Dollars and Sense

Once you’ve acquired some basic chess knowledge, such as an understanding of opening principles, rudimentary tactics and endgame principles, you’ll feel a bit more confident at the chessboard. You’ll get through the opening relatively unscathed and prepare yourself to unleash some of those tactical ideas you’ve learned (forks, pins, skewers, etc) at some point in the middle game. However, before you get a chance to demonstrate your tactical prowess, you see a chance to exchange some material. This exchange seems like a good idea and you jump into it. After a few moves, you’re down material, stuck in a weak position and wondering what went wrong. The exchange of material in chess comes down to dollars and sense, chess sense that is!

What does money have to do with chess? In chess we assign a relative value to the pawns and pieces. The pawn, for example, is worth one point and serves as our base value. The minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, are worth three points. Rooks are worth five points and the Queen nine points. The King is priceless because losing the King loses the game. I assign a monetary value to the pawns and pieces because students, especially adults, are more apt to consider their choices carefully when there’s money on the line (even pretend money). Using the dollar system, a pawn is worth $1.00, Knights and Bishops $3.00, Rooks $5.00 and the Queen $9.00. No one likes to lose money and most people would be happy making money, which is why I use this system.

My beginning students often face an exchange on the chessboard and don’t know whether or not to go through with it. If trading a Rook for a Knight, saying your trading a five point piece for a three point piece doesn’t have the same impact as saying “would you trade $5.00 for $3.00, losing $2.00?” Even a seven year old would say he or she wouldn’t want to lose $2.00! Using dollars (or the currency of your country) instead of points helps solidify the concept of exchanging pieces when doing so will allow you to come out ahead in the exchange.

When trading or exchanging material, ideally we want to gain more material than we lose or at least break even. Of course, we could choose to lose material, as in the case of a sacrifice, if it leads to checkmate. However, beginners have no business sacrificing material until they’ve learned how to make advantageous trades. An advantageous trade can be one that gains material (but doesn’t weaken your position) or evenly exchanges material to improve your position. It should be noted that you should never capture material, even if you come out ahead in the exchange, if it weakens your position. Having more material does you no good if you then lose the game because your pawns and pieces are poorly placed.

You can sometimes make an even exchange of material, dollar for dollar, only to find that it severely hampers your efforts. On move six in the game below, White uses the dollar method to guide his exchange of pieces. After 6. Bxf7+…Rxf7, 7. Nxf7…Kxf7, both sides have gained six points of material. White wins a pawn and the Rook ($6.00) while Black wins a Bishop and Knight ($6.00). Is this an even exchange? Using the dollar method, it’s an even trade. However, if we consider the material involved, things change! This is where the idea of using sense, or chess sense, comes into play. We’re in the opening phase of the game. Opening principles tell us that we should develop our minor pieces centrally and that our minor pieces are very powerful in the opening. The same principles tell us that Rooks should be developed later on. In the exchange below, we’ve just traded two powerful minor pieces that should be employed to control the center for a Rook and pawn that are not as active. Using some chess sense, we see that this exchange, although monetarily equal, is not equal from a positional standpoint. Black has four minor pieces to White’s two minor pieces. Those lost minor pieces would have been much more valuable during the opening than Black’s Rook on f8 and the pawn on f7.

In our next example (below), we see that Black pins the Knight on f3 to the Queen on d1 on move four (4…Bg4). Using our dollar system, the idea has merit. After all, if the Knight moves, Black trades a $3.00 Bishop for a $9.00 Queen which nets Black $6.00! Would White be crazy to move the Knight on f3? Absolutely not! White plays 5.Nxe5! Black does the math and decides to make the trade, netting $6.00.

Black should have used some chess sense and asked the question, why would White give up such a valuable piece? If it looks too good to be true then it most likely isn’t true! White sacrificed the Queen to deliver checkmate. While this is an extremely basic example, it serves to make a point. You can’t assume an exchange is advantageous just because you came out of it with more dollars in your pocket. You have to use your chess sense. Ask yourself, “why would my opponent give up his or her Queen to capture a pawn. There’s something terribly wrong here and maybe I should take a look at the whole board and not just at the Queen on d1.” Had Black looked at the f7 square, noticing that the f7 square was being attacked by both the Bishop on c4 and the Knight on e5 (not to mention the Knight on c3), he might have thought twice about capturing the Queen.

So when using the dollar system to determine the outcome of an exchange, remember that dollars are not the only factor in the equation. Sense, or chess sense, is needed as well. Consider the worth of a pawn or piece by it’s role in a position or phase of the game. How active is that piece you’re about to exchange? If you and your opponent are about to trade minor pieces, don’t trade your active minor piece for your opponent’s inactive minor piece. While both may be worth the same dollar amount in theory, the active piece is worth a bit more in reality. The activity of a piece should always be considered when engaging in an exchange. The more active a piece, the more value it has.

Always question a potential exchange by thinking outside of the box, using your chess sense. Using the dollar method for determining material value serves only as a starting point. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).