Trading Principles

Beginners learn the relative values of the pieces early in their chess studies and use those values to calculate the outcome of material exchanges (trading pieces). While using this numerical method can help a player avoid losing an exchange of material, it cannot be the sole basis for determining whether or not an exchange will be advantageous. Solely using the relative value system to determine the success of an exchange is akin to occupying only two dimensions in a three dimensional world. You’re going to miss something important and in chess missing something important leads to lost games! Players must see the bigger picture before considering exchanging material.

Obviously, we want to compare the relative value of both our pieces and those of our opponent before considering an exchange of material. Beginners are taught that trading a Queen for a Knight would be a bad trade since the Queen is worth nine points and the Knight three. Trading our Queen for a Knight would mean the net loss of six points which equals two minor pieces or six pawns. However, what if giving up the Queen for a Knight led to checkmate? We’ve all played through the games of Paul Morphy in which he sacrificed a major piece (or two) to win the game. Unfortunately, the average beginner doesn’t have the calculation skills to successfully sacrifice material. Fortunately, there are some trading principles the beginner can employ to help improve their position and lay the groundwork for good calculative thinking.

Here are some ideas to employ when considering an exchange of pieces. Applying these ideas will make a huge difference in your game. Again, its about seeing the bigger picture which means considering the entire position on the chessboard. Is the position open or closed? Are you ahead in material or behind? Are your pieces cramped or free to roam around the board? Are you under positional pressure? Is your opponent threatening checkmate? Positional questions must be asked before considering any exchange of material.

Consider a trade or exchange when you are ahead in material. While this might seem counter-intuitive, since beginners are taught to maintain as much material as possible, the more you trade down when ahead in material, the greater your advantage becomes later on. Both players start out with eight pawns each so both players have an equal number of pawns. Let’s say you and your opponent start trading pawns and reach an endgame position in which you have two pawns to your opponent’s one pawn. You have a much greater advantage since you have twice as many pawns. Of course, this is an extremely simplified example but the idea still holds true. Material advantages become greater or more pronounced as pawns and pieces are traded off the board. Always think about this idea as you approach the endgame. Good chess players think about the future as well as the present! Don’t live solely in the moment!

If you have a spacial disadvantage, where your position is cramped, trade pieces to open up the position. If your opponent has greater control of the board, leaving you stuck in a cramped defensive position, consider trading material to give yourself some room to move. However, you have to be careful in regards to what material you trade. If you’re in an open game, a game in which there is a lot of open space between you and your opponent, consider hanging on to long distance pieces such as the Bishops and exchanging Knights. In a closed position, your Knights should be kept. Of course, you must always consider the value of your material and your opponent’s material before starting any exchange. If you have the spacial advantage, keep applying pressure by controlling more space and avoid trading material.

Consider an exchange if doing so allows one of your remaining pieces to become more active. If you find yourself in a closed position, Knights are going to be more powerful because of their ability to jump over other pieces. If your opponent has an active Knight that you can exchange for a bad Bishop (a Bishop that has little mobility), consider the trade. While both the Knight and Bishop have the same relative value, meaning an equal trade will garner both players three points of exchanged material, a trapped or immobile Bishop really isn’t in the game when the position is closed. The Knight, on the other hand, is able to jump over the positional traffic jam which means it is in the game and has greater value.

If your opponent has an powerful piece that is stopping you from executing your plan, consider forcing an exchange. A Knight on f3 for White or f6 for Black, protects the h2 or h7 pawn when a player has Castled on the King-side. That Knight is a critical defender. Removing that defender leaves only the King to defend either the h2 or h7 pawn. When I say powerful piece, most beginners think of the Queen or Rook. However, we have to look at a piece’s value in relationship to the position. A pawn about to promote is extremely powerful. It might have a relative value of one but because it is about to promote, it’s value increase. Relative value is not absolute value.

When considering any trade, a player must look far beyond the relative value of the pawns and pieces. Its the relationship to a position that determines a pawn or piece’s value. Often we find ourselves under pressure in a position. A potential checkmate may be looming on the positional horizon. Trading pieces may reduce that pressure enough to stop the threat of checkmate. Always ask yourself, “am I under pressure and is there an exchange that will relieve some of that pressure.

Lastly, never, ever exchange material just to exchange. Good chess players capture or exchange pieces to improve their position. I love to capture pawns and pieces but I don’t do so unless I get something more than mere material for my efforts. I need my position to improve when I exchange pieces! Trade smart by looking at all your options. Speaking of trading, 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).