How To Improve As A Beginner#5 - Evaluating a Position

How To Improve As A Beginner#5 - Evaluating a Position


Hello again! If you have followed this series from the start, then you have done well to stick with me for so long, and if you are unfamiliar with this series then please check out my 4 previous installments. Anyway, probably the longest article I have written yet...

I have decided to look at a very deep topic, but in a way that should hopefully be accessible and helpful. I believe that to find the best moves - in any position - you need to have some idea on how to evaluate a particular position, and there are so many factors involved in such an evaluation, that it soon becomes meaningless to take a mathematical approach, as the number of possibilites snowballs out of control. However it is important to understand that chess engines do work by mathematical algorithms, and programmed methods. I suppose a major bonus of this is that they have no sentiment, and will not play a worse move because it looks more aesthetically pleasing.

For convenience I will break down the aforementioned factors into some main sub-groups.

Material - I know this sounds really obvious, and it is probably one of the first concepts you learnt, but a surplus of material for one side is a big factor. If you start a game of chess off with a rook up, then you should be able to win (if you don`t blunder) by the process of simplification. The idea is to swap off as many pieces as possible, and you will be left with a technical win; for example the king and rook versus lone king is a very fundamental winning endgame. The way in which material can be won or lost is often through tactics or mistakes, and the extent of complexity of these can be extreme. In fact, sometimes you are forced to deliberately squander some of your material, for a greater fear of entering a positionally awful position, which leads onto the next sub-group...

Positional - You may have heard the term 'sacrifice' be casually flung around in chess conversation. The truth is that there is a small percentage of positions where sacrificing is the best option, so although I think it is necessary and fun to sacrfice, one should always consider their opponents best defence, and calculate replies to those moves before entering a potentially losing position, but a sacrifice is essentially just one player wagering some material,in order to claim a better position and arrangement of pieces on the board, e.g. piece activity.

Within positional chess, there are some key areas:

  • A strong centre - you can cramp your opponent, aid a wing attack with a pawn on e5, said Nimzowitsch, and you are often more liikely to have room to maneaover and put your pieces on the best squares.
  • King safety - if your king is exposed in the middle of the board, then you may well be checkmated, but if you are castled up, then you are more likely to be safe.
  • Weaknesses - squares that are not well defended (by pawns) and may be subject to attack. For bishops (in the endgame), you want to have your pawns on the opposite colour square to your opponent`s bishop - so they can`t be targeted and captured.
  • Doubled pawns, there are a few exceptions, where doubled pawns can be a strength, to support a strong centre, however  the doubled pawns are often easier to target, and worse at stopping your opponent`s pawns.
  • Isolated pawns - pawns that aren`t defended by an adjacent pawn, so may be targeted.
  • Outposts - squares that you can put knights or bishops on, and your opponent can`t dislodge them easily, the outpost pieces can often help support an attack.
  • Backward pawns - pawns that are not defended by another pawn, and essentially form the roots of the chain, for example in the classical Dutch defence, in the lines where black takes on e4 with the f-pawn, black is worse, because white has los of pressure on the open e-file.
  • Passed pawns - these guys are really hard to stop. These are pawns that are beyond the defences of your opponent`s pawns, so they are more likely to promote.

Backwards e-pawn in the Classical Dutch Defence


 Activity of your pieces - It is really important to give some life to your pieces. To place them on active squares, where they have potential, and play a role in the game. An example of this is 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 The italian game - the light squared bishop on c4 is very active, because it is pointing towards the black king, and it is on a diagonal. In my first post, I made a point about not hemming your pieces in, and this links in here. what good is a piece if it is not playing in the game. When your pieces are really active, then you are more likely to make an attacking breakthrough, your opponent is less likley to be able to defend, you will have more tactics available, and a more dynamic array of continuations. In the Evans gambit, white sacrifices a pawn with 4. b4 and the whole point of this is to gain a strong centre, more time, and piece activity - a rook can go on the open e-file, your bishop can fly into g5, and your knights are swarming over the centre, ready to join the fray.

Tactics in the air - Sometimes things can smell a bit fishy, and that is probably because it is. With experience, you get to know when tactical motifs may be in the air, and you can either win material, win a positional advantage, or even win the game on the spot. The best way to get better at tactics is to practice your tactics with tactics trainer here, or to buy a puzzle book, and to regularely have a go at solving some of them. Tactics are so versitile, and the more complex ones can be a mixture of several tactics all at once, or they can be unusual moves, that are counter-intuitive. I am not going to bother naming them all, but in case you don`t have a clue what I am talking about: forks, pins, skewers, discovered attacks, etc.


Now to summarise all of the follwoing points, and link them together in such a way that one can successfully evaluate a position, this is where it becomes hard. When you play chess, there are so many factors that you have to consider, and prioritise what is the most important of them all. Is there a method that works in all positions in chess? No, sorry, but if there was, then either you would be a computer, or I would be very rich for discovering it. However, there are certain things that you can do to help you to prioritise the aspects of a position, and here they are...

First assess how critical the position is:

*All timings are based on a 15/10 rapid game.

  1. Really critical - there are tactics all over the place, and if I don`t find the best move, then I will probably be checkmated 4 moves down the line, or I will checkmate my oppoenent in a couple of moves. You should spend a while thinking of your next move (over 1 minute), and calculate the most forcing moves: checks, captures, and threats.
  2. Unstable - There are some tactical aspects to the position, and if I make an inaccuracy, then it will come back to haunt me 8 moves later in the game. There are some areas of the board that are under pressure, and some pieces are loose - undefended, or poorly defended. You should spend some time on a move in this position (25-45 seconds).
  3. Secure - There are very few, perhaps no tactics in the air, and there are a number of reasonalbe moves, that all lead to comfortable positions. These sorts of positions are often in the opening, where you might even know some theory to save yourself some time. I would recommend just playing natural moves (spend no longer than 20 seconds), otherwise you won`t have enough time to calculate in the critical positions.

Once you recognise what type of position it is, you should start to look at candiate moves (unless it is a secure position, then just play a strong move). These are your options...if one of them doesn`t work, then you can turn to your back-up plan. Calculation is often needed, to evaluate how strong such a move is, then you will be able to choose your prefered move.

Here is a position that a student of mine sent me:


 White has just played 16. g4, and it is black to move...

 From the key ideas listed before, I will start to evaluate this position (in a game, these thoughts are often jumbled and happen very rapidly. Like all of this text in 30 seconds):

  1. Material - each side has 8 pawns, and there have been no captures, so it is equal on material.
  2. Positional - weak pawns for white are the c3 pawn which is backward, and potentially the e3 pawn too, although that is currently well defended by the white queen. How can black attack these weaknesses? Black could try and get a knight to a4 via - Na7, Nc8, Nb6, Na4. It takes 4 moves - this is probably too slow, and white can defend this with a Nb1, a4, and an attack over there anyway, so I wouldn`t worry about that plan, but I would say that c3 is a long term weakness, because it is hard to undo - the break c4 is unplayable. On the other hand, black has weaknesses on a6 and on c7 - these pawns are backwards, and rely on pieces for protection. White is already targeting the c7 pawn with his dark squared bishop, but if black has any sense he will swap this off...Black can`t play a5, because he would lose the pawn on b5. Therefore, I would conclude that the positional aspects of the position are roughly equal, and neither side is in the lead at the moment.
  3. Piece activity - white has 2 bad knights on the edge of the board, which have a limited potential, but the dark squared bishop is good, outside the pawns. The queen and bishop are harmoniously placed, and if the black knight on f6 goes, then the queen can fly into h7 possibly. The rook on f1 might open up, if we try to break with f4, and in doing so also activate our dull knight. On the other hand, black`s pieces are also pretty inactive. The light squared bishop on d7 is a dead piece of wood, the knight on c6 has no future, and should probably take on e5 next move. Neither side really has a significant advantage in this area.
  4. Tactics in the air - There aren`t really many tactical ideas in the air at the moment. There are no open files, and to be honest, without piece activity it is hard to generate tactics, which rely on piece activity. It is a stalemate position at the moment.

From the evaluation, we have concluded that the position is roughly equal, but black`s king is slightly more vulnerable, and we have highlighted the issue that neither side has good piece activity, so that will directly affect their move choices. In this position, as black, I would consider the following candidate moves:

  1. Nxe5 - to get rid of black`s bad knight, and to relieve any pressure against c7. Also removing white`s only really active piece.
  2.  Ke7 - The black king is probably safer in the middle.

I  would choose Nxe5 though, on the maxim that in a cramped position you should aim to swap off pieces. In a 15/10 rapid game, I would probably spend 30 seconds on this move, because it is an unstable position. In other words, if black wasn`t careful, and played a move like Ng8, then after Bxg7 and Kxg7, Qh7+ would leave black in some trouble.

From here play could continue: dxe5 only move, Ng8, (here Qh7 is premature) f4 liberating the knight on h3, and black could try...f6 to hold the position together.

Your Turn

To give you some practice at this technique, please have a go at evaluating the following position, please leave a comment with your ideas in it...

This was a position that arose from a French defence after 16 is white to play.

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Thanks for reading this article, bye for now!