Lesson 7 - Chess Game Phases: The Middlegame

"Before the endgame, the Gods have placed the middle game"
- Siegbert Tarrasch
"The middlegame I repeat is chess itself, chess with all its possibilities, its attacks, defences, sacrifices, etc."
- Eugene Znosko-Borovsky

You came out of the opening, avoiding traps set by your opponent, with a playable position: your pieces are developed to good squares and your king is safe. It is now time to get serious and find the best plan to beat your opponent! That's the objective of the middlegame phase.

During the middlegame, the players will usually establish their attacking and defending schemes base on imbalances created by the opening. For example, if players decided to play for a closed game (meaning that the center is blocked by pawns), the plan would probably be to build an attack on the wings (queenside or kindside) by moving their forces on the choosen side.  In other cases, a player could plan to damage the enemy's position in order to reach a favourable endgame.  I know these concepts could be hard to grasp for now, but I wanted to put emphasis about the necessity to have a plan when initiating the middlegame phase. For sure, the plan must not be cast in stone! A good player will adapt his plan, or even decide to change it completely, following the development of the game. We must not forget that there is two sides on the chessboard... and I doubt that our opponent will just cooperate and allow us to implement our ideas without doing anything about it!

For the beginners, the plans are usually short-term and simple: they will not go over 2 ou 3 moves deep and they will aim toward material gain or an epic pursuit of the enemy king.

Novice players will succeed in establishing more elaborate plans by gaining experience through competition and also by studying middlegame concepts. For example, if a player passes some time to study the impact of space, time and pawn structure, he will certainly be rewarded. This will also allow him to improve his understanding of the game and start to appreciate the moves and plans done by more experienced players. At the beginners level, it is not so important to start trying to elaborate complexe plans: the most important thing is to have a plan, even if it is a simple one.

In the chess world, a plan is usually associated to the concept of strategy. We define the strategy as being a long-term plan base on the cumulation of small advantages. But I am hearing your question: how do we cumulate those small advantages? Well, we succeed in getting a small advantage when:

  • we have won more material
  • we have more mobility for our pieces
  • we have a better pawn structure
  • our pieces are controling more space
  • our king is safe while the opponent's one is vulnerable

To help us cumulate small advantages, we can also use tactical maneuvers. Tactics are not the same as strategies like some people might believe. Tactics are rather short-term actions which give an immediate compensation to the player.  We had the opportunity to see a couple of examples involving tactics in previous lessons: the undiscovered attack (question 4e, exercises on lesson 4), the pin (answer to question 6d in lesson 2 solutions' page) and the fork (in lesson 2 about the gait of the queen).

To help you distinguish the differences between tactics and strategies, let me quote the doctor Max Euwe, ex world champion, who said that "Strategy requires thought, tactics require observation".

The middlegame is the richest phase of the game when considering move possibilities. It requires from players the highest level of concentration, reasoning and observation. It is the heart of the battle.  For a beginner mastering the basic principle of the game, studying middlegame secrets will bring him to another level of play. And you know what? You are very lucky, since I will start revealing you some of these secrets soon in the Tactics Tutorial!

But for now, my advice to help you improve your play in the middlegame is to try working on simple plans, aiming for development and harmony for your pieces. Try to involve as much pieces as possible in your attacking schemes. Keep in mind that a strong attack is not the matter of only one piece...

Let's continue the lesson with the next page on the endgame phaseonline chess tutorial.