Keys to Evaluating Positions

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Evaluating Positions

Get out your chess set and play through the following moves from a game played by two masters:

White Black
1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 d6
3. d4 exd4
4. Qxd4 Nc6
5. Bb5 Bd7
6. Bxc6 Bxc6
7. Nc3 Nf6
8. Bg5 Be7
9. o-o-o o-o
10. Rhe1 Re8

8br____bqbr__bk__
7bpbpbp__bbbpbpbp
6____bbbp__bn____
5____________wb__
4______wqwp______
3____wn____wn____
2wpwpwp____wpwpwp
1____wkwrwr______
abcdefgh

So far, both sides have made reasonable moves. Take a look at this position and decide for yourself who has the advantage. If you had the white pieces, what would be your next move?

The Seven Keys to Evaluating Positions

There are seven key components to evaluating positions. These are:

  1. Material
  2. King Safety
  3. Piece Mobility
  4. Pawn Structure
  5. Space
  6. The Center
  7. Threats

Let us discuss each of the seven components as they apply to the above position.

Material

Both players have seven pawns, three minor pieces (bishops and knights), two rooks and a queen. Using the standard relative values of the pieces shows that the material is equivalent. Neither player has an advantage.

King Safety

The black king is safely tucked in behind a wall of pawns and the knight on f6 helps defend; a safe position. The white king also hides behind a wall of pawns, but is slightly exposed on the c1 to h6 diagonal. The edge in king safety goes to black.

Piece Mobility

Early in the game, a good measure of piece mobility is development. By development we mean how many pieces (not counting pawns) have moved off of their original squares and are ready to join the battle. All of white's pieces have moved off of their original squares. The bishop is on a useful diagonal and the rooks have open (or soon to be opened) files. Black, on the other hand still has not developed his queen or the rook on a8. Also the black bishop on e7 is blocked in by the pawn on d6. White has the advantage in mobility in this position.

Note: You mave have heard about bishops being worth more than knights, the advantage of the two bishops, or of bad bishops. What these expressions refer to is the difference in mobility between the bishop and knight. A bishop on an open board generally has better mobility than a knight. A bishop blocked by it's own pawns (a bad bishop), can be much less mobile than a knight. A knight that has established a permanent outpost deep in enemy territory can be much more powerful than a bishop.

Pawn Structure

When looking at pawn structure, what you are looking for is weak pawns and squares weakened by pawn moves. The diagram below illustrates several pawn structure weaknesses.

8________________
7____bpbp____bp__
6____bp________bp
5________________
4bp____wp________
3wp__________wp__
2__wp______wp__wp
1________________
abcdefgh

The white pawn on d4 is an isolated pawn. This means that there are no white pawns on the files next to it. Isolated pawns can be weak because they must be defended by more important pieces if attacked. The square in front of an isolated pawn is often a good outpost for an enemy knight.

The white pawn on b2 is a backward pawn. It is backward because the black pawn on a3 stops it from advancing and because there are no neighboring pawns to support it. Backward pawns are especially vulnerable when the are on an open file which the enemy can occupy with a rook.

The black pawns on c6 and c7 are called doubled pawns because the two pawns are on the same file. Doubled pawns can be weak because they are clumsy to advance and may be difficult to protect. Doubled pawns can also get in the way of your other pieces.

Holes are squares on your third rank which are in front of your pawns but can not be defended by your pawns. In the above diagram, white has holes at b3, f3 and h3. Black has a hole at g6. Holes are weak when they can be invaded by enemy pieces.

In general, pawn weakness are only weak if they can be attacked. A hole may not be a weakness if there are no enemy pieces which can invade. Doubled pawns may actually be a strength if they defend important squares.

Turning back to the position in the first diagram, neither player has any weak pawns or holes so the pawn structure is considered equal.

Space

Having more space to manouver your pieces can be advantage if you are be able to attack more points in enemy territory than your opponent can defend. In general, you want to attack in the sector of the board where you control more space. One way to see who controlls more space is to count the number of squares which you attack on your opponents side of the board. If two of your pieces attack a square, count it twice.

In the game diagram, black only attacks 4 squares on white's side of the board while white attacks 15 enemy squares. Black is all cramped up in the first three ranks. White can claim a big advantage in space.

The Center

The four central squares are the most important squares on the chess board to control because the quickest route from one sector of the board to another is through the center. You want your pieces to have access to the central squares while preventing your opponent from using these squares. Pawns are especially good at preventing your opponent from occupying the central squares. If one player is attacking on the wing and the other is attacking in the center, the center attack usually wins.

In order to form a plan for your game, you must understand the state of the center. Most centers are classified as open or closed. A center is open if the center pawns have been exchanged and there are open diagonals and files throught the center. With this type of center, the player who most quickly develops her pieces and attacks the enemy king usually wins.

A center is closed if no center pawns are going to be exchanged and these pawns are blocking the central files and diagonals. In this type of game, the attacks usually consist of pawn advances on the wings with each player advancing on the side where she has more space.

Early in the game, there may be central pawns attacking each other, but they have not yet exchanged. Either player could open or close the position, but is waiting to see what the opponent does. This type of center is called a dynamic center.

In our game position, the center is open and white has stronger control of the central squares.

Threats

When a player can force the opponent to react to agressive moves, this player is said to have the initiative. In the game diagram, neither player has any immediate threats that the opponent must react to, so neither player has the initiative. Threats against the king must be dealt with before any other plan can begin. If your pieces are threatened, your plan may consist of defense, retreat, or counter-attack.

The Evaluation

To wrap up the evaluation of our game position, white has the advantage in mobility, space and the center. Black has the advantage in king safety. Neither player has an advantage in material or pawn structure, nor are there any immediate threats for either side. Overall, white has more advantages than black, and that is the way great masters win; by accumulating small advantages until they have an overwelming position.

In the game, white played 11. Kb1 moving his king to a safer square and taking away black's only advantage.

An Example

Evaluate the position after these moves. What would be your next move?

White Black
1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bc4 Bc5 The Italian Opening
4. c3 Nf6
5. d4 exd4
6. cxd4 Bb4+
7. Bd2 Bxd2
8. Nxd2 d5
9. exd5 Nxd5

8br__bbbqbk____br
7bpbpbp____bpbpbp
6____bn__________
5______bn________
4____wbwp________
3__________wn____
2wpwp__wn__wpwpwp
1wr____wqwk____wr
abcdefgh

Here is how I called it:

  1. Material - Even.
  2. King Safety - Even.
  3. Piece Mobility - White is one move ahead in development.
  4. Pawn Structure - White has an isolated pawn. An advantage for black.
  5. Space - Too close to call.
  6. The Center - An open center. White has the advantage because of his central pawn and the potential knight outpost at e5.
  7. Threats - Neither side has any threats that must be dealt with this move.

Overall, the advantages balance each other out and the position is fairly even. When masters play this position, the usual result is a draw. The moves white most commonly plays next are 10. Qb3 or 10. o-o.

Another Example

Evaluate the position after these moves. What would be your next move? Do your own evaluation before you look at mine.

White Black
1. e4 e6 The French Defense
2. d4 d5
3. Nc3 Bb4 The Winawer Variation
4. e5 c5
5. a3 Bxc3
6. bxc3 Ne7
7. Qg4 Qc7 The Poisoned Pawn Variation
8. Qxg7 Rg8
9. Qxh7 cxd4

8brbnbb__bk__br__
7bpbpbq__bnbp__wq
6________bp______
5______bpwp______
4______bp________
3wp__wp__________
2____wp____wpwpwp
1wr__wb__wkwbwnwr
abcdefgh

Did you do your own evaluation?

Here is how I see it:

  1. Material - Black is a pawn down.
  2. King Safety - Neither king looks particularly safe. Black's is a little less exposed.
  3. Piece Mobility - Black has 3 pieces developed to white's 1. Black's bishop is blocked by his own pawns.
  4. Pawn Structure - Both players have doubled pawns, but that will soon change. White has an isolated a pawn and a passed h pawn.
  5. Space - White has more space on the kingside, black has more space on the queenside.
  6. The Center - A dynamic center. Black's pawns have a stronger grip on the central squares.
  7. Threats - White must react to blacks threat of Qxc3+ forking the king and rook.

It is difficult to decide if black's slight advantages in king safety, mobility and center control plus the threat against c3 outweigh whites advantage in material. I would say it is very nearly equal. Which color pieces would you rather have from this position? White's next move is usually 10. Ne2 dealing with black's threat.

Practice

Record the moves of several games against your favorite opponents or your computer. Next, replay the games and evaluate the position after black's tenth move.

Practice evaluating position from master games from books, magazines or from the internet. Try to find games where the master comments on his moves. Compare your evaluations. It is not important that you get the same answers as the master. What is important is that you are asking the same questions.

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