Piece Value and Open and Closed Games

Once beginners learn about the relative values of the pieces, we explore the concept that a minor piece’s relative value can change based on a game’s positional aspects. To explain this idea, we look at open and closed games. While there are further subdivisions, semi open and semi closed games, its best to start the beginner’s introduction to game type by starting with open and closed games. Both types of games help explain how our minor pieces, the Knights and the Bishops, can increase in value based on the positional structure found on the board. Before discussing any changes in relative value, we must define open and closed games. Because I’m working with young beginners, I have to use very simplified explanations and examples. To understand open and closed games, we should first consider the mobility of the pawns and pieces.

I start my introduction of mobility by dividing the pawns and pieces into two groups, long distance attackers/defenders and short distance attackers/defenders. It is extremely important that the beginner understand the difference between the two. Long distance attackers/defenders are the Bishops, Rooks and Queen. Short distance attackers/defenders are the pawns, Knights and Kings. While each can be a deadly member of a player’s arsenal, long distance attackers/defenders can cover a great deal of space due to the way in which they move. Mobility is a piece’s ability to freely move around the board. A Queen, for example, placed on an empty board controls and can move to 27 different squares. However, during a game in which friendly and opposition pawns and pieces are scattered across the board, the Queen’s mobility is greatly reduced. The same holds true for the other pieces as well as the pawns. Therefore, pieces have greater mobility when the board is more open, space-wise. To understand this concept we’ll look at open versus closed games and how these types of positions affect our two groupings of pieces. Let’s start with open games.

The simplest way to define an open game is in terms of space. In an open game, there are many unoccupied squares along the board’s ranks, files and diagonals. These open lines allow long distance pieces, such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queen to reach their maximum potential as attackers or defenders. When a diagonal is open, a Bishop for example, can control key squares on the opposition’s side of the board from a distance. The Bishop has a relative value of 3 points as does the Knight. While they may have the same approximate relative value, we have to compare their mobility to see the true value of each piece. If you play 1.e4…e5 2.Nf3…Nc6 3.Bc4 and then consider how long it takes the Bishop and Knight to reach the f7 square, you’ll see that it will take the Knight two further moves to reach the target square while the Bishop can reach it on the following move. This is the difference between long distance and short distance attackers/defenders. Of course, this position is relatively open so our long distance attackers/defenders have room to move or mobility. After 3…Nf6 4.d3, White’s Queenside Bishop can now enter the game having a great deal of “instant” mobility due to 4.d3. The Knights are not as mobile. However, the Knight has the ability to jump over pawns and pieces which comes in handy in closed games.

When playing an open game, players should utilize their long distance attackers/defenders, taking advantage of their ability to control a great number of squares. One of the techniques I recommend to beginners when trying to determine where to place their pieces is counting squares of control. In the above example, the Kingside Bishop had the choice of moving to one of five squares. Why c4? The reason is twofold. First a Bishop on c4 controls ten different squares, whereas any place else along the f1-a6 diagonal, the Bishop controls only seven squares. The second reason that c4 makes sense is that it attacks the f7 square and cuts through one of the central squares, d5. Rooks play an important role in the opening as well. Rooks can be moved along their starting rank to protect pieces working their way towards the opposition’s side of the board. They can sit safely on their starting rank and protect pawns and pieces marching across the board. Because they’re long distance attackers/defenders their influence is great, especially as files start to open up as the game progresses. While the Queen combines the moves of the Bishop and Rook, making her a powerful piece, it’s best for beginners not to move her around too early. With that said, she can still influence squares deep within the opposition’s side of the board, but keep her close to home at the game’s start!

Closed games are the opposite of open games in that there are not a lot of empty squares, especially around the center of the board. This means that our long distance attackers/defenders don’t have much mobility. The closed game is the realm of the Knight! Because Knights can jump over other pieces, a position that would shut out our long distance attackers/defenders gives the Knight little worry. After all, he can simply jump over the traffic jam of pawns and pieces. Closed games require careful positional play in which pawns and Knights are often the stars of the show.

So let’s now look at the relative value of the Bishop and Knight. While both are worth approximately three points (three pawns since pawns are the base unit in this system of valuation), their value can change based on type of game being played, open or closed. With beginners, I have them add an additional point to the piece’s value based on its position and the type of game it’s being used in (open or closed). In an open game, the Bishop is generally worth more. In a closed game the Knight is generally worth more. The idea is to get my students thinking about the role a piece plays in a game based on the type of position that piece is in. I know that other chess teachers use decimal equivalents, such as 3.25-3.75 to denote the increase in piece value based on position. However, it is much easier to use whole numbers when teaching beginners.

I use the Bishop and Knight as examples because they share the same relative value which can lead the beginner to think they’re equal. Even though both pieces move in very different ways, the problem of an equal relative value can lull the beginner into treating both pieces the same regardless of position or game type. Creating a fluctuating value helps define the differences between these pieces and helps when learning the differences between open and closed games/positions. Here is an amazing Paul Morphy game to play through. Note the Knights and Bishops. This is one of the greatest endings to a chess game I’ve seen. Enjoy!

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).