How to play in chess positions that feature material imbalances

Material imbalance refers to the situation where the total amount of points are equal, but is represented by different pieces. In this lesson we will look at the 2 most common cases of material imbalance:

  1. Bishop + knight vs. Rook + pawn (6 points vs 6 points)
  2. Rook + rook vs. Queen + pawn (10 points vs. 10 points)

In each of these scenarios the point-values are equal. However, in most cases it is better to have more pieces because more pieces can usually cover more squares and attack targets more effectively than pawns can. In other words, it is preferable to have a bishop + knight over a rook + pawn. The bishop + knight can attack a target twice, whereas the rook can attack or defend a target only once.

The examples below will demonstrate the idea.

Bishop + knight vs. Rook + pawn

White has a bishop + knight + 5 pawns. Black has a rook + 6 pawns.

Even though the total points are equal, white has two pieces that can be used to attack a target.
Even though the total points are equal, white has two pieces that can be used to attack a target.

 

material imbalance position 2
White plays Ne5 – attacking the c6-pawn. The only defense for black is to play Rc8.

 

Rc8 is not able to provide all the support the c6-pawn needs. White plays Bf3, followed by Nxc6 on the next move.
Rc8 is not able to provide all the support the c6-pawn needs. White plays Bf3, followed by Nxc6 on the next move.

The final position illustrates why 2 lower-valued pieces can be stronger than one higher-valued piece. Of course, it would depend on the concrete situation on the board. However, in most cases the two lower-valued pieces can create more threats than what the one higher-valued piece can defend.

In the next example we will see how two rooks match up to a queen + pawn.

Rook + rook vs. Queen + pawn

The same idea applies in this example. The queen alone can’t protect the pawns against the power of the two rooks.

Black will simply attack the weak d4-pawn with his two rooks. White has only one defender.
Black will simply attack the weak d4-pawn with his two rooks. White has only one defender.

 

The queen alone can't keep up defense of the d4-pawn.
The queen alone can’t keep up defense of the d4-pawn.

As in the previous example, we can see that two well-coordinated pieces can be stronger than a single higher-valued piece. However, if the two minor pieces can’t coordinate well, they might be outperformed by the single piece.

There are always exceptions

If the two rooks don’t coordinate well, they will be vulnerable to the queen’s power.

White's pieces are poorly coordinated and black takes advantage by playing Qc1+, followed by Qb1, forking the 2 rooks.
White’s pieces are poorly coordinated and black takes advantage by playing Qc1+, followed by Qb1, forking the 2 rooks.

 

Qb1 attacks both rooks. Since they are poorly coordinated they can't defend one another on the next move.
Qb1 attacks both rooks. Since they are poorly coordinated they can’t defend one another on the next move.

To summarize: Multiple minor pieces are usually more powerful than a single bigger piece as long as they are in a position where they can coordinate well. If the minor pieces have difficulty to coordinate then the higher-valued piece can be stronger.

Your understanding of how to play with material imbalances can help you achieve a material advantage since weaker players often prefer the single bigger piece over multiple smaller pieces. Take note however that it requires more skill to coordinate numerous pieces, but if you can do it, it will be to your advantage.

Next Lesson – Objectives in Chess: Piece-activity and development

Previous Lesson – 6 Ways to achieve a material advantage in chess

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