The secret top players keep to themselves and how I discovered it.
When I first started chess, and even for several several years after I was always slightly confused as to what I am supposed to be playing after the opening moves. I'd develop sensibly (so i thought) and eventually hit a road block, now what? I'd always find myself asking this question.
The Journey [briefly]
When I sought help from sources online people always always always ALWAYS!! responded by saying, "tactics." What a load of garbage!! I figured out this wasn't true because i stopped studying tactics and doing tactical puzzles but I was doing better and better in tournaments still! So I knew that it wasn't absolutely necessary to do tactical puzzles nor was it the missing ingredient. Of course you have to be able to calculate a few moves and not hang pieces, but after that, which is established pretty quickly, you're left again asking, Now what?!
I later stumbled upon Jeremy Silman and his ideas by way of several of his books: Reassess your chess 4th edition, The Amateur's Mind, and his workbook. This really blew my mind, because i finally found the rules I was looking for that governed the middle game! Now I can see "what" to play when I'm lost... but still I found the instruction too vague and often leading me down the wrong path. I got the general idea, but how in the world am I going to apply these "ideal" positions in my mind to the game. Often times it simply wasn't possible; I was trying something that couldn't be done! For years I simply followed the Silman method and worked my tactics and analyzed instructional games.
After a while I found out that training openings led to much much better results and improvement, so I sought to establish an opening repertoire. This was great because i noticed that I'd get certain structures over and over or certain types of positions and I knew what to expect. This made me realize that Silman's method was obsolete, because I would get a structure based on the opening that would lead to the superior knight [or whatever imbalance I wanted]. Still, I'd run into the problem of transpositions or odd moves that I couldn't account for and eventually i'd be asking myself after my prep or after they sidestepped all the traps, Now what?!
Finally, I was watching a chess event with Peter Svidler and it finally clicked. He kept saying this phrase that I see over and over again, In this type of position you typically.... or I don't play this opening, but in these types of positions you usually.... right there it hit me. He knows how to play all these positions and there is a way you're supposed to play them!!
What does he mean by this type of position? Well, I found out:
That's when I turned to the ultimate book, Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide by Rios. This book is a few steps above Jeremy Silman's reassess your chess; with this book you can see all common structures and their associated openings, then see the plans for both sides and which plans are more or less likely to succeed! The book contains several annotated games that show the plans in action and explains how to both execute and defend against the mentioned plans! it's not a once sided propaganda piece, it simply analyzes the positions.
Now, when I play a game I no longer setup pieces and hope for the best, I specifically analyze and observe the pawn structure and play for the associated plans based on my piece placement and my opponent's piece placement. Caro-Kann structure? Probably should push c5 and equalize. Carlsbad? Play for the minority attack, Should I accept the isolated pawn structure? If I still have my light squared bishop and a good knight, yes! Should I go into the Gruenfeld structure? If I can get the passed pawn or kingside attack rolling either e5 and h4-5 then yes!
This is how I think now, I see all the plans and structures and flow through them, despite knowing no opening lines!
The only remaining piece of the puzzle is technique; that is to say, you need to learn to play out endgames and actually win the game once you establish your advantage, be it a passed pawn, or extra pawn, etc. You need to practice winning won games and winning frequently seen endgames.