Transition into the Middle Game

Once the beginner has mastered the game’s rules, learned the most basic tactics and started to understand the mechanics of the opening principles, they face additional hurdles which they must clear in order to progress in their play. One of these hurdles is the transition from the opening to the middle game. During the opening phase of the game, beginners are taught to develop their pawns and pieces towards the center of the board where the fighting takes place later on in the game. While the astute beginner knows that the opening is about development and the middle game about gaining a material advantage, they seldom know what to do as the opening ends and middle game begins. Many a decent opening position has been lost by the novice player because they don’t know how to transition into the middle game!

Chess improvement is often not a smooth and straight journey. As with all pursuits, we make headway and then hit a wall which must be scaled if we wish to go further. The beginning chess player discovers this immediately when faced with making a concrete transition into the middle game.

To understand the transition from the opening to middle game, we have to first have to examine our opening goals to make sure they’ve been met. We have four primary “beginner’s” goals during the opening (I’ve added an additional goal involving the Rook). We gain control of the board’s center with a pawn, develop our minor pieces to active squares, castle and finally, connect our Rooks. However, our development cannot stop once these basic goals are met. Many beginning players think that once their minor pieces have been developed, their King is safely castled and they have equal or superior control of the board’s center, their opening work is complete. It’s at this point in the opening, at the start of the transitional phase, that beginners more often than not have trouble finding a decent move. Experienced players know what to do but the beginner finds themselves hard pressed to find a move that helps their position. After all, beginners, if correctly using the opening principles, have their pawns and pieces on good squares within the first six to eight moves (so they think). They see any further moves as potentially weakening their position. The problem of transition arises because the beginner is looking at the wrong pawns and pieces to move!

The reason beginners have problems with transitional moves is because they are looking at the pawns and pieces immediately controlling the board’s center, ignoring pawns and pieces not directly involved in the opening struggle. To move those centralized pawns and pieces would relinquish their central control and weaken their position. However, not all of the beginner’s pawns and pieces are involved in the fight for the board’s center. Those are the pieces we want to look at!

We know that pieces not participating in the fight might as well be sitting on the sidelines. The more force you build up, the stronger your position. One of the things I see in young beginner’s positions are the Rooks sitting quietly on their starting squares, even going into the endgame. I also see at least one of the four minor pieces lagging behind on a less active square. Pawns doing absolutely nothing are another common sighting. With that said, students will often complain that they have “no good moves” when I pass their boards. Successful transition into the middle game requires marshaling all of one’s forces onto the battlefield.

Once the beginner has employed the four basic opening principles, it’s time to consider those pieces not directly involved in control of the board’s center. I have my students add some further items to their opening “checklist.” First on our expanded list is noting the least active pawns and pieces on the board. Active pawns and pieces are those that attack the opposition’s pawns and pieces or control important squares on the board. An active pawn or piece is a pawn or piece that is working for you. An inactive piece is one that might as well not be in the game since it is doing nothing. I look at my pawns and pieces as my employees. As president of my side of the board, I expect all my employees to work! It is the improvement of the position of less active pieces that makes for a successful transition into the middle game!

Rooks suffer the most in the hands of young beginners because they often sit on their starting squares throughout the majority of the game. While castling allows you to get one Rook off of its isolated starting square, the beginner often leaves the castled Rook next to the King, never considering its use in controlling a central file. The same holds true for the un-castled Rook. Good players will use their Rooks to control open and half open files or to protect pawns and pieces as they journey towards the opposition’s side of the board. Minor pieces cannot be left on their starting squares even if three of the four minor pieces are out on the board. Each pawn and piece should be moved to a more active square in preparation for the middle game. Because my students are taught to ask questions, inevitably one of them will ask why we can’t leave a few pawns and pieces on their starting squares, keeping them in reserve.

The answer has to do with gaining small advantages. Beginners are often mistaken in thinking that all chess games are won by employing in your face tactics and stunning sacrifices. Part of the fault for this lies in the example games presented by chess teachers, such as those of Paul Morphy. While it is true that many games are won through tactical fireworks and sacrifices, the majority of those games are played at lower levels. Master level chess games are won more by a buildup of small advantages. These small advantages start during the transitional phase between the opening and middle game. This is why piece activity is so important. A few small advantages can add up to a larger overall advantage that wins the game. So how does the beginner create small advantages? By bringing his or pawns or pieces to more active squares!

We’ve already discussed what makes a pawn or piece active. The greater the control a pawn or piece has on the board (squares it controls) the more active it is. Therefore, after getting control of the board’s center with a pawn, developing our minor pieces to active squares, castling our King and connecting our Rooks (by moving the Queen up a rank to free up the Rooks), we have to look at the pawns and pieces not immediately engaged in the battle for the board’s center. The beginner will become overwhelmed when there are numerous pawns and pieces sitting inactively. Which pawn or piece do we try to activate first? The answer is simple, find the least active piece and move it to a more active square that supports the overall central attack, defends a weak area on the board or prepares the way for a separate attack.

You can simplify the process further by looking at the pawns first and asking yourself “can I push a pawn forward that helps control the center of the board or stop my opponent from occupying a key square? Can I move a pawn, creating a strong pawn chain which helps reinforce my position? Next, look at the minor pieces? Can I bring one of my minors to a more active square without weakening my position? Try to move each piece once, in the opening, before moving the same piece twice. This means that you should develop any undeveloped minor pieces before moving another minor piece for a second time. Next, look at your Rooks? Are they active? If not can I bring them to a more active square along their starting Rank?

So rather than capturing in the opening, you should be getting your pawns and pieces to their most active squares, not leaving any of them on their starting squares. This will help you build up the small advantages that will greatly aid you in the middle game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy!

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).