Thursday, December 2, 2010

Book Review--Elements of Positional Evaluation by Dan Heisman

I have been worrying about my uncertainty in positional evaluation, "Given a position, who stands better, and by how much?" This is a difficult problem, which breaks down into any number of  smaller practical questions, "Do I have enough compensation to make the pawn sack?, Is this opening position good for me?"

From my readings during this first year of re-entering the world of chess, I see that positional evaluations have changed. The biggest change I have noted is the term activity, and its use as justification for positional sacrifices. Back in the day, there was great astonishment when Petrosian, Fischer or some other great player would sacrifice material for no immediate gain, the Benko (Volga) gambit seemed unique in its pawn sacrifice for positional advantage, but that seems to have changed a great deal.

In search of improving this aspect of my chess, I read Dan Heisman's Elements of Positional Evaluation. This is a deep and complex book. I am not sure what I really learned, and I expect I will absorb more when I re-read it again, after I am a stronger player. Some ideas from this book correspond to thoughts I was having back in the 1980's when I thought about writing a computer program to play chess, (e.g. that the value of pieces varies depending on their mobility).

Heisman's elements:

  • Mobility
  • Flexibility
  • Vulnerability
  • Center Control
  • Piece Coordination
  • Time
  • Speed

I likely will continue to rely on what Heisman terms pseudo-elements:

  • Material
  • Space
  • King Safety
  • Development

Though I think I will focus on understanding piece activity rather than development.

The book is not a manual on how to evaluate a position. I think I have partially resolved my original dilemma for now by rephrasing the question, "How happy am I with the position?", and using Fritz for postmortems. Maybe someday, I will be better at determining who stands better.

Heisman points to this paper on the relative value of the pieces by GM Larry Kaufman as important, I agree.
Dan Heisman's home page.

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