Have you ever seen one of those situations – let’s say on National Geographic or some other nature show – where a group of hyenas are trying to steal a lion’s fresh kill? One hyena jumps in and the lion bats him away, but meanwhile another one is reaching for the fallen wildebeest, and then two more jump on the lion’s back to keep him busy…Well, we have our equivalent in chess. This is where a queen is battling against a horde of smaller pieces. This week we will be examining this situation.
When we first start playing chess, we tend to imagine that material values are set in stone. But in reality it is far more complicated than that. The immediate value of a piece is based on how many important squares it controls. Thus, a player could have a knight against a rook – nominally a material disadvantage – but the knight could in reality be worth more if it is placed on a strong square and the rook meanwhile has no open lines. Okay, we can all appreciate that. But the difficulty comes in when you have to consider also potential activity. See, that rook might be worth less at the moment, but unless the side with the strong knight can achieve something relatively quickly, the side with the rook might manage to open some lines and eventually the basic superiority of the rook would show itself. Judging these things is the real difficulty.
Judging a trade of a queen for several minor pieces can be quite difficult and takes some experience to get it right. For example, take the following position, which occurred in this game and many more since:
Right out of the opening White “sacrificed” three minor pieces for a queen and a pawn. Technically White has a material advantage of ten “pawns” against nine. Who actually stands better? This is a controversial question. In fact, Garry Kasparov mocked Ponomariov for playing white here, saying something to the effect that any experienced player would know that Black is better. There are many positions where three minor pieces simply annihilate a queen, especially early in the game. This is because early in the game there are many pieces to protect each other, so the queen cannot use her huge forking ability. Meanwhile she has to run from attacks by the smaller pieces because she is more valuable.
However, Ponomariov won this game and later played the same variation again. Other strong players have also played this line, with good results. While the conventional view would be that the pieces were superior, in this case Black has certain problems, especially in activating the light-squared bishop. White meanwhile can place his hopes in the three-to-one pawn majority on the queenside. Ponomariov showed the plan, which was used in many other games.
Strangely, this variation seems to be a favorite of future stars. It was also used by a (at the time) 2364-rated Hikaru Nakamura, a 2340-rated Surya Ganguly, a 2202-rated Matthieu Cornette, 2185-rated Katerina Lahno, and 2361-rated Igor Kurnosov, among others. So if you want to be a star, just play this sideline against the Taimanov!
Another variation is well-known as leading to a queen versus pieces scenario in the opening. But I think this one is definitely no fun for the queen:
Here Black has the queen and two pawns against three minor pieces, nominally an advantage of two “points”. But here the minor pieces coordinate well to create threats, and the queen is hard to activate. The missing pawns only give White dangerous open files.
In certain situations, even only two minor pieces can dominate a queen. In order for this to happen, the position has to be remarkably static and unable to open up, which would allow the queen’s potential superiority to show itself. I had a game with such a situation in 2009 (you can find it in my article, “Balancing on the Edge”), yet this experience did not prevent me from being surprised by the uselessness of my queen in the following game. This was near the end of the tournament, and I was very tired – most likely my opponent as well. Neither of us had played particularly well, and now I made what seemed like the winning move. My opponent had missed it, but this did not prevent him from quickly deciding on a brilliant positional queen sacrifice:
Although I was clearly winning in this game, and could also have taken a draw rather than walking into checkmate, his queen sacrifice was justified. Despite his huge material disadvantage, around move thirty to thirty-two, I would have preferred the white side.
When does the queen really show its strength? The basic rule is that the more open the position, the less pieces overall – the stronger the queen. There are plenty of examples of the queen prevailing over even a huge army, when there are unguarded pieces and an exposed king. Check out the following position, which shows the queen’s enormous forking power:
Allow me to show you the entire game, since this was one of my best games from long ago, with a surprising series of sacrifices:
In conclusion, the main advantage the lioness has over the hyenas is that she can attack two of them at once. But remember, she needs lots of open space in order to do this!