How to Improve your Middlegame Play

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Today we have a guest post from James, a ChessGoals member and aspiring chess master. In this article James will cover middlegames and give you practical tips on how to improve your own middlegames.

Hi everyone!
Today I am exploring topic with you I have been studying the last few weeks – improving middlegame play. Most players today have strong opening preparation and an understanding of common endgames. It is still very common for club players to leave their opening preparation and be lost in the middlegame, however.

As you encounter stronger opposition on your chess journey, it becomes common to enter a middlegame on even footing. One side may enjoy minor advantages (i.e. more space or better piece activity) but there may not be an obvious path forward. Without accurate play any advantage will be lost and we risk becoming worse.

What I want to set out are some logical steps you can apply to improve your middlegame play. This will involve some work both during and after your game(s). The order I would recommend:

1. Tactics are King

While this article is mostly about strategic play, there is no getting past the importance of tactics. The best laid strategic plan will crumble following a simple tactical error. Both during and after your games, it is essential we look for missed tactical opportunities. Do this first by yourself first, without a computer. You will develop your tactical intuition, calculation and visualization.

If you still make simple tactical errors, your priority is to improve your tactical awareness until regular errors cease. We are not covering how to improve tactics in this article. I would be doing you a disservice if I did not stress the importance of being tactically sound before working on strategy. If your tactics are not sharp, the next two steps won’t matter at all. Work on your tactics!

2. Study Master Games

Your next step should be to review Master games in each of your openings. The main goal is to identify and improve your understanding of the common middlegame plans. ChessGoals recommends this in their Study Plans. A great recent example was the Caro-Kann Middlegame Course prepared by Matt and JD. This course went into detail on how to continue building your position after preparation from the Caro-Kann Opening Course ends.

Perhaps in the distant future, Matt and JD will prepare a middlegame course for every opening. But until then, you’re going to have to do your own research. I recommend finding one active player who plays your opening in a style which appeals to you. Older games will contain lots of useful general ideas. Theory has developed so quickly in the past two decades, however, that some of what you see may already be obsolete. By focussing on active players, you ensure the ideas you are exposed to are still current. Review the player’s available games and take notes of common ideas or motifs which arise.

Some things to look out for:
– how to finish development harmoniously (this is not a given in every opening);
– how pieces are routinely then further developed or exchanged;
– common tactics in the opening or variation to be aware of; and
– long term plans (such as pawn breaks).

I recently picked up the Caro-Kann Tartakower variation after seeing Matt’s YouTube videos (previously I played the Karpov variation). While learning the basics of the opening was relatively easy, my results really improved after studying:

– development plans for Black’s light square Bishop. While this Bishop usually goes to e6, sometimes it best on g4 or even f5. The difference may seem like personal preference, but knowing where to develop the piece can give you an initiative in the middlegame
– how to avoid a losing king and pawn endgame. It was thought the Tartakower variation gave Black nice piece play in the middlegame, but a losing endgame due to the doubled f-pawns. While this is true in theory, recent results clearly show this can be avoided by simply keeping on a piece or Rooks for each side
– the Bishop sacrifice on h3. This motif came up for me a few times when I picked up the variation. Sometimes I missed it when it was working, sometimes I went for it when it was not there. Like the Greek Gift motif, understanding when this tactic does and does not work (as opposed to having to calculate it entirely over the board) makes big difference to your results (especially in shorter time controls). This includes knowing how to continue the attack if White defends well. Luckily, JD did a video on the topic which can be viewed here.

To give another example, my defences often transpose to something resembling the Hedgehog. When playing these structures, you need to be familiar with the d5 and b5 pawn breaks, including when they work as sacrifices. You cannot continue in the middlegame without this knowledge.

Once you have reviewed some Master games in each of your openings, you will have a much better understanding of how play should continue.

3. Your own games will provide all the answers you will need

The first two steps are simply preparing you for what is most important for long term improvement – studying your own games. Take some time to review after every serious game. This is an opportunity to see if any tactics were missed (step 1) and consider whether our play in the middlegame was appropriate (step 2).

Still, sometimes during our games we end up in positions where we simply could not identify how to continue. This is an opportunity to take some time and think on the position and strive to find the best continuation. I would:
– spend time by yourself thinking on the position. Try and identify all the possibilities and be concrete about how play may continue down each line
– discuss your conclusions with your peers and get their input. If you do not have friends or members of a chess club you can do this with, ChessGoals has a Discord you can use
– turn on the computer to confirm or challenge your conclusions. It is important to practice without a computer first. You are trying to improve your creativity, calculation and visualization. Turning on the computer robs you of this improvement.

I’ll give a recent example from one of my games against a 2043 rated player in Lichess. Here, I have the Black pieces in a Nimzo-Indian Defense and have just played the move 18… f5:

black played 18...f5 in a Nimzo Indian middlegame

At the time, f5 felt strong because it came with tempo, improved my control of the e4-square and lent itself to possible tactics on f3. However, after 19. Bd3, White can plan to improve his position with e4, following some preparation (not immediately though: 19 Bd3 Na5 20 e4?? Rxd3 21 Rxd3 fxe4 0-1) and if this occurs, Black will have ruined his central pawn structure for no gain. Please note the line played (18… f5) may not be considered an error by a computer, but it was inaccurate.

Thinking on the position and discussing it with my coach, we identified the simple plan of 18… Rxd1+ 19 Rxd1 Rd8 20 Rxd8 Qxd8 as an improvement for Black. The exchange of all Rooks and inevitable further exchange of some minor pieces would leave White in a passive middlegame with no active plan, whereas Black will simply try to round up the c4-pawn. While I was already familiar with this plan (it’s a common theme in the Nimzo-Indian), sometimes we need a reminder. Taking the time to review the game in this manner means I am better prepared for future games in this variation.

I hope this article helps you to find improvements in your own middlegame play. If you would like me to go into more detail on anything covered in this article, or if you have queries about other ideas related to the middlegame, please let us know in the comment section below.

Best,
James

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dennis Mays

    Thank you James for your interesting article. Your suggestions about finding a role model player who plays your opening is very good advice. Also, analyzing ones own games is key but using the computer can be so tempting sometimes. It takes a lot to resist the temptation to click on the engine button for instant gratification. Do you have any tips on avoiding this?

  2. James (Author)

    Hi Dennis, thank you for your kind feedback. I agree it’s very to turn on the computer to get the answer immediately but this will often impede your development because you won’t be spending time analysing the positions deeply yourself. We want to avoid the analysis because it’s difficult (and the computer is easy) but the great news is going through the analysis gets easier with practice. Some practical tips:
    – don’t analyse every single move, just those where you were really stumped as to how to proceed
    – give yourself a time limit. I find giving myself 10-20 minutes best, I can’t realistically take longer in a classical game. By limiting the time you get used to time management too AND it won’t take all day, then you can turn on the computer
    – make it social. I discuss positions with my friends and coach to get their ideas, we all bring something different and often they will have ideas I’d never think of. This can also make the experience more fun. You can post positions in the Chess Goals discoed for discussion too.
    Thanks again,
    James

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