The Pieces & the pawns

As mentioned on the Chessboard page, each player has 16 fighting objects to use in the game called pieces and pawns. These are shown with their respective quantities in the table above. While many beginners and even others sometimes call pawns “pieces,” in the game of chess strictly speaking pawns are not pieces – which are the King, Queen, Rook, Bishop, and the Knight.

The Queen, Rook, Bishop, Knight, and the pawns, collectively represent the material count or more usually simply the material available for each player to play the game.

* The King has no point value because it is never actually captured and removed from the board. [Note While I do not adhere to the concept, some consider a Bishop worth a half a point more than a Knight for playing purposes instead of equal value, but they are assigned the same point value for material count. An interesting side note is that effective and destructive use of Knights has been described as “the hallmark of Grand Masters”].

Each player starts with a total possible material count of 39, which is arrived at by adding up all the material point values for the player’s pieces and pawns. If a player has only a King left on the chessboard, his or her material count = 0. The material point value assigned to each piece is given in the table above. The material count is reduced each time a piece or pawn is captured and removed from the board. The more material a player has usually (but not necessarily always) the better chance the player has of winning the game.

Before proceeding, an observation on chess terminology. In these tutorials, to be encountered in chess books and publications, and in playing chess, there are a lot of terms and phrases used in the chess world. The name or label used is not as important to learn, understand, and grasp, as it is the ideas and concepts covered by the terms and phrases. Which is it better for a player to be able to say…”Ah, I know that, it is the Caro-Kann opening” or “A-ha, I know that, if I don’t do this or that something bad will happen…like losing my Queen!”

This is not to disparage terminology used in chess. Indeed far from it. The point is that the terms and phrases applied in the chess world while certainly important for a player to learn so as to be able to discuss chess games with others and understand chess literature, the term or phrase in and of itself is useless without gaining the basic knowledge of what the term or phrase means and an understanding of how it is employed on the board during the game. A player is bettered served by coming to know and understand the ideas and concepts behind terms and phrases utilized, rather than being able to put a label to something.

The learning process of grasping and being able to recite terms and phrases comes through the overall process of learning to play chess buttressed by experience. Often a player will come to realize that with time and gaining knowledge and understanding of the benefits and/or drawbacks emanating from the mechanics applied for any particular term or phrase, naturally the player also will come to be able to correctly state the term or phrase almost as a second nature. Simply stated…do not get tongue tied and twisted around trying to learn as rapidly as possible terms and phrases used in the chess world. With that in mind, let us turn now to more basic terms and phrases and the ideas and concepts behind them.

Connected with material count, moving pieces and advancing pawns, and capturing with pieces and pawns, is the concept of compensation. Compensation generally refers to a player’s ability to gain in the game material advantage (more material than the other player), or regain material parity, or being able to get ahead in development of pieces (getting a player’s pieces off their home squares in the back rank and onto other squares on the board for use in attacking and defending during the game), creation of an advantageous pawn structure (the lineup of a player’s pawns on the board), and/or creation of positional superiority (having the player’s pieces and pawns better located on the board for attacking and defending).

If a player cannot obtain one of those objectives, this is said to be without compensation. One example would be where Black captures White’s Bishop (3 points) with his or her Queen (9 points), which is then captured by White, but Black has no ability to capture a White piece and sacrificing the Queen results in no advantage for Black. In such situation, Black’s Queen capture would be said to be made without compensation and indeed most likely would also be a blunder. A blunder is a major error by a player…one which gives the opposing player a checkmate, significant material advantage and/or positional superiority; in short, an often fatal, overwhelming advantage.

If a player is able to obtain one of the objectives, then this is said to be with compensation. One example is if White’s Queen from its home square at d1 is able to capture Black’s Queen at its home square of d8 [on Black’s back rank] before Black castles, thereby forcing Black’s King to capture the White Queen back. This would result in the Black King being moved thereby negating castling by Black, and exposing the Black King to the open d file (a central file) creating significant positional inferiority for Black. While White gave up his or her Queen in the Queen trade, doing so would be said to be done with compensation.

Another facet which is a cousin to compensation was mentioned in the My Chess Philosphy!…hierarchy. In the game of chess, the major pieces (Kings, Queens, and Rooks) are more valuable than the minor pieces (Bishops and Knights), and the pieces all are more valuable than pawns for example, but relatively this is not always true because when smaller things are combined working together [e.g., the minor pieces (two Bishops, a Bishop and a Knight) and/or pawns] they may simple overwhelm and smother something which is bigger and stronger…e.g., the King and/or the Queen. Therefore, as a player progresses from being a beginner into novice and upper levels of playing, the player must learn and apply the concept of relative value.

This relative value aspect is important when considering whether to engage in exchanges or trades of pieces and/or pawns. For example, in most situations it is worse to exchange away a Bishop and Knight for a Rook and pawn than the reverse, even though in material count under the traditional point system they are equal. A beginner often learns early through losses that most players would consider the player who gives up the Bishop and Knight in such an exchange to have lost the exchange.

Another example of applying relative value is that while the traditional point value system provides that Bishops and Knights are each worth 3 points, as one progresses in learning a player will encounter the concept that relative values of 3 1/2 points for Bishops and 2 1/2 for Knights are much more commonly applied. This is important when considering trades and exchanges, because generally it is more valuable for tactics & strategy to retain a Bishop than a Knight. In a lot of situations, many players would consider the player who gives up a Bishop for Knight to have lost the exchange. The reason for this is that the Bishop has more fluid mobility than the Knight. As will be seen in the following tutorials, the Bishop can move great distances across the board along open available diagonals while the Knight’s odd-shape manner of moving requires a series of jumping shorter moves to skip around and across the board. However, if a player has an opposing Bishop Pair against him or her (two Bishops against one Bishop or no Bishops), then exchanging away a Knight for one of the Bishops becomes an important tactical & strategic goal to consider because of the tremendous power of a Bishop Pair.

An additional important relative value aspect is that a Rook in the traditional point value system is assigned a value of 5 points. This is because two Rooks (5 points each=10 points) are more powerful and valuable to have on the board against just a Queen (9 points). However, because of positional considerations, many upper level players assign a relative value to the Rook of 4 1/2 points. This aspect is an important consideration for tactics & strategy for middlegame and endgame play. In each of the foregoing, the positional aspect often plays a critical role in the relative value of the pieces and/or pawns.

The combination of the positional and relative value aspects is a central vital tenet throughout playing a game of chess. Perhaps the best application of this tenent is in the endgame of a pawn and King against a lone King. A player who does not make a blunder (a game-deciding wrong move) can prevent the opposing pawn from gaining pawn promotion to a Queen (which is called Queening) on the back rank from the opposing player’s 7th rank if the opposing pawn is located in the a or h files, and the player’s King is in front of the pawn. However, if the player’s King is behind the player’s opposing pawn and the player with the opposing pawn has the initiative (the next move), then the player will not be able to stop the pawn from doing pawn promotion because the opposing pawn will always be one step ahead of the player’s King through pawn advance in the file toward the player’s back rank.

Additionally, whether a pawn can do pawn promotion in this type of an endgame when the pawn is located in the b, c, d, e, f, and g files depends on the positions of the Kings and who has the initiative. If the opposing player cannot get his or her King next to the opposing pawn because it is too far away on the board, before the player can get his or her King next to the pawn to attack and capture the pawn, then simply the player will be able to stop the pawn from successful promotion (either through capture before promoting or capture immediately after promoting). Therefore, we see a prime example that relative value of the opposing pawn usually is conjoined with positional considerations. The tactical & strategic goals for maneuvering during an endgame with a pawn & a King against a lone King is covered in a later tutorial.

Mentioned above is material count. Material available to each player (equal or one or the other has a material advantage, along with development and positional superiority or inferiority, are the three primary aspects utilized to evaluate – that is to say, to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each player and their particular moves at any given point during a game. This evaluation combination may be viewed sort of like a “snapshot picture of the game” at any given point in the game.

There are several other aspects to consider in playing, analyzing, and evaluating chess games which some consider separate from the above three and others consider to be components of the above three aspects, including King safety, pawn structure, centralization, space, mobility, and initiative:

  • King safety: is a paramount concern, because obviously a weak, poorly guarded King is subject to being attacked, checked, and checkmated. The player who fails to adequately protect his or her King virtually almost always loses. Castling (the castle move) early should become a guiding beacon. The castle move is covered in The King tutorial in Moving Pieces and Advancing pawns.
  • pawn structure: refers to how many pawn(s) a player has on the board at a give point and where they are located (or it is located if the player only has a single pawn) relative to:
    • the center and wings of the board;
    • the player’s King, pieces, and other pawn(s);
    • the opponent’s King, pieces, and other pawn(s);
    • the opponent’s back rank for purposes of gaining pawn promotion (the pawn being able to change into a Queen, Rook, Bishop, or Knight); and
    • whether there is or are:
      • established pawn center(s);
      • a Queenside pawn majority for one of the players;
      • a passed pawn or passed pawns;
      • a pawn chain or pawn chains (connected pawns);
      • a backward pawn or backward pawns;
      • an isolated pawn or isolated pawns;
      • an remote (or outside) isolated pawn (whether it is a passed pawn or not);
      • pawn island(s);
      • pawn couple(s);
      • doubled pawns; and/or
      • tripled pawns.
  • Centralization: refers to a player seeking to gain control and keeping control of one of the key central squares (d4, e4, d5, and e5) by locating a piece or pawn upon it which is hard to dislodge, that usually provides a forward defensive position for the player, and also a strong place on the board for the player to launch an attack. Knights are usually used to try to establish a centralization for one or both players (the e5 square being a focal point for White and the d4 square being a focal point for Black). A general guiding principle for Knights is that they need forward support points on the board to be used effectively and actively in executing a game plan to combat the Bishops. Battles usually ensue in openings and middlegame phases of the game through which the players attack each other’s central position or develop counterattacks elsewhere on the board that also usually threatens to prevent or break each others intended or obtained centralization, pawn center, and control of the center.
  • Initiative: fairly as the word implies…which player has “seized the moment” so to speak – who is pressing an attack or perhaps in some cases a counterattack, does one of the players have counterplay, who is creating a threat or threats, forcing an opponent to retreat and/or lose a tempo (move) or tempi (moves), forcing an opponent to abandon or delay a planned attack or desired course of moving pieces or advancing pawns, forcing an opponent to react defensively, or more insidiously, who is waiting to strike suddenly in a devastating attack thoroughly unknown to the other player. White begins the game with the initiative because White moves first. Black therefore has to set about trying to gain at least parity (equality), and then to take the initiative away from White. White, obviously, tries to retain the initiative.
  • Mobility: refers to how active or passive a player’s pieces and pawns are on the board: is one or more of them trapped in some manner such as entombed, pinned, or under attack and threat of capture with no safe square to which the piece or pawn may move; are the Knights in the center of the board and not on the wings (vertical sides of the board); are the Rooks in open files or partial open files; is it a closed game where pawns are blocking diagonals for a player’s or the players’ Bishops in the center of the board, or an open game where pawns are not blocking diagonals for a player’s or the players’ Bishops in the center of the board.
  • Space: at it basest element the term “space” refers to the number of squares behind the player’s pawns and pieces which are controlled by the player. Therefore, as one might expect, normally the more space a player controls, likely the better situated the player is to win the game. A player’s piece(s) and/or pawn(s), however, may also control squares in front of them, to the sides of them, and/or diagonally, in the opposing player’s half of the board. In such situations, naturally, the opponent’s “space” has been restricted or in some cases portions of it completely taken away from the opposing player’s ability to regain control.

The above is provided as “peek” into the breadth and depth of things considered in playing, analyzing, and evaluating chess games. Perhaps a good way to view these concepts is that they are the weapons by which the player develops tactical vision, the ability to see ahead and make informed choices as to what the player wants to do. Losing a game of chess often is nothing more than lacking this ability…lacking tactical vision.

I am not talking about seeing the proverbial “I can see [this many] moves ahead,” which causes me to cringe every time I hear someone say this. To me, that essentially is a misnomer and unfortunately diverts focus upon the true skill and art in playing chess (and yes, chess is both a skill and art)…being able to appreciate the players’ respective positions on the boards and seeing the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages, of the choices open to them to make at any given point. There are very few people in the world who can truly see more than just a few moves down the various lines which open up while playing a game. Instead, the focus upon seeing ahead is rightly placed more appropriately upon pattern recognition.

To give an example, consider the essential component of pawn structure…a key point being how a player’s pawns are located on the chessboard within the overall positional structure for each player and how it affects a player’s ability to “push a pawn” or “push the pawns” toward pawn promotion on the opponent’s back rank, including when and if to develop a pawn storm – the rushing of pawns advancing toward the opposing player’s back rank both in conjunction with and often supportive of each other, or a Queenside majority pawn attack. This is tactical vision at work.

All considerations in the chess world revolve around and affect players’ respective abilities to attack, defend, counterattack, have counterplay, and create threats, to force an opponent to lose valuable time (lose a tempo or more – lost tempi; a lost tempo for one example occurs when a player is forced to retreat a piece from the square it is located on instead of being able to retain it on that square or further develop it, thereby causing an interruption in that player’s game plan), and ultimately the ability to checkmate, or to force a draw or a stalemate from a losing position. In the next section, Moving Pieces & Advancing pawns, we will explore the movements of the pieces and pawns – their basic attributes, strengths, and weaknesses.

As mentioned earlier, as one plays and studies chess, he or she encounters various types of notation used for designating pieces & pawns, along with their respective moves and advances during a game. There is a Chess Notation tutorial because the subject is fairly expansive, with different types or systems of notation used historically and in use in the modern chess world. There is also the subject of symbols used in the chess world, which is covered in the Chess Symbols tutorial. For now, some of the English algebraic notations and symbols you may see are set forth below. As set forth earlier, notations for designating squares in English Algebraic are: file (column) letter (lower case) a to h followed by rank number 1 to 8. For the pieces, capital letters are used (King=K, Queen=Q, Rook=R, Bishop=B, Knight=N (you may see Kt as well although generally in older texts and books as this is obsolete) [various languages use different names and descriptive letters for the pieces and pawns…a table with a range of various languages with the names and descriptive letters used, appears in the Symbols tutorial].


Simple piece moves are noted by using the letter for the piece followed by the notation for the square to which it is moved, e.g., Kd7, Rh6.

For pawn advances, use the file letter from which the pawn is advanced followed by the notation for the square to which it is moved, e.g., exd5, fxg7.

If two pieces of the same kind are located in different files and may move to the square, the file letter for the square from which the piece is moved is added to the notation, e.g. Rda1. This example would be where the player has a Rook positioned in the a file (in a square other than a1) and the other Rook in the first rank on a square in any of the files from b to h, and both could move to a1 (no opposing pieces or pawns located on intervening squares between either Rook and square a1), and the player moves the Rook in the d1 square to a1.

If more than one piece of the same type is in the same file and may move to the square, then use the rank number instead of the file letter, e.g. R1d5. This is an example where a player’s Rooks both are in the d file, one on d1 and one on d6, d7, or d8, and both may move to d5 (no opposing pieces or pawns located on intervening squares between either Rook and d5), and the player chooses to move the rook on d1 to d5.

In rare occurrences after one or more pawns have been promoted to piece(s) (reviewed later) so that a player has more than the number of pieces of a particular type than which he or she started the game, it will be necessary to add both the file letter and row number for the square from which the piece is moved: Qa8xd5. This is an example where a player has two or more Queens on the board as a result of pawn promotion, and two or more of them may move and capture on square d5 (e.g. a Queen at a5 and a Queen at a8 or a2, or a Queen at a8 and a Queen at a2).

Capture of a piece or pawn is noted by the multiplication symbol or simply the letter “x” as part of the move notation (e.g., Qxb6), although in some languages/notation systems (e.g., German Algebraic) – the colon “:” is used instead appearing in the same place as the multiplication (x) symbol in the move notation Q:b6…and sometimes the colon appears after the move notation instead of in the middle). As with moving, additional notation may need to be added in the situations described above for noting moves.

A pawn capture, does not use the letter for the pawn (p) utilized, instead the file letter for the file from which the pawn is moved that does the capturing is followed by the x and then the notation for the square where the captures occurs, e.g. exd5. There is no need to add additional notation for pawn moves or captures because the notation always identifies the particular pawn which was moved, or moved and did a capture. The special capture advance of a pawn, en passant, is covered both in The pawns tutorial in Moving Pieces and Advancing pawns, and in the Chess Notation tutorial. The officially recognized designation is e.p. for en passant.

Here are some other notations and symbols you may see utilized in chess notation include (but certainly not a complete list by far, see the Notations and Symbols tutorials for more expansive coverage):

  • Check – +
  • Double check – ++ [rare and archaic, mostly historical chess texts and books, more commonly now seen sometimes abbreviated as dbl. ch., while discovered check is seen sometimes abbreviated dis. ch….under FIDE’s Official Rules of Chess, ++ is one of the two symbols that may be used to denote checkmate)
  • Checkmate – # (or alternatively ++ under FIDE’s Official Rules of Chess)

For drawn and stalemate games, the type of result may be included: e.g., draw (or drawn game), drawn by agreement, and stalemate.

The following are additional common symbols widely recognized and used in the chess world for evaluating and analyzing a game, attached as part of and immediately after the basic notations.

  • Brilliant move – !!
  • Excellent or good move – !
  • Interesting move – !?
  • Dubious move – ?!
  • Bad or poor move – ?
  • Blunder – ??

In addition, other common notations are used to designate a win and loss, and castling:

  • 1-0 for a White win either by checkmate or resignation by Black
  • 0-1 for a Black win by checkmate or resignation by White
  • 1/2-1/2 for either a draw or a stalemate
  • 0-0 for Kingside castle (or short side castle)
  • 0-0-0 for Queenside castle (or long side castle)

Of course, the evaluation may change rapidly during a feverish pitched battle of an open game or may change in small incremental steps during a closed game, and during the opening, the middlegame, & the endgame phases of a chess game. More about these types of games, and the three phases of the game, will be discussed in later tutorials.

Studying chess also involves analysis and analyzing games after they have been played. Basically, this is the process by someone (or more than one) look at a played game and decide how to describe and comment upon the moves and advances made by the players, the players’ respective strengths and weaknesses on the board at various points during the game, as well as the tactics & strategy employed by the players. This process may result in annotation (an annotated game), which is to say a game which having these descriptions and comments attached. Mentioned above are some notations and symbols used in annotating games which have been analyzed. Before moving forward to the next tutorial, a final concluding observation is important to remember when looking at annotated games which have been analyzed:

Analysis is always subjective.
-Jon Sveisson, Membership Pages (“King’s Indian Defence – Playing on the flanks”)

What one person might say is a brilliant move or pawn advance, another might classify as good, or even questionable. He or she might not comment upon it at all! One must remember that a player easily could make a mistake or worse…a blunder (extremely overwhelming error in making a move or pawn advance which usually results in a resounding defeat). An excellent move when analyzed, just might turn out to be devastating when attempted in an actual game if followed by a mistake or blunder. Therein lies perhaps the deepest mystery in chess-one which even computers have yet to overcome: the value of subjective thinking coupled with the unknown timing of mistakes and blunders.