Middle Game Evaluation

During the opening, we play for centralized control, moving our pawns and pieces to their most active squares. The opening principles essentially tell us what to move, when to move it and where to move it to. Things aren’t as clear cut during the middle game. With so many pawns and pieces on the board, move choices grow exponentially. This is why middle-game principles are far less defined compared to those used during the opening. Determining a course of action becomes more difficult during this phase. How do you determine exactly what you should do? By first evaluating the position and then creating a plan based on that evaluation.

I had a student ask me about middle game planning last Friday during a coaching session. He asked me how I created my own middle game plans. Most beginning and intermediate players don’t know how to properly create a plan for the middle game because they don’t know how to evaluate a position. Beginner’s tend to see all of the pawns and pieces jumbled up on the board with no rhyme or reason to their arrangement. They become easily overwhelmed. Intermediate players, on the other hand, may have a better idea as to what’s going on but don’t have a logical, orderly method for analyzing the position. This can lead to time trouble during tournaments and time troubles leads to poor move choices. Because there’s so much going on during a typical middle game position, you have to streamline the process of analysis. Here’s how I present it to my students (this is also the way I explain it in the middle game section of my upcoming book).

Evaluating the Position

Creating an effective plan requires the careful evaluation of a position. Experienced players thoroughly evaluate a position before considering a move. Beginners become overwhelmed trying to evaluate or analyze a position because they can’t determine what’s actually going on. To evaluate a position, ask yourself a few questions regarding the material present within that position. These questions are the key to creating a meaningful plan of action. Here’s what you need to focus on and the questions you should ask yourself:

The material value of your pawns and pieces compared to that of your opponent. If there’s material equality, both players have an equal amount of material in terms of relative value. If there’s a material advantage, one player has more material than the other Add up relative value of both player’s pawns and pieces and compare the two numbers. Who has the advantage?

The individual power of the pieces belonging to both players compared to their overall relative value. You might discover, after looking at both player’s pawns and pieces, that the relative value of both armies is equal. However, there’s a difference between relative value and power. If both players have the same number of pawns and the same number and type of pieces, power is equal. However, let’s say that each player’s armies have a relative value of nine. If one player has a Queen and the other player has a Rook and four weak pawns, the player with the Queen has greater power. When evaluating a position, compare the individual power of both players pieces to one another. Who has the more powerful pieces?

The Quality of the Individual Pawns. While pawns share the same relative value, they can vary in strength. If both players have five pawns each, the overall relative value is equal. However, if three of your pawns are weak, while all of your opponent’s pawns are all strong, your opponent has the better pawns. Examine the pawns belonging to both players, looking for weaknesses and strengths. Whose pawns are better?

Pawn Structure. A pawn’s strength or weakness is directly related to pawn structure. While good pawn structure is crucial throughout the entire game, it’s critical during the middle and endgame. Who has the better better pawn structure? When both player’s pawn structure is equal in strength, can you weaken your opponent’s pawn structure which can weaken their overall position?

King Safety. If your King hasn’t castled it’s not safe. If your King has castled, can you improve his safety? If your opponent’s King hasn’t castled, can you stop that King from castling, leaving it vulnerable to attack? Can you open up attacking lines leading to your opponent’s King? Can you make your King safer and your opponent’s King less safe?

Pawn and piece coordination. Pawn and pieces must always work together throughout the game. Pawns and pieces that are coordinated or cooperating with one another can deliver strong attacks. Look at the relationship between your pawns and pieces and those of your opponent. How well are your pawns and pieces working together?

By asking these questions when evaluating a position, you’ll be able to create an accurate plan. If you see that you have a problem, create a plan to resolve that problem. If you discover that your opponent has a problem, create a plan to take advantage of that problem. Only after you’ve evaluated a position can you then create a worthwhile plan.

After evaluating a position, you have to create a plan regarding what pawn or piece to move and where and when to move it. A plan is a series of small steps that allows you to achieve a larger goal. Positions can change drastically from one move to the next and because of this, your plan needs to be flexible. A flexible plan is one that gives you more than one option. If your plan is rigid, it has only one option and, if the position changes in such a way that your plan no longer works, the will plan fail. If your plan’s flexible and the position goes in an unexpected direction, that plan will be better suited for dealing with this sudden positional change. Plans change often during the course of the middle-game which is why they must be flexible.

Your priorities, when creating middle game plans, should be King Safety and piece mobility. When your King’s safe, you can use your pieces for attacking rather than defensive purposes. The middle-game is where the majority of the attacking takes place, so your pieces must be ready to fight. If they have to protect an unsafe King, they become defensively tied down. However, even if your King’s safe, your pieces can’t attack until they’re mobile, placed on active squares. Attacks are built up slowly during the middle-game, so moving your pieces to more active squares will give them more power which helps in creating stronger attacks. The more mobility a piece has, the greater it’s power.

The middle game is the hardest phase to play through. With less defined principles and so many pawns and pieces in play, choosing the right move can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. However, focusing on the correct positional issues and asking the right questions makes things a lot easier. Analytical questions are powerful tools. They’re like having a metal detector to aid you when searching for that needle in the haystack. The focus points and subsequent questions are exactly what I use for middle game analysis (that and a lucky horseshoe – just kidding). Believe me when I say that I’ve been able to stay out of middle game trouble using the ideas I written about here. Try it out. It’s better than sitting in front of a board, sweating, watching the clock grind down as you remain clueless (yeah, I know, a bit dramatic) while your opponent smiles because he or she has a plan! Here’s a game to play through. Try using what you’ve learned here and analyze the middle game move for move. Doing this will help you remember the ideas I just presented. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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Author: Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).