Middlegame Planning

Once the beginner has a grasp of the opening principles and some basic endgame knowledge, they often feel confident that their chess has improved enough to start winning games. However, they often run into trouble during the phase that comes after the opening and before the endgame, the middlegame! The middlegame generally starts after both players have connected their rooks, which means moving the Queen up a rank or two, allowing the Rooks to patrol along their starting rank. Planning in the middle game can be difficult because both players have no concrete information regarding what pawns and pieces will be remaining on the board when this middle phase starts. So how do we formulate a plan? There are five points to consider when creating a middlegame plan.

The first point to consider is material. Before starting your plan, ask yourself if you’re ahead or behind in material. To determine where you stand, count both your material and your opponent’s material, noting who is ahead or behind. The player who is ahead in material will generally plan to trade or exchange material with their opponent to reduce that opponent’s counterplay. So, if you’re ahead in material you might consider a series of exchanges that will further reduce your opponent’s ability to fight back. If you’re behind in material, your opponent having more pawns and pieces than you have, you’ll want to avoid those trades in order to maintain some force on the board. If you have less material than your opponent, you need to hang on to what you have.

Pawn structure is the next consideration. I constantly tell my students that good pawn structure must be maintained throughout the game, starting from their first few moves. Look at the board and note how the pawns are positioned for both sides. You’ll want to note any doubled, isolated or backwards pawns. If you have any of these dreadful pawn problems, you need to look for a way to rectify these issues. However, don’t move on to the next planning point until you ask yourself, “is there any way I can give my opponent doubled, isolated or backwards pawns?” These types of pawns lose their mobility and effectiveness which takes away their ability to be useful during the game. If your opponent’s pawn structure can be damage, you may want to consider moves that create problem pawns and the subsequent damage they bring with them.

Our next point to consider is mobility. Mobility is a key factor in all three phases of the game. How active are your pawns and pieces? Too often, beginners develop their minor pieces early on and then stop overall pawn and piece development to launch a premature attack. Pieces that have better mobility have greater control of the board. Greater board control makes for better attacks. Look at every pawn and piece and determine whether or not it is on its most active square. Don’t simply look at your pawns and pieces. Look at your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Note what squares they control and then compare them to your own pawns and pieces. Before asking yourself “what can I do to increase my pawn and piece activity,” determine what your opponent can do to improve his or her pawn and piece activity. Can you slow down their control of the board with a specific move? Beginners tend to think in terms of what their best move is without considering their opponent’s best potential move. It takes two to play a game of chess. Only considering one player’s position, namely yours, will lead to lost games.

King safety is next. I mentioned in my last article that castling should be delayed, if possible, in favor of greater development. However, King safety always trumps development if a possible checkmate by the opposition is in the air. Ask yourself whose King is safer. If your King isn’t safe then castling and a good defense should be considered. If your King is safe and you’re considering an attack against the enemy King, it’s time to look at your opponent’s position, namely the pawns and pieces protecting the opposition King. Can you weaken the position? How long will doing so take? However, you better first take a look at your own pawns and pieces surrounding your King, determining if you opponent can do likewise.

Lastly we must look at threats. Beginners have a bad habit of launching attacks when their position is under threat. A threat assessment must be made before formulating a plan of action. Before considering any threats you can make, ask yourself “what are my opponent’s threats?” Look carefully at all of your opponent’s pawns and pieces and examine what those pawns and pieces can do on the opposition’s next move as well as the following move. A good threat can force pawns and pieces into defensive rather than offensive positions, which help with a potential attack by the aggressor!

Now that you’ve gone through the planning checklist list, its time to think about a plan. During the middle-game, positions can drastically change from move to move. This means that plans should be flexible and short term. By flexible, I mean plans that have the ability to change fluidly as the board’s position changes. Therefore, long term plans are too stodgy and lack flexibility. Make plans that address the next few moves rather than the next ten moves.

Plans must have a specific short term goal. While this might seem to contradict the idea of a flexible plan, you don’t want to try and do everything at once. Don’t think in terms of doing too much at once or you’ll lose the game. Your plan should consist of simpler, short term goals, such as reducing the mobility of a single piece, the isolation of a pawn or the weakening of a key pawn or piece (or even square) that supports the enemy King. Keep your plans short term during the middlegame and consider the five points discussed above. Keep it simple. Play for flexibility and fluidity during the middlegame. 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).