Middlegames Explained

The Middlegame
The most common question is “When does the Opening end and the Middlegame begin?” Like the definition of an opening, there really is not a specific definition that can guide you about the middlegame. However, the idea of having a strong opening means you will have a playable middlegame. “Playable” suggests your opening will have given you some long-term strategies to pursue that can be used to determine what moves to play. For example, in the Dragon Sicilian Defense, black’s Bg7 is a huge asset and many of black’s plans and potential moves have to do with the squares on the a1 – h8 long dark-square diagonal. Thus, most of the ‘playable’ moves will involve this theme to some extent. That is not a hard and fast rule but a reasonable guideline.

Therefore, when studying the middlegame, which is something few people do, you’re looking to learn about strategies, plans, potential openings pitfalls, pawn structures, and piece maneuvering. So, it is important to determine what you’re trying to accomplish when studying the middlegame. My advice is to pick one or two ideas at a time and devote some time to learning those concepts. Here are some suggestions for middlegame resources under different themes:

General Middlegame Books
Winning Chess Middlegames: An Essential Guide to Pawn Structure by Ivan Sokolov
Mastering Chess Middlegames by Alexander Panchenko
Soviet Middlegame Technique by Peter Romanovsky
Understanding Chess Middlegames by John Nunn

These books give general advice on middlegames. They do not focus on the influence specific opening shave on the middlegame but rather give you ideas on how to navigate the middlegame. Often, they demonstrate common middlegame plans that come up in a variety of chess openings.

However, there are also books on specific middlegame skills. So, if you or a coach has identified a specific skill that you need to work on, books like the following would be more helpful:

The Center: A Modern Strategy Guide by Afrian Mikhalchishin & Georg Mohr
Chess Calculation Training: Vol 1. Middlegames by Romain Edouard
Techniques of Positional Play by Valeri Bronznik & Anatoli Terekhin

These books take specific approaches to the middlegame using a specific skill. For example, the first looks at the center and its role in the middlegame, the second looks at how to calculate (or see ahead in the game) during the middlegame, and the third looks at positional chess techniques (as opposed to tactics) during the middlegame.

Other types of middlegame books talk about “Strategy” which essentially is your ability to not only come up with a plan but your ability to read a position and know the best plan. This is where things get a little tricky because you must assimilate your knowledge during the middlegame to come up with effective plans. For example, using the 3 books above, you may sometimes find yourself in a positional game but you have to navigate through a series of tactics; therefore, having read both the Romain and Bronznik books would benefit you in that position. Therefore, the following books offer other types of skill sets that can be assimilated into middlegame play:

Maneuvering: The Art of Piece Play by Mark Dvoretsky
Attack & Defense by Jacob Aagaard
Mastering Rook vs. Minor Pieces by Andrei Maximenko, IM Jaroslav Srokovsky, & Wit Braslawski

In the first book above, maneuvering has a lot fot do with closed positions which require a different set of strategies than open games. An “Open Game” occurs when the central pawns are not locked together. A “Closed Game” occurs when the central pawns are locked together which jams up the center making it tough to break through. The second book looks at both attack and defense (as the title suggests); however, the defense part is important as it is not commonly written about since people like to attack. Finally, the third book can be both a middlegame and endgame book at certain points.

However, most of the time a piece imbalance (such as losing a knight but capturing a rook) occurs during the middlegame. So, help with Mastering the Bishop Pair, aims to help the reader with transitioning from the middlegame to the endgame and knowing when to do it. Thus, if your minor piece has a strong endgame advantage, then transition to the endgame, for example.

Middlegames also involve tactics. Like many topics in chess, there is no agreed upon definition of the word “tactic” in chess. However, a simple understanding of tactics is that they lead to favorable conditions for one person, usually resulting in the loss of a pawn or more. Strong tactics usually win at least 2 pawns or more.

Therefore, it is important to also learn tactics. The best way to learn tactics is to solve simple ones until you build up your pattern recognition skills. Here are some books and software that can help with tactics. I recommend using books to learn about basic tactical ideas and software for really chugging away at building your pattern recognition. The reason I recommend them in this order is that books tend to explain a lot of tactical nuances while programs tend to send you down a long path of solving hundreds of tactics for a single theme. Both have merit, but they work best together:

Fundamental Chess Tactics by Antonio Gude
The Art of Sacrifice in Chess by Rudolf Spielmann
1001 Chess Exercises for Beginners by Franco Masetti & Roberto Messa

There is also the idea of “combinations” which is the next level of learning tactics. Essentially, combinations are tactical patterns that become mixed together producing unique circumstances. In the above few books and software, a tactic might be listed as a “Pin” tactic. But in a combinations book, a single combination might be listed as having a pin, fork, and skewer all at once within a small number of moves. Therefore, if you are ready to progress to harder tactics or you wish to challenge yourself, here are a few useful resources:

Encyclopedia of Chess Combinations by Chess Informants
Big Book of Chess Combinations by Eric Schiller
Chess Queens Combinations by Josip Asik & Slobodan Mirkovic

Learning the middlegame can be a lot of fun. I always recommend that you first understand what the middlegame is all about, determine a theme or two that you struggle to understand, and research your purchases accordingly. That way, you will buy more relevant resources for your goals.