Material and Position
Chess is a game of subtle imbalances which, if well-managed, can lead to an overwhelming victory out of apparently nowhere. On the other hand, if they’re left unchecked, you can lose a game without really comprehending why. Two of these imbalances are material advantage and positional advantage.
Material advantage is simple to understand on the surface, but nuanced enough to vex even the best players. The first thing every new chess player learns after the rules is the relative “worth” of the pieces:
At the most basic level, the player who has the most “points” left on the board has a material advantage on his opponent. If you give up your queen, you’d better be getting a lot of stuff in return or you’re in a world of shit. Where it gets complicated, however, is how different combination of pieces lead to different advantages and disadvantages. Are two bishops really the equivalent of two knights in all phases of the game? Can you trade your queen for two knights and three pawns and still be even on material? The answer to this question is often wrapped up in the next imbalance: positional advantage.
Positional advantage is, simply, how your pieces on the board set you up to win or lose. How can you place your pieces so they’re at their most effective positions? I don’t pretend to understand more than the basics of positional chess, or else I’d be a much, much better player than I am. Knowing the few ground rules that I do, however, has sometimes helped me out when trying to find the best move.
The following game has a few good examples of times where material and positional advantage can come into play. The game itself can be found here.
1. e4 c5
This is the Sicilian Defense. It is what I play almost exclusively as black when the white player leads with his king’s pawn (1. e4). For the opening, you have three main goals:
1) Develop your big pieces
2) Begin your fight for the center
3) Protect your king
The reason the Sicilian is so respected as an opening is that it contributes to all three of these goals. Moving your c-pawn forward controls a part of the center without clogging it up with pawns. While 1…c5 in and of itself doesn’t really protect your king, it doesn’t weaken him either, and future development usually leads to a pretty quick kingside castle.
White develops his bishop to attack black’s f7 pawn. He’s also putting in a serious claim to the d5 square. For what it’s worth, Wikipedia calls this the Bowlder Attack. Apparently it isn’t played a lot in high-level play.
I used to try to force any Sicilian opening into a variant called the Sicilian Dragon, because I was familiar with it—and it has a sweet name. I’ve outgrown that to the point where now I’m pretty sure I play 2…Nc6 more often. Not only do you develop a piece, but you also exert control over the e5, d4, and b4 squares.
3. Nf3 e6
4. d3 d5
The fight for the center of the board has been joined in earnest. With a knight and bishop in play, white has a slight edge in development, while black looks like it has a better claim to the center.
5. exd5 exd5
6. Bb3 Nf6
White’s placement of the bishop has the unintended consequence of having to move it again fairly early, losing a precious move that black’ll use to get more pieces in play.
At this point in the game, the material is still even with each side down a pawn. Both sides have taken care of their pieces, which is typical of this level of play. At some experience level, people irritatingly stop giving you pieces all the time. Positionally, black has clear control of the center of the board. The four squares in the center are all either occupied or influenced by a black piece.
7. Bg5 Be7
8. Nc3 0-0
Both sides finish their castles. Castling is a great move, because it tucks your king away safely and develops your rook at the same time. While you can’t focus on getting to where you can castle to the exclusion of everything else, a good opening will naturally get to a point where you can.
This isn’t a great move for black because it doesn’t really accomplish anything. It provides additional protection for a piece that doesn’t need it. It provides an avenue for black’s bishop, but a6 doesn’t look like a great space for him anyway because that diagonal’s blocked. A better move would be to develop the bishop via 9…Be6 or even 9…Bg4.
This, on the other hand, is a great move for white. Previous to this, black had the positional advantage due to controlling the center. By moving his rook to an open file, white gains control of a huge swath of the board. That’s one positional rule-of-thumb. Rooks *love* open files.
11. Bxf6 Bxf6
Here we have the first material imbalance of the game. Strictly by point count, the sides are even on material, but white decided to trade a bishop for a knight. In the middle of the game, the positions are cramped enough that knights are more useful—due to their wonky L-shaped movement, they can hop over some obstacles (IE, pawns) that stop bishops dead. At the end of the game, however, having two bishops to swoop along all those open diagonals can be a huge advantage.
At this point, the trade is either even or a slight advantage to white due to his possession of two reasonably well-placed knights.
12. Nd5 Bb7
White has a chance to get back to true parity by trading his knight for one of black’s bishops. He decides to keep his pair of knights. With such a cramped board, it’s hard to blame him.
Black challenges white’s claim to the e-file.
14. Qd2 Ne5
15. Nxe5 Bxe5
Black trades away his last knight for one of white’s. Materially, the trade is a wash.
Positionally, however, look at those bishops. They are both on huge diagonals pointed straight at white’s king. In the meantime, white’s knight is planted at the edge of the board. If black can pin the white knight in that corner, his bishops will be able to run roughshod over a huge chunk of territory.
Looking back, this is a terrible place for black’s queen. My thinking was that I wanted to exploit the positioning of black’s bishops as quickly as possible. The problem is, there was too much white could do to prevent my queen from getting any traction up there, and she became a big, unsupported target out in the open.
17. Qg5 Bf6
White’s offer to trade queens almost gets black off the hook for putting his queen in a bad position, but it still frees white’s knight from his cage. Black trades a fantastic bishop diagonal and initiative to try to contain the knight for a bit. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work.)
18. Qxh4 Bxh4
19. g3 Bf6
And there goes the knight.
This move doesn’t do anything productive. It makes the knight do something he’d probably want to do anyway. Yay?
21. Nd5 Bd2
Here’s another material choice: Black has the chance to trade away his bishop for white’s last knight. Black decides to take his chances with the bishop pair. This decision turns out to be crucial later.
White gives up control of the e-file for nothing in particular. This is a positional mistake. It doesn’t look like a big deal, right?
The opponent’s pawn line is a great spot to plant your rook later in the game. Any stray pawns turn into easy targets which the opponent has to spend precious energy to protect.
23. Nc7 Rc8
24. Nb5 a6?
This turns out to be a pretty bad mistake for black. Now white can plant his knight on d6 and threaten black’s bishop, rook, and f7 pawn all at the same time. If black had sacrificed the a7 pawn and guarded against 25. Nd6, he would’ve had the knight pinned against the wall, again, and wouldn’t have had all his pieces under threat.
Black decides to get his rook out of harm’s way , protect his bishop, and, by default, offer an exchange of his rook and a pawn for white’s bishop and knight.
26. Bxf7+?? Rxf7
27. Nxf7 Kxf7
This is a turning point of the game, and a place where the material and positional imbalances come into sharp focus.
White gave up a bishop and a knight for black’s rook and a pawn. On paper, this is an even trade. But when you look at the positional imbalances, the trade is a clear win for black. White gave up his only two active pieces. He had previously moved one of his rooks off of an open file to a point that was blocked by black’s bishop. His other rook hadn’t even moved off of its starting position.
On the other hand, black’s lone rook occupies a huge file in the center of the board, where it can slide up and down to where it’s needed. The bishop pair is starting to look better and better, especially the white-squared bishop.
In other words, though the point totals are the same, black has a decisive advantage due to the positional imbalance.
28. c3 dxc3
29. bxc3 Bxc3
White sacrifices a pawn in order to open up the board a little. He’s trying to exchange a material disadvantage to get his rooks out in the open. Two rooks that are free to operate are a scary thought, and might have the advantage on black’s rook and bishops. He isn’t quite there yet, though.
Black makes sure white’s rook still can’t get too free.
31. Rdc1 Bd4
Black launches a coordinated attack on white’s pawn on f2. White has to commit a rook to protect it, or else he’s sunk.
On one hand, white’s hung the a2 pawn out to dry. On the other hand, the king is a legitimate offensive weapon at the end of the game, and black wants to get him into the fight. The best move would probably be to just take the free pawn via 32…Rxa2, but due to the positional advantage black enjoys, this works.
33. h4 Kh5!?
White goes from having his king pinned by black’s bishop to having his king pinned by black’s rook. White also loses the modicum of protection the king provides for his f2 pawn in the process. Better might be to get the a2 pawn out of harm’s way, 34. a3. Incidentally, that pawn is still hanging there and black still is choosing to bring up his king instead of just taking it.
At this point it’s legitimate to say that black should probably just take one of the free pawns. 34…Bxf2 quickly gives black the win unless white sacrifices his rook for the bishop.
35. Rbe1 Rxa2
Black finally takes the free pawn.
36. Re4+?? Bxe4
White, finally getting an open file for his rook, commits a huge mistake which costs him any chance to come back. He sees the chance to seize the initiative by checking black’s king, but completely misses black’s bishop guarding that square. Either that, or he thinks the only way to win is to promote his pawn.
This is a display of strength. Black demonstrates that he can promote his b-file pawn before white can promote his e-file pawn. White realizes the game is lost and resigns.
One take-away from this game is that your position can dictate what you should do with your material. If white had more active rooks, his choice to trade a bishop and a knight for a rook and a pawn may have turned the tide in his favor. Black’s choice to hang on to both of his bishops was prescient, and they came up huge in the endgame.
Another lesson is that positional mistakes are a lot more subtle than material mistakes, but can be just as deadly. When you hang a knight out to dry and lose it, you know and feel it immediately. But when you get a knight trapped against the edge, he’s out of the game just as much.