What is Equality in Chess?

Someone posed a question on my blog asking, “What is equality anyway?”  On one hand, it’s an easy question: if the game is equal, then that’s equality.  If both sides have the same material, the same pieces, no weaknesses, same development, then that’s equality.  That’s obvious, but chess is a deep game, and many positions are far from simple … and yet GMs will still claim that the game is equal.

In this post, I want to discuss some ideas behind equality.  There are quite theoretical, so I don’t expect it to radically change your play, but you might understand chess better afterwards.  First, though, I want to discuss the basic strategic ideas behind the chess game.

When evaluating a chess position, there are several factors to consider.  Different authors have suggested different criteria, but I’ve always liked these five.  I think they give the most accurate depiction of a chess game.

  • Force, or Material, the basic material count.  If you’re down a pawn, you’re down in material, and if you have a Rook for a Knight, then you’re up material.
  • Time, usually expressed as development.  You might be down in Force (say a piece), but if your opponent has no developed pieces while you have four, then you have a big lead in time.
  • Space, or the amount of board you control.  This often means advancing pawns, as this restricts your opponent’s pieces while also giving you more space for yours.
  • Quality, or the effectiveness of your pieces.  Both sides may have Knights, but a Knight on d5 is much better than a Knight on a1.  If your pieces are better, then you are up in Quality.
  • Structure, specifically the pawn structure.  All other things may be equal, but if one side has many pawn weaknesses (doubled, isolated, backwards, etc), then he is at a considerable disadvantage.

These factors will tell very accurately who is better in any given position.  If one side has an advantage in one, then that side is better; if they have advantages in several, then that’s a big advantage.  If everything is equal, then of course that’s equality.

Note that I put King Safety in the Quality section.  I treat the King like a regular piece.  If your King is weak, then it’s in a poor position, which is a problem of Quality.  Many authors like to have a separate section for King Safety, and that’s fine.  Personal preference.

A Practical Example

Here’s a position from one of my games.  Let’s analyze it using the above.

  • Force: Material is equal, but White does have the two Bishops on an open board.  The Bishops are slightly better than the Knights, so that’s a small advantage in Force.
  • Time: Both sides have two minor pieces developed, and both sides have castled.  White’s Queen is in play, and it’s also White to move.  White has a small advantage here as well.
  • Space: White has the most advanced pawn, on the fifth rank.  Both sides have half-open files.  Another small advantage for White.
  • Quality: Black’s pieces are rather passive.  In particular, the Bishop on g7 stares at granite.  White’s pieces are better, but not much better.  Another small advantage.
  • Structure: White’s e5 pawn is a strength, blocking the enemy Bishop, but also a weakness, in that the d5 square is now a perfect fit for Black.  This is equal.

Graphically, we could illustrate this thus:

There is more White than Black, so White has some advantage.

White has several small advantages, which add up to quite a nice position.  White is better.  Not winning, not much better, but better.  That’s how you evaluate a position.

What This Has To Do With The Opening

Bear with me, as this is quite theoretical, but it isn’t hard to understand.  If you look at the beginning of a chess game, so the initial position, then everything is identical: force, quality, space, structure, all the same.  The only imbalance is that White gets to move first, which gives White a small advantage in time.

We’re talking a small advantage here.

However, time is not a permanent advantage.  One imprecise move and the advantage is gone.  In fact, if White does nothing but simply develop, then he loses his advantage, because eventually Black catches up in development.

None of White’s moves are ‘bad’ per se, but White has lost his advantage.  Time is equal, and so is everything else, and thus the game is equal.  The lesson is clear: if white does not use his time correctly, then he loses his advantage.  Or, said another way, White needs to convert his time advantage into another advantage.

This is why White tries different ideas.  For instance, the Exchange Spanish, where White trades his advantage in Time for an advantage in Structure:

Alternatively, White can enter the mainline Closed Spanish, where his advantage in Time becomes one in Space:

White will soon play d5 and gain a central space advantage.  In both examples, White gains small advantages, though Black should hold a draw with accurate play.  That is, White gains a small advantage, denying Black equality, but it’s not enough for a winning advantage by itself.

Many Black players opt to play something besides 1.e5.  These positions are generally more dynamic, because more factors are exchanged.  Take this example:

Black has a bad Bishop and less space, but he has the much better structure.  If White cannot make use of his space, then Black has serious winning chances later.  If White can, he might make Black pay for his terrible Bishop.  Both sides have more risk, and the position is far more dynamic.

Both sides have both strengths and weaknesses, making for an imbalanced game. On the whole, though, the factors are balanced, so we have dynamic equality.

What This Means Practically

The very first moves of the chess game determine its overall trajectory.  First, does White want to fight for an opening advantage?  This generally means playing mainlines and learning lots of theory.  Many players are obsessed with this idea, but practically speaking, outside of GM level this rarely matters to the outcome.

White can instead choose to play ‘normally,’ not fighting for a theoretical advantage.  The game becomes equal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean drawn.  The following is considered a fairly harmless line of the Sicilian:

White gets the Maroczy Bind structure at the cost of Time.  He is making many pawn moves in the opening, and Black should be perfectly fine.  Nonetheless, I’ve played this variation with great success, because White gets a permanent, if small, advantage in space.  Black rarely gets a pawn past his third rank, and if he is not accurate, then White can steadily get a bigger and bigger advantage until he gets legitimate winning chances.

Compare that to the following:

The position is symmetrical.  There is no advantage for either side, and no weaknesses either.  Such positions are inherently drawish.  If the opponents are equal strength and the position is perfectly equal in terms of factors, then it’s hard to escape the draw.

That is White’s choice, though.  He decides whether to play theoretically, fighting for an advantage, or more modestly, playing normal moves and seeing what will happen later.  Black faces a similar but different choice.  He can choose to minimize White’s opening advantage, or he can try to create dynamic possibilities.

If you answer 1.e4 with 1…e5, then you are trying to minimize White’s advantage.  You will fight for the centre, you will develop quickly and you will resist any White attack.  Such an approach means you are less likely to lose, but you are less likely to win as well.

Conversely, if you answer 1.e4 with anything else, then you are trying to create dynamic imbalances.  White generally gains certain advantages, usually Space and Time, but Black gets something as well: maybe he gets better Quality of pieces, or a better Structure, or maybe he gains a Pawn but has to defend against White’s attack.  This approach generally leads to more winning chances but also more losing chances.  The positions may be equal objectively, but because both sides hold different advantages, mistakes are far more likely.

At the End of the Day

If you are not a master, most of the above means very little.  Equality means almost nothing under 1500, where draws are non-existent.  Both sides play for a win, regardless of the objective merits of the position, and frequent mistakes means one side can be winning, equal and losing in a span of four moves.  I would not worry about equality at all while playing.  I honestly didn’t even think about equality until I was around the 2000 rating mark.

At a higher level, equality becomes more important.  If the position is equal, then pushing too hard for a win will frequently backfire.  For instance, trying to start an attack in a completely equal position often leaves you with too many weaknesses, which your opponent can then take advantage of.  If neither side tries to attack, then the game will eventually peter out to a draw.

If you know you have an advantage, then you can play more forcefully for a win.  If your opponent has the advantage, you need to defend, to neutralize that advantage.

At the highest level, it’s amazing to see how a Super GM can turn a small advantage in space into a crushing attack, or how a seemingly minor pawn weakness becomes a huge endgame liability.  These GMs can expertly exploit the last drop of every advantage, and it’s remarkable to watch.

For us mortals, I think simply knowing about the above framework is enough.  When you watch a GM outplay someone, you can then think, “Ah, he’s slowly increasing his Space advantage, and now he’s converting that Space into better Quality of pieces, which creates Structural weaknesses, and that’s how he won.”

2 thoughts on “What is Equality in Chess?

  1. Gringo

    A lot of ideas regarding the opening stage have become clearer after reading this post. Although I had an idea it wasn’t clear in my mind that 1e4 e5 would likely lead to symmetrical opening and pawn structures. Now I understand why some players prefer to respond differently. It’s a delicate interplay between all the five factors discussed. A few more readings will be needed to extract more juice out of what’s written here. One thing I have learned here is the value of asymmetrical openings and the structural challanges and opportunies that may arise as a result.

  2. JP Post author

    A lot of ideas regarding the opening stage have become clearer after reading this post.

    Excellent. That makes me happy. This was also a good exercise for me, as it forced me to crystalize my own thinking on this matter, and making those little graphs really helped, I think. I’m going to use them for a future game analysis, because I think they can be an excellent learning/teaching tool in unbalanced positions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.