Chess Middlegame: Make Your Minor Pieces Powerful

Chess Middlegame: Make Your Minor Pieces Powerful

In the chess middlegame, you want to engage your opponent with all your pieces. The minor pieces, bishops, and knights, make up a large part of your attacking force.

Although the bishops and knights usually enjoy different positions, generalizations in chess can stop you from getting the most out of your pieces. A deeper understanding of the minor pieces will help you learn how to create positions that favor you.

When you know what your opponent is trying to achieve, you can play against his plans. This is easier to do if you understand what position your opponent would like based on the minor pieces on the board.

Of course, this is not only about creating an unfavorable position for your opponent but also an ideal position for your pieces. If you understand how to improve your pieces, you can make moves that support rather than hinder them.

Chess Middlegames: What Do Both Minor Pieces Do?

One common factor in chess middlegames impacts both knights and bishops – pawns! You cannot control your opponent's pawns, but you have complete control over yours.

In chess, the opening phase of the game is designed to help you reach a playable middlegame. Playing an opening that leads to a chess middlegame you are not comfortable in makes little sense.

Fortunately, once you have learned which chess middlegame positions you enjoy playing, this knowledge acts as a guide in the opening. Now that you have a destination in mind, you will understand why you place your minor pieces on a particular square.

If you prefer bishops over knights in a chess middlegame, then the Chigorin Defense (see diagram below) is not a good opening for you to play. In the Chigorin Defense, Black often exchanges one or both bishops for knights on c3 and f3.

When you are aware you plan on playing …Bg4 and …Bxf3, you won't block your bishop with …e6.

Bishops are at their best when there are open diagonals on the board, while knights thrive when they have the chance to occupy strong squares.

Be sure to learn which pawn structures favor each minor piece and why it favors them.

Better Bishops Make Your Middlegame Easier

Not very long ago, a bishop and a knight were valued at 3 points each. Nowadays, a more realistic evaluation is to set the value of bishops at 3.55 and knights at 3.45.

Thanks to improved defensive play, the bishop pair advantage in a chess middlegame is not as fearsome as once believed. The two-tenths-of-a-pawn advantage is an excellent reflection of this advantage.

Every position in chess requires accurate evaluation, so do not let your fear of the bishop pair stop you from exchanging your bishop for a knight.

Despite a bishop being worth 0.1 more than a knight, White will not hesitate to play Bxf6 in the above position. The exchange on f6 means a white knight on d5 cannot be forced from that square.

Remember, what is a weak square in your position is seen as a strong square by your opponent.

After 1.Bxf6 Bxf6 2.Nd5, there are no open diagonals for the bishop. Black will need to spend time creating them and work around the knight on d5 at the same time.

Playing to gain control of a strong square or open diagonal can become your strategy for an entire game. In fact, gaining control of the h1-a8 diagonal when White fianchettos the bishop is often work giving up the exchange.

Do not be afraid to sacrifice your rook on a8 to gain control of the long diagonal. In the Sicilian Dragon, it is not uncommon for Black to meet Bh6 with ...Bh8, allowing White to win the exchange with Bxf8.

These exchange sacrifices do not work in every chess middlegame, but the fact that they are playable proves how strong a bishop on an open diagonal can be in a chess middlegame.

Alexander Alekhine made excellent use of a bishop on the a1-h8 diagonal in this game.

Alexander Alekhine - Conel Hugh O'Donel Alexander, 1936.08.22, 1-0, Nottingham Round 11, Nottingham ENG


Making the Most of the Bishop Pair

The cooperation between the bishops makes the bishop-pair such a dangerous weapon. A single bishop can only cover half the board, but two bishops cover the entire board.

Even if your opponent has a bishop and knight, one of the bishops is unopposed when you have the bishop pair. In these circumstances, do not be afraid to sacrifice material to open diagonals.

Of all the pieces, the bishop is the one who finds itself hampered the most by pawns.

The other pieces (queen, rook, and knight) have an easier time navigating pawn structures. This does not mean pawns cannot hamper them, so be extremely cautious when establishing the pawn structure.

Sacrificing a pawn to open the position for your bishop pair will provide you with more than sufficient compensation.

However, when you open a diagonal, do not rush to occupy it if you can find a better move.

This delayed occupation of a diagonal is possible if the bishop occupying it is unopposed. Vitaly Tseshkovsky played Ba3, attacking the rook on f8, before placing it on the long diagonal with Ba2.

Thanks to the cooperation between the bishops in this chess middlegame, Black was forced to resign as checkmate was inevitable.

Vitaly Tseshkovsky - Gennadi Timoshchenko, 1978, 1-0, URS-ch FL46 Round 11, Ashgabat TKM


Unleash "L" on Your Opponents With Knights

Where bishops like open diagonal sin a chess middlegame, knights enjoy having outposts, in particular, the e6 and d6 squares are excellent to establish a knight on if you are playing with White, while Black would like his knight on d3 or e3.

A strong square, or outpost, is a square that a pawn cannot attack and is close to your opponent's position.

Although giving our opponent, a strong square is never a good idea; it is essential to remember that an outpost only benefits our opponent if they can occupy the square. Sometimes you need to create a "weak" square to activate a piece.

There are many instances where the benefits outweigh creating a weakness (square, pawn structure, or diagonal) in your position.

Where sacrificing a pawn to open a diagonal is worth it to get the most from your bishops, sacrificing a piece to establish an unassailable knight in a chess middlegame is possible.

Seventeen-year-old Kasparov thought so, and his courage earned him an excellent win.

Black played 15…g5, creating an excellent outpost for a white knight on f5.

In most cases, as in this game, you will need to initiate the exchange of the piece that defends the outpost. Your opponent is unlikely to concede an outpost willingly.

Kasparov exchanged light-squared bishops before placing his knight on f5. The game continued 16.Bxc8 Rxc8 17.Ne3! gxh4 18.Nf5, when White had a decisive advantage!

Although Kasparov sacrificed a bishop, his opponent's knight on b8 didn't move the entire game, effectively balancing out the material given up.

Garry Kasparov - Maia Chiburdanidze, 1980.04.12, 1-0, Baku Round 11, Baku AZE


Knights Are Not Choosy About Outposts

As mentioned, a strong square is an outpost close to your opponent's position, but it isn't the only type of outpost knights enjoy. Knights make excellent blockaders in a chess middlegame, and you will often get enough compensation for an exchange sacrifice if it provides a blockading square for your knight.

A good rule of thumb is to exchange a rook for a piece that can attack the blockading square.

For example, if you wish to place your knight on e5, then exchanging a rook for White's dark-square bishop is an excellent strategy. In this instance, you will not only gain an ideal square for your knight, but it will become well-centralized once it reaches e5.

You can use pawns to block your opponent's rooks, and in a chess middlegame with a closed position, without open files, a knight will often dominate a rook. As it is often said in chess, the pieces on the board count for more than those off the board.

There is nobody better than Tigran Petrosian, World Chess Champion from 1963-1969, to learn from when it comes to getting the best from your blockading knights in a chess middlegame.

Petrosian reached the following position in a game against Tal.

A knight on e5 would be almost unassailable, so Petrosian played 31…Rf4. The game continued with 32.Bxf4 exf4 33.Nd2 Ne5, and despite his material deficit, Petrosian earned a draw.

Mikhail Tal - Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, 1958, ½ - ½, USSR Championship Round 7, Riga URS


Five years before this game, in the famous 1953 Zurich Candidates Tournament, Petrosian played an exchange sacrifice to get an outpost against Reshevsky.

Samuel Reshevsky - Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian, 1953.08.31, ½ - ½, Zurich Candidates Round 2, Zurich SUI


In Conclusion

Remember, the bishop likes positions with open diagonals in a chess middlegame, and it is a long-range piece. Because the knights have a shorter range than bishops, outposts deep in your opponent's position are ideal.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each piece in a chess middlegame will allow you to judge the dynamic value of a piece better. The point system is a valuable guide, but the concrete evaluation is vital to correctly judging a piece's value during a game.

Do not over-complicate things at the start. The more experience you gain playing chess, the easier it becomes to play the correct exchanges or to sacrifice a pawn to open a position for your pieces.

It might sound simplistic to say bishops like open diagonals, but we all reach a chess middlegame where our bishops have little scope.

Why did it happen? Usually, we forget to remind ourselves that bishops like open diagonals.

Yes, it is that easy. Our job as chess players is to simplify the game as much as possible. Chess will add complexity without any effort on your part.

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