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For example, trading a bishop or a knight for a pawn for the purpose of breaking up the opponents pawn structure. Is this sort of thing ever a good idea? If so, could you provide some examples (or links to articles that have such examples) of when it would be a good idea and when it wouldn't, even it might appear to be at first glance?

I tried Googling to find information about making unequal trades in chess, but I just found lots of forum questions about when to trade in general, not about the possible benefits of sacrificing material to gain a positional advantage. Perhaps I was using the wrong search terms.

For context, I'm a beginner to chess, been playing for around a month. I just went through the chess.com lesson on hanging and isolated pawn structures and there was one example they gave where they said something like, "it might look like white is just sacrificing a pawn for no reason, but look closely and you'll see that this clears the h file, making way for white's rook to attack". Took me a few times of rewinding the video to understand the full attack on black'a defenses in that example, but it got me thinking about whether other types of unequal trades might actually be to my advantage at times, and, if so, when.

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5 Answers 5

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Yes! It is. One common example of giving up material for positional reasons is the exchange sacrifice. See Laszlo Szabo vs Tigran Petrosian. On move 14 Petrosian sacrifices the rook for the knight in order to break up the defense of the white king. Petrosian proceeds to play the rest of the game down an exchange, but makes up for it by eventually picking up enough pawns to win an imbalanced ending.

[FEN ""]
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. f4 Qc7 7. Be2 e5 8. Nf3 Be6 9. f5 Bc4 10. Bg5 Nbd7 11. Nd2 Bxe2 12. Qxe2 Rc8 13. a3 Qb6 14. O-O-O Rxc3! 15. bxc3 d5 16. Nb1 Nxe4 17. Rxd5 Nxg5 18. h4 Bc5 19. hxg5 Be3+ 20. Nd2 Bxg5 21. Qd3 Qc7 22. Kd1 Bxd2 23. Kxd2 f6 24. Kc1 Nb6 25. Rd6 O-O 26. Rd1 Qc5 27. Rd8 Qxa3+ 28. Kb1 h5 29. Rxf8+ Qxf8 30. Qe4 Qe7 31. Qb4 Qc7 32. Qd6 Qxd6 33. Rxd6 Nc4 34. Rd7 b5 35. Ra7 Ne3 36. Rxa6 Nxg2 37. Kc1 h4 38. Kd2 h3 39. Ra1 Nh4 40. c4 bxc4 41. Rh1 Nxf5 42. Kc3 Nd6 43. Rxh3 Kf7 44. Rh7 f5 45. Kb4 f4 46. Kc5 f3 47. Rh1 e4 0-1  

This sacrifice is considered thematic in the Sicilian Najdorf opening, but the same idea can arise in any position. It is not always executed to break up the king's defences. In some positions, the sac can help one side dominate a color complex by removing the opponent's bishop of that color. For example see Ding Liren vs Hua Ni, Ding sacrifices on move 27 to dominate the dark squares and deliver a checkmating attack.

[FEN ""]
1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. c4 Bg7 4. Nc3 d5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. e4 Nxc3 7. bxc3 c5 8. Rb1 O-O 9. Be2 Nc6 10. d5 Ne5 11. Nxe5 Bxe5 12. Rb3 Qd6 13. Qd2 e6 14. f4 Bg7 15. c4 e5 16. f5 gxf5 17. exf5 Bxf5 18. O-O Bg6 19. h4 h5 20. Qg5 e4 21. Bxh5 Rae8 22. Be2 Qe7 23. h5 Bh7 24. Rg3 Qxg5 25. Bxg5 Bd4+ 26. Kh2 Be5 27. Bf6+ Bxg3+ 28. Kxg3 e3 29. Rf4 Bc2 30. Kf3 Kh7 31. g4 Kg8 32. g5 a6 33. h6 Bg6 34. h7+ Bxh7 35. Rh4 1-0

The Exchange Sacrifice is an advanced concept, I'm sure you can find entire chapters in chess strategy books that cover the concept

EDIT: I got these games from this collection

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Yes. Here is a trivial example:

[FEN "4k3/8/1p1p1p1p/pPpPpPpP/P1P1P1P1/8/8/R2QK2R w - - 0 1"]

White to move can't make progress except by sacrificing their queen against one of Black's pawns. Once they do, they can break through with their remaining rook and will win the game easily. If they don't make this sacrifice, then the only outcome is draw, on the other hand.

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enter image description here

White to play, I think this is a trade, but it doesn't lose material. However, it might be useful. There's a checkmate in two moves (3 plies). Starting from the position:

  1. Nb6+ axb6 2. Qxa4#
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You must show with what you call 'positional move' that you are winning the game or reaching a draw in a inferior position, and that's also why I don't like the term 'positional move' in particular because it leaves this answer in the air. But YES, there are moves that largely compensate for material gains, mostly in situations where the opponent's pieces are passive and not contributing to any action, a common example being rooks in their starting postition when castling is not possible anymore. Here a good example of a 'positional move' that wins the game faster and which renounces to take material advantage which could be done:

fen r1r1q1k1/6p1/p2b1p1p/1p1PpP2/PPp5/2P4P/R1B2QP1/R5K1 w - - 0 36

In this position taken from Deep Blue-Kasparov (2nd game New York, 1997), Deep Blue plays 36. axb5 - axb5 37. Be4! denying possible counterplay with e4 which could lead to a possible draw for black if the queen can penetrate. Playing 36. Qb6? would lead to capture 2 pawns but at the cost of black probably drawing with a queen penetration afterwards even without calculating the exact move line, the pure risk is simply too big. This position is therefore not entirely tactical but has this positional trait to see for judging that it will win the game faster - and more safely.

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  • While 37. Be4 is a strong move and the variation is probably better than the 36. Qb6 variation (because it prevents counterplay), my understanding is that 36. Qb6 is today believed to lead to a win nonetheless. If that is so, then I don't think it should be given a question mark. Also, it is worth noting here that in the actual game, Deep Blue gave away the won position in the end, I understand with its last move before Kasparov resigned, by allowing the black queen to get into its territory.
    – Polytropos
    Commented May 24 at 20:23
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In the limit, one might consider a sacrifice that accomplishes a mate as such a case. Full positional restriction of the opponent king. Unless that is a considered a material gain....

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