14 February 2013

Piece Values Are Relative

I ended Soltis on Kaufman's Material Imbalances with two further leads for investigation. Last week's post One Imbalance Leads to Another discussed Kaufman's second Chess Life column. This week I'll look at the Spielmann connection.

In 'Rethinking the Chess Pieces', GM Andrew Soltis quotes or paraphrases Spielmann more than 20 times, never giving his source. As I quickly discovered, most, if not all, of the references are from Spielmann's classic book 'The Art of Sacrifice in Chess'. The second, shorter section of the book, titled 'Sacrificial Values', discusses the value of the pieces, without which we wouldn't be able to identify a sacrifice when it happens. Values are also useful to quantify the size (Spielmann's word) of a sacrifice.

The longest discussion of Spielmann's ideas is in Soltis's first chapter (p.12).


The various charts depict the "absolute" value of the pieces, or their "static" value, their "exchange" value and that old standby, their "relative" value. The terms change but the point in all of them is to draw a line between a piece's theoretical value and its worth on the board now. Spielmann wrote:

"All chess units have, in the language of the stock exchange, two prices, the par value and the quoted rate. The par value represents the absolute, the price from day to day the relative value."

Spielmann recognized that the relative value of the pieces is in flux during the course of a game, just as value of a Pawn structure changes. As pieces are traded off, a strong Pawn center means less and less, as Bobby Fischer noted, and by the ending the hanging Pawns, "turn out, as a rule, to be weak," as Boris Spassky put it.

Lasker created his chart to address the early part of the game but he spoke of "endgame value." This term may be best because it is in the ending that pieces are nearest to their "true" value. Endgame value is what counts in chess (unless the game is over in the middlegame). In the opening a Rook Pawn may only be worth a quarter of what a center Pawn, as Lasker claimed, or half a Pawn, as Spielmann suggested. But in the ending a Pawn is a Pawn is a Pawn.

When there are fewer pieces and Pawns on the board, their value is less dependent on their location. "The simpler the position, the more absolute value carries weight," Spielmann said.

Here I have to admit to a misunderstanding. I have always used the term 'relative' value to mean the piece values relative to each other or, as I wrote in Relative Value of Chess Pieces, 'relative to the Pawn'. Both Soltis and Spielmann define it another way.

The par value represents the absolute, the price from day to day [i.e. move to move] the relative value.

I don't know how widespread their definition is. I am fairly certain that few chess writers or players use the phrases 'par value' or 'absolute value' to describe the material relationship of the pieces. I'll keep a lookout for other uses of the terms.

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