Opening Principles Part Seven: Middle-Game Preparation

When beginners learn and begin to master the opening principles they often think, after the last basic principle has been applied, that it’s time to start attacking. While attacking is the crucial factor when it comes to winning games, launching into one prematurely can and usually does, lead to a weakened position from which one can never fully recover. If you play through the games of master level players, you’ll see that they only attack when the time is right. When’s the right time? Read on and you’ll find out.

Obviously, if your opponent provides you with an opportunity to launch a successful attack early on you should consider doing so. When I play beginning students, they provide ample opportunity for me to launch into attacks that greatly alter the balance of the game in my favor. Beginner’s games tend to have a lot of weak positions that allow for early attacks. I teach my beginning students to avoid launching early early attacks, those during the opening, and instead build up their position. Of course, I teach them how to spot a potential early attack and what they can do to stop it. After all, I’d be a dreadful chess teacher if I didn’t teach defensive methods.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, when you play through the games of the masters you’ll see that they methodically build up their position, only attacking when the position warrants it? What do I mean by this? Typically, a beginner who takes the opening principles to heart will control the center with a pawn or two, develop three or four of their minor pieces (Knights and Bishops), Castle their King to safety and connect their Rooks (moving their Queen up a rank). Then they’ll start looking for possible attacks. They might spot a potential attack but that attack will depend on their opponent making a specific move or two that allows the attack to take place. This is wishful thinking chess. Our beginner, in this example, is counting on their opponent doing something specific in terms of a move. This specific move is what the beginner wants not what their opponent wants. Our beginner is seeing the position only in terms of what opposition moves work for that beginner’s plan. Their opponent is most likely going to make a move that counters our beginner’s plan which leaves the beginner in a jam!

The mistake our beginner is making is launching an attack that will only succeed if their opponent makes essentially bad moves. This is unrealistic since your opponent also wants to win the game and has plans of his or her own! When a plan solely depends on a move or two being made by the opposition and those moves aren’t made, then the attack falls apart. How do we create a position that leads to a successful attack? By increasing the number of pieces that can partake in an attack so we have greater attacking options! How do we do that?

We continue the development of pawns and pieces. Just because you’ve controlled the center with a pawn or two, developed your minor pieces, Castling your King and connected your Rooks, doesn’t mean you’re ready for the Middle-game where attacks generally start. There’s further development to be had! Of course, you want to bring a new piece into the game during each opening move but you can, after having achieved this goal, bring those pieces to more active squares. What are active squares? Those squares that allow your pawns and pieces to control opposition squares (the squares on your opponent’s side of the board). For example, a White Knight on c3 might consider moving the d5, only if it’s safe, in order to attack more squares on the opposition’s side of the board. However, before you start considering moving pieces for a second time, take a look at your Rooks.

Beginner’s tend to neglect their Rooks. A beginner playing the White pieces might Castling King-side but leave their Rook dormant on the f1 square. While that Rook is more active than it was prior to Castling (when it was trapped on the h1 square), moving it to e1 would allow it to access the e file which is especially important if Black hasn’t Castled yet. Then there’s the other Rook, the Rook on a1 in the case of King-side Castling (by White). Once the Rooks are connected, they have the ability to work along their starting rank, acting as bodyguards for pawns you might want to push up (or down in the case of Black) the board later on. Pawns can be further developed. While beginner’s learn not to make flank pawn moves during the opening, if there’s a Black Bishop on c8, a White Knight onf3 and White Queen on d1, White might want to move the h pawn from h2 to h3, preventing a potential relative pin. However, it’s more important to develop your minor pieces first before making such a pawn move.

Sometimes we’re forced to move a minor piece to a square that is less active during the start of the opening because the opposition controls the square we initially wanted to move to. Can we develop the piece in question to a better square? If we can we should, especially before launching an attack. The more pieces you can employ in an attack, the better your attack will be. Think of it this way, if you have five attackers and you opponent has three defenders, their chances of warding off your attack are far less than if the number of attackers versus defenders was equal. Greater force (when attacking) is a key idea. However, to have a greater attacking force you first have to activate your pieces.

Slowly developing or moving your pawns and pieces to active squares gives you greater attacking options. Namely, you have more potential ways to attack. If your pieces are centrally located, controlling a large number of squares on your opponent’s side of the board, you’ll be able to launch attacks from more locations that your opponent can defend. You opponent might build up a good defense on one part of the board but, because you have centrally located pieces, you can attack elsewhere. Having options within your plan is crucial. The problem with most beginner’s plans is that they’re based on a specific move being made by their opponent. Having options also means being flexible. Thus, if your opponent makes a move you didn’t see coming, you’ll be able to address that opposition plan accordingly because you have actively developed your pieces. You can’t anticipate every move your opponent might make which means you could be attacked. However, if your pawns and pieces are actively placed, you have a much better chance of surviving.

When you look at your position and think there’s nothing there, look again! You’ll probably find a pawn or piece that can be further activated or developed. When you have greater control of the board, which only happens when your pieces are more actively positioned than your opponent’s pieces, you opponent may be forced to make a move he or she doesn’t want to make. That can lead to a better position for you and a winning game. The watchwords for the day are pawn and piece activity. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).