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The 5-Step Evaluation Method

Imagine you had the skill to quickly determine which side has an advantage! It will have a big impact on your playing strength and overall understanding of the game.

In this lesson you will learn a 5-step evaluation method that will teach you how to consider all the most important aspects of a chess position. I’ll also take you through a detailed practical example of the method.

How to Evaluate a Chess Position

Evaluation is the process of determining which side, if any, has an advantage. You can do this by comparing the progress each side made in the following 5 areas:

  1. Material Gains
  2. Safety of the King
  3. Development (Activity) of the Pieces
  4. Control of the Centre
  5. Quality of the Pawn Structure

In other words, to evaluate a chess position you will:

  1. Compare the quantities of material on the board
  2. Compare the safety of the respective kings
  3. Compare the development (activity) of the pieces
  4. Compare the measure of center control
  5. Compare the quality/integrity of the pawn-structures

By doing this comparison, you will get an overall estimation of the situation. Your findings would typically be along the lines of:

  • White/Black has a large advantage (with correct play they should be able to win the game without too much difficulties)
  • White/Black has a small advantage (they have slight winning chances but the way forward isn’t clear)
  • The position is about equal (both sides have about equal chances to win the game)
  • The position is drawish (neither side has much opportunities to create winning chances)
  • The position is unclear (the nature of the position is so complex that it is difficult to assess which side, if any, has an advantage)

It is quite common that one side made more progress in a certain area whereas the other player made better progress in another aspect. This “imbalance” is referred to as compensation.

Practical Example of the 5-Step Evaluation Method

The position in the diagram below is from a game between two grandmasters, V Ivanchuk vs J Polgar, played in Mexico city, 2010. The position was reached on move 24 after white just played 24. a3 …

Practical Example of the 5-Step Evaluation Method

Diagram above: Black to move. In whose favor would you evaluate this position? Compare the progress the players made in each of the 5 areas:

  1. Compare the quantities of material on the board
  2. Compare the safety of the respective kings
  3. Compare the development (activity) of the pieces
  4. Compare the measure of center control
  5. Compare the quality of the pawn-structures

Ideally, write down your findings and compare your answer with the solution given below.

Step 1: Compare the Quantities of Material on the Board

Progress in the material objective can be evaluated by comparing the material and finding the differences:

Step 1: Compare the Quantities of Material on the Board
  • Queens: Both sides have a queen (no difference)
  • Rooks: Both sides have two rooks (no difference)
  • Bishops: Neither side have bishop (no difference)
  • Knights: Both sides have 2 knights (no difference)
  • Pawns: Both sides have 6 pawns (no difference)

Conclusion: There is no difference here! We can conclude that material is equal and therefore it will have no effect on our final evaluation of this position.

Step 2: Compare the Safety of the Respective Kings

The king-safety objective can be evaluated by checking whether both players have castled their king, the condition of the pawn-shield in front of the king and the amount of attackers vs. defenders in the area around the kings.

Step 2: Compare the Safety of the Respective Kings
  • Both kings have castled
  • The pawn-shields in front of the king’s appear to be quite similar, no significant difference there
  • All of black’s pieces are in position to support an attack against white’s king, whereas the white pieces are not an immediate threat to black’s king.

Conclusion: Black clearly has a noticeable advantage when comparing the safety of the respective kings.

Step 3: Compare the Development (Activity) Of the Pieces

Evaluating the progress in development can be done by comparing the activity of the opposing pieces:

Step 3: Compare the Development (Activity) Of the Pieces
  • Compare Qf2 with Qa5: The white queen doesn’t have a clear role and can be attacked by black’s knights. We can conclude that black’s queen has a slight advantage over white’s queen.
  • Compare Rd1 with Rd8: There isn’t much to choose between these two rooks, they appear to serve a very similar role and level of development.
  • Compare Re1 with Rc8: Black’s Rc8 has a slightly better role since it adds pressure to an important target–the area near white’s king. Although the difference isn’t huge, the black rook is slightly better compared to the Re1.
  • Compare Ne5 with Nd5: Both these knights are well developed. The white knight is possibly slightly better since it is deeper into black’s territory. However, this doesn’t mean much since the Ne5 isn’t really attacking anything.
  • Compare Ne2 with Nc5: Nc5 is clearly better developed and plays a more active role than its Ne2 counterpart.

Conclusion: Black appears to have an advantage in development since their pieces serve more active roles compared to their white counterparts.

Step 4: Compare the Measure of Center Control

Center-control can be evaluated by comparing the amount of pawns and amount of pieces that influence the center:

Step 4: Compare the Measure of Center Control
  • Amount of pawns: Both sides have 1 pawn that directly influence the center (white’s pawn on f4, black’s pawn on e6.
  • Amount of pieces: Both sides have 5 pieces that influence the center (however, you could argue black’s 2 centralized knights have more influence than white’s knights)

Conclusion: The situation in the center appear to be rather equal but you can argue that the superior placement of black’s pieces gives black a little more control of the center.

Step 5: Compare the Quality of the Pawn-Structures

The quality of the pawn structures can be assessed by observing 1) the extent to which the pawns affect the mobility of the pieces and by 2) identifying potential weaknesses in the pawn structure:

Step 5: Compare the Quality of the Pawn-Structures

Black’s pawn structure is rather solid and does not hinder the mobility of their pieces. There also aren’t any weak pawns on black’s side, whereas the white king-side pawns can become potential targets. Also, the absence of central pawns makes the central squares available to the pieces – which obviously favors the side with better development, in this case black.

The Conclusion

A summary of our findings:

  • Material: Equal
  • King Safety: Clear advantage to black
  • Piece Development (Activity): Advantage to black
  • Center-control: Almost equal, small advantage to black
  • Pawn Structure: Small advantage to black

Based on our comparisons in these 5 areas, it is clear that black has an overall advantage. If black can figure out the right way to continue, it might even turn out that they have a rather large advantage here!

The Continuation…

V Ivanchuk vs J Polgar, played in Mexico city, 2010

Diagram above: In the actual game, Judit Polger continued with the accurate moves 24… Ne4! 25.Qa5 25.Ne2+ Ka1 26.Ne3… and black eventually won the game.

Remember: A chess position cannot be judged by evaluation alone – you also need to calculate the tactics and likely move variations that exist in the position. Since your calculation method supports your evaluation method, I recommend you also familiarize yourself with the 5-Step Calculation Method.

The Idea of Compensation in Evaluating a Chess Position

If you are playing against a strong opponent, it’s difficult to achieve a meaningful advantage in either of the mentioned areas. In such cases both players will often settle for some form of compensation.

Compensation refers to the situation where your disadvantage in a particular area is compensated for by your advantage in another area. For example, your pawn-structure may be compromised in some way but the superior activity of your pieces compensates for the weaknesses on your pawn-structure.

Evaluating compensation is often a subjective process and your conclusion will rely quite heavily on your experience and intuition.

The Role of Intuition in Evaluating a Chess Position

During the process of evaluating and comparing the progress made towards our objectives, there will often be times when we aren’t sure which factors bear the most weight in the specific position. In such cases, the best we can do is to trust our intuition and use our calculation method to double-check it to the best of our ability.

The intuition of a top player is, of course, much better developed than that of an average player. Intuition can be improved over time by playing and studying the game.

More Evaluation Method Exercises

This was a fairly detailed example of the 5-step evaluation method, but it would be a good idea to practice this method by doing the special evaluation method exercises.