The middlegame in chess is arguably the most intimidating part of the game for players. Maybe you learned one of the best openings with the white pieces, the Ruy Lopez for example which follows all the opening principles, and you just finished the sequence.
You and your opponent have developed all your pieces and castled. The position looks about equal. Not one exchange has occurred yet. All the troops are facing the center of the board and ready for battle. The opening is finished and the middlegame has begun. But now what?
What do you do? Should you look for a checkmate pattern right away? Should you attack the pawns? Where should you place your knights and bishops? Should you attack your opponents minor pieces or go for a queen trade first?
With all the pieces on the board ready to attack the other side, it seems that any move could be a blunder and ruin any advantage you may have had in the game. This guide is all about the middlegame in chess and covers a great deal of theory and strategy. Let’s get started with middle game theory.
Note: Before reading further, go over the middlegame principles so that learning the theory and strategy will be easier to grasp.
As we know, a game of chess has three parts – the opening, middlegame, and endgame. Over the years, there has been tremendous growth in chess opening knowledge. Numerous theoretical lines have been devised with the aid of advanced engines which has diminished the chance of novelty or creativity in openings to a large extent.
Almost everyone, ranging from beginners to grandmasters, have access to these thoroughly analyzed openings due to which this part of the game has become quite mechanical.
It is in the middlegame that players truly get a chance to demonstrate their understanding of chess! Due to the endless permutations and combinations of moves in the middlegame, it is very difficult to ‘theorize’ the middlegame like the way it has been done for openings.
Players can display their knowledge of tactics, strategy, positional understanding and various other aspects in this phase of the game. The dynamic nature of possibilities makes the middlegame super interesting for everyone.
“The middlegame I repeat is chess itself; chess with all its possibilities, its attacks, defenses, sacrifices, etc.” This quote by the late famous chess player Eugene Znosko-Borovsky aptly captures the beauty of the middlegame, isn’t it?
Now that you know the significance of the middlegame, are you wondering how to get better at it? Well, search no further. This article is a one-stop, ultimate guide which will familiarize you with certain essential concepts and principles of the middlegame.
Where To Position Each Piece In The Middlegame
A game of chess is perfectly carried out when all pieces do their respective parts correctly. Depending on the position, each piece serves a purpose on the board, and sometimes even by being off the board!
Following are some middlegame tips for each piece that will help you come up with creative plans in suitable situations.
Pawns In The Middle Game
Do not make committal moves
A pawn is the only piece that can’t move back to the square it came from. When you have so many possible moves to make with your minor and major pieces, you must precisely calculate whether a pawn move is truly necessary in the middlegame. Only then should you go for it.
Avoid pawn weaknesses
Pawns are the easiest and often the primary target for your opponent in the middlegame to gather a small material advantage. Hence, you must make sure that your pawns are in secure places. An unsupported pawn, an isolated pawn, a backward pawn or double pawns can often become targets for your opponent, so actively try to avoid their occurrence in your position.
In the position above, Black’s double pawns on the ‘c’ file are a clear weakness and if a few more pieces get exchanged then the endgame will be difficult for Black to handle.
Be mindful of your pawn structure
Think of your pawn formation like a fortress to a castle. The stronger your fortress is, the safer your castle will be, isn’t it? Similarly, your pawn structure too should be like a sturdy, unbreakable wall. You should try to avoid letting holes get created in your position and avoid pawn weaknesses at all costs.
As you can see, in the position above, White’s pawn structure is broken and thereby vulnerable. This makes them easy targets for Black’s rooks. On the other hand, Black’s pawn structure is pretty secure as there are only two pawn islands unlike White’s four.
Maintain tension whenever possible
It is not always necessary that you exchange pawns at the first chance you get. Sometimes, maintaining tension and not exchanging right away is a good decision. You can build up the pressure and try to make your opponent exchange at a time favorable to you. Therefore, check out other variations before you decide to trade pawns in the middlegame.
Remember, a pawn may be the smallest piece in value, but it can be a big deciding factor many times!
Bishops In The Middle Game
Place bishops on open diagonals
Bishops are a powerful weapon if used correctly. Due to its long range of attack, placing it on open diagonals increases its vision. This can be incredibly helpful especially when it is not possible to bring too many pieces close to the point of attack and long-range attacks are the only way to move ahead.
In the position above, White’s bishop on g3 is doing a great job at controlling crucial squares around the Black’s king. Due to the absence of Black’s dark-square bishop, White’s bishop on g3 has increased control over the dark squares.
Place the bishops outside your pawn chain
Nothing wastes a bishop’s potential more than when you place it behind your pawn chain. When you place your pawns on the same color square as your bishop, it is a wise idea to not trap your own bishop behind them.
This is a great example of why bishops should be outside the pawn chain. Black’s dark square bishop is clearly struggling to be useful behind the pawns. This reminds me of a joke my coach told me – “If your bishop is behind your pawn structure and does not have any squares to go to, it is nothing more than a big pawn”.
Power of the bishop pair
As two bishops can control all squares on a chess board, having such a pair is said to be a great tool! Their combined long-range visions can help you unleash a deadly attack on your opponent. So, if it is possible for you to retain a bishop pair, do it by all means.
The bishop pair is especially unstoppable in open positions where their long range is the most instrumental. In the position above, White’s bishop pair is super strong and is controlling all the important squares needed for White to create an attack on the queenside. The biggest advantage of having a functional bishop pair is that be it a light square or a dark square, you will always have control over it!
Opposite color bishop advantage
The color of squares that your bishop controls is essential in determining the course of your attack or defense. You must be mindful before undertaking exchanges that could result in an opposite color bishop position as you must calculate the relative importance of the squares controlled by your bishop and that by your opponent’s bishop.
Though it is true that having opposite colored bishops means that your control over whatever color bishop you have goes undisputed, the context of the position on board is equally important. For example, in the position above, though Black has unchallenged control over the dark squares, this control does not have efficacy. On the other hand, White’s light square bishop is extremely dangerous as the light squares’ weakness in Black’s camp enhances its effectiveness.
Knights In The Middle Game
Look for a good outpost for your knight
An outpost is a square which is protected by a pawn and when a piece, especially a knight, occupies such a square, it is very difficult for the opponent to displace that piece. As knights are very strong in short-range attacks, when placed on an outpost, they control many important squares in the opponent’s territory which limits the movement of pieces.
In this example, the strength of an outpost is clearly displayed. Not only is the knight on d6 completely immovable, but it also extends important control over certain crucial squares in the enemy territory, thereby restricting Black’s movement.
Knights are perhaps the masters of maneuvering as they can jump around the board and get to the square from where they can exert maximum control. In the middlegame, you must check whether your knights are placed on the best squares. If not, you should identify the squares from where they can be more useful. Then, you track back a path from that square to the present square of your knight.
In this example, White’s knight on f3, which isn’t really useful at that square, artfully jumps from d2 to c4 and then finally to d6 from where the double knights can have enhanced control over squares closer to the opponent’s king.
Rooks In The Middle Game
Control open or semi-open files
We know that rooks are at their strongest when they get free space to unleash their full power. Putting them on open or semi-open files in the middlegame will do just that! As they usually come out of their home squares pretty late in the game due to less availability of good squares in the beginning, imagine how strong their presence would be in the middlegame when given the right opportunity.
White’s rook move to d1 is a great way to get full control over the central ‘d’ file. Not only does it displace the Black queen, but it also helps White plan further attacks along the same file.
Develop the rooks on center files
When open or semi-open files are not available, it is generally a good practice to develop your rooks on the central ‘d’ and ‘e’ files. Though this suggestion can vary depending on what is presently going on on your board, as a common trend, we can see pawn breaks happening in the center during middlegame, which is why the rook can be a useful support when placed behind such a central pawn.
Queens In The Middle Game
Don’t develop the queen too quickly in the center
Unless you are sure you have prepared a foolproof attack, I would advise you not to develop your queen too soon in the game. This is because your opponent’s pieces might get a chance to develop with tempo by attacking your queen. Not only will this waste your own moves as you would have to continuously shift your queen’s position, but it will also give your opponent an advantage in development or piece placement on good squares.
Place your queen behind the rooks in a battery
A chess battery is said to be in place when your major pieces (rooks and queen) are occupying the same file which increases your attacking potential and control over that file by multifold. In this system, it is better to keep your queen behind your rooks for the simple reason that if pieces start to get exchanged, your rooks which are lesser in value than your queen will get traded first.
The position above is an apt example of a rook and queen battery. You can observe the importance of putting the queen behind the rooks, as if the queen was in front, after Bxc6 Rxc6, White would have to spend an additional move moving the queen aside. This could disrupt the momentum and effectiveness of the attack.
12 General Middlegame Tips
Now that we have acquainted ourselves with certain important piece-wise tips and suggestions, let’s move forward to learning some general rules and guidelines that will help you in the middlegame.
These rules might not all be applicable in every single game. However, their application, wherever required, can be really helpful in simplifying our thought process in the middlegame! So let’s check them out –
1. Place as many pieces as possible in the center or adjoining squares
Time and again, uncountable games have proven that pieces in the center control more squares and restrict your opponent’s movements. Hence, whenever possible, try to keep as many pieces close to the center.
2. If you have an advantage in a particular position, do not exchange pieces
When you have a positional advantage (NOT material), keeping more pieces on board is a great way to maintain pressure on your opponent. If you allow exchanges of pieces, you will have fewer resources to create problems for your opponent.
3. Focus on your opponent’s unsupported pieces for potential attacking chances
Most times, tactical opportunities arise because of pieces remaining unsupported or under supported. Hence, always be on the lookout for such chances and capitalize on them whenever possible.
4. Improve your pieces
It is possible that a square you thought was suitable for the early development of a piece is not as valuable anymore. Or, it is also possible that due to certain moves made by your opponent, your piece had to retreat to an unfavorable square.
Whatever the case may be, keep an eye out for every opportunity to improve your piece placement. The easiest way to do that is to first assess whether your piece is functional at the square it is presently on. If not, find a square from where it will serve its purpose optimally. Finally, find a route through which you can redirect it to the new square.
5. Exchange pieces when you are a piece or pawn up
When you are materially at an advantage, through the simple laws of mathematics, you can deduce that if all the remaining pieces were to be exchanged, you will always have an extra piece or pawn. Hence, start exchanging your pieces and go into the endgame where your opponent has little to no chance to defend against your extra material.
6. Checks and attacks are great tempos
Anyone who is familiar with the concept of tempo knows its value! It can help you reach a particular square faster and at the same time, stop your opponent’s plan for at least a move. Checks and attacks are the best tempo-gaining moves so always inspect whether such possibilities are available to you while formulating your plan.
7. Frequently use the brilliant art of prophylaxis
Nothing frustrates your opponent more than when you stop their plan. Prophylaxis is when you play moves specifically to prevent your opponent from playing a particular move. Whenever you feel that there isn’t a constructive move in sight for yourself, prophylaxis is the best way in which you can make your move useful!
8. Do not exchange pieces when you have more space
It is only natural that your opponent’s position will be cramped when you have more space. In such a scenario, exchanging pieces will benefit your opponent as it is comparatively easier to accommodate a lesser number of pieces in a small space. Hence, preserve your pieces and avoid exchanges unless absolutely necessary.
9. An attack should be the demand of the position, not your wish
Many players, especially those who love formulating attacks and engaging in tactical possibilities, try to find opportunities even in positions that do not support their wishes. This can be dangerous as their attacks can easily backfire. Therefore, it is important to be aware that as much as you may love playing attacking chess, the context of your present position plays an important role in it.
10. Try to exchange your bad pieces with your opponent’s good pieces
Probably the best thing you can do for yourself is to take your opponent’s best pieces off the board! And to do that while simultaneously taking out your own bad pieces is the icing on the cake! So if such a possibility arises – take it!
11. Be mindful of the nature of the position
The kind of position that you are playing can be a very helpful cue in deciding your plans or initiating exchanges.
For example, it is smart to retain your bishops in open positions whereas knights are preferred in closed positions. So, it is wise to first understand the nature of your position and make plans that are complementary to it.
12. Make sacrifices sparingly
Though sacrifices are dynamic and brilliant to look at, they often involve a lot of thorough calculations. As beginners, your calculative strength and combinational vision are not as developed as it usually requires to carry out sound sacrifices.
I will tell you what my coach told me. “Attempt sacrifices only under two conditions. One, if it is absolutely certain that doing so will get you a material advantage. And two, when there is no other good move left for you to play.”
Once you have worked on your calculations sufficiently and are confident in your visualization, then you can attempt as many sacrifices as you want.
I truly hope that this article will help you understand middlegames better. The guidelines and suggestions provided here will give you direction and enhance and fasten your thinking process in the game.
As your level in chess improves, the value of every move in a game increases multifold, especially in middlegames. Make sure that each and every move of yours has a purpose and is based on sound logic. Wasting your moves is absolutely not an option.
Playing tons of practice games and trying out these tips will give you additional confidence to carry them out in actual games. Alongside this, go through and study many chess books that will better your positional and tactical understanding.
Remember, middlegame is just one of the three parts of a game of chess. Sure, it is very important to be good at and improve your knowledge about the middlegame, but during this process, make sure you spend equal time studying openings and endgames as well! It is only when you work on all three aspects that your game will develop holistically.