As you get higher in rating, you soon realize that chess isn't that simple. Pieces are not shares of stock with a fixed value. The value of a piece is extremely fluid. There are many factors that can determine the true value of a piece or combination of pieces:
- Is the piece active or passive? - A centralized Knight, a Bishop on a long, open diagonal, or a Rook on an open file is going to be worth a lot more than a Knight in the corner, a Bishop that is sitting behind pawns of the same color stuck on the same color squares, looking more like a "Tall Pawn", or a Rook on its original square blocked in by the Pawn in front and one of the minor pieces to its side where the minor piece can't get out.
- Is the piece actually doing anything - An active Knight or active Bishop must actually be doing something to be worth anything. If it is just hanging out there in the center of the board, but otherwise doing nothing and the opposing pieces can just work around it, you have what Steve Mayer in his excellent book "Bishop V Knight: The Verdict" would call an "overrated piece". On the flip side, if the piece is passive, is it at least playing a major defensive role and holding your position intact, which in the "French Connection" articles, we often see Black's bad light-squared Bishop often doing that, or is that bad piece truly doing nothing at all?
- Do the pieces remaining coordinate well? - Material count is often irrelevant if the pieces remaining on one side coordinate well together while the pieces on the opposite side are scattered about, looking like the pieces were just plopped on the board randomly and otherwise do not work well as a unit. The side better coordinated will usually have the advantage regardless of the "point count", within reason.
- Are there short term, tactical threats? - Often times, a material imbalance may work or not work for the player down material because of a short term tactical threat. Usually when you hear the term "temporary sacrifice", it is because the player is not truly sacrificing a piece. It just looks that way because a tactical threat, such as mate, may force the opposing size to return the material a few moves later. On the flip side, a sacrifice may fail because of a tactical shot that the side gaining the material has where he is able to keep the extra material without costing himself coordination (see previous bullet) or King safety.
So I am going to show you a game that I played recently where starting at move 15, the material count was rarely equal until the very end, and even in the endgame, the position is sharp such that if either player had one extra move, the game would be decisive in their favor. This game will also show how sharp a game can get despite playing an opening that is stereotyped as being somewhat boring. With that said, let's look at the game.
USCF Correspondence, 2018
W: Patrick McCartney (1959)
B: Rama Gitananda (1910)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bg5 h6
In the e6-Torre, Black has four main options. He can defend with an early ...d5 combined with ...c5, ...Nc6, etc, in similar fashion to the main line defense against the Colle System. He can fianchetto the Queenside Bishop with ...c5, ...b6, and ...Bb7, in similar fashion to the Queen's Indian Defense. Or he can play one of two fairly forcing type of lines. The first is 3...c5 4.e3 Qb6, going for the b2-pawn and usually grabbing it at the cost of development, or the move played in the game, which will either result in Black getting the Bishop pair if White trades on f6 in return for a misplaced Queen, or if White retreats the h4, Black can either proceed with the radical 4...g5 and 5...Ne4, chasing down the Bishop, or else attack the White center, figuring the Bishop is misplaced on h4.
4.Bh4 c5 5.e3 b6 6.Bd3 Bb7
Black goes for the final approach, and now takes on the fianchetto structure, figuring that the added moves of ...h6 and Bh4 would benefit him based on the thought that the White Bishop on h4 is misplaced.
White takes the classical approach here, maintaining control of the dark squares, whether that be via a recapture if Black dares give up his Bishop for the Knight on f3, or possibly headed to c4 later on to dominate e5. The more modern approach is to continue focus on completing Kingside development with 7.O-O Be7 8.c4 O-O and developing the Knight via 9.Nc3, fighting for control of the central light squares.
It is probably a tad too early to make this trade. The reason for keeping the tension is to see how White develops his pieces before signaling to him that his e-file will be open. Wait for White to commit to a piece formation before deciding whether to trade or not. 7...Be7 is a better move.
8.exd4 Be7 9.O-O O-O 10.Qe2 d6 11.Rfe1 Nd5?!
A radical move that gives White the opportunity at a small endgame advantage after a very long sequence of virtually forcing moves. The more calm 11...Nbd7 was called for, maintaining the balance.
After looking at the diagram, we see what Black is after with his last move. He wants to remove White's most active minor piece, the light-squared Bishop. He has the dual threat of 12...Nf4, forking the Queen and Bishop, and after a move like 12.Bg3, he has 12...Nb4 where the light-squared Bishop has no useful place to go, and he basically has to allow Black to trade his Knight off for it. Therefore, White's next move is the start of a fairly lengthy forcing sequence that is going to lead to a massive material imblance.
The only move that maintains White's best minor piece.
I would also like to take the time to point something else out here. There are many chess players in this generation that judge a move by what Artificial Intelligence has to say about it. Artificial Intelligence often is not good at evaluating positions of the type that we will see in this game because computers are often reliant on tactics and material count. Also, I have seen many cases where if you put the same position on multiple machines, one will say White or Black is winning and the other will say that White or Black barely has a microscopic advantage. For example, here, one computer claims White is up two-and-a-half points, but after recognizing every move played in this game up through Black's 23rd move as best, White has roughly a three-tenths of a pawn advantage. As you go back and have it analyze the positions again, it recognizes the 0.33 advantage for White at 13...Bxh4 below, but still doesn't see it here at move 12. There is also no proof that the moves played in the game through move 23 are actually the best. See White's 21st move, for example.
This should illustrate why analysis of any game should be done with the brain and without an engine first, and only then use the engine to check for blunders or possibly find hidden combinations that were missed, but don't just assume that because your analyzed move shows as "+0.8" and artificial intelligence says another move is "+1.0" that your move wasn't best. It might very well be better and AI only realizes that after a number of moves are physically made.
12...g6 13.c4 Bxh4
Forced! 13...Nb4 14.Qxb7 Bxh4 15.Be4 N8c6 16.Bxc6 Rc8 17.Ba4 and 13...Nc6 14.cxd5 exd5 15.Bxe7 dxe4 16.Bxd8 exd3 17.Be7 both drop a piece for basically nothing.
14.Nxh4 Nb4 15.Qxb7 N8c6
So White is currently a piece up, but the Bishop on d3 is under attack, the Knight on h4 is under attack, and the Queen is threatened to be trapped with ...Rab8. What does White do?
The only move!
And this move is also forced.
- Black can't take the Knight as after 16...fxg6 17.Bxg6, Black can't keep the Queen trapped and is lost.
- Black also loses after 16...Nxd3 17.Nxf8 Rc8 18.Re3 Rc7 19.Qa6.
- After 16...Rab8, White has 17.Ne7+! where 17...Qxe7 18.Qxe7 Nxe7 19.Be4 and 17...Nxe7 18.Qf3 both see White emerge a pawn up with no real compensation, and any King move on move 17 loses instantly to 18.Nxc6.
There is no way to salvage the Queen and so White must continue to attack the other Black pieces as White does still have a Knight on g6 and Bishop on d3 hanging once the Queen is taken. Here, White attacks a piece that can't afford to move as otherwise the Queen does get out, and for the moment, White is up a piece and a pawn, and so the absolute top priority for Black is not to let the White Queen out. Otherwise, he's immediately lost.
Now neither side has any in-between moves, and so the completion of the trade down is forced for both sides.
18.Qxb8 Qxb8 19.axb3 fxg6 20.Bxg6 Re7
So now we have the material imbalance of Rook, Bishop, and two Pawns for the Queen. That said, multiple White Pawns are under attack, and so again, judging by points would say "White is up 10 for 9 plus balanced pieces", but chess is not that simple, and White must remain active here. There are only two moves here for White and most other moves would be borderline worse or even losing for White.
This move works based on the tactical shot that the Black King and Queen are both on the back rank and White controls e8. The alternative is 21.Re4 where 21...Nxb4 would be answered by 22.d5 and after 22...Qf8 23.dxe6 Qf6 24.Bf7+ Kh7, the position is unclear, and the same can be said if Black tries to break up White's pawn phlanx first via something like 21...b5 22.c5 and then taking the b-pawn. Is this better than 21.d5? Even the answer to that is very unclear, but what is clear is that White must remain active as otherwise, given time, the Queen will come into the game and start plucking off one White pawn after another, and eventually, Black would be winning.
This is better than 22.Rxe7 as once the Knight recaptures, the Bishop on g6 is under attack, gaining a vital tempo for Black.
And now, due to the threat of Re8+, Black doesn't have time to take the b-pawn.
This is good enough to draw. Another move that should lead to the same result is 24.Be4, keeping control of d3 rather than e8. That said, after 24...Qc8, there is no way to keep the Queen out, and the Queen and Knight combination can often be lethal. White can hold the position, but he will be playing defense here to do it, and so the move played makes the most sense because White here forces the issue by attacking the Black King. Since there is no way to keep the Queen out in the long run, figure out if you have time to force the issue. If you are going to be on the defensive anyway, a draw is not a bad result, and if a draw is what you are going for, doing it in the most forcing and quickest way possible leaves the least room for error. By placing the Bishop on h5, Black can't, at least for now, move the Knight because of the fork on e8.
Now the key is understanding which threats are real and which ones are fake. What is Black threatening? At first glance, it appears as though the threat is 25...Qg5, forking the Knight and Bishop. After some thought, 25...Qh4 also appears to be very annoying for White. This would lead one to think that the best move here is 25.Nf3, but it turns out that 25.Nf3 is a mistake as after 25...Nxf3+ 26.Bxf3 Qf6 that it is very difficult for White to hold the position together given how weak his Queenside pawns are.
Looking a little deeper, one can see that one of the two "threats" is really a fake threat. If it were Black to move, and he played 25...Qg5 in this position, White has the resource 26.Ne4! and the Bishop is poison due to a royal fork on f6. Therefore, seeing that only one of the two moves is a problem lead to White's next move.
Since the only real concern was the Queen arriving on h4, this move is probably White's best. It not only stops 25...Qh4, but also gives the King an escape square in the case of back rank issues, and also prepares f4, forcing the Knight out of the way of the Rook and allowing the Rook to come in. Turns out, the advancement of the f-pawn also plays a part in White's execution of the draw.
This move is actually an error and gives White potential winning chances. 25...Qc7 or 25...Qg5, intending to answer 26.Ne4 with 26...Qf5, maintains the balance. Just like White, Black has to act fast as well. Slow down and the other side gets that vital tempo.
26.f4 Nd3 27.Re6 Qc7
White bails out and takes the draw. Turns out, White has a very strong move here due to Black's errant 25th move. After 28.Ne4! Qc1+ 29.Kg2 Qxb2+ 30.Kh3 Qd4 31.Nf6, Black is forced to give up the Queen via 31...Qxf6 32.Rxf6 Kxf6 33.b5 and only White has winning chances. Note that 31...Nxf4+ fails to 32.gxf4 Qxf4 33.Re7+ Kxf6 34.Rf7+ winning while something like 31...Nxb4 loses to the same sequence by White, only in that case it would be checkmate rather than a winning of the Queen.
After the game move, neither side can avoid the draw.
28...Qc1+ 29.Nf1 Qxc2
And now the lethal threat of 30...Qf2+ forces White to take the perpetual check.
30.f6+ Kh8 31.Re8+
And Black can't escape perpetual check. 1/2-1/2
A very interesting game indeed, and one where every move mattered, especially from moves 12 onward. There were numerous opportunities for either side to go wrong, and Black actually did it once, but White missed out on the opportunity to enter the favorable minor piece ending with excellent winning chances. The moral of the story is, play the position that is on the board, don't count what is off the board!