The Value of the Pawns and Pieces

I’m currently writing a chess book for beginners and thought I’d give you a sample from that book regarding the value of the pawns and pieces. This article is based on discussions I’ve had with my students over the years regarding this topic and is based on those conversations. Knowing how much the individual members of your army are worth helps you make good decisions regarding the exchange of material as well as the order in which to bring your forces into play.

To denote the importance of the pawns and pieces in terms of power, we assign a relative value to them. We use the term relative rather than absolute because the term absolute indicates that the value is unchanging. The term relative tells us that this value is approximate and might change slightly depending on circumstances within the game. We’ll explore that later on. For now, let’s concentrate on the initial relative value of the pawns and pieces. Again, we’ll discuss possible value changes later on. We’ll start with the pawn.

The pawn has a relative value of one. I teach students to think of the relative value of the pawns and pieces in terms of money. Since most of us, both young and old alike, can better understand valuation when we think in terms of money, making the pawns and pieces worth a dollar amount makes understanding their value much easier. This monetary understanding also makes it easier to determine whether or not to trade or exchange material (pawns and pieces). Using our money analogy, the pawn is worth $1.00. Beginners tend to think of the pawn as somewhat worthless since they have the lowest relative value and each player starts the game with eight of them. While the pawn does have the lowest relative value when compared to the pieces (we don’t refer to pawns as pieces but as pawns) it has the ability to promote into a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop when it reaches its promotion square on the other side of the board. This means its value will change upon promotion, increasing from $1.00. Because pawns are worth less than the Knight, Bishop, Rook and Queen, they can prevent these pieces from occupying squares the pawn controls. Remember, just because the pawn has the lowest relative value doesn’t mean it has less value in terms of what it can do. The reason the pawn has a low relative value has to do with its slow or limited movement and its limited control of squares on the board (it can only attack or control the adjacent diagonal squares in front of it. Now let’s look at the minor pieces.

We’ll start with the Knight. The Knight has a relative value of three ($3.00). Because the Knight can move a bit further and control a greater number of squares than the pawn, its value is greater. Knights are the only piece that have the ability to jump over other pieces (and pawns). If the chessboard has a lot of pawns and pieces in play or off of their starting squares, pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queen will have trouble moving around. However, the Knight, due to its ability to jump over pawns and pieces, will have greater freedom of movement and is worth slightly more than $3.00 in such a situation. Now let’s look at the other minor piece, the Bishop.

The Bishop also has a relative value of three ($3.00). However, unlike the Knight, the Bishop is a long distance attacker. Therefore, when the board has few pieces in play or open diagonals (devoid of pawns and pieces), the Bishop has a slightly higher relative value than the Knight. Why do the Knight and Bishop share the same value, after all they have very different ways of moving? While the Knight has the ability to jump over other pieces, it’s range is short. Because of the way in which it moves (an “L” shape), getting to an adjacent square can take a number moves. While the Bishop can control great distances along the diagonals, it is tied down to a specific color square, which is why you have two of them. Both minor pieces have limits to their power and this is reflected in their relative value. Now to the major pieces, the Rook and Queen, starting with the Rook.

The Rook has a relative value of five or $5.00. Like the Bishop, the Rook is a long distance attacker, able to control a greater number of squares than the minor pieces or pawns. The Bishop is also a long distance attacker so why is it worth less than the Rook? Bishops are tied down to a single color square for movement. Thus, the Bishop that starts on a light square can only move along and control light squares while the Bishop that starts on a dark square can only move along and control dark squares. A light squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces sitting on dark squares. On the flip-side, a dark squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces positioned on light squares. The Rook, because he can freely move along the ranks and files, controls both light and dark squares. This is why he’s worth more that the Bishop.

The Queen has a relative value of nine or $9.00. Why so much? Because she can move like both the Bishop and Rook, giving her the ability to control or attack more squares than any other piece. She moves along the ranks, files or diagonals. This ability to travel along the ranks, files or diagonals makes her extremely powerful. She can control a large number of squares from a single location (square). You should respect this great power and not bring her into the game too early. If you do, she’ll become a target for enemy pieces of lesser value. What about the King? If he’s the most valuable piece in the game, he must be worth a great deal.

The King is priceless because if the King becomes trapped (remember you cannot capture the King is chess) the game ends in checkmate and the player whose King is trapped loses. I do give my students a dollar value for the King to emphasize his importance and that dollar figure is $197,635! This drives home the point that the King is worth a great deal! The reason we can’t really assign a realistic value to the King is because we have to protect him for the majority of the game, so early on he has no attacking value. If the King tries to engage in battle early on, he’ll end up being trapped by enemy pawns and pieces and the game will end in checkmate. However, once the majority of the pawns and pieces are off the board, the endgame (more on that later on in this book), the King can be an extremely valuable attacker and defender. However, always remember that the King needs to stay safe for the majority of the game.

There are two things to take away from this concept of relative value. The first has to do with capturing pawns and pieces. Playing chess requires you to capture your opponents pawns and pieces. You don’t have to capture them all but the more opposition pieces you capture, the harder it is for your opponent to attack your King. However, there’s more to capturing than simply trading one piece for another and this is due to their relative value. You want to make profitable exchanges of material. For example, if you traded your $9.00 Queen for a $3.00 Knight, would you profit from the exchange? Absolutely not! You’d be trading your most powerful major piece for a minor piece. Always try to exchange material if it’s profitable or the trade is even as in the case of trading a Knight for a Knight or a Knight for a Bishop (both having a relative value of three). While there are times when making seemingly bad trades works to your advantage because they lead to checkmate, stick to profitable or even trades for now.

The second thing to take away from this relative value system is that it provides an order in which to bring your forces into the battle. You start with the material (pawns and pieces) of lowest value being developed first followed by material of greater value. Thus, the order in which material enters that game is; pawns followed by the minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) followed by the Rooks and then the Queen. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this order but for now use this system when deciding on who to bring into the fight and when.

Well, there you have it, a brief introduction to the relative value system used in chess. Make sure you know it and always use it as guide when considering an exchange or trade of material as well as creating an order for bringing pawns and pieces into the game. Speaking of games, here’s one 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).