One area in particular tends to befuddle the young beginning chess player, the middle game! As a chess instructor and coach, I have a limited amount of time in which to teach my students the finer points of good chess. In a perfect world, my classes would meet three times a week for two years. In the real world, I’m given three months of classes that meet once a week. This means that I have condense a large body of information into a short time-frame. To get to the middle game we have to achieve certain goals in the opening. Our overall goal in the opening is to get our pieces to active squares that control the board’s center while making it difficult for our opponent to find active central squares for their own pieces. With children, you have to provide concrete answers to their questions, such as “when does the middle game actually begin?” Answers to this question vary but I tell my students that the middle game begins after you’ve gained control of the board’s center through the development of pawns and minor pieces, castled your King to safety, connected your Rooks along their starting rank and have moved your pieces to their most active squares.
When we reach this point in our discussion of the middle game, we examine three key concepts; force space and time. Each of these three concepts is crucial to a good middle game and all are directly related to one another.
Force can be considered to be a show of strength. Force is greatest when all members of your chess army are working together. Force is about teamwork, pieces working in a coordinated effort. Force can be thought of as the sum of all the pawns and pieces, working in combination with one another to control specific areas on the chessboard. The key point to make to young beginners is that force is absolutely a team effort. Many beginners carelessly lose material because they send a member of their army to the front-line to face a hoard of opposition pieces. This is why we have to carefully develop our pawns and pieces to their most active squares before considering an attack. Active squares are those squares in which a pawn or piece exerts control over important opposition squares. We don’t start our attacks (unless forced to) until our pawns and pieces are on their most active squares. While it’s very entertaining to attack and capture pieces, doing so without good reason can lead to positional disaster! Reasons include a stronger position, a material advantage and/or checkmate. The opening phase of the game allows us to find and control these active squares, setting up our middle game.
This brings us to the concept of space. We can think of space as the number of squares controlled or influenced by our pieces. Space and force go hand in hand when it comes to good chess. A player may have a superior force going into the middle game but might end up on the losing end of a position if their pawns and pieces control less space on the board. Having a superior force does no good if that force has no control or influence over crucial squares such as those in and around the board’s center or the opposition’s King. Take a look at the following diagram:
Black is up a pawn which doesn’t seem like much of an advantage. However, at master level, being a pawn down can very problematic (most master level matches go into the endgame phase where pawns are absolutely critical). If we look at the position in terms of space, we see that black’s position is cramped. Black is controlling very little in the way of space. White, on the other hand, controls far more space (especially on black’s side of the board) which makes it difficult for black to gain any control of white’s territory. While this is a simplified example, it makes an important point: Having a superior force does a player no good if that force has a limited control of space on the board. Force and space are closely related.
Now let’s examine the concept of time. We know, from our study of the opening that the first move made in a game of chess starts the race for control of the board’s center. The player who controls the board first will have a greater chance of a successful game than the player who wastes time making pointless moves. Time is a critical factor not just in the opening but in the middle game as well. In chess, as in life, timing is everything. We use the term tempo to refer to time in chess. Since our opening game sets the stage for the middle game, it’s important that we waste no time or tempo getting our pieces to the most active squares we can.
Young beginners take what you say as their chess instructor or coach literally. If you tell a beginner that their opening is complete upon fulfilling a series of basic goals, they’ll consider it a done deal when those goals are met. While they can grasp the concepts of force and space, they often have trouble with the concept of time or tempo. Many beginners think that, because you can only move a single pawn or piece (with the exception of castling) during a game turn, that there is no way to gain an advantage in tempo. It is at this point that we look at the concept of making moves that count and making moves that have multiple benefits.
Moves that count are those that quickly develop a piece to an active square in the shortest amount of time. In the opening, this type of move is fairly obvious. In the middle game, it can be more difficult to find. In the middle game, after my students look for direct attacks against their pieces and deal with those attacks, I have them find the least active piece they have. I then ask them to see if there is a way to move that piece to a more active square. This is a move that counts and teaches students positional aspects of the game. Before they start middle game attacks, students must get their pawns and pieces to their most active squares. The more active squares you control, the more difficult it is for your opponent to maneuver his or her pieces to active squares. This can mean a loss in time or tempo.
Move with benefits are extremely important! Moving the King-side Knight to f3 (after 1.e4…e5) on move two does a number of things (multiple benefits). It attacks the pawn on e5 (forcing black to defend), it develops a minor piece which allows for castling and it defends the g5 and h4 squares against a King-side attack by black’s Queen. In the middle game, a move with benefits could be a move that places a piece on a more active square and in doing so attacks an opposition piece or defends one of your own pieces. Moves that produce multiple benefits create opportunities to gain tempo over one’s opponent. By looking at moves in this way, my students can gain tempo rather than lose it.
I work with students on the concepts of force, space and time during their middle game studies a great deal because they can’t always count on tactical tricks to win games. As students play stronger and stronger opponents, they start to encounter closed positions where their normal tactical tricks will fall short. Learning about these three concepts will aid students in dealing with such positions and help them navigate a board in which space is at a minimum. Here’s a game in which all three elements play a decisive roll!