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Chess Lesson #37: Winning Material Isn't Winning

Chess Lesson #37: Winning Material Isn't Winning

Apr 28, 2017, 8:43 AM 1
While being ahead in material is a tactical advantage, it is not a strategic advantage, and it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for winning.
After playing a few games of chess, most players are familiar with a weaker version of the above thesis: "being ahead in material isn't a guarantee you'll win."
However, it's worth delving into the details and unpacking the strong version.
  1. Being ahead in material is a TACTICAL advantage: Having more numerous or mobile pieces than your opponent lets you defend better, attack more pieces, threaten more squares, and checkmate more easily.
  2. It is not a STRATEGIC advantage: The discussion of the difference between tactics and strategy is best kept for another time, but for now let's just translate it this way: being up in material is a good situation to be in, but it can't be your goal in a game of chess. Why? Because...
  3. It is not a NECESSARY condition to winning: A necessary condition is a condition without which you cannot accomplish a goal. For example, having money is a necessary condition for accomplishing the goal of purchasing a box of chocolates. However, in the case of chess, it's quite realistic to checkmate someone even if they're up a pawn on you.
  4. It is not a SUFFICIENT condition to winning: A sufficient condition is a condition which, once fulfilled, immediately accomplishes the goal. For example, in a race, being the first person to reach the finish line accomplishes the goal of winning the race, nothing else is required. Again, in the case of chess, the first person to gain an edge material-wise doesn't automatically win the game! (And no I don't want to play that chess variant.)
In short, gaining a material advantage can't be your game plan, because all you'll be doing is looking for trades and opportunities to grab pawns while your opponent will slowly improve his position and checkmate you.
Not only that, but the whole concept of "material advantage" is slippery. Don't take my word for it: head over to this Wikipedia article and find out just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Lasker's quote sums it up nicely:
"It is difficult to compare the relative value of different pieces, as so much depends on the peculiarities of the position..."
I'd list the two problems with piece valuation as follows:
  1. Piece value is arbitrary. Chess.com uses a system where a queen is worth 9 points and bishops and knights are both worth 3 points, but as a kid, I learned that a queen was 10 points and a knight 3.5 points, compared to a bishop's 3 points. People can't even agree that a pawn should be worth 1 point!
  2. Piece value cannot be determined in a vacuum. See Lasker's quote. While Chess.com will happily show you the material situation for your current game at a glance, it can be deceptive. Everyone has played a game as white where they got checkmated and still had a rook on a1 that hadn't moved all game. Was that rook really worth 5 points? How about black's pawn on the second row participating in the checkmate? Was it really worth 1 point in that situation?

 To wrap up, here's a game of mine where my opponent played for material advantage while I played for position and checkmating. Guess who won?



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