The imbalance of queen vs. pieces is a very interesting and rarely discussed topic. These positions can be difficult to evaluate for many players because of their infrequent occurrences.
In this article, I will talk about queen vs. rook + two minor pieces, plus minus a few pawns. The queen is generally better when the opponent’s king is weak or his pieces are badly coordinated. The queen can harass the opponent’s king with checks and cause cases of LPDO (Loose Pieces Drop Off). The pieces, on the other hand, are generally better when they are coordinated and the king is safe. Surrounding the king by pieces can keep him safe.
I suggest you ask yourself these two simple questions:
- Is the queenless king safe?
- Are the pieces coordinated?
If you answer yes to both questions, then the pieces should be better. If you answer no to both questions, then the queen should be better. If the answer to one question is yes and the answer to the other is no, then it really depends.
Let’s look at my first recent example.
Tsay, Vincent (2152 USCF) – Brodsky, David (2430 USCF), Eastern Chess Congress 2016
White to play
My opponent played 22.Bxg6. Is it a good idea? If 22… hxg6, white has perpetual with 23.Nh6+ Kh8 24.Nf7+ Kg8 25.Nh6+, and if 22… Qxg6, which is what I played, white has 23.Ne5 fxe5 24.Rg3, where he will get a queen for a rook and two minor pieces.
On the surface, it looks good for white, but in reality, it isn’t. After 24… Qxg3 25.Qxg3+ Kh8, let’s take a selfie and answer the questions.
White to play
- Is the black king safe? The black king is tucked away in a corner on h8, and white can’t really produce any threats against it. So the answer is yes.
- Are the pieces coordinated? The knight on d6 can settle down on monster outposts like e4 and f5. The bishop dominates the light squares. The black rooks have a future ganging up against the g2-pawn, with some help from the bishop that can come via d3 to e4. That looks like another yes.
Therefore, the pieces should be better, and that is the case. Black is much better, if not winning, here. The game went 26. Qg5 Nc4 27.b3 Rf5 28.Qh6 Nxe3 29.Re1 cxd4 30.cxd4 exd4
White to play
That’s called pieces in action! Now, black has near-deadly threats against g2 and is just winning. Unfortunately, after a bad decision on my part a couple moves later, I lost most of my advantage and had to magic my way to win the game.
That’s the pieces side of the argument: if they cooperate well and are on good squares, they can make a lot of threats without being disturbed and can battle the queen. Pieces 1 – Queen 0!
A couple months later, I had another chance to get the same material imbalance, and that time I got it totally wrong.
Sorkin, Igor (2489 USCF) – Brodsky, David (2417 USCF) Empire City Open 2016
Black to play
Black is up a piece, but white is throwing pieces at the king. I should have gone 17… hxg6! 18.Qxg6+ Qg7 19.Qxe6+ Rf7 20.Ng5 Nd8! (the move I probably missed) 21.Qxd6 Rd7 where white is not going to have enough compensation for the piece after 22.Qh6. Instead, I went for another idea by playing 17… e4? 18.Bxh7+ Qxh7? 19.Rxh7 Kxh7 20.Ng5+ Kg6
Let’s answer the questions:
- Is the black king safe? I thought white couldn’t produce any serious threats against it, but I was dead wrong. More on that later.
- Are the pieces coordinated? They appear to be fairly well coordinated. I can go Rh8, grabbing the open file and causing some back rank embarrassments. My LSB and knight have good future prospects, and my DSB is far from useless.
However, there’s one problem… I missed my opponent’s next move 21.Qd1!. White simply wants to go Qg4 and mate my undefended king. Really, that king is essentially naked. The answer to question #1 should have been “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO” instead of “probably yes”.
And so a position that I thought was good for me was in reality lost for me.
The rest of the game is X-RATED. And I mean it. I ended up winning in the end. I have no idea how. OK, OK, you can find the game here, but I did warn you…
The moral of the story is that king safety (or lack thereof) can be crucial. It’s nice if your pieces have great future prospects, but it’s not helpful when you’re getting mated.
The Pieces (Again)
Fast forward a few months, when I’m sitting on the couch watching the US Junior Closed Championships. It’s the last round, and most eyes are on the games that will determine first place. However, I became interested in the game between FM Josh Colas and GM Ruifeng Li, as it ended up reaching the same imbalance as my games: a queen vs. a rook + two knights.
White to play
This position was reached after a series of forced moves. Time to evaluate the position. Let’s answer our two questions:
- Is the black king safe? Black’s king is sheltered by the knights, and white cannot get any real threats going against his majesty. That must be a yes.
- Are the pieces coordinated? Black’s knights admittedly aren’t doing much for the moment besides shielding the king, but they have potential once black crawls out, like he did in the game. That’s another yes!
What is the “objective” evaluation of this position? That is actually an interesting question. Some computers love white’s position. Others love black’s position. When I let the lizard think about this one for a while, it came up with an evaluation of -0.01.
However, the commentators thought this was very good for black. A few moves down the road, GM Alejandro Ramirez thought the position was “completely winning” for black.
The computer may not think so, but I do believe black is on top here. And ultimately, black did prevail. You can find the game here.
So what’s the conclusion? Queen or pieces? It obviously all depends on the position. However, in general, I’d side with the pieces more than with the queen, as they can be powerful. But be careful; if the pieces are badly coordinated and/or the king is weak, the queen is a force to reckon with.