For the typical Patzer, a knight is a knight and a bishop a bishop, they’re worth three points, and trading a knight for bishop is pretty much always an equal exchange.

While a knight and bishop are nominally worth three points, they actually become more or less valuable depending on their position on the board and the overall board layout. The next time you have a chance to exchange minor pieces to accomplish some goal, take the entire board into account when making your decision. Here are some elements to watch out for when valuing your minor pieces:

1. Knights become more valuable as they make their way toward the center and up the board. A knight on the back row is virtually worthless (“A Knight on the Rim is Dim”), because it can only attack a few squares. A knight in the center can attack up to eight squares. As a knight makes its way to the 5th and 6th ranks, it becomes a real thorn in the opponent’s side. If a knight is approaching your back ranks, look to trade one of your minor pieces to eliminate it, or chase it off with a pawn.

2. Knights on outposts can be devastating. Look for outposts (squares on the 5th or 6th rank that are protected from enemy pawns or other pieces) to plant your knights on. From a protected outpost, a knight can really hinder your opponent’s development.

3. Knights are more valuable in closed games, bishops in open games. If you are in a closed game, with the center locked up by many pawns, hold on to your knights if appropriate, and avoid knight-for-bishop exchanges. Knights can leap over the clutter in the center of the board, where they are relatively more mobile than bishops, queens, and rooks. On the other hand, in an open game bishops can fly up and down the board unhindered.

4. In the same way, knights are more valuable earlier in the game, when the board is cluttered with material, and bishops become more valuable toward the endgame, as material is removed from the board.

5. The bishop’s main weakness is its inability to attack pieces on a color other than its own. That is why it is valuable to maintain a “bishop pair” if at all possible – a white and a colored bishop that can work in tandem to attack all squares on the board. This is especially true if your opponent does not have a bishop pair.

6. Finally, a bishop that is trapped behind its own pawns (especially when the center pawns prevent it from moving along the long diagonals) is called a “bad bishop.” Look to exchange this bishop for another minor piece, move the pawns, or work to get the bishop outside of the pawn chain, so it is at least active.

Keeping these tenets in mind can help any patzer make smarter decisions about exchanging the minor pieces.

Development of your pieces is the process of moving the pieces from the back row into positions from which they can attack the opponent much more easily. Without getting too much into opening theory, the purpose of the opening moves is to develop your pieces. Ideally, you will only move each piece once for the first several moves of the game, and make only enough pawn moves to enable your major and minor pieces (the back row) to move into position. Usually the rough order of this is to attack the center with a central pawn (e4 or d4), then move the knights out, then the bishops (this may require another central pawn move), then the queen, and then castle the king. Of course, development rarely progresses exactly this way.  You’ll have to react to your opponent as you develop as quickly as possible.

A lead in development is a temporary lead. It’s easy to spot: Do you have more material developed than your opponent? Has your opponent spent several moves shuffling pawns around, or moving individual pieces repeatedly?

Chess Development

White has a huge lead in development.

In the diagram to the right, it may look like both sides are on about equal footing.  After all, both sides have equal material.  White has a huge lead in development, though.  All of white’s back row pieces are poised to attack.  The knights and pawns are attacking the center, the bishops have been moved to areas from which they can move along diagonals, and the queen has moved forward, allowing the king to castle to safety behind a row of pawns (which also lines up the rook and queen, another advantage).

From this point, white should focus on blasting up the center before black has a chance to move out many of his attacking pieces.  White should also try not to move the pawns in front of the king, in order to protect the king from attack.

Especially in open games (where the center isn’t clogged up with pawns), you will want to take advantage of a lead in development as quickly as possible.  Lean forward and attack aggressively.  These attacks need not necessarily focus on the enemy king.  If you can blast away several pawns, gain a minor piece, and/or line up several attackers against the enemy king, you will have a huge advantage going into the middlegame.

One goal may be to prevent the opponent from castling.  If you can castle your king, and also prevent the opponent from castling, you will have an advantage that will last throughout the game.  How is this accomplished?  The rules of castling stipulate that a player cannot castle when his king is in check, when castling would move the king through check (any of the squares between the king and rook are being attacked), or if either the king or rook have moved.

There are sometimes cases in which a path through the d-file is opened up.  If you can send your queen across the board to capture the enemy queen, sacrificing your own queen to a capture by the enemy king, you will have forced the enemy king to move, eliminating his ability to castle.

So to review: In the opening, try to move each piece only once, developing all the pieces from your back row.  Castle early and try to prevent your opponent from castling.  If you have a lead in development, attack aggressively and quickly, because a development lead is only temporary.

While studying tactics is a great way to improve rapidly as a beginner, it’s important to ladder your tactics to an overall strategy.  Tactics should help you achieve a higher-level goal that will bring you closer to your ultimate goal of checkmating the opponent’s king.

Here are some examples:

Tactics: “I’ll move my knight to e4, forking her bishop and queen.”  “If he moves his rook to d5, I can go for a discovered attack on his bishop.”

Strategy: “The board is wide open (pawns aren’t clogging up the center).  I’ll use my bishops in tandem to clear a path on the kingside so that my pawns can storm his already-cramped position.”  “She hasn’t castled yet, so I’m going to aggresively attack her king on the center files and try to prevent her from castling at all.”

Strategies are a bit more difficult to teach, to learn, and to implement, but they are nonetheless very important to winning chess games, especially as you begin to improve your game.

This series of articles will highlight different elements of chess strategy, especially studying imbalances on the board and how they can be utilized to win games.  We’ll be studying the following imbalances over the next few weeks:

  1. Development: Has your opponent opened by moving each piece only once, toward the center of the board?  A delay in development can be a hindrance that you can exploit.
  2. Space: Controlling a greater area of the board can give you the breathing room needed to carry out your attacks.
  3. Initiative: A temporary imbalance – Are you reacting to your opponent with your moves, or is he using his moves to react to your actions?  You should always be trying to achieve the latter situation.
  4. Open Files and Protected Squares: Files, ranks, and diagonals are the pathways along which your pieces move.  Entire games can hinge on an open file, or a protected outpost square for a knight to land on.
  5. Minor Pieces: Two bishops (the “bishop pair”) can be deadly working together.  Knights are more valuable when the board is clogged up.  Look at the balance of minor pieces, searching for opportunities to use your pieces to their full potential.
  6. Pawn Structure: Entire books have been written on pawn structure.  Imbalances can result from doubled pawns, isolated pawns, passed pawns, backward pawns, etc.
  7. Material: Do you own more material than your opponent?  How are you taking advantage of that fact?

Over the next few months we’ll look at each of these in turn and explore ways to use them to your advantage.  As a fellow patzer I have to admit that I’m only scratching the surface of strategy myself, but upon reviewing games that I’ve won (and lost), it becomes clear that having a strategy that is both solidly thought out and yet infinitely flexible can yield great results.