The Winning Academy 2: The Art of Exchanging Heavy Pieces

by Jan Markos
12/2/2021 – One of the most refined and inconspicuous ways to gain an advantage and to win is the art of exchanging pieces. Most club players don’t take exchanges too seriously. Sacrificing is brave, attacking is fun, but exchanging pieces is kind of boring, isn’t it? Even cowardly. But knowing when to exchange and when not to exchange is a powerful strategic weapon. In part 2 of his "Winning Academy" series, Jan Markos shows why. | Photo: Wikipedia

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Many club players don't understand how you can gain an advantage while exchanging pieces of the same sort. After all, both armies are a piece down, so how could the positional equilibrium possibly be disrupted?

But imagine a non-chess situation. There are two villains who want to kill each other. Both are armed with a pistol, but only one wears a bullet proof vest. Who has got an advantage in this fight? Surely the one with a vest. But wait! Imagine that both villains put away their pistols. Who has the advantage in a fist fight now? It is no longer clear who is the favourite. The guy without a vest can move freely, so perhaps he will have the upper hand.

Both villains have "exchanged" (=removed) the same kind of weapon. And still, the chances of victory have changed significantly. And similarly, exchanges in chess have the potential to change the evaluation of position.

In this article, we will cover exchanges of heavy pieces. Why? I feel that in games of club players, these exchanges are made even more thoughtlessly and intuitively than the exchanges of bishops or knights. Therefore, it makes sense to cover them first.


The first example is simple and obvious:

Carlsen-Giri, Blitz World Championship, Sankt Petersburg 2018, White to move:


If you had White, would you allow the exchange of queens? Well, why not? They both seem to be approximately similarly active. But hang on! It is the position of kings, not the queens, that must be evaluated when contemplating the exchange of the strongest pieces on board.

The queen is a brilliant attacker, but a poor defender. It is far too valuable to effectively defend other pieces. It can be compared to a bicycle lock made of gold. No golden lock would prevent your bike from being stolen. Quite the opposite: the thieves would steal your bicycle far quicker – and the lock as well.

Giri's king is much weaker than Carlsen's. And Giri's queen will not be able to defend it. Quite the opposite: the tempi White will gain attacking the queen will only enhance his mating attack against the king.

Therefore the World Champion did not hesitate for long and simply avoided the exchange with 18.Qf4! and mated the black king a few moves later.

The complete game


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Apart from checking the safety of the king, you should always note what material will remain on the board after the intended exchange. Some pieces cooperate better than others. I call the ones that cooperate best "soulmates". There are three most common soulmates: the bishop pair, queen+knight and rook+bishop.

Let us see how Boris Gelfand forgot about "soulmates" in the following example:

Gelfand-Carlsen, Candidates Tournament 2013, White to move:


The Israeli GM played the seemingly active 25.Qd6?!, but after 25…Nf8 26.g3 Rc8 27.Rxc8 Qxc8 it was Black who was left with the better combination of pieces. Carlsen's Q+N proved to be stronger than Q+B and Black won a fine game.

Instead of 25.Qd6, much stronger was 25.Qf3!. After 25…Qxf3 26.gxf3 White's pawn structure might seem corrupted, but more importantly his rook will get to the seventh rank, and the R+B combination might become stronger than Black's R+N. (Most importantly, the black knight can't easily get to d5.)

The complete game


In the following position, Mamedyarov was asking himself what to exchange. Should he exchange one pair of rooks, both pairs of rooks or no rooks at all? What would be your choice?

Mamedyarov-Gelfand, FIDE GP, Baku 2014, White to move:


White enjoys a space advantage. That suggests he should keep as many pieces on the board as possible. Also, Black has a weakness on d6. Imagine all heavy pieces disappeared from the board. In such a situation Black would have gained an additional defensive piece in his army: his king. (The d6-pawn can be comfortably defended by the black king, but it is impossible to directly attack it with the white king.)

On the other hand, the black rooks are fairly active on the only open file. If Mamedyarov wants to avoid any exchanges, he needs to abandon the e-file altogether, and that would yield Gelfand considerable counterplay (e. g. …Nf6-e4 might be strong).

Therefore, White goes for a compromise. He exchanges one pair of rooks to tame Black's counterplay but keeps the other pair on the board to have active chances on both wings.

Let us look at the position that arose five moves later. White's rook is much more effective:

Mamedyarov-Gelfand, FIDE GP, Baku 2014, Black to move:


The complete game


A single rook on an open file might be useless once all entry squares are safely covered. Such a rook might be used more effectively as an aid to a pawn-break. That was the case in the following position:

Carlsen-Kramnik, Leuven 2017 (rapid), White to move:


White is not going to win the fight for the c-file, as Black controls all the important squares. The only thing that might happen on this file is a rook swap. Carlsen therefore voluntarily abandoned the open file and played 23.Rf1!, keeping the rooks on board and preparing f4-f5.

The complete game


In the last example, let us focus again on the safety of the kings. In the following position, Black is a pawn up. But how should he bring the point home?

De Firmian-Salov, New York 1996, Black to move:


Salov played 34…Rd8. After all, what could be more natural than putting the rook on an open file? However, after 35.Rd2 Rxd2 36.Bxd2 the white queen remained in its active position, disturbing both Black's king and his queenside.

Please, note: to expel the enemy queen from an active position, your queen needs a back-up. And when you have two or more heavy pieces, they can help each other. Therefore, Salov should have ignored the open file and should have prepared Qe6-c6 instead. After 34…Kf7! 35.Bd2 Qc6 White has a difficult choice: decentralizing his queen or exchanging it. In both cases Black is clearly winning.

The complete game



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Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.


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