A Practical Manual For Improving Opening-Middlegame Play

A Practical Manual For Improving Opening-Middlegame Play

GM SenseiJulio

How does a master think and play after the opening? Does he come up with brand new plans and ideas for every game? A master or a master-caliber player will almost always outplay amateur and club players due to superior knowledge and understanding of middlegame plans and ideas amassed over time, from either personal experience or other master games.

Typical plans and ideas are an essential part of a master's thinking cap


With the abundance of games and information boom in 21st-century chess, the lines have been blurred between the opening and middlegame as what we call "opening theory" now covers 20-30+ moves! Thus, I call it opening-middlegame. It is no secret that knowing and memorizing opening theory is helpful, but who wants to do that all the time? Where is the sophisticated challenge of finding possible plans and joy of discovering creative ideas in this game if what we have to do is always memorize a bunch of theoretical moves?

While I’m not saying one should stop researching and remembering new opening theory altogether, I propose a new way for you to study the game:

1.       Look up and collect a set of master games arising from your favorite opening or pawn structure, then

2.       Carefully find and understand the typical plans and ideas.

The only challenge I see with this system is the lack of guidance when playing through the games which could be solved either by a) hiring a coach or b) finding instructive game annotations. To all self-learners, aspiring masters, and improving masters out there, a grandmaster guidebook for this valuable learning system has arrived—Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide (CSGG) by GM Mauricio Flores Rios.

According to the author, a self-learner himself, this book is mainly written to help players apply their new-found strategic ideas in their practice. It aims to achieve this not only by annotating numerous grandmaster games, highlighting standard ideas and main plans for both sides but also systematically grouping them according to commonly occurring structures!

To give you, dear reader, an idea of how useful this book can be helpful to non-masters and masters, I will not be merely summing up its unique characteristics in relation to other popular books written on the subject of structures, but will also share the most instructive and inspiring parts of the book that have positively influenced my play so far.

To give a clear preview of what to expect from this book review series, here is a simple outline: 

I.                    Unique Characteristics of CSGG

II.                  Highlights of my Favorite Games

III.                Impact on my Recent Games

I. What is CSGG’s unique value compared to other books on pawn structure?

           There have been a number of materials written on the topic of pawn structure;, the more well-known ones are Winning Chess Middlegames by Sokolov and Pawn Structures by Soltis. There’s no doubt that these books have value in their own right, but here are reasons why I find CSGG more practical and helpful:

1)      Better Game Selection. The sample games are well-picked because the games either have a spectacular tactic, an interesting positional struggle, or an instructive demonstration of smooth endgame play, rendering themselves memorable or inspirational to the reader. A feature that this book does equally well with existing books is that the set of games show how both sides can win e.g. a win for side playing with IQP and a win for side playing against IQP. This way of presentation helps the player become well-prepared and more objective during the game in any given structure. Last but not least, it uses both classical and recent games which lends the material useful for the modern player.

The excerpt and positions from the part II of this review show a few of these classic & modern games

2)      Clean & Clear Chapter Layout.Each pawn structure-chapter begins with a short description on the structure followed by a list of general plans for both sides (see pic). Then each game is prefaced with a “Learning Objective” and ends with “Final Remarks,” ensuring that the reader have “take-aways” after playing through each game. This design is consistent with author’s desire to create a manual that will help self-studying players to apply their knowledge in their games, as expressed in the introduction.


 Illustration #1: "Learning Objective"


Illustration #2: "Final Remarks"

3)      Easy to Use. It's easy to use because the games are annotated with a balance between light verbal explanations and concrete lines. While verbal explanations make any chess read light and entertaining, a helpful annotation must also present concrete moves and ideas. After all it is the moves that are the main argument when we are playing. The difficulty in studying some annotated games from other books and databases comes from the convoluted, thick supporting lines that gets confusing and holds one down on the chessboard for hours!! The author of this book provide concrete lines that are accurate (most probably because it’s engine-checked), and within a reasonable amount—one or two lines with the intent of helping the reader understand the better and worse choices. As a result, I can regularly go through at least one game at the end of the day.

4)      Useful Exercises. Exercise positions can be in every book if reader wants to guess or solve the next move in any diagram positions in the book! Very few of the existing books on pawn structure are encouraging with this by having White/Black to Play underneath select diagrams. Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide goes another mile by allotting a chapter for exercises.  The Exercise chapter consists of 50 exercises divided into four levels, whose solutions are well-explained verbally and concretely in the following chapter. I am still going through this chapter and so far I think it has multiple purposes:

a)      Test knowledge of typical ideas gleaned from the chapters

b)      Feed more ideas (typical & atypical) on a given structure

c)       Give practice on correctly executing the idea (using concrete analysis & tactical skills)


Here’s a few of the exercises with the author’s solutions:



Stay tuned for Part II where I will showcase instructive positions and ideas from the book!