Tradeoffs, and The Point System

Chess is organized by a value attribution method called ‘the point system’, according to which each piece is assigned a number. This simple mechanism helps a beginner understand tactical tradeoffs. But as the player improves, this value system may collapse for other considerations – the value of pieces start changing according to the position at hand, and other factors. We call it material imbalance.

Some positions, like this one taken from Nimzowitsch v. Alapin, St. Petersburg 1914, demonstrate the principle that “the value of a piece only depends on the use it can be put to,” and that trading a piece can make for game winning time or positional improvement.

In this game, Nimzowitsch offers a pawn in exchange for time, which is essential to develop his pieces. Later, he again offers a full piece for overwhelming attacking opportunities. Eventually black ends up with a big material advantage, but is not able to defend his king. The problem with black is the underdevelopment of his pieces, and lack of coordination.

Nimzowich vs Alapin - St Petersburg 1914 - white to move with 12. 0-0-0!

12.0–0–0! Nimzowitsch sacrifices his knight for attacking opportunity.

Had Nimzowitsch followed the traditional value system (that you can find below), he would have played some quiet chess, and might have missed this beautiful continuation.

Here’s the continuation: 12.0–0–0! exd4 13.Bxd4 Nc6 14.Bf6 Qxf6 15.Rhe1+ Be7 16.Bxc6+ Kf8 17.Qd8+ Bxd8 18.Re8# 1-0

Chess Piece Values courtesy of Wikimedia Commons image capture    The traditional value system table in Chess.

The beautiful combination above throws the value system astray. Tradeoffs in Life are more complex than the game of Chess, but material imbalances in both may be guided by universal principles that help the player make wise choices.

Nimzowitsch’s principle from the above game can be restated to the dual life principles: “Know your priorities, and spend your material resourcefully.”

Our goals, aims and priorities guide us in our day to day decisions, whether it is the board room, or the kitchen table. Living a purposeful life has always been about sticking to an ideal or a goal and consciously pursuing it. The Indian monk Swami Vivekananda put it beautifully:

“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”

Nimzowitsch’s decisions were based on his tactical goals – creating the lines of attack, getting his pieces mobilized early – and his strategic objective of punishing his opponent’s passive play by seizing an overwhelming initiative. All this spearheaded into the beautiful game.

Resourcefulness is the second principle. Nimzowitsch developed and made the best use of ALL his available pieces; and sacrificed/traded the unessential ones for the required compensation of his plan – for attacking opportunities.

In our financial lives, Trade-offs can help us lead a more satisfied and well planned life. Knowing our capacities and bringing to the table our affordable resources is an essential principle that drives the world of investment and retirement planning; and differentiates proper trades from reckless gambling.

Trading an investment of time early in life, like what it would take to set aside $2k a year in your twenties, can mean you are able to retire decades earlier than someone who begins investing in their forties due to the power of compound interest. If we instead follow the status quo and live on student loans and credit cards, trading momentary advantages with the life equivalent of a chess point system, our financial strategy might fail us later.

Imbalances in Mobility, Position, and Material are the moving forces of life, changing borders, marriages, and markets. Knowing when to trade one for another can mean you outplay the curve as the game progresses.

Granted, Nimzowich was up against an inferior opponent, and a more capable GM in the other space wouldn’t have accepted his gambit, but he knew where he stood. Know who you are playing, and if the imbalance is on your side push it into a winning game.

Trade an ounce for a pound – the smallest things can make the difference.


image: Nimzowich vs Alapin – St Petersburg 1914 – white to move with 12. 0-0-0! created with

image (2): Chess Piece Values courtesy of Wikimedia Commons image capture

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