Last week, we looked at reducing tension or pressure within a position. I was going to give you some positional examples this week, but realized that I needed to add two additional components to the mix, relative value and the trading of material. There’s more to relative value than meets the eye, especially if you’re a beginner. We’ll look at relative value in detail and how it applies to the reduction of tension or pressure this week and tackle the trading of material next week.
If you watch young beginners early in their playing careers, you’ll see them making lopsided trades, exchanging their Queen for a Knight or a Rook for a pawn. This occurs because the beginner has not yet grasped the value of pawns and pieces. Eventually, they are wise up and strictly adhere to the relative value of the pawns and pieces when trading or exchanging material. The relative value scale is simple in theory. A pawn is worth 1 point. Knights and Bishops are worth 3 points each. The Rook is worth 5 points. The Queen is worth 9 points and the King is considered priceless (the King has an endgame value of 4 points according to some). However, this is a “relative” value scale, meaning that these values are not set in stone. What? Let’s look at the Knight, Bishop and pawn.
Knights and Bishops have a relative value of 3 points. Since relative value approximately mirrors the power a piece has, Knights and Bishops are equal in power, right? Not so fast! Bishops are long distances pieces that flourish if they have room to move or mobility. If a position is open, with lots or empty squares available for a piece to take advantage of, then Bishops have greater power than Knights (who are short distance pieces) and subsequently a slightly higher value (3.75). Knights, on the other hand, flourish when a position is closed, having very few open or empty squares. Because the Knight can jump over pawns and pieces, it has a slightly higher value than the Bishop in a closed position (3.75). Now for the pawn. The lowly pawn has the lowest relative value of all. However, the pawn has a special power, one the pieces do not have, the ability to promote. A pawn one square away from promotion should certainly be considered to be more valuable that a single point. After all, that pawn could promote into a Queen and then be worth 9 points.
You have to be careful when considering relative value in terms of reducing tension or pressure. Strictly adhering to the relative value system can make matters worse! Somewhere, someone reading this is thinking “what the….aren’t we supposed to use relative value to guide material exchanges?” Let me explain. If you are in a position in which your opponent has created a large amount of pressure or positional tension on your side of the board, you need to reduce that pressure or tension to avoid a mating attack or major damage. In life and in chess, sometimes the solutions to our problems are not as neat and clean as we’d like them to be! Let me explain!
Once the beginner has a grasp of the relative value of the pawns and pieces, he or she adds them to a list of chess knowledge to commit to memory. They start employing the idea of relative value in their games and stop giving their Queen away for a pawn. However, they treat relative value as a law written in stone. They only exchange material if they gain a material advantage (in terms of relative value) or the exchange is equal, such as trading a Knight for a Bishop. This generally works throughout the game. However, there are exceptions.
What makes chess extremely interesting is that the very principles and concepts that guide good play can be bent to your advantage, but only if you don’t break that principle or concept. There are also times within a game, or specifically a position, that you have to do something that runs counter to common sense. It takes years to develop the ability to bend principles and concepts or make moves that fly in the face of common sense that still work.
Regarding the relative value of the pawns and pieces, beginners wouldn’t, for example, trade their Queen for a Knight, even if doing so would leave them equal or ahead in material. Even if trading their Queen for a Knight would completely defuse a potential mating attack against the beginner’s Queen would they make the trade! This brings me to the next point I want to make, the success of an exchange is often measured by things other than gaining more relative points than your opponent.
Let’s say you’re the above mentioned beginner and you’re facing a great deal of positional tension created by your opponent’s Knight. At worst the enemy Knight and it’s supporting pieces will be able to checkmate your King in two moves. At best, you lose material due to a possible fork. You can stop either of these events from occurring if you are willing to trade your Queen for that Knight. You do a quick assessment of your material and that of your opponent and see that you will be two pawns down after trading your Queen. Should you do it? Either you get checkmated or you lose material that is worth more than two pawns, so the answer is yes. Sadly, beginners will try to hang onto their Queens. Beginners don’t see the bigger picture!
If you think about what you get from the exchange of Queen for Knight in terms of not getting checkmated as having a greater value that supersedes the relative value system, you’ll be able to get yourself away from tense positions. Stopping a Knight attack that might cost you more material than two pawns, demonstrates there are dividends to such an action. Don’t just think about exchanges as an act of accounting with the relative value system as it’s actuary table. Sometimes you have to take one step back in order to move two steps forward!
The same idea of trading more for less holds true when setting up your own mating attack against your opponent. When a player castles on the King-side, there are generally three pawns on the rank in front of the King to provide protection. These are the f, g, and h pawns. These three pawns can work together defensively. The removal of one of those pawns can often make it easier to attack the enemy King. Therefore, stronger players will consider trading a piece for one of those pawns. While you’re losing material in this type of exchange, you are making it easy to get at the enemy King which will hopefully lead to checkmate and you winning the game. What you lose in relative value you gain in opportunity!
Next week, we’ll look at exchanging material and some special situations to consider before jumping blindly into trading pieces. Always look for non material advantages to be gained from an exchange of material. These advantages are often a lot more valuable than you think. However, if you trade a piece of greater value for a piece of lesser value, make sure you have a really good reason for doing so. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!
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