How do you get better at playing middlegames? There is no simple answer; it has to be a complex study. To improve your middlegame play, you should work on your tactics, calculation, positional understanding, planning, and many other things. If there are any shortcuts, it is probably to study typical pawn structures.
Plans and ideas usually depend on the pawns’ arrangement, so if you are familiar with the pawn structure on the board, you probably can easily figure out what to do. But why is this a shortcut? Many openings feature the same pawn structures. Study the most common pawn structures and you will be able to play middlegames arising from many different openings.
At the same time, not everything relies on pawn structures. You can also approach studying middlegame positions regarding the material and piece placement. For example, a good player knows in what positions bishops are stronger than knights, and vice versa. Such knowledge gives you an idea if you should aim for opening or closing the position. It is also universal; these ideas work in any opening and don’t depend on the pawn structure.
You can grasp such knowledge from master games. You can spot a lot of interesting ideas and plans and later use them to outsmart your opponents. It is especially good if the games are explained by someone strong or even the players themselves. Luckily, many world champions have written books and shared their thought process with all chess lovers.
The downside of such a study is the lack of structure. It is easy to miss important things just because you haven’t seen any games featuring them. That is why in this article, we will discuss 10 things about middlegames that every aspiring chess player should learn.
1. Middlegames with an isolated pawn
Positions with an isolated pawn can arise from so many different openings that it makes sense to study them separately. If you learn how to play such positions for both sides, you will be confident in the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, the Nimzo-Indian Defense, the Panov-Botvinnik Attack of the Caro-Kann, the Alapin Sicilian, and many other openings.
An isolated pawn usually appears when both sides use their c-pawns to attack the center. The most common example is the Tarrasch Defense. After 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5,
White will eventually take on d5 and c5, creating an isolated pawn for Black on d5. Interesting is that White can choose to have an isolated pawn too and play 4.e3.
Many players avoid having an isolated pawn, thinking that it is always a weakness. Such a belief limits their arsenal; in many situations, the side with an isolated pawn can develop dangerous activity and seize the initiative.
2. Carlsbad pawn structure
The Carlsbad pawn structure is one of the most common ones in chess. It can arise from the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the Caro-Kann, the Queen’s Pawn Openings, and even from the Grunfeld Defense. If you study the plans and ideas in this pawn structure, you will be confident playing it via any opening too.
3. Middlegames with opposite-side castling
Castling on the opposite side in chess is like declaring a war. That usually serves as a signal for pawn storming and fierce attacks. It is important to study such positions. This will sharpen your feel for dynamics and teach you how to attack. It would help if you also learned how to estimate whose attack is supposed to be faster. This will give you an idea of which side it is better to castle in different situations. Opposite side castling is a common scenario in many variations of the Sicilian Defense but can also occur in the French, the Caro-Kann, the Petroff, the King’s Indian, and even the Queen’s Gambit Declined.
4. Closed pawn structures
The game in closed positions is usually slow-going. Both sides maneuver, improve their positions and thoroughly prepare some breaks. With pawn chains blocking most of the board, there is almost no interaction with enemy pieces and hence, no tactics. Many players find it hard to play with no open conflict; sometimes, it even feels like a different game from the chess they know. To become a good player, you must learn how to play closed positions.
This position occurred after 17 moves in the game between Boris Gelfand and Wang Yue (Medias, 2010). Next, there were almost 30 maneuvering and regrouping moves, until, in the following position, White finally caused a change:
44.Rxh7! Nxh7 45.Nxg6! Thanks to this short tactical operation, White made a breach in Black’s fortress and eventually won the game. Although, it took them another 37 moves to do so.
5. Middlegames when knights are strong
One of the best things you can do in the middlegame is to improve the positions of your pieces. For that, it is important to have a good understanding of the qualities of the pieces. The knights tend to be unpredictable and spontaneous, but it is relatively easy to figure out the best place for them: look for outposts and blockading squares. If there is none, think of creating them.
Knights show their best in closed positions, whereas the bishops usually feel stuck in them. Knowing this contrariety of knights and bishops, you should try to steer the game to the scenario favorable for your piece. In other words, if you have a knight against a bishop, aim for closing the position.
6. Bishops in an open position
Contrary to knights, bishops enjoy open roads. To make the best out of your bishops, you should aim for opening up the game. Below, you can see a position from the World Championship match between Boris Spassky and Robert Fischer.
The American had a great feel for the bishops, so it is no surprise he found the best way to continue. After 20.e4! White threatened to open everything up and increase the scope of their bishop. Black decided to block the position with 20…d4, but then White’s bishop enjoyed the c4-square and supported the march of the central pawns.
7. Middlegames: Defensive play
Most of the players love to be on the attacking side. It is also usually more interesting to go over fascinating games of Tal than watch Petrosian’s sophisticated but a little bit passive maneuvers. Nevertheless, it is important to be a universal player. Good defensive skills can save you a lot of points in tournament games. It is also quite nice not to lose any games: it keeps your mood and rating up.
Many players prefer to play counterattacking chess: it is their style. At the same time, it is a way of playing everyone should have in their arsenal. Most of the time active defense is more effective than a passive strategy. Counterattacking skills can help you deal with unprepared attacks and seek your chances in bad positions.
9. Middlegames: Trading pieces
Another important aspect of chess that doesn’t sound entertaining is trading pieces. It can be an excellent defensive tool for reducing your opponent’s attacking potential. At the same time, it can be greatly used for attacking purposes too.
This is what White often does in the Sicilian Dragon:
Black’s king is surrounded by many defenders, so White plans to get rid of them. The dark-squared bishops will be traded down via h6; the knight can be kicked away from f6 after g4-g5 or exchanged after Nc3-d5.
10. Playing against weaknesses
When you don’t know what to do in the middlegame, try to understand what the main strength of your position is and use that. Alternatively, you can play against the main weakness in your opponent’s camp. The positions can be different, but this simple idea will help you navigate. Of course, you should be able to identify strengths and weaknesses and also have an idea of how to exploit each. Sometimes it is better to slowly regroup your pieces against an enemy backward pawn, whereas in other cases, you should try to act it as quickly as possible. Chess is a hard game, but that makes it interesting to play.