Finding Moves in the Middlegame

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Today we have a guest post from ChessGoals member James, who is continuing his deep dive into middlegames. Today he discusses how to find different moves to improve your position.

Hi again! I’m continuing from the last article which dealt with how to improve your middlegame play. This time we will go a little deeper and explore common ways to find a good move in the middlegame. These ideas should assist you after the opening in equal positions.

Improve your worst piece(s)

Every piece to contributes to our position. If a piece is away from the action it will be as though we are a piece down – not a good place to be!

The first thing I look for when there is no obvious plan is to improve my worst piece. Often, this will be my rooks (bringing them to the centre, or to open/semi-open files) or my knights (advancing them up the board from where they first developed). Improving the activity of your pieces is another great way to improve your position.

It is important to be concrete when making these moves. Making our pieces better is always an improvement, theoretically. But real moves do not occur in hypotheticals – our opponent moves too. Our moves take time. Before you go for a slow maneuver, calculate to ensure your opponent cannot exploit the time you are providing them.

Consider the position below. White’s queen and knight are excellent, but the dark square bishop is not contributing on d2. White to move – what would you play and why?

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The game continued: 1.b5! Qg7? 2 Qxg7+ Kxg7 3 bxc6 and White went on to win easily. But what if black takes the pawn?

1. b5 axb5 2 Ne6 (threatening Qf6+) h5 3 Qf6+ Kh7 4 Ng5+ Kh6 5 Bb4 h4 6 Bf8+ Kh5 7 Ne6 and White is winning by force. This shows piece improvement can even be worth material sacrifice.

Accumulate small advantages

As you face stronger opposition games will rarely be decided blunders. Typically a player wins because they accumulate small advantages they convert into a winning position. 

Some common examples include:

  • the bishop pair
  • good knight versus bad bishop
  • better pawn structure (fewer pawn islands, no doubled, isolated or backwards pawns)
  • more space
  • control of open files or outposts, weak squares or colour complexes which can be exploited.

You will no doubt have heard Matt discuss the ‘principle of two weaknesses’ in his YouTube videos. This principle posits that one weakness in the enemy position is probably not enough to win. But two weaknesses in the enemy position is almost always winning. Accumulating small advantages works in a similar vein – a single advantage will rarely be enough to win a game. Accumulating several advantages can be decisive.

If you are unfamiliar with any of these small advantages, it would be worthwhile reading up on them in a strategy book.

This position comes from Polugaevsky v Petrosian (1983). Black to move. What would you play and why?

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The game continued: 1… Rxe3 2 fxe3 Nc5. Petrosian went on to win.

Following the exchange sacrifice, black’s control of the dark squares will be forever unopposed. White’s light square bishop and rook on b4 are misplaced, adding very little to the position. Black’s knight on c5 is very strong, controlling many central squares and defending the b7 pawn. Black will apply pressure to the e3 pawn with Re8 and Bh6.

Prophylaxis

We may not have an obvious proactive plan, but our opponent might. Prophylaxis is a move or series of moves to prevent an opponent’s idea. This could be making a pawn move to control a square (for example, playing h3 to deny a piece coming to g4), using tactics to prevent an enemy move or overprotecting material so our pieces can move freely.

If you cannot improve your own pieces, reducing the scope or impact of opposing pieces. This still improves your overall position. By reducing your opponents plans, they may need to make concessions and create weaknesses.

This position comes from Stohl v Keitlinghaus (1982). White to play. What do you play and why?

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White enjoys an overwhelming advantage but there is no concrete knockout blow (at least not that I can find). There are very few active moves for Black. He might be able to play Bc6 and trade light square Bishops. This trade alleviates pressure on his position and gives play on the light squares.

The game continued: 21. Qh1! With no active plan in the position, Black was helpful against White pushing g4 and g5, exposing the Black King.

If you want to further explore these ideas, I recommend reviewing the games from Petrosian, Kramnik and especially Karpov.

Best,

James