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Exchange of Quality, Part 1

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Jun 6, 2013

I am going to begin a series on the positional exchange sacrifice, consisting of several articles. There are of course many different possible justifications for an exchange sacrifice, and I cannot cover all of them. But we will be focusing on a few examples which illustrate the battle between a rook and a minor piece where - atypically - the minor piece turns out to be the stronger piece.


We all probably know the point system of material in chess. Thus a rook is worth five "pawns" and a bishop or knight about three. Where did this point system come from? Is it written into the rules of chess or was it handed down from the gods? Perhaps Philidor or someone was strolling down a country path one day and an angel appeared, with a fiery scroll that said: "Thine queen shall be equal to nine pawns"? And if so, did Philidor, or whoever it was (perhaps Ruy Lopez?), wonder how those nine pawns would get on the chessboard?

In reality, the point values of pieces - which every chess player learns soon after learning how they move - are just approximations made by people of the average strength of the pieces. Probably these numerical values became accepted shortly after the rules of chess were changed to the modern version in the late Middle Ages or Renaissance. But these values are only averages - quite frequently positions arise where a "weaker" piece proves better than the "stronger" one, and not just for temporary, tactical reasons.

Bishop against Rook

Rooks and bishops are both long-distance pieces. The rook is considered to be worth more because it has a higher maximum mobility - on an open board rooks can move to 14 different squares, while a bishop can, at the most, cover 13. Another advantage that a rook has over a bishop is that it can control squares of both colors. Thus a rook is very adept at attacking pawns, which cannot easily escape.


On the other hand, the rooks' superior strength hinges on whether it is able to break into the opponent's position. Rooks do better in positions where there are few pawns - thus many open files. If the position contains many pawns, then often a rook is unable to show its strength, and the bishop becomes its equal. Thus, ideal for the bishop in its battle with the rooks is a position with lots of pawns - but preferably not blocked, which would also impair the bishop's mobility. A fluid, united pawn chain is best, with plenty of support points for the bishop. Add some slight weaknesses on the opposing side, and the bishops will win the battle. Here we will see a far-sighted exchange sacrifice made in the opening for the purpose of creating such a structure:

Usually a rook is worth more than a bishop, but they are both long-distance pieces. Here the position was such that the diagonals proved more important than the files, and therefore the bishops won.

In the Chicago Open in 2009 one of my opponents - IM Florin Felecan - played a similar exchange sacrifice, in the same opening variation. His sacrifice was even more radical, since there were no defects in my pawn structure and the queens were still on the board. It had never been seen in that particular position before, and never has since. But nevertheless it was very difficult to come up with a plan as white. Although I ended up winning the game, during the middlegame black's play came together, and surprisingly black developed enough compensation.

Here we have seen examples of structural compensation for the exchange sacrifice. Simply put, the overall structure of the position made the rooks less valuable than they would ordinarily be. In future articles we will be seeing other justifications for positional exchange sacrifices.


  • 24 months ago


    Tempo means to gain a full move, example discovered checks are a good way to understand.  If you need to move a knight twice to mate a discovered check or sacrifice gains time or tempo and thus mate is accomplished by gaining the knight an extra move.  Tempo is a deadly weapon. 

  • 2 years ago


    You Play:White

    My Score: 100%

  • 2 years ago


    @Golden D: I think "tempo" refers to an advantage in time. If we say White has gained a tempo, that will mean Black needs to spend the next couple of moves developing their pieces, defending a weakness etc. This will leave White time to launch an attack. In practice, tempo is most frequently observed in openings. A player may wish to sacrifice some piece to suppress their opponent's development.

    Oh, btw, if you're talking about zebra7's comment, then it can be intepreted as "the rook can go to c1 just in time".

  • 2 years ago


    Nice article Bryan, and thanks for not just trotting out the usual Petrosian games.  It was nice to see some unfamiliar games with the exchange sac theme that were played this century.

    Also, your explanations were very clear and instructive.

  • 2 years ago


    uh guys.. what is the meaning of tempo? sorry im still new Innocent

  • 2 years ago


    How about not moving the queen to anywhere on the c file so the rook can go to c1 with tempo.

  • 2 years ago


    Hi BleedDodgerBlue.  You have to consider the best moves for both sides.  You can't prove anything by giving a bad move (8...Qc6).

  • 2 years ago


    How can Black be rated 2369 and play 6...d6 instead of 6...Bxc3+  ?

  • 2 years ago


    Bryan, you could also post in this article Carlsen - Aronian (Botvinnik Memorial) and Ponomariov - Svidler (world cup). Both very instructive games on certain positions where bishops are preferred over rooks and played by the best nonetheless.

  • 2 years ago


    Hi Bryan!
    I really enjoyed this article and I am looking forward to the sequels. Important and difficult subject.

    Thanks for good quality.


  • 2 years ago


    Thanks for the article!


    A little observation from a patzer:

    in my limited patzeresque experience, many times the added value I got when I sacrified the exchange was in that one more Pawn I could keep by doing so, especially when it was part of a mobile chain and sat on the 4th rank or further (i.e. it's the Pawns which gain power rather than the minor piece, and the opponent's Rook/s lose effectiveness because of protected Pawns reaching the 6th rank and/or because all files are closed after the exchange sac).

  • 2 years ago


    Smith, Bryan (2474) vs. Felecan, F. (2369)

    30. ...e4 ? Nc3 should be played immediately I think

    e4 is blundering for me... won game for black..

  • 2 years ago



  • 2 years ago


    The first game was very impressive. Thanks for sharing!

  • 2 years ago


    Is 6...bxc3 in game 1 really that bad? I know the queen can't move but I don't see any immediate way that white can win it. Computer says it's even. 

  • 2 years ago


    Nice article, Bryan

  • 2 years ago


    Very instructive, thanks.

  • 2 years ago


    Interesting games. Excellent article. I'm trying to draw a lesson here to help identify when this sacrifice is a good idea. Looks to me like the common element was that the center files were only half open throughout most of the game, and this put the rooks into a coma. 

    In the second game, when the center pawns disappeared, white's pieces came to life, giving him a chance to win even though black had taken back the exchange and was a pawn ahead. So as black in a position like this, it appears to be a good idea to maintain the integrity of the center in order to keep a strangle hold on white and his rooks.

  • 2 years ago



    Really a great article, though I wish it was... well, more extensive. I mean, ok, I get the point(s) it's written about, but I'm not sure it's enough to actually allow me to use it (them) in practice

  • 2 years ago

    NM ozzie_c_cobblepot

    Cool games.

    I'm wondering if you could address the question of how often the one who sacrifices the exchange "wants to", compared with "feels like he has to". I think lots of players can relate to being in a situation which feels bad, but thinking that they got to make the best of it. Sort of "hey I'm going to go down either 1 pawn where opponent has the initiative, or sack the exchange for opponent bad structure and blunted initiative." So it costs an extra pawn, but is it worth it.

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