Lesson 6 – What you should do in the middle-game

Once the opening is complete, you reach the middle-game. Most of the fighting action takes place in the middle-game and during this stage you may feel overwhelmed and unsure about what to do on your next move. However, this lesson will make it all clear to you–you will discover where to focus your attention and how to find useful moves in the middle-game.

Below the video is a transcript (with diagrams).


What you should do in the middle-game

Note: This lesson on middle-game strategies is intended as supplementary material to the thinking methods presented in the 10-Day Chess Challenge.

You know that during the opening stage of the game you should focus your attention on the centre, develop your pieces as quickly as possible and get your king safe. But once you’ve completed those tasks, you reach the next stage of the game, the middle-game.

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And it is at this point that many chess players find themselves thinking:

Ok, my opening is complete, NOW WHAT?

There is a lot of information available (in books, videos and courses all over the internet) on how to play the middle-game in chess. Many of these sound great, in theory, but is often very difficult or practically impossible to apply in your own games.

And contrary to what you’ve possible been made to believe, the middle-game is not so much about planning for the long-term. In fact, most of the time you should simply be looking for ways to accumulate small advantages.

That’s why in this lesson I’ll discuss 6 middle-game strategies that you will actually be able to apply in your games right away!

I’ll split them in two parts so it’s easy to remember:

  • 3 things you should do and
  • 3 things you shouldn’t do.

We will start by looking at 3 practical things you should do in the middle-game.

3 things you should do in the middle-game

Note: Don’t be deceived by how simple they appear to be – they are powerful middle-game strategies!

  1. Make as many threats as possible
  2. If you can’t make a threat, then see which of your pieces should be further developed
  3. Chase or exchange your opponent’s pieces if they get too close

1. Make as many threats as possible

Usually most of the fighting action happens during the middle-game. and you should try make as many threats as possible. In chess we say you should put pressure on your opponent. It’s usually a very good idea to make a threat because when you put pressure on your opponent, you increase the chances that they could make a mistake which could allow you to win material or to make an exchange that is in your favour.

When you make a threat, your opponent is usually forced to deal with that threat and that also means they don’t get the opportunity to make their own plans because they must first find a way to stop your threats.

If you can make a threat it is often a good idea, but of course, you must first check that your opponent doesn’t have any threats against you, otherwise if they do, you must first deal with their threat. Let me show you an example of what it means to make threats:

White’s bishop on d2 is partially developed but it does not serve a particularly useful role at the moment.

In this position you’ll notice that even though white’s bishop on d2 is partly developed – it isn’t doing much otherwise, and you could move it to f4 and attack black’s queen.

Bf4 threatens to capture black’s queen.

This moves your bishop to a better position and at the same time you are making a threat. Black should move his queen.

Qb6 moves the queen to a safe square.

But now white can make another threat and at the same time develop this rook by bringing it to the open b-file.

Black is practically forced to move the queen again.

And now, once again, white can make a threat with another of his pieces – he plays Ne5 – threatening to capture the pawn on f7 and also, threatening to capture the bishop.

Ne5 threatens Nxf7 and also Nxg4.

Due to all the pressure, black could be nervous by now – which could possibly cause him to make a mistake. But if black stayed calm and thought about the move, he would find that he can move the bishop back to e6 and defend the pawn at the same time.

Be6 moves the bishop to safety and at the same time defends the pawn on f7.

But even so, you can see how white made small improvements in their position by making threats – whereas black never got a chance to do anything since he had to deal with all the threats against him.

That is why it’s such a good idea to make threats, but, and this brings me to the second thing you should do in the middle-game, if you can’t make a threat, then see which of your pieces should be further developed.

You can also read the lesson on the power of threats and how they help you find dominating moves. It will give you an even deeper understanding of just how powerful this simple strategy is.

2. If you can’t make a threat, then see which of your pieces should be further developed

At this stage it is important that you understand the difference between a passive piece and an active piece. When one of your pieces isn’t well developed, as is the case with the rook on f1, then we say that the piece is passive:

The rook on f1 is a passive piece (in this case also your least active piece) because it does not perform a particularly useful role.

Passive means that the piece isn’t doing much, and you should try to improve the role of that piece. You can make this rook more active by moving it e1:

Rfe1 improves the position of the rook by giving it something useful to do.

Now at least the rook helps to defend the knight and he is also attacking these important squares in the centre. So, if you can’t make any good threats, then try to make your passive pieces more active. You will also notice that when your pieces are more active then there will often be more opportunities to make threats too.

3. Chase or exchange your opponent’s pieces if they get too close

The third thing you should do in the middle-game, is to chase away your opponent’s pieces if they get too close. The reason for this is that when an enemy piece comes into your territory, then usually that piece becomes very active and that is why it would be a good idea if you can neutralize it, either by chasing it away, or by exchanging it.

Here’s an example:

Black just played Ne5 and is now threatening to place his knight on d3, where it will become very useful.

I’m sure you can see that if the knight gets to d3 he would be very active. He will be threatening the pawn on b2. Your rook won’t be able to come to the e-file anymore because the knight will attack the e1-square… so all in all it would be a problem for white if the knight lands on d3 and that is why white decides to exchange his bishop for the knight.

Bxe5. White realizes he should exchange the knight before it becomes too active.

If white doesn’t do this right now, for example if he plays Rfd1, then black will put the knight on d3 and it would become a very active piece:

Nd3. White should not allow black to get the knight to d3.

How are you going to get rid of the knight? You can’t chase it because these pawns can’t move backwards, and also, you can’t exchange your bishop for the knight anymore because the knight is now on a light square, and the bishop can only go on the dark squares.

Also, you don’t really want to exchange your rook for the knight, because that would be a bad exchange. However, if you eventually need to get rid of this knight, then maybe the only way to do so will be to give your rook for the knight.

That is why white should exchange their bishop for the knight before black moves their knight to d3.

Here’s another example:

Re2. The black rook on e2 becomes very active. White should try to exchange or chase it away.

From e2, black’s rook is threatening to capture your pawn on c2 (black’s queen will protect him). When your opponent’s piece becomes this active then you should chase that piece away or exchange it. White can make a very good move here:

Nd4. White plays the knight to d4, attacking the rook, and at the same time he defends the pawn on c2.

The black rook must go back to a safe square, probably to e5 or e7.

To summarize, the three things you should do in the middle-game, is to, first of all, 1) make threats when you can, 2) develop your less active pieces to more active squares and 3) chase your opponent’s pieces or exchange them if they become too active.

Now, in the second part of this lesson, I’ll show you three things that you shouldn’t do in the middle-game.

3 things that you shouldn’t do in the middle-game

Note: I’ll repeat – don’t be deceived by how simple these strategies appear to be. If you apply them to your games you will discover how they can help you find good moves in the middle-game.

  1. Don’t exchange your most active pieces for your opponent’s passive pieces
  2. Don’t move your pawns unless you have a good reason to do so
  3. Don’t waste moves by making “waiting moves”

The first thing you shouldn’t do, is don’t exchange your most active pieces for your opponent’s passive pieces.

Here’s an example:

White shouldn’t exchange his active knight for black’s passive bishop.

White’s knight is very active, and he is well placed in the middle of the board. Black’s bishop, on the other hand, is not very well developed and it is quite passive because his own pawns blocks his way. That is why, even if this would be an equal exchange, white shouldn’t do it, because at this stage the knight is active and useful, whereas the bishop isn’t.

Of course you must consider whether the black bishop could suddenly become very active and in that case you may want to make the exchange. However, for as long as you can keep the black bishop passive, you shouldn’t exchange it for your active piece.

In summary: Don’t exchange your active pieces for your opponent’s passive pieces, unless you’re winning points, in that case you should probably do it.

2. Don’t move your pawns unless you have a good reason to do so

In this position I’ll show you the second thing you shouldn’t do in the middle-game and that is you shouldn’t move your pawns – unless you have a good reason to do so:

Playing the pawn to c3 would turn your d3-square into a weakness. Black will play Nd3, taking advantage of the weak square.

In particular, avoid moving the pawns in front of your king because it would expose him and make your king vulnerable. This doesn’t mean you never move the pawns. Sometimes it is acceptable to move this pawn on the side, if it serves a clear purpose:

h3 would serve a useful purpose because you are chasing your opponent’s active piece without weakening the squares on your king-side too much.

Now let’s shift our attention to the queen-side to explain something. I want to illustrate that your pawns prevent enemy pieces getting too close to your territory.

From c2, your pawn serves a very useful purpose: defending the d3-square.

If you then move this pawn, c2-c3, then black can place their knight on d3 and you won’t be able to chase it away with your pawn anymore, because your pawn can’t move backwards. So, the lesson here is, unless you have a very good reason to do so, don’t move your pawns because it usually weakens your position if you move a pawn without a purpose.

There is a good reason to move this pawn though:

The move d3 will help defend the pawn on e4. It will also open the diagonal for the bishop on c1 and won’t weaken your structure.

It’s ok to move your pawns if you have a very good reason to do so. But should be extra careful because they can never move backward again.

As supplementary reading you can also the article on the importance of pawns in chess.

3. Don’t waste moves by making “waiting moves”

The third thing you shouldn’t do in the middle-game is that you shouldn’t waste moves. What do I mean when I say – don’t waste moves? Well, when you aren’t sure what to move, you may be tempted to just move anything and see what your opponent does next. In most cases that would be wasting a move. Try not to do that. Rather think about the things you learnt in this lesson and try to find a useful move.

Kh1 won’t be a useful move here. Rather spend more time and try to find something useful.

Don’t be tempted to make a useless move such as moving the king here. Instead, try to find a useful move that serves a purpose.

To conclude this lesson, I’ll quickly summarize it below.

You learnt about three things you should do in the middle-game:

  1. Try to make as many threats as possible,
  2. develop your passive pieces to more active squares and
  3. if an enemy piece gets into your territory, try to chase it away or exchange it.

Then there is also three things you shouldn’t do:

  1. Don’t exchange your active pieces for your opponent’s passive pieces,
  2. don’t move your pawns unless you have a good reason to do so and lastly,
  3. don’t waste moves, rather think a bit more and try to find a useful move.

An Important Reminder

I want to remind you that when you play chess, you should always be careful. Carefulness is an important skill. You see, the thing is, if you make 10 or 20 good moves and then you make one bad move, then all the good moves you made becomes undone. And since there are so many pieces on the board during the middle-game, it’s easy to overlook something and make a mistake. Be careful, don’t make it easy for your opponent to beat you.

I hope you enjoyed this lesson on the practical things you should and should do in the middle-game. Remember these strategies and they will help you find good moves at times when you’re not sure what to do.

In the middle-game many of the pieces and pawns will eventually leave the board as they get exchanged or capture and when there’s only a few pieces left, we reach the endgame stage. In the next lesson I will show you how to find good moves in the endgame.

End of Lesson 6 – What you should do in the middle-game