Chess middlegames are the make or break point of the game.
This is the part of the game you use to recover from a misplayed opening or set up a favorable endgame.
With all the available resources today, reaching a level middlegame position from the opening is relatively straightforward.
Between Stockfish and the vast amount of information available on chess blogs, you can quickly put together a simple opening repertoire.
A far more challenging prospect is navigating the chaos and madness that arises in chess middlegames. This is where you must back up your opening strategy with sound technique.
Chess middlegames lay the foundation for the endgame. Unfortunately, obtaining an advantage in the opening is easily lost in the middlegame due to poor technique.
Because chess middlegames are such a pivotal part of the game, many strategies and guidelines exist. The more you know, the easier it is to reign supreme against your opponent.
Learn about the essential elements of attack – pawn breaks, diagonals, and open files – from GM Ivan Sokolov in this instructive video, taken from his Master Method course which contains a wealth of knowledge about dynamic chess secrets.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Table of contents
Attacking in Chess Middlegames
When it comes to attacking in chess middlegames, one of the biggest challenges is to overthink it. But, unfortunately, there are many things in chess and life we overcomplicate.
Attacks in chess middlegames will only succeed if your attacking force outnumbers the defenders.
This is obvious, but when did you last count the number of defenders around your opponent’s king before you played the Bxh7 sacrifice? When did you last draw an imaginary box around the castled black king from h8-h4-e4-e8?
Taking it back a step, how many times in a game do you divide the board in half and look for moves in your opponent’s half of the board?
Yes, you can deliver checkmate using the queen and rook swinger with both pieces in your own half. This is almost always only possible after removing the pawns in front of the king with sacrifices.
The most common sacrifice leading to this checkmate is the bishop sacrifice on h7 – the Greek gift – or h6. These sacrifices work well after Black has kindly moved his knight away from the f6 square.
Preparing the Way for Your Pieces
There are times in a game when you do not have a way of moving a piece into your opponent’s half of the board. Looking for moves on your opponent’s side first will help you bring the right piece to join in the attack.
For example, if black plays …h6 and …g5, you can look to bring a knight to the f5-square. However, unless you are in the habit of first looking to play in your opponent’s half, it is easy to miss this opportunity.
When playing a move in your half, try to make it one that gets your piece moving forward.
Remind yourself, “Forward moves first!”
Even if you find yourself under attack, you can look for forward moves first. One of the best ways to defend is using a counter-attack.
There is no need to defend a threatened piece if you can deliver checkmate! By reminding yourself, “Forward moves first!” you can resist the instinctive reaction to retreat from the attack.
Can you meet a threat with an even more significant threat?
If your knight is under attack, can you threaten his queen?
Sacrifices can take place far away from the action. For example, after…b4 attacking your c3-knight, you might play f4 and sacrifice the knight to bring your rook into the attack with Rf3-h3.
When playing through the following game make note of the number of defenders around the black king in comparison to the number of attacking pieces. Also, enjoy the number of forward moves white plays including a sacrifice on d5!
Rooks in Chess Middlegames
Rooks do well in open and semi-open files in chess middlegames. However, that is often not the complete picture.
Sometimes you will need to choose between open files or even if it’s worthwhile to occupy the only open file.
Before you rush to occupy the open file, you must look for targets to attack and entry points.
An excellent way to determine if occupying a file is a good idea is to ask yourself what you will do if you gain control? Or why do I want to control this open file?
Unless the end result of your strategy gives you an advantage, you could end up losing valuable time. The end result doesn’t need to be a material advantage or delivering checkmate.
Occupying a file could prevent a king from escaping to the opposite flank. Restricting the mobility of your opponent’s pieces in chess middlegames is sure to give you an advantage.
When doubling rooks in an open file, squares controlled by pawns make excellent entry points. This gives you a powerful passed pawn if your opponent ever captures the rook.
A good way of defending against a rook entering your position is to use the bishop pair to cover the sixth, seventh, and bank ranks. For example, bishops on d6 and d7 control a lot of entrance points in the c-file.
However, a bishop can sometimes help you occupy a file by controlling the entrance square on the bank rank.
A white bishop on a6 controls the c8-square and prevents black from placing a rook in the c-file. Making a note of the possible squares, your opponent will want to use for his rooks can help you avoid making bad exchanges.
Rooks Do Well Controlling Ranks, Too
Because it is close to the king occupying the seventh rank often creates mating threats. Therefore, always look for the opportunity to exchange the critical defender or sacrifice material for opening the rank.
Although a queen can create mating threats supported only by a pawn, rooks need more help than a pawn provides.
A rook on the seventh rank supported by a queen or minor piece is very powerful!
When combining the queen and rook, a good strategy is to place the rook on the seventh rank and make use of the queen’s excellent range. Unlike a rook, the queen can attack from long range on the diagonal too!
Although most chess players have heard how powerful rooks on the seventh rank can be, the third rank is often helpful for defense and attack too!
Rooks are long-range pieces, and one developed to the a3-square can be a good defender of pieces on the opposite flank like the knight on f3! If the knight ever advances from f3, the rook can swing across to g3 or h3 to attack the black king.
Piece Exchanges in Chess Middlegames
In every chess game, you will need to decide to exchange or not to exchange. That’s why it is essential to have guidelines in place before you enter a chess middlegame.
Even before you get to the chess middlegame, you must know your middlegame strategy.
When playing with an isolated queen’s pawn, you want to avoid exchanges in the opening and middlegame.
In an isolated queen’s pawn position and in many variations of the French Defense, one of White’s most valuable pieces is the light-squared bishop. This bishop is often a powerful attacking piece on the b1-h7 diagonal.
Here are six things to consider when it comes to exchanging:
- When you have a material advantage, simplifying to the endgame is almost always a good strategy.
- Exchanges can help you take advantage of a positional advantage like weak pawns or squares in your opponent’s position.
- Eliminating a key defender or your opponent’s active piece is an excellent reason to exchange pieces. Don’t allow enemy pieces to linger on your side of the board.
- When your opponent has a bad bishop, you can quickly increase your advantage by exchanging his other pieces, leaving yourself with the better piece.
- Exchanging minor pieces is very helpful to prevent your opponent from blockading your passed pawn.
- If you have a space advantage, avoid exchanges as they will free up your opponent’s position.
Experience Helps You Learn the Dynamic Value of Pieces
The more experience you gain in chess middlegames, the better you will assess the dynamic value of the pieces on the board. Knowing that a queen and knight work well together when attacking the king can give you the confidence to play an exchange sacrifice.
When you can block the open file or control entrance points in a closed position, a knight can be stronger than a rook.
This is another chess middlegame position where you might play an exchange sacrifice and give up your rook for your opponent’s knight.
Even though you have a good grasp of the dynamic value of pieces there are still sacrifices that are based more on intuition than calculation. In the next game, Magnus has just played 15.d5!? which is a second pawn sacrifice.
Black can go ahead by two pawns as early as move 15!
There is no concrete compensation for the pawn sacrifices but examining the sidelines shows Magnus’ faith in the potential of his pieces wasn’t misplaced. Aronian could have held on for a draw but it must have been incredibly difficult to meet such a move over the board.
There is no clear advantage for white and it’s early in the game. Who wouldn’t be worried Magnus had something prepared before the game?
Final Thoughts on Chess Middlegames
Many players invest most of their training in learning openings. Of course, openings are essential, but they must be seen for what they are – a means to reach a solid position in chess middlegames.
Another vital role chess middlegames play is setting you up for the endgame.
Reaching the chess middlegame with an equal position or slight advantage is often easier than sealing the win in the endgame. However, it is good chess middlegame skills that allow you to reach an endgame you can win.
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