How To Rule The Middlegame

Sep 2, 2008, 12:03 AM |

Everything you need to know to dominate the middlegame is within this blog.


Enemy Problem Do This Against It
Bad minor piece Avoid exchanging it. Keep it restricted.
Blocked pieces Keep them blocked.
Cramped game Avoid freeing exchanges.
Down the exchange Simplify to an ending of rook v. minor piece. Invade with K & R to produce a passed pawn.
Exposed king Threaten with pieces; look for double attack.
Ill-timed flank attack Counterattack in the center.
Lack of development Look for tactics and combinations, especially against the uncastled king.
Unprotected pieces Look for combinations, especially forks and double attacks.
Material disadvantage Trade pieces, not pawns.
Moved pawns around castled king Attack with pieces in open positions; pawn-storm in closed ones; occupy weak squares.
Overextended pawns Undermine with pawns and attack with pieces.
Pawn-grabbing Develop pieces and attack the king.
Pinned units Pile up on them; attack with pawns and lesser units.
Premature queen moves Attack it with development.
Time trouble Make surprise threats and force him to spend time calculating.
Uncastled king Prevent castling and open the center.
Under heavy attack Avoid exchanges and simplification until you gain something.
Unfavorable pawn majorities Advance healthy majority; create passed pawn.
Weak pawns Fix, exploit and attack.
Weak squares Occupy them.
Big pieces on a line Pin or skewer them.
Over-worked piece Attack it or offer it a sacrifice; force an overworked piece to abandon one or more of its functions.

Middlegame goals are to; 1) checkmate the enemy king, 2) win material, and 3) establish a winning endgame.

In the middlegame, active, coordinated pieces, open lines, and aggressive play are the keys to success.

The most important middlegame principle is to establish and maintain a SAFE and ACTIVE position (passive positions contain the germs of defeat).

Don't be afraid to sacrifice to press forward to your main strategic goal. An advantageous position does not win itself against a resourceful opponent, and at some point it may become necessary to "get your hands dirty" and analyze precise tactical variations.

In symmetrical positions, a single tempo can play a decisive role. The first player to undertake aggressive actions can often force his opponent into a permanently passive role.

Always be aware of back-rank mates. If it is possible to make some luft for your king, without serious loss of time or weakening your king's defenses, it is well worth considering.

A fianchettoed bishop combined with a pawn advance on the opposite wing is a standard technique for exerting strategic pressure.

If the position is equal, then playing too hard for the advantage is risky.

No matter what the position or situation on the board, remain calm. Panic routs logical thinking.

Playing to win is often less effective at achieving the desired results than simply playing good chess.

To consolidate an advantage, eliminating enemy counterplay is more important than grabbing extra material.

Sometimes it is more important to create counterplay than it is to avoid weaknesses. Wounds may not be fatal, but suffocation usually is.

It is usually far more important to activate pieces than to grab pawns.

Originality and surprise moves are powerful weapons in practical chess. Inducing errors is an important part of the game.

If your opponent has sacrificed material to gain the initiative, look for ways to sacrifice material back to go on the offensive yourself, especially if there are weaknesses in your opponent's position waiting to be exploited.

It is often well worth sacrificing the exchange to disrupt the enemy's pawn structure and deny his king a safe haven.

An opponent's fianchettoed bishop can exert tremendous pressure along a long diagonal. It is usually advisable to exchange it, or if that's not possible, to at least restrict it by means of a suitable pawn chain.

Distrust any pawn move. Examine carefully its balance sheet.

Knowing which pieces you want to exchange is a great help in forming a plan and choosing the correct moves.

If your opponent has a strong or mobile pawn center, the best way to combat it is to attack it with pawns.

A piece permanently locked out of play is as good as lost.

An enemy pawn firmly embedded in one's position is like a fishbone caught in your throat. Nothing good can come of it.

Piece sacrifices and exchange sacrifices for positional compensation are common. You should always be on the lookout for them.

Exchange passive pieces for your opponent's active pieces, unless behind in material.

Avoid unnecessary exchanges when behind in material.

Select a plan and stay with it. Don’t switch without good reason.

Never play aimlessly and without a plan and a clear goal in mind.

Avoid placing your king or queen on the same files as opposing rooks, or on the same diagonals as opposing bishops, even with intervening pieces (because of discovered attacks).

Avoid a back-rank mate by providing your castled king a safe flight square.

Play difficult positions with determination, and seek counterplay.

Faced with the loss of material, lose the least amount possible (remember the "desperado").

Neutralize (restrict, oppose, or exchange) opponent's fianchettoed bishops, especially when aimed at your king.

Use threats to drive your opponent's pieces to less useful squares, then work to keep them there.

Look for opportunities on every move to limit the mobility & usefulness of your opponent's pieces.

Do not disrupt your king's pawn shelter by moving the pawns in front of your castled king without a clear, sound reason.

Pin your opponent's pieces, and maintain effective pins until the exchange is favorable.

Attack pinned pieces, especially with pawns.

Avoid being pinned; if pinned, break pins early.

Centralize and coordinate your pieces early in the middlegame. Pieces are effective only when they are active, and cooperate.

Move knights to outposts, and support them with pawns and pieces.

Seize and control open files and diagonals with pieces.

Double long-range pieces on important files and diagonals.

Double rooks on the 7th rank when possible.

Be certain that all advanced pieces have safe retreat squares.

Gain control of important squares – central squares and the squares around both kings.

Gain space with pawn advances, and seek improved development during exchanges.

Refrain from aimless moves, captures, or exchanges. Move pawns and pieces only to gain an advantage or avoid a disadvantage.

Avoid exchanging bishops for knights without compensation. Bishops are usually slightly stronger than knights, except in closed positions.

Visualize your chess goals in every position. Imagine your pieces and pawns safely in ideal position, then determine the moves necessary to reach that position.

Be prepared to exchange one advantage for another more favorable one (e.g., exchange a bishop for a knight to double an opponent's pawns in front of his castled king, or exchange material for a winning endgame).

If no tactics or attacking opportunities are available, try to improve your position – especially by mobilizing your inactive, or least active, pieces.

Pawn structure is the skeleton of a chess game; strategy is more clearly defined when the pawn structure is rigid, since options are more limited and pawn targets are fixed.

Attack pawn chains at their base, if possible.

Establish and maintain strong pawn formations. Avoid weak (isolated, doubled or backward) pawns.

Make exchanges that give your opponent weak pawns or reduce the mobility of his pieces.

An open or half-open file is the usual compensation for doubled pawns. Occupy and control such files with rooks and the queen.

Usually, capture with pawns toward the center.

Simplify by trading pieces when ahead, to make the win easier and more certain. Complicate the position when behind.

Place pawns on opposite-colored squares than your bishop so as to increase the bishop's mobility.

Protect weak pawns by maintaining them on opposite-colored squares than your opponent's bishop.

You cannot win a chess game by resigning. Resign only when the position is absolutely hopeless.

Try to gain a material or positional advantage early, and increase it. Improve your position with every move, and accumulate small advantages. They add up to a win.

Be aggressive! Attack opponents’ weaknesses! Play forcing moves (checks and captures, and threats to check and capture).

Play with a series of sound, flexible plans. Plan early and continuously. Base plans of strengths and weaknesses in the position, and modify as necessary or desirable (plans are made for a few moves only, not for the entire game).

Correct analysis is the foundation of strong chess. Accurate and complete analysis of each position – for both sides – enables a player to develop sound plans and effective moves. When analyzing a position, search for the central features – especially identify and examine weaknesses – and base your plans on these features. Look at king safety, material status, possible tactics, piece placement and mobility, pawn structure, control of significant squares, and time (tempi).

Disguise your plans – play least committal moves first, especially when preparing an attack.

Do not be myopic and become too involved in your own plans. Play both sides of the board. Analyze your opponent’s strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities as well as your own.

Have a sound and specific purpose every time you touch a piece. Try to improve your position with every move.

Every piece and pawn in a chess game should do useful work.

When you have two rooks opposing each other on an open file, with each defended by another rook, it’s usually best to let the opponent initiate the exchange. That way, after recapturing, you’ll be the one controlling the file with a rook.

When you find a good move, look for a better one!

The most consistently effective strategy is to win with minimum risk. Avoid risky variations and speculative lines of play, unless behind. Avoid going for the “flashy” or brilliant win. When ahead, play for the certain win, even if slower or less glamorous.

Play aggressively, but soundly. Avoid risky, trappy, and unsound moves, unless desperately behind.

When ahead in material or position, reduce your opponent’s chances for counterplay by minimizing his tactical opportunities.

Seek chess “bargains” by trying to gain more than you give up on every move.

Avoid playing moves that help your opponent.

Hinder your opponent and his plans at every possible opportunity.

In every position, first ANALYZE accurately, then PLAN soundly, and finally EXECUTE effectively (A-P-E).

Examine and respect the small tactical and positional details in each position. They often contain the keys to victory.

The sequence of moves is often important. In a series of exchanges, capture with the lowest value piece first, unless an alternative capture is clearly more advantageous.

Positional play, the control of important squares and lines, involves active piece placement and a sound pawn structure, as well as creating weaknesses in your opponent’s position.

Sound positional play provides the necessary foundation for effective tactics. Incorrect of inferior positional play is seldom redeemed by tactical salvation. Positional superiority precedes and supports effective tactics.

Do not sacrifice material without a clear reason and sufficient compensation (e.g., to open lines for attack, expose the enemy king, remove key defenders, simplify to a winning endgame, etc.).

Search for multipurpose moves, and recognize possible multipurposes of your opponent’s moves.

Tactics decide all chess games. Successful tactical play involves recognizing, creating, and attacking weaknesses to win material, achieve a positional advantage, or to force checkmate. ALWAYS be alert for tactical opportunities and threats for both yourself AND your opponent. One combination can be, and usually is, the difference between winning and losing a game.

Examine every possible check and capture – for BOTH sides – on every move.

Anticipate your opponent’s best replies to your moves. Ask yourself, “what move would I play against this move of mine?” Then other moves by your opponent should pose no problem. While not relying on an opponent’s errors, do take advantage of any mistakes that occur. Punish mistakes without mercy.

If your position is cramped, try to free your game by exchanging pieces. If your opponent is cramped, avoid exchanges and keep it that way.

Don’t go pawn grabbing.

If your king is still in the middle, don’t open the center. If your king is castled and your opponent’s isn’t, open the center.

Seize open lines. Reinforce and exploit them.

Grab a key open file first. With a rook on the file, occupy an anchor point (a safe square on the same file supported by at least one pawn). Be alert to rook lifts - shifting a rook to the other wing. If you can, double rooks. If you need, triple major pieces.

Neutralize enemy rooks. Oppose them. If this isn’t feasible, take another file, or open your own. Don’t exchange rooks if it surrenders the file.

Get a “pig” (a rook on the 7th rank. They’re called this because they eat, and eat, and eat). If defending against a rook on the 7th rank, don’t advance pawns that elongate the rook’s control of that rank (don’t lengthen the pig). If your rook is attacking the 7th, reinforce it by doubling rooks. Place two rooks on the 7th rank and open a sty!

Turn weaknesses into strengths. For example, if your castled king is exposed to attack along a half-open g-file, move the king to the corner and put a rook on the g-file. Make your opponent sweat and work for everything.

Accept all sacrifices you don’t understand. Don’t sacrifice without good reason.

Seize open lines and fight to control and maintain them.

Try to pin your opponent’s pieces and avoid allowing your own to be pinned. Don’t capture pinned pieces until you can benefit from doing so. If possible, try to attack them again, especially with pawns.

Build batteries by placing two or more pieces of like power attacking along a line.

Always play according to the reality of the position.

To gain space, you usually have to sacrifice time. To gain time, you usually have to sacrifice material.

Always be on the lookout for ways to trade your bad minor pieces for your opponent’s good ones.

Try to accumulate small advantages. They eventually add up.

When embarking on a series of moves, make the most non-committal moves first.

Time becomes of small consequence when one side controls all the space.

Don’t take weak pawns; instead take strong pawns - things that can bite if not eaten first.

When a pawn is offered to you, never take it simply for the sake of taking it. Only if the pawn will annoy you if not taken, or if the opponent gains no advantage by sacrificing it. In other words, sometimes take threatening pawns, but rarely non-threatening ones if the opponent will get significant compensation.

Contemporary masters often saddle themselves with weak pawns for the purpose of getting freedom for their pieces. A weak pawn often ties one’s pieces up, but not always.

The policy of parting with the two bishops, when the bishops have no scope is often the only way to wrest the initiative.

It is almost always unwise to yield any positional advantage for the sake of simplifying.

Rather than submit to a marked disadvantage, always give up material. The loss of a pawn, the exchange for a pawn, or queen for a rook, bishop and pawn – all these cause absurdly disproportionate alarm in the majority of players. So long as you have a little positional superiority in compensation, there is not the slightest need to become timorous or desperate.

Don’t support a threatened piece, move it.

An attacked piece cannot be relied on as a protector.

There’s a general principle that you should not leave a piece where it ties another piece to its defense.

If you are not prepared to calculate deeply, avoid loose pieces.

Threats are the stuff on which wins are built.

In games of opposite castling, the rule is to sacrifice anything rather than time.

Hanging pawns, although weak, are better than one isolated pawn, because as long as they are both abreast, neither of them can be blockaded. The thing is not to defend them with miserly pusillanimity, but to capitalize on the control of center squares, which they provide – try to attack.

In practical play, the question of how big or how small a theoretical advantage one side has is not important. If one side’s moves are easy and the other’s hard, that is important. To have an easy game means to have a clearly good aim or strategy and no difficult tactical problems to solve in achieving it.

In some positions a player’s skill consists in knowing a win MUST be there. He can leave the finding of the moves till the situations arise, saving much labor. The combinations will be there. You must have faith.

When a central passed pawn can be well blockaded, it is of no use to its owner at all.

You need not fear to create a weakness in your own position if it creates or preserves worse ones in the opponent’s position.

One may see all one’s opponent’s threats, but that is not enough. Your opponent may have no threat at all; but the move you contemplate making will alter the position, and you must always look to see if it gives the opponent an opportunity that was not there before. Statistics might show that players dig their own pitfalls almost as often as their opponents dig them for them.

The average player thinks an isolated pawn has to be won, but that is not till the endgame. It must rather be made an obstacle to the opponent’s forces.

To have one bad piece is not so terrible if all one’s other pieces are going to be good.

As a rule, the worst way of taking advantage of a weak pawn is to capture it, because then the opponent no longer has to worry about it.

The test of a plan is whether it improves or strengthens your position or, if that is not feasible, at least makes it no weaker. If a plan looks good, it may still be bad, but if it looks bad, it is almost certain to be bad.

If you have a very exposed king, a queen swap is well worth one pawn.

Always unpin. A safe rule in practically any position is Unpin! Remember though, every general rule has its exceptions. “Always unpin” is a good general rule, but it can sometimes lead to too many piece moves.

It is hard to do much against strong opponents unless you “sail close to the wind.” Always look for ways of ignoring threats.

Acquiescence to your opponent’s plans is no way to win at chess. Try to prove them faulty.

Do not break up your own position. Let your opponent expend some effort in breaking it up.

If you must leave your opponent a good move, leave him more than one. Not only will this consume time on his clock, but his choice may not be the best one.

In general, act on the wing where you have the initiative.

With only one open file, it rarely pays either side to avoid exchanging rooks.

A checking pin or fork is usually effective, but a pin or a fork in which neither victim is the king can often be broken. All that is required is that one of the victims should be able to make a move containing a threat strong enough to deter the capture of the other victim.

Follow Reti’s advice: When trying to win, destroy opponent’s strengths; when trying to equalize, go for his weaknesses. It doesn’t always work, but it's worth bearing in mind.

Overprotection of strong points is often good. Overprotection of weak points is rarely so.

Never play a good move, however obvious, until you have looked for a better one.

One of the most important considerations in selecting a square for a piece is that it should not obstruct one’s other pieces.

It is important in practical play to not give oneself chances of going wrong: 1) beware of unnecessarily accepting a pawn sacrifice; 2) beware of exposing your king; 3) beware of leaving your king no flight squares. This last is only unsafe sometimes, but look first!

Beware of placing a piece where it has no retreat.

To anticipate a move the opponent is bound to play is always good.

Nothing can be better than a move you know you would be forced to play next move anyway.

Try to maneuver your rooks so that neither one requires protection.

To get the best out of a bishop, avoid clogging his diagonals with pawns.

A weakness that can’t be exploited is of no consequence.

The middlegame is mainly a battle of the pieces and center pawns. A flank pawn is of slight consequence and is sometimes better off the board, since its absence creates a file for a rook.

Against a cramped opponent, do not hurry; delay your break till it comes with maximum force. Time is nothing; space and force are everything.

Don’t allow exchanges if your enemy’s position is cramped.

Post your pieces where they will be most effective if the enemy tries to free himself.

When the enemy threatens something, it may be best to let him do it, but play in such a way that the threat’s execution will create new opportunities for yourself.

The idea against a player burdened with a cramped game or a bad weakness is to base your plan on the assumption that he will try to free his game or eliminate the weakness. If you thereby deter him from doing it, so much the better.

If your opponent can force a freeing move in a cramped position, post your pieces so that you also will benefit from it.

One should not allow oneself to be cramped for the sake of avoiding a very small theoretical disadvantage. A small advantage in development will usually compensate for such slight troubles. Play a game of mobility and do not be scared by small theoretical weaknesses of whose actual significance you are not fully aware.

One should not always prevent freeing moves – prepare for them. Absolute prevention may be bad if the preventive move is not otherwise useful.

A powerful knight, centrally posted in the enemy camp, pawn-supported, and immune to being dislodged by an enemy pawn is often worth as much as a rook.

A knight blockading an enemy pawn is automatically well placed.

A knight should always be driven back from an attacking position if it can be done so safely.

Knights need well-supported advance outposts to be most effective. The way to combat knights is to deny them these outposts.

An enemy knight in one’s own camp should be driven away as soon as possible.

Better a slight gamble or risk than to accept the certainty of a lasting inferiority.

Tarrasch said, “ A knight on K6 and the game is won.” That is only true if the pawn supporting the knight can be maintained and the knight can’t be exchanged. This type of knight is often called a “Nail in the knee.” It is crippling.

Be careful about getting stuck with bad pawns. If the game is otherwise fairly equal, they may seal your doom in the endgame.

In general, open lines when you are in possession of the two bishops.

Against the two bishops, try to keep the position closed.

When your opponent has a bishop and you don’t, keep your pawns on squares of the same color as your opponent’s bishop.

Pawns must be kept on the opposite color squares as your bishop.

The main advantage of having the two bishops against a bishop and a knight consists of the fact that the possessor of the two bishops can limit his opponent’s mobility by appropriate pawn moves.

If your opponent has the two bishops, try to exchange one of them for one of your own knights.

Another advantage of having the two bishops is that in order for the opponent to attack, he must open lines – and that is usually good for the bishops.

When both players have both of their bishops, it is usually worth a tempo to prevent your opponent from exchanging one of yours for a knight.

In the middlegame, bishops of opposite color are not drawish, but very winnish for the freer bishop (usually the one with no center pawn in its way). Bishops on opposite colors are a big advantage to the side with the better bishop, as it cannot be exchanged off.

In the middlegame, bishops of opposite color tend to be very useful for attacking, since the opponent’s bishop cannot directly defend against its counterpart or.

It is better to take a sure advantage with some risk of a draw than to permit complications to get so out of hand that you also have a good chance of losing.

The maxim that it is unwise to answer a K-fianchetto with a Q-fianchetto only applies if the QB is unprotected. Otherwise it can pay off, as there is all the more chance of swapping off the opposing K-bishop and thus weakening the castled king.

There are few sights more horrible than a rook sitting on its original square when there is an open file for it.

Rooks must be aggressive, or they can’t pull their weight.

One of the first maxims of rook play is TAKE! Taking something frees the rook for other work.

If not allowed to be a marauder, a rook never fully functions.

One of the most reliable maxims in chess is never use a rook to defend a pawn. It is different when you put a rook behind a well-advanced pawn, for you do this rather to back up its advance than to defend it.

One of the hardest things in chess is to put both rooks in the best places first go. That’s where grandmasters shine.

Let the opponent be the first to speculate if possible. Stick to moves that can’t be bad, as long as they are available.

Exchanging two pieces for a rook and pawn is usually not a good idea in the middlegame, especially if the two pieces are your bishops. The two pieces are usually able to create a lot more threats in the middlegame than the rook and pawn could.

It is a breaking of principle to bring a rook into the middle of the board during the middlegame.

It is better to give up the exchange rather than use a rook to blockade a passed pawn. A rook is a bad blockader if it can be harassed by minor pieces.

Vacating an open file to avoid exchanges is almost always wrong.

Weak points or holes in the enemy position must be occupied by pieces, not pawns

Rooks work best with bishops, and queens work best with knights. These combinations of pieces compliment each other’s strengths instead of overlapping. This only holds for normal pawn formations. Against a king entirely without pawn shelter, the bishop may be the stronger partner for the queen.

Knights are generally poor defenders of each other.

The rule for playing lost positions is this: continuously present your opponent with difficult problems! This was a big part of the secret to Lasker’s success. Give your opponent every opportunity to go wrong, and he often will.

Remember that the advantage of queen for rook and minor piece is less than that for the exchange, and draws are quite often the result. For a win, the queen is usually required to be able to get at the king.

It is nearly always better to have superior fighting force against a queen, with a balancing minus in pawns, than equality in both. In the former case, the queen is usually reduced to creeping tentatively around the board instead of attacking – her only successful role.

It is useless to try to gain space on the flank unless the center is under control or blocked.

It is nearly always bad to have the front member of a doubled pawn unsupported.

The basic principle of positional play, right from the opening to the endgame, is to use inactive force.

It is a common fault to be too eager to take a second pawn when already one pawn up. The important point at this point is to secure a good position, or if you already have one, to maintain it. To sacrifice position for a little more material is to risk a lot for a little.

In general, it is more logical to open a line for a piece and then put that piece on the line, than to put the piece on the line first – as you may not be able to open the line after putting it there. The common exception is the mysterious rook move in blocked positions, where you know your opponent will open the file himself, or you wish to deter him from doing so.

It is good to complicate in a lost position, but if the position is merely unfavorable, it usually pays to play for restoring the balance.

In chess, the threat is stronger than the execution.

The value of a pawn center is much decreased by the complete opening of a file, for then the enemy can mobilize his rooks.

If you’re materially behind, complicate the position. Avoid simplifying moves and exchanges (if you’re ahead, simplify ruthlessly). Exchange only if you can force a known drawn position. If you are materially ahead, and if under attack, don’t be afraid to give back some of your material to break your opponent’s attack. If material is even and you are under attack, swap off a few pieces to lessen your opponent’s threats. If cramped, look to exchange to free your game. The fewer pieces you have, the less cramped you are.

With a closed center, you know which wing to play on by noting the direction your pawns point.

A weakness is not a weakness if it can't be exploited.

In a winning position, work to kill off all your opponent's counterplay before undertaking decisive action.

When you control the center, it is usually a good idea to maintain or increase the tension, rather than release it.

Advantages do not increase of their own accord. Purposeful play is required to increase an advantage.

Choose your minor pieces wisely. In open games, prefer bishops. In horribly closed positions, keep at least one knight. If you have a bishop, place your pawns on squares of the opposite color. Try to anchor your knights on strong central squares and create advance, supported outposts for them. With bishops of opposite color, the attacker has the advantage in the middlegame because the enemy bishop can’t neutralize the opposing bishop. Endgames with opposite colored bishops are often drawn. For attacking purposes, a queen and knight are often stronger than a queen and bishop, especially if the knight offers the queen more support points, and when the action takes place mainly on one side of the board.