Beyond the Material
When we first learn to play chess we are taught that every piece has a numerical value. However, what we aren’t told is that those “values” aren’t a mathematical absolute.
For example, a pawn is “worth” 1 point, however, if you have two connected passed pawns on the 6th rank it is considered equally as valuable if not more valuable than a rook — which is valued at 5 points.
Many times a knight, with a standard value of 3 points, on an outpost deep into your opponents territory is said to also be worth a rook.
So how do we know the true value of our material? The short answer: it depends.
The long answer: It really depends.
The short answer: it depends. The long answer: It really depends.
In all seriousness, you have to take into account all of the aspects that make the position in front of you imbalanced or different.
If tactics are the servant of chess strategy then imbalances are the commander.
The 7 Imbalances
A quick summary of the 7 imbalances to look for can be summarized by using a checklist via the common acronym “IMPLODeS”
I’ll go through each one briefly:
I – Initiative: Who has the ability to make threats? Who is calling the shots? If your opponent has to react to the moves that you put forth then it is you with the initiative.
M – Material: Simply count the material and see who is ahead. Simple enough
P – Pawn Structure: Who has the healthier pawn structure? Look for doubled pawns, isolated pawns, backward pawns, pawn islands, and overextended pawns.
L – Lines: Who occupies the open lines and diagonals for your rooks, bishops, and queen(s)?
O – Officers: Who has the better placed minor pieces (knights and bishops)?
De – Development: A temporary imbalance. Who is ahead in material development?
S – Space: Who has more space
Over time, if you keep these principles in mind, you’ll realize that some imbalances are more pressing than others. When you’re able to think outside of the box of keeping even material and developing pieces for the sake of developing, you’ll start to see your game progress, you’ll break beginner guidelines when the position calls for it, and you’ll play more creative, fun, chess!
When reviewing games, at first glance some decisions may seem surprising, however, when you run down your IMPLODeS checklist you’ll realize that the decision makes perfect sense.
Here’s an example of weighing all of the imbalances in a smooth and relatively quiet game:
So what did we observe and learn here with the move 17. Bh3? How does one go about finding such a move? Let’s answer these questions by going through our IMPLODeS checklist.
Initiative – with 16 …f6 black hopes to maintain the initiative however white plans to rip it away from black with 17. Bh3 tempting him to take the material.
Material – Even material unless black captures the knight on e5 with severe consequences as shown above
Pawn structure – White has a better pawn structure after f6 which prompted white to play Bh3 to attack the weak pawn on e6
Lines – White occupies an open c-file while black looks to open the f-file for his rook. Again Bh3 from white prevents that so advantage white.
Officers – All of white’s minor pieces are developed while black suffers from an undeveloped knight on b8 a bad light square bishop on b7 and a dark square bishop on e7 not doing much. Advantage White
Development – Advantage white.
Space – You could argue black’s pawns on d5-e6-f6-g5 create some kind of control in the center and the kingside however with white’s queen eyeing the a4-e8 diagonal, as well as the knight plopped on e5 I think it’s safe to say that white has more control of the squares in black’s camp than the other way around. However, I’ll chalk this up as no concrete advantage for either side.
With all of that into consideration, let’s formulate the assessment of the position and justify 17. Bh3 for white.
Assesment of the position
After looking at the position it is apparent that black is attacking white’s knight on e5. Instead of retreating to f3 or d3, are there any other candidate moves for us to consider? Well, if we allow black to capture the piece, what kind of compensation do we have? Well, black suffers from a weak doubled pawn on e6. With g5 already on the board, black’s king is more exposed than ours which means there could be some chances for major damage.
If we bait black into capturing the knight on e5 with Bh3 we will be able to capture the now weakened pawn on e6 with check, giving us the initiative for the material. Additionally, we’ll be able to capture additional central pawns, thus almost evening out the material and giving our pieces more activity to create an attack the exposed black king.
So our candidates are to retreat the knight or play Bh3. Since the position seems relatively even now, let’s go for some imbalances and create some potential attacking chances.
If black sees all of this and decides not to capture the knight but play a move like f5, well, then we just have a game. No real weaknesses, but a potentially unsafe king if I can attack it down the road. So either way, no real drawbacks to Bh3.
Remember, the material count isn’t always the end-all-be-all. In any position that isn’t too tactical in nature, there will be many, many, other factors to consider. Those factors will help you develop candidate moves for the current position and they will allow you to recognize themes, ideas, and things to fight for in the short and long term.