It is stating the obvious that in a chess game, both you and your opponent are striving to win. The win may come in many ways. In the most unlikely way (1.f4 e6 2.g4 Qh4#) it may even happen without exchange of a single piece or pawn! But realistically speaking, the most frequent will be games where one of the players gain some material advantage and the superior force is used to bring down the opponent.
All chess players must be aware of the relative values of the chess pieces as a strategic consideration. Though several systems exist, the most commonly accepted values are: Pawn – 1, Knight – 3, Bishop – 3, Rook – 5, Queen – 9. This tells in a broad sense that two minor pieces give better value than a rook, two rooks better than a Queen and so on. But it should be common sense that the position on the chess board and the influence exerted by a piece in a given situation may drastically alter the perceptible value of a piece to the players concerned.
When we talked about the ‘material advantage’, we said so in terms of strategic values. Not considering the situational values, a player in general may be said to gain such advantage when the value of the enemy pieces captured by him is more than that of the pieces surrendered in exchange. During a game, the normal chess tactics of any player is to use it for gaining material advantage, may be even just a pawn, whenever such opportunity presents itself. The other player surrenders such advantage only when compelled by the superior chess tactics of his opponent.
It, therefore, always becomes a source of surprise and wonder when one player, without being under any compelling pressure from his opponent, deliberately makes moves that will hand over a ‘material advantage’ to the opponent. The use of ‘deliberately’ implies that such a move was not the result of any oversight or gross miscalculation unexpected from a player of certain standing. The chess tactics of using a move that can result in a material loss is known as ‘sacrifice’ in chess parlance. A sacrifice is an attacking chess tactics to break down resistance and bring about a decisive result.
To make a finer distinction, a simple sacrifice involves the loss of a piece or pawn without getting any material in exchange, whereas an exchange sacrifice involves getting material of lower value while giving up something of higher value (like Rook against Queen). The greater the difference in value, the more is the interest generated in public mind about such sacrifice and many such moves and corresponding games earn their place in chess hall of fame (provided of course that the player making the sacrifice wins the game)!
The last part in the previous paragraph is important because the loss of a game after a sacrifice only indicates an unthinking move whereas a win after incurring significant material disadvantage shows a deep calculation and foresight on the part of the winner.
You must realize that when a player offers to surrender such an advantage to his opponent, he does not do so simply for the pleasure of it but definitely to gain something, though what it is may not be apparent immediately. So let us see what kind of advantages can be sought through such a sacrifice.
Recourse to a sacrifice may be made to achieve one or more of the following:
- to threaten mate
- to drive the enemy King into open where other pieces can target it
- to remove pawns comprising the enemy castle to expose the King to attack
- to draw an important defending piece away to free up the line of attack
- to divert a piece from a certain square that could enable counterplay by opponent
- to gain space for other active pieces
- to free a square needed for one’s own pieces
- to open files or lines of attack
- to gain time to attack
- to start an attack after enough accumulation of power to sustain it
- to gain initiative
- to gain tempo (a capture or a check)
- to create passed pawns that will keep enemy pieces tied up or yield winning endgame advantage
- to gain time to promote a passed pawn
- to get back more material than surrendered after a certain stage
When you think that a situation has arisen in your game where you could use a sacrifice, carefully think about the above points to be clear in your mind what you are planning to gain. Remember that a sacrifice can be a double-edged weapon. If you cannot see it through to reach a winning position, and your opponent can muster his defenses, the material shortage will work against you and pass the initiative to your opponent.
On the other hand, a well-executed sacrifice can be a talking point for you and your friends for years to come and who knows, may even win a brilliancy prize for you!