Chess can be extremely difficult – especially when it comes to evaluating positions.
When you just start out, you usually calculate 1 or 2 moves ahead. There’s no real thought process. No mental space for general thought. More of an "I attack this Knight, you move it away" kind of thing.
But once you make it past this phase, it’s essential to start evaluating your game positions.
So what is an evaluation of a chess position? And why do you need to do it?
The evaluation of a position is a simple assessment of the current situation on the board. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past or what will happen in the future.
In this article, I’ll teach you my step-by-step process for evaluating any position. It’s easy, logical, and over time, should become an automatic part of your thinking process.
To start it off, I’ll give you a fascinating position to evaluate.
It’s Black to move. And just so you don’t miss this important detail: they’re a piece up. How would you evaluate this position?
I’ll explain the solution later in the article. But first...
Why should you evaluate positions?
Before going into details, I want to explain why it is important to evaluate positions.
Usually, you have more than 1 option on every move.
So how do you decide which move you should play?
The goal should always be to play the move that has the best evaluation for you by the end of your calculation.
The current evaluation is needed as a compass for this future evaluation. If you evaluate your current position as "better" you should look for moves that end up with the evaluation of "better".
It goes without saying that you should avoid repetition of moves if you evaluate your position as "better". If you do not evaluate your position at all, you do not have an anchor for your future decisions.
Your evaluation of the position is your guide to finding moves that fit this evaluation.
In the era of chess engines, it’s important to mention that I do NOT mean evaluation in a numeric sense. Believing that a position is +0.4 does not really help you in any practical way.
What you should strive for are evaluations that are more tangible for humans. Thinking your position is “better” or “worse” works well. But also "good winning chances" or "small winning chances but no risk" can be nice ways to evaluate your position too.
The 5 steps to formulate a basic evaluation of a position
Every position is different and it’s very hard to give a one size fits all scheme that works all the time. But there are different factors that appear in every position. And those factors can have a different level of importance.
That’s why I present you with 5 key points to assess whenever you want to evaluate a position. ALWAYS do it in the right order, because this is the order of importance.
1) King safety
The most important thing in any game of chess is your King’s safety. As Nigel Short stated nicely, checkmate ends the game.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Queen up, or you have the nicest pawn chain in the world. If your King gets checkmated, the game is over.
So the thing you should start with when evaluating a position is King safety.
This is where most people already go wrong! If you see beginners play, they usually count the value of the pieces on every move. Sadly there’s also a lot of bad advice out there that tells you to do so. In case you missed it:
Checkmate ends the game!
So how exactly do you define a safe King? An easy way to start with is to see if the King is castled or still in the center. If both Kings are castled, then you can go with more sophisticated parameters such as:
• The number of pawns in front of the King – (generally the more pawns in front of the king, the better – just don’t get yourself back ranked!)
• The number of defending pieces nearby
• The amount of attacking power aiming towards your King
• If there are weak squares around your King
Knowing which King is safer will help you with many decisions. Especially when it comes to trading pieces. A standard rule you can apply is:
If you King is safer then avoid trading pieces
If your King is less safe then try to trade off material
Now let’s look at two examples of King safety. Always try to first think for yourself before reading my evaluation.
Both Kings castled and still have a lot of pawns in front of them. So which King is safer and why?
It might be surprising to some of you, but there’s actually a huge difference in King safety.
Black’s King is very safe. There are still 3 pawns in front of the King. There are no weaknesses nor any attackers at the moment. The only danger is the a1-g7 diagonal, but that’s way off in the future and also easy to protect!
The white King, on the other side, is in big danger!
It might not look that way yet, but take a look at the potential attack he’s facing: while he still has a nice pawn chain in front of him, the b8-h2 diagonal is weakened.
The Black e4 pawn denies the f3 square to any defender. The only piece that has any chance to defend the King is the Knight on d2 (by going to f1).
Additionally, Black’s Bishops are aiming toward White's King. The Rook from c8 will join via c6-g6 and the Queen will go to h4.
After 18...Rc6 19.Nf1 Rg6 20.Qc2 Qh4 the game was basically over. White’s getting checkmated. There followed 21.Bg4 Nf6 22.g3 Nxg4! 23.gxh4 Nxe3+. I picked up a pawn and continued the attack without the Queens.
While these moves were not the absolute best ones, they demonstrate the big potential weakness of White's King.
Let's look at a more famous example:
Again the question is: Which King is safer?
Here the solution should be less surprising. Black's King has a lot of holes around his position (look at those dark squares!) and the Queen on f6 looks threatening. Even though his Rooks seem to be close, they do not help much as defenders, as they’re totally stuck.
On the other hand, White's King is safe on g1 as none of Black’s pieces are able to penetrate White's position. Just don’t move the Knight from f3!!!
What’s absolutely insane is because Black’s King is so weak, it can be mated with the help of White's King!
As the White pieces are so dominant, there’s no danger for White's King on his adventurous hike to h6! The game finished after one of the most beautiful King walks in Chess history:
31.Kh2! Rc8 32.Kg3! Rce8 33.Kf4! Bc8 34.Kg5!! and Black resigned in view of 34...Bxd7 35.Kh6 and Qg7# or 34...Kh7 35.Qxg6+ (f7 is pinned!) Kh8 36.Qh6 + Kg8 37.Kf6!
You can also find this example in the course “Happy Pieces”
Only after evaluating the King's safety can you be a true materialist and start to count the pieces.
While it’s important to keep the count in mind, having more material doesn’t automatically result in having a better position. So before you start to jump around celebrating that you are a pawn up, go immediately over to step 3.
3) Piece Activity
You need to take into account the activity of your pieces too.
I like to see it in this way: the amount of material is your potential. The activity is what they are really doing at the moment.
If you have more material AND all of your pieces are active, you must be better.
If you are a piece up, but all your pieces are still on the backrank, the situation is totally different. You have more potential, but at the moment, fewer pieces in the game!
A good way to compare it is with an ice hockey power play situation:
Team A has 5 players, while Team B only has 4. The potential of Team A is higher. But if one of Team A’s players loses the puck while they’re attacking, the situation changes.
In that specific moment, Team B can attack while all the players of Team A are far away from the defense of their goal.
Even though Team A has more potential, at this exact moment Team B has more players in play and will probably score.
Now let’s look at a chess position to deepen our understanding of this concept:
White’s a piece and a Rook up. But look at his pieces. All of them are on the backrank, except the Bishop on b5 (that’s not doing anything there). Black’s running out of material, but the Queen and Knight are very actively placed.
If White manages to make some moves and bring out his pieces, the game will be over. But for the moment he has more potential. As a matter of fact, the position is around equal according to the engine evaluation.
I don’t want to refrain from the absolutely insane engine suggestion. 26...a4! is best, because it stops White's development with b2-b3.
White’s basically paralyzed and can’t use the extra tempo well. On the next move, the engine wants to play 27...Qg1+ 28.Ke2 Qg2+ 29.Kd3 Nxe1+ (if White takes, then 30...Qxd5+ and 31...Qxb5).
I just played Qg1+ immediately, which is much more human. I even went on to win this crazy game, as the position is much easier to play for Black than White.
4) Structure and long term factors
If the evaluation of the position hasn’t drastically tipped to one side, you have to take into consideration some long-term factors as well.
While points 1 and 2 are mostly short-term, which means they can change in the next few moves, the structure is usually a long-term factor.
While you can bring a weak King into safety by castling, you can’t easily untangle doubled pawns or other structural weaknesses.
Everything is totally equal here, except for a small difference: White has doubled f-pawns. As this won’t change over the next few moves, it can be considered a long-term factor and a stable advantage for Black.
So why’s the structure only number 3 on our list? Because the long-term factors only matter if all other things are equal!
As I said at the beginning, the nicest structure won’t be of much help if you get checkmated! Also if White had an additional pawn on d3, the long-term weakness would be less important. After all, they would be a clear pawn up.
Let’s look at the same structure, but with some more pieces on the board:
Once again, Black has a long-term advantage in terms of the pawn structure. But it doesn’t matter that much if White gets to exploit their more active pieces on the queenside.
However if White fails to use their short-term advantage, then the structure will make the difference. With White to play, Be4 would force a weakness in front of Black’s King and White would be seriously better.
With Black to move, c6 would preserve some advantage, as this would not be a major weakening of their King. Black should be able to consolidate, slowly exchange pieces, and take advantage of their long-term advantage.
5) Space advantage
Let’s look at one last factor that occurs in most positions – space advantage. The side with more space on the board is said to have a space advantage.
The more pieces on the board, the more relevant the space advantage is.
Why? Because with more pieces, the side with less space will most likely run out of good squares for their pieces!
In the above position, most factors are absolutely equal.
• The structure is the same
• The activity of the pieces is the same
• The safety of the Kings are similar (you might argue Black’s King is safer, as their pawns are closer!)
Now, space becomes a huge factor! White has 3 ranks for their pieces, while Black only has 2.
With all the pieces on the board, White will find it much easier to bring their pieces to active squares, while Black will quickly run out of sensible squares!
As you see, this is once again talking about the future. While in this specific position it’s not yet a key factor, it will soon become one! You can already compare the possible Knights on f3 and c3 with those on e7 and d7. What a huge difference!
You’ll also observe that sometimes the side with the space advantage will simply have the more active pieces.
This works in both direction:
• With the more active pieces, you can win a space advantage.
• With space advantage, your pieces will have more active squares available.
Because the side without the space advantage will run out of squares, you can learn another general rule:
The side with less space wants to exchange pieces.
The side with more space wants to keep as many pieces as possible on the board.
How does this help you find the right move?
Now that you’re able to assess the 4 key factors of any position, how does this help you? There’s one key insight I learned from my former Coach GM Iosif Dorfman that I want you to remember forever:
If you are leading in short-term factors, play actively. You need to exploit it before it’s too late!
If you are leading in long-term factors, don't do anything crazy. As this advantage stays over time, you just need to consolidate and then win slowly over time.
With all this gained knowledge, I am convinced you are ready to look at the position in the introduction again:
So how did you evaluate this position when looking at it for the first time? If you first go with counting the material, it will be very clear that Black should be doing extremely well.
After all, they have a Knight against only one pawn. Let me tell you I was also a bit surprised when I first saw the objective evaluation of this position.
But let's go through this 1 by 1.
Which King is safer?
White’s King on c2 feels pretty safe. The Rook on f4 is miles away from checking it on the c-file so there’s no real danger.
Black’s King on the other hand still feels a bit weak. It doesn’t have a great future (there’s no route to bring it into the game) and the h6 pawn seriously restricts its freedom. If White’s Rook can join the game via a1-a8, the King feels shaky.
As there are no more Queens on the board, this is not at all decisive yet.
Who has more material and whose pieces are more active?
A simple count reveals that Black is up a Knight against a pawn. But as we learned we need to look at the activity of the pieces as well.
One thing that you could realize is that the Bishop from h8 actually has no way of entering the game ever again! This Bishop has only a theoretical value of 3 points.
In this specific game, it will probably sacrifice itself for a pawn on g5 or h6. Staying and dying on h8 is no real alternative after all...
But that’s not all. White’s Rook has a great future on the a-file, while Black’s Rook has no way of entering the f-file.
Adding the much more active minor pieces of White with the potential of the passed b-pawn only makes it worse for Black.
Whose pawn structure is better and who has the space advantage?
Even if the difference has already been made by the material, we can still take a look at the pawn structure. White has more space due to their advanced pawns.
Black’s pieces are so restricted because of White’s space advantage. The Bishop on h8 is buried because it has no space!
The objective evaluation of the position is: winning for White!
Yes, White is a full piece down, without an immediate attack, but the activity of their pieces is so superior that they should win the game.
Furthermore, it’s very important to note that Bxf4 is not a real idea for White. Even if White "wins" an exchange, practically speaking, White will lose material with this trade.
Why? Because suddenly the Bishop from h8 is alive again!
Practice it in training and games
Here’s a summary of what to consider while evaluating a chess position:
If you’ve never evaluated a position like this before, it might take some time to get used to it. But I can tell you there’s light at the end of the tunnel: if you do this enough, it will become automatic.
No longer do I consciously think about these factors during a game anymore. It comes extremely naturally to me. But it took a lot of practice and effort to get to that point.
I am sure with the right mindset and effort you can do it as well.
Or as GM Avetik would say: Right Mood, Right Move!
Keep crushing it! Sincerely, GM Noël
P.S. This was written by GM Noël Studer. Make sure to check out GM Noël’s excellent blog called Next Level Chess to read more of his content about chess improvement.
P.P.S. Feel free to share your thoughts and ask questions about this article in our forum.