worth bothering with. Also, older players like Alekhine and Capablanca are not relevant to modern chess, because their opponents did not play the kind of dynamic, fighting chess you see today.) There are fewer qualifying books than you would think, because the very top players are not the most prolific writers. He estimates that there are about sixty books that fit his criteria, and he has read about half of them."

    An interesting goal and point of view, I assume he would have achieved it by now, since that was over 10 years ago.

    Your review and comments has done more than enough to stir my interest, and I have downloaded the sample pages ( index + chapter 6 on how to analyse a position) to see if it is for me.

    I also like your focus on the rules he is examining, and your observation that "they are guidelines that assist our thinking, not rules that direct our play" … an excellent way of describing them, thanks for that insight.

    1. I hadn't heard of him before reading Hartmann's review. The book is interesting.