Beginners in chess mostly care about material advantage.
This is understandable, the one who has the most material count (pieces) is more likely to win the game. However this is not the only thing that matters, piece activity is also important.
There is no use to having many pieces if they are not doing anything. In other words, quality and not just quantity is important.
No matter how many pieces you got, they wouldn’t really matter if they cannot contribute to the game.
This is piece activity, the amount of development that a piece has in the game.
Is this all that is important?
I will answer it with this article. Most chess books talk about the glory of piece activity.
And while I do agree that the concept is important, chess is not all about a single thing, it is quite complicated. Without further ado, let’s begin.
What is piece activity in chess?
Piece activity in chess refers to how much “work” a piece is able to contribute toward a chess game.
At the start of the game, most of your pieces are not really doing anything since they are at the farthest back of the board.
They will only be able to do something once they are out of the starting squares, usually in the center.
This is important since there are cases where a piece does not have any activity, basically they are not captured yet but they are not contributing to the game.
This is an important concept to learn since it will teach you the value of quality and not just quantity. There is no use in having so many pieces if you cannot even develop any one of them.
There are some positions where you have a lot of pieces but they cannot get out after starting positions, it is almost like they are useless.
The balance between piece activity and material is important, a good moderation between both will lead to a comfortable game.
Is piece activity really that important?
Piece activity is important. Mikhail Tal is famous for sacrificing a lot of material and suddenly winning out of nowhere.
Although the moniker “magician of riga” is glorious, Tal did not perform any magic tricks in front of his audience.
What he is really doing is sacrificing material for piece activity, then using the “active pieces” later for some sort of an attack. This is a dangerous way to play the game indeed, but it has worked for him due to his style.
Piece activity is not only important for attackers but also to positional players. It is a fundamental part of chess, you won’t be able to do anything if your pieces are not developed (piece activity).
However I think that people are preaching piece activity too much, material advantage is also important.
Which is more important, material advantage or piece activity?
In most cases, a material advantage is more important than piece activity. I know that it sounds so simple, there will be some that will tell you that piece activity will always be better.
If this is really the case, look at the games between super grandmasters.
How many times have you seen them sacrifice material for piece activity?
It happens, but not as often as the other way around.
A lot of strong chess players will actually grab some material even if it costs them a tempo or two.
I am not talking about obvious pawn grabs that lead to a queen being trapped, I’m talking about grabbing a pawn even if you get behind on activity by doing so.
A lot of strong chess players will prefer a little bit of material advantage over a little bit of piece activity. With that out of the way, we should also not disregard the value of developing our pieces.
There is no use in having a lot of material if you can’t even develop your pieces, you would just be attacked.
I am just saying that material advantage is slightly better than piece activity. Not so much better but it is slightly better.
Even if you are down in activity, you can still get back if your opponent does not play the right moves.
If you are down by material however, you need to work a lot in order to equalize.
Are there cases where a player that has a better piece activity loses?
Yes, there are definitely cases where a player that has better piece activity loses.
This is much more common than you think, only strong chess players can take advantage of their piece development. Usually when you sacrifice material for piece activity, you are making a complicated position.
Even if you have piece activity as an advantage, you would have to find the right moves since you are on a timer.
Your opponent just need to be defensive and try to develop their pieces, they don’t even have to attack. If you sacrifice some of your pieces you will be on a timer, if you don’t convert then you will just lose.
It takes a strong chess player in order to convert piece activity into a win, most people cannot do so.
Even if we are talking about positional games, there are cases where a side that has the worst piece activity draws the game or even wins.
It is really important to develop our pieces, but it is not like chess is all about developing our pieces. You also need to know when to strike, basically to make use of the pieces that are doing so much work.
Chess is not only finding the right squares for your pieces, but also using the active position to draw some combination that can lead to material advantage/checkmate.
Again, piece activity is important, but you can still lose even if your development is “better”.
How likely is it that the one with better piece activity wins?
I would say that the one that has a better piece activity will win the game, the only exception is if the piece activity comes with material sacrifice. That is a completely different story.
However if it is a completely normal game (which most games are), then the side that has their pieces developed would most likely win.
I would say that 65% of the time, the one that has better piece activity will win the game. When more of your pieces are developed, opportunity opens, there will likely be a combination that can lead to some sort of initiative.
Of course, it will depend whether the player can take advantage of it, but at least the opportunity is there. I am praising material advantage so much that you might think that piece activity is not my thing.
However, have you seen the exception?
There is an exception. This only matters if you are not sacrificing material for piece activity. In most cases, beginners cannot get back their material if they did go for the sacrifice.
Unless it is an opening trap that they have studied beforehand, most people cannot take advantage of piece activity alone.
Accounting most of the people who play chess, the one that has better material will win even if their opponent has better activity. The likelihood of winning with piece activity for trading material is low.
Do not get me wrong, there are instances where a player sacrifices material for piece activity and still wins.
The contrary is much more likely on the other hand, the one that is up in material will win the game (even if they are down in activity).
There are so many factors today including the strength of the players, their preparation, play style, standing in the tournament, and so on. Piece activity might just be one of them.
Based on my observations however, the one that has a material advantage will win the game.
This is especially true in games between beginners (which constitute the majority of the chess population).
Should you always go for material advantage over piece activity?
Some of you might be looking at this and saying that material advantage is everything.
I would like to clarify that material advantage is slightly better than piece activity, but it is not everything.
There are even cases where piece activity is better, especially if it is wielded by an attacking player. Piece activity is a weapon, it needs a good wielder. For most people, it is bad to go for piece activity over material.
Even if you go for it, the most that you could sacrifice is only a pawn. If you sacrifice two or more pawns (or even a piece), your likelihood of winning is slim even if you are up in activity.
This does not mean that you will deteriorate your position for better material. There are even cases where you have to give up material since you are so behind in activity.
However in these cases, you are just getting so outplayed that even if you don’t give up the material, you will just lose.
I would say that you should mind the material first, then piece development second. In cases where you are so behind in activity, it is fine to give up some material just to get back into the game.
However most often than not, it is better if you just stay with the material mindset.
Unless you are someone that can make use of an active position , it is not worth sacrificing material over activity.
In chess, you can still lose even if your pieces have better development. The activity of the pieces is important, but it is not everything.
I can even say that material advantage can trump piece activity in most instances.
Since the majority of people who play chess are beginners, they usually cannot take advantage of an active position.
This is why it is better to think about the material first then activity second. I am not saying that you should only think about material, the development of your pieces is obviously really important.
You should mind both of the concepts, but prioritizing one over the other when making a decision.
Unless you are a strong chess player that can make use of an active position, this will apply to you.
Just because your pieces have better activity does not mean that you will win.
That is all for this article, thank you for reading.