Middle Game Principles

Beginners are taught that the middle game in chess is the realm of tactics. Playing through the games of the masters, we often see amazing tactical fireworks erupting on the board during this phase of the game. However, when the beginner tries to produce their own tactical fireworks, they often fizzle out. This happens because the beginner doesn’t understand how to build up a position that creates a solid tactical strike. To the beginner, the master seems to create tactical fireworks out of thin air, as if they were a magician. If the beginner studies the game closely, they’ll be able to see how the master builds up a position that allows them to employ specific tactics. However, this requires the understanding of a few basic middle game principles or ideas. These principles have an added bonus of reinforcing the use of opening principles since your middle game is only as good as your opening. Here are a few ideas I teach to my students regarding the middle game:

Build up your position before launching an attack. After you’ve developed your pieces to active squares during the opening phase of the game, look at each piece and ask yourself the question, “Can I improve this piece’s position?” Can you move your pieces to more active squares, those that control more territory on the board? Since both players are trying to achieve the same goal in the opening, good pawn and piece placement, chances are that some of your pawns and pieces have not reached their most active squares. This happens because your opponent got some of his or her pawns and pieces to squares that control the squares you wish to occupy. If you can get your pieces to their most active squares prior to launching an attack, you increase the chances of your attack being successful.

Don’t consider launching an attack until you have control of the board’s center. Too often, beginners launch premature attacks before they have any real control of the board’s center. One of two things happens. Either they don’t have enough centralized firepower to successfully attack, which is easily rebuffed by their opponent, or their lack of central control allows their opponent to launch a more successful counter attack. If you have only half of your available forces committed to the board’s center and your opponent has the majority of his forces committed to the board’s center, you’re out gunned. You will also have your already weak central forces further weakened by a counter attack which is why you have to build up a strong position in the center before attacking. Trying to attack with a minority force will further weaken your position. To avoid this problem, build up your army around the board’s center before attacking. When you’re ready to attack, always count the number of attackers and defenders. You’ll need to have more attackers than defenders to ensure a successful attack and more defenders than attackers when facing an attack. Moving pawns and pieces to their most active squares helps you reach a stronger middle game position.

If your opponent attacks you on the flanks, do not fight back on the flanks (unless you cannot avoid it). Beginners often rush their pawns and pieces into the action, wherever it is. However, your opponent may have ulterior motives for a flank attack, such as trying to divide your forces and weaken your position. Let’s say that you’ve followed the opening principles and have built up a strong presence at the board’s center. Your opponent may attack you on one of the flanks hoping you’ll divert pieces that make up your strong central position away from the center to fight back. If you do this, your central control is weakened and your opponent has a chance to strengthen his or her position (in th4e center). If your opponent attacks you on the flanks, fight back not on the flanks but at the board’s center. You opponent has sent part of his army to fight away from the board’s center. Therefore, he is weakening any grasp he has on the central squares. This creates a perfect opportunity to counter attack an already weak center. This has the added bonus of further dividing your opponent’s forces. You pawns and pieces should work together to maintain control of the center rather than go off on a wild, center weakening goose chase on the flanks.

Maintain the ability to quickly mobilize your forces to any part of the board quickly. Having previously said that we should maintain a strong presence in the center during the middle game, it is important to remember that one player or the other is eventually going to try and weaken their opponent’s position and it may be elsewhere on the board, such as near a castled King. As the middle game progresses, a weakness in a player’s position may become apparent and then become the target of an attack. If you’re the attacker, you need to be able to rapidly deploy your pieces to your opponent’s weak spot and attack. If you’re the player with the positional weak spot, you need to marshal your forces quickly to defend your position. While you should lock down the board’s center early in the middle game, you don’t want to create such a rigid position that you can’t move your army quickly into battle elsewhere on the board. How do you do this?

Keep your pieces off of the edge of the board. The reason the center of the board is so critical during the opening and early middle game is because pieces have greater power when they’re centralized. By greater power, I mean the ability to control more squares on the board. A piece such as the Knight, stuck on the Queenside, is going to take a long time to reach the action if it’s over on the Kingside. Centralized pieces have the ability to move into the action a lot faster than pieces on the board’s edges.

Watch your pawn structure during the middle game. Beginners have a tendency to ignore pawn structure going into the middle game. Strongly placed pawns can create a headache for your opponent. Use pawns to protect pawns, rather than using the minor pieces for babysitting duties. One exercise I have my students do it to set up a second board next to them as they play against other students in my classes. Only pawns are set up on the second board . Each time a move is made on the actual game board that involves a pawn, the corresponding move is made on the “pawn structure board.” This allows the students to see their pawn structure throughout the game very clearly since there are no pieces on that board. It takes a bit of work but it serves to illustrate how a player’s pawn structure is laid out (weak or strong) as the game progresses.

Lastly, activate your Rooks. I am amazed at how many junior players simply ignore their Rooks until the endgame. After moving your Queen up a rank in the opening, your Rooks are connected. Even during the early part of the middle game, Rooks can back up pawns and pieces from the safety of their starting rank.

While there are a number of other middle game considerations, I start beginners off with this short list to get them thinking about good middle game play. In a later article, I’ll talk about some of these additional middle game ideas. However, it is best not to overwhelm the beginner with too much in the way of theory. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About 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).