Last week, we looked at the transition between the opening and middle game. This week, we’ll introduce the meat and potatoes of the middle-game, tactics. Actually, we will spend the next few weeks going over tactics because there’s a lot to it! Before jumping into the world of tactics, we’ll talk about two fundamental skills all beginners must master, the mathematics of exchanges, and counting attackers and defenders. Beginners tend to trade pawns and pieces without putting much thought into the mathematics of exchanging material. Without being able to compare the relative value of the material (pawns and pieces) involved in a trade or exchange, the beginner will often trade their Queen for a Knight, creating a big advantage for their opponent. There is an art to exchanging material and it starts by using the relative value of the pawns and pieces as a guide when considering a trade. This is the mathematics of exchanges!
The relative value of the pawns and pieces is used to define the overall power pawns and pieces have. It also provides a way for players to determine whether or not an exchange of material is worthwhile. From a relative value viewpoint, the pawn is the least valuable member of your army, being worth one point. The minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, are worth three points. The Rooks are worth five points and the Queen is worth nine points. What about the King? We consider the King to be priceless so we don’t generally assign it a value early in the game. However, during the endgame, the King is worth four points. Now, these are relative values which means they can slightly change. The Knight would be worth a little more than the Bishop in a closed game where there are very few open or empty squares. The Bishop would be worth a little more than the Knight during an opening game where there are plenty of open or empty squares. A pawn one square away from promotion surely is worth more than one point since it can promote to a Queen on the next move. In our examples of middle-game play, we are using the relative values solely to determine whether or not an exchange of material is worthwhile. Therefore, the value of the pawns and pieces will remain constant.
The general rule beginners should embrace is that exchanges of material should be either equal, a pawn for a pawn (one for one) or a Knight for a Bishop (three for three), or advantageous. By advantageous, I mean that you would trade a piece of lesser value for a piece of greater value. If you trade a Bishop for your opponent’s Rook, you gain two points of material (five minus three leaves two). You have to do the math before engaging in any exchanges to avoid losing material. While there are exchanges in which one player gives up a piece of greater value for a piece of lesser value, this is generally done to clear a path for an attack and requires a skill set the beginners haven’t yet developed. Now to counting attackers and defenders.
There are times within a game in which one player may leave a pawn or piece undefended. This means that if you spot such a pawn or piece, and have an available attacker, you can capture that enemy piece free of charge, However, always consider the old adage “never capture pawns or pieces unless it helps your game” when capturing under any circumstances. We call such an undefended member of your opponent’s army a hanging piece (or pawn). You’ll find a lot of hanging pieces in the games of beginners. When it’s your turn to move, you should always scan the board for any hanging material belonging to your opponent. Before going after that hanging pawn or piece, check your own forces to make sure your opponent can’t do the same thing to you when it’s their turn. Unfortunately, most of the time, the pawns or pieces you want to attack have defenders and this is where beginners get into trouble! This is where counter attackers and defenders comes in handy!
Here’s the rule you need to follow when it comes to counting attackers and defenders: If attacking, you need to have more attackers than there are defenders. If defending, you need to have more defenders than attackers! It seems simple enough. However, you have to add the relative value of the pawns and pieces into this idea. Generally, if you have three attackers and your opponent has two defenders, your attack will work. If defending, with three defenders to your opponent’s two attackers, you’ll be fine. Right? Maybe not in either of these two cases. Even if your attackers outnumber your opponent’s defenders, or your defenders outnumber your opponent’s attackers, relative value decides the outcome of the attack or defense. Let’s look at this in more detail.
Let’s say you’re the attacker going after your opponent’s Knight that is defended by two pawns. You have three attackers to your opponent’s two defenders, a Queen, Rook and Bishop. Your opponent’s defenders are worth two points total (pawn + pawn = two). Your attackers are worth seventeen points (nine + five + three). Because your attackers have a greater relative value than your opponent’s defenders, you have to be very careful regarding which pieces you use to launch your attack with. If you decided to use your Queen to capture the Knight, your opponent would be extremely happy because he or she would gladly trade a three point Knight for a nine point Queen. If you used your Rook to capture your opponent’s Knight, you’re opponent would still be happy because he or she would get a five point Rook for a three point Knight. Therefore, you would want to capture your opponent’s Knight with your Bishop because it has the same relative value as the enemy Knight.
If you were in the position of defending, the same idea would hold true. Let’s say you have a Knight that is defended by the Queen, a Rook and a Bishop, and your opponent decides to launch an attack against your Knight. Your opponent has both his or her Knights and one Bishop all attacking your poor Knight. There are an equal number (three for you and three for your opponent) of attackers and defenders in this case. If your opponent captures your Knight, you would capture back using your Bishop because they have the same relative value (three). If you captured back with your Queen or Rook, you would lose material. After your opponent captures your knight with one of their minor pieces and you capture back with your Bishop, your opponent can then capture your Bishop and if you try to capture again, you’ll then lose material because your only remaining defenders are the Queen and Rook. You must always consider the relative value of any pieces involved in an attack or defense.
You must always consider the relative value of your attackers or defenders to that of your opponent before launching an attack. Only after you have established this number should you consider taking action. While we didn’t get down to studying any actual tactics this week, I wanted to introduce these two key ideas to you because they will be extremely important during the middle-game. Next week, we are going to look at the first important tactic the beginner should learn, the pin. Your homework until then? Look up “chess tactics” online. Take a good look at “the pin.” This will give you a head start on next week’s work. Here’s a game to enjoy until then!