Just like I promised last week, this time we will talk about the middlegame. The middlegame is the main stage of the game. Studying this part of chess is essential to understanding concepts such as weak squares, a strong center, open files, the art of exchanging pieces, etc. One has to be aware of how to evaluate the position and create a plan. All of this is a must-know for an improving player.
The middlegame has two main aspects: strategy and tactics.
Strategy implies positional understanding, knowing how to evaluate the position and form a plan. It involves principles on which chess moves are chosen. The must-read book on strategy is “My System” by Nimzovitch. While some of the opening evaluations and analyses are outdated, it still offers a great overview of the main chess principles. There are many other good books, but “My System” is a true classic. Also, there are nice software products on the middlegame like Chess Assistant. These have contributed a lot to my chess level by providing critical positions from masters’ games in which one has to make the correct decision.
Another good idea is to study game collections of the chess legends. As we are talking about strategy, choose a book on, let’s say, Capablanca or Karpov. Text annotations are preferred to lengthy chess variations. The former will help you get a touch of what positional play at top level feels like.
By “tactics” we mean chess combinations with sacrifices involved. Tactics don’t appear out of nowhere (unless someone blunders), they are based on strategic principles. However, the underlying factors in strategy (see above) and tactics (pins, destroying the defense, deflection, X-ray, etc.) are different. There are tons of books on tactics for people of any chess level, as well as computer programs. You may want to buy both guides (which teach you about different types of tactics) and actual books with chess problems. Don’t forget about the classics, such as the games of Alekhine and Tal. Just like with strategy, try to find sources with the underlying ideas written out, not just wordless lines of obscure variations.
A few more tips:
1) IM Mark Dvoretzky’s books are excellent in terms of studying the middlegame. The only drawback is that these are intended for strong, master level players.
2) Chess.com has a fantastic Chess Mentor course (as well as Tactics Trainer) and lots of chess videos on different aspects of chess. If you can afford it, buying a premium account is a great investment.
3) Pay special attention to games annotated by top players. Try to understand how they think and why they pick each move.
4) Find the right balance between tactics and strategy. You may try to study them simultaneously, e.g. first review how to take advantage of weak squares (strategic concept) and then solve a few tactical positions exploiting these weaknesses. Keep in mind that “an hour of tactics a day keeps the patzer away!” (even half an hour can do miracles sometimes).
5) “Guess the move” is a very nice training exercise recommended by Nimzovitch. Nowadays one can use its improved version. First you look at a position from a master’s game and try to find the correct continuation. Write it down. Then see the actual move played in the game and try to understand which choice was better and why. Play the opponent’s reply and start thinking once again. And so on. When you’re through with the game, you might analyze the game with a chess engine and figure out the correct answers. To make the process more entertaining, you may want to evaluate yourself and see what percent of your moves is as good as or better than the master’s. Of course, there is also software products of this type, but choosing the games and rules yourself will give you more flexibility.
6) Move from easy to advanced: first learn the basics (center, open files, weak and strong squares, etc.) and then more sophisticated concepts (e.g. chess dynamics).
Now let's take a look at an instructive game from the Mullhouse 2010 GM event featuring both strategical and tactical issues:
The first part of the game was concerned with playing against an isolated pawn. The intricacies of such positions are discussed in detail in the book by GMs Belyavsky and Michalchishin “Isolated pawn”. Then the game entered the tactical stage and was decided after an incorrect sacrifice.