Examining the Material Element in Chess
Some chess pieces are more powerful than others. Some are stronger than others. The element of material is concerned with this relative strength of the pieces.
It is quite common to see advantages in other elements converted into an advantage in material, because an advantage in material is the easiest advantage to convert into a win.
Value your pawns and pieces
Each pawn or piece has a numerical value. The pawn is the basic unit of chess and is assigned a numerical value of one. The other pieces are evaluated in those same terms. Therefore, if a pawn is worth one point, a knight is worth more: three points. In other words, you lose two points in the element of material if you trade a knight for a pawn. You would need to capture three enemy pawns (or one knight) to compensate for the loss of your knight. The relative values of the pieces are shown in Table 1.
Table 3-1: The Relative Values of Chess Pieces (in Terms of the Pawn)
Assigning a value to the king is not possible because its loss means the loss of the game!
Material superiority is decisive when all other things are equal. If you can win one pawn, winning another or forcing further concessions from your opponent is often possible. Things are rarely equal in chess, though, and it's sometimes impossible to correctly evaluate when an advantage in material matters more than an advantage in some other element. Is it worth a pawn to gain space? Usually, only experience can answer this kind of question.
Pieces themselves can gain or lose power depending upon their positioning. Having an advanced pawn deep in enemy territory may be far more important than having a measly knight tucked away in a corner. A bishop locked behind its own pawns may not be worth a fraction of a free roaming knight. These values are relative and can change many times over the course of the game. Nevertheless, remembering the piece's relative value when you consider trading it for another is a useful guide. If you give up your queen for a pawn, you'd better have a darned good reason!
A good rule is to exchange pieces when you have an advantage in material. This strategy is referred to as simplification. For example, if you have an extra pawn, but both you and your opponent have a bishop, it's usually easier to win if you trade your bishop for your opponent's and play the rest of the game with just kings and pawns.
Material superiority takes on added importance the closer you come to an endgame. A single pawn advantage may mean little in the opening — but it may be decisive in the endgame. This strategy illustrates how you can force additional concessions from your opponents. If you keep offering to exchange pieces, and your opponents keep refusing, they will be forced to retreat. The result? You wind up with a spatial advantage, too!
Because exchanges are desired by the side with an edge in material, it's logical to avoid them if you are behind.
The intentional loss of material in return for an advantage in another element is referred to as a sacrifice. Sacrifices are near and dear to the heart of chess players who know that — should they not obtain an immediate advantage — time will work against them. The closer you get to an endgame, the more important the extra material becomes. This risky maneuver is considered courageous by some and foolhardy by others. You can often tell a lot about chess players by watching how they risk or conserve their material!
The following rules are meant to serve as guidelines and not as rigid rules. Every time chess players try to devise a rigid rule, some smart aleck comes along and breaks it! Nevertheless, it is useful to at least think about the concepts presented here:
- When ahead in material, force exchanges and steer towards the endgame. Simplify!
- Open files and diagonals when possible so that you may use them to engage the enemy and force further concessions.
- If possible, win material without sacrificing in some other element.
- Material is usually more important than other elements, so take it if it is offered — unless you have a really good reason not to.
- If you are behind in material, avoid exchanging additional pieces, but do not become passive. You must attack!