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On Chess: Piece value

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 4, 2011 - When I teach a class of beginning players, it is customary to explain the "value" of the pieces. If both sides exchange pieces, knowing their approximate value will help explain who gets the better deal. Some things are pretty obvious, like if I capture a queen and my opponent captures a bishop, we both know who is doing better. But some things are not so clear.

I try to make analogies when I teach. Some hit the mark, and some confuse the student even more! But before I try to confuse my readers, let us look at standard values:

  • Queen = 9
  • Rook = 5
  • Bishop = 3
  • Knight = 3
  • Pawn = 1

The king does not have a capture value, since we do not capture the king. (You can't say, "I captured his knight and two pawns for my king.")
Why do the pieces have the values I listed? Well, there actually is not a set point system to determine who is winning a game of chess, but these values can give you a good estimation. Pieces are given these unofficial values because each has its own abilities and drawbacks.

Queens can do almost anything (moving like a rook or a bishop on any given move), so they have the highest value. Rooks cannot move diagonally, so they are worth less than a queen. Bishops can only move diagonally, and therefore, can only control or occupy one color the whole game, so they are worth a little less than a rook. Knights are cool because they can jump over pawns and other pieces, but they are a bit slower than the other pieces. Pawns have many drawbacks (they can't move backward, are easily blocked and cannot move very far in one move), so they are worth the least.

But why did I write that the pieces have an estimated value, instead of an exact value? As with everything in life, when I am asked what is better in any given situation, I say "it depends."

Knights and bishops are great in the opening. Rooks, kings, and pawns are great in the endgame. So, the first 20 moves or so of most chess games, your bishops and knights are doing most of the work, and your rooks typically sit in the corner. In a closed position with many pieces still on the board, knights are valuable because of their maneuverability, whereas an open position with fewer pieces is better for bishops.

Your king is hiding most of the game, but when pieces are traded and there is little material left, then the king can get active! Pawns are not always threatening in the opening or middlegame, but again, when there are few pieces left, the pawns have good chances to promote to a queen!

Let's think about this in baseball terms. When the Cardinals are playing, how valuable are the starting pitchers? Most people (like yours truly) think starting pitching is the most important factor in determining the strength of a baseball team. But is Chris Carpenter valuable the day after he starts? When Carpenter pitches a complete game, are the relief pitchers more valuable than he is the following day? On the other hand, if the fastest player on your team is on the bench the whole game, but then he is put into the game in the bottom of the 8th as a pinch runner, his value may have gone up tremendously!

If you think of the chess pieces like baseball players, you can understand that their values are wholly dependent on the position. Or maybe you'll just end up even more confused, just like many of my students and most big league managers.

Ben Finegold is the GM in residence at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center. 

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