Friday, November 03, 2006

Middlegame Training

Layachi Hamidouche - Les Joueurs d'échecs

Training your middlegame play is probably the most difficult aspect of training in chess. Opening training has been reduced to copious amounts of variations and even a simple opening book will suffice to get you through this stage of the game. Endings, in contrast, are very specific and require the knowledge of a few hundred key positions to play well (according to GM's; what those positions are...). However, the elusive middlegame is the place in chess where creativity, original ideas, brilliancies and mistakes take the stage. Here is my take on how to train your middlegame in chess.

First, let's define what the middlegame is:

Wikipedia says "the middlegame refers to the portion of the game that happens immediately after the opening (usually the first move after the procession of moves that make up a standard opening) and blends somewhat with the endgame. During this time, players will attempt to strengthen their positions while weakening their opponent's, both by careful arrangement of the pieces for prepared attacks and defenses and by whittling away at their opponent's numbers. Oftentimes, the middlegame involves a good deal of trading; studying how to trade successfully is important."

Let's just say that is a tolerable definition for our purposes. In short, when your pieces are developed, you cease to be in the opening proper and are entering the middlegame.

How to train for the middlegame

Of course, we have seen that chess training cannot exist in a vacuum without being influenced by other aspects of the game. You cannot train effectively without some sort of transitional ideas between the phases of the game co-existing in your training method. Training your middlegame play is no different. With that in mind, it makes sense that your middlegame training should stem from the types of positions you are likely to achieve from your opening repertoire.

This brings us to our first idea:

Annotated Games by GM's

Annotated games by GM's within your opening repertoire is the single most effective way to study the middlegame. The knowledge you acquire from annotated GM games from your own repertoire is vital to success in the middlegame. Why?

GM's are the elite of the chess world. They are the Larry Birds, Wayne Gretzkys, and Tom Bradys of chess (I can't for the life of me think of a good Soccer player so I apologize...). When a GM annotates a game in your repertoire, he has documented his thought process (if he is a good annotator - some are not) for that game, hopefully laying out his plans, ideas and concepts that occurred to him during play. You cannot get this type of feedback from the Tom Bradys, Larry Birds, and Wayne Gretzkys of 'other' sports and in this, chess is truly a remarkable game.

Traditional Theory

What is 'traditional theory' as it pertains to chess?

Traditional Theory could be considered established chess theory that has essentially existed since the early 1930's, the time of Nimzovitch and company. Traditional Theory consists of the proper classical handling of a minority attack, isolated QP, pawn chains/structures, classic B vs. N ideas, Exchanges, the Center, and ideas about overprotection/prophylaxis put forth by Nimzovitch. It is also thick in it's application of 'General Principles'. Your training should focus on these traditional ideas that are most likely to occur out of your opening repertoire first, then proceed to other aspects of your game as a secondary measure for completeness. It is important to understand the traditional aspects of Middlegame Theory to gather a better understanding of Modern Theory because of the contrasts in how each one addesses each aspect of play. There will be times when knowledge of Traditional Theory will drag you out of the fire, so ignore this part of middlegame play at your own risk!

The Bible of Classical Middlegame Theory - My System, Nimzovitch

Modern Theory

Modern Theory deals more with a disdain for General Rules and Principles (it is almost as if the 'Modern Theorist' seeks to avoid the application of these rules...), Pawn Play, Exchange Sacrifices, Contemporary Ideas of the Minor Piece, Time/Tempo, Dynamism, The Initiative, and modern prophylaxis.

A good middlegame study program will deal with both Traditional and Modern theory aspects of chess for completeness.

The Bible of Modern Middlegame Theory - Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy - Watson

Correspondence Chess - Not your Daddy's Version

Correspondence Chess ("CC") has managed to survive, nay, flourish, in the modern world of the internet. CC is a great way to improve your middlegame play, and, moving the pieces about is legal in CC, and the time constrains are less harsh than that of OTB play. Couple that with a vast array of Chess Databases available (mostly free as well), and CC play becomes more of a research project into the foray of the opening and middlegame. Here is one method for improving your middlegame play in CC play:

AS your game progresses, pile together a collection of GM games (hopefully annotated!) that are along the same primary variation that is being played. Our goal here is NOT to 'out-book' our opponent, but to 'out-idea' him. Examine each of these games quickly to get a feel for what each side is trying to accomplish, and take note of the types of middlegame ideas that occur. You will most likely find a repeating of middlegame concepts across several of the games; minority attacks, IQP's, Weak Squares, Strong Squares, color complexes, etc., etc. This should help direct your study in a fruitful direction. For example, in the Queens' Gambit Declined, white often has a minority attack against black's queenside. If you are white and you find yourself in a CC game in that type of position, examine several games along that variation, and study up on 'minority attack' theory to understand what it is that white should be trying to accomplish (exchange pawns to isolate the b-pawn and try to win it), or what black is trying to prevent (vis-a-vis). This type of training, unlike opening study, will apply across many of your games because you are developing an understanding of a type of position, and not just parroting a move in a specific position, which is primarily what most 'students' do in the opening. More on that in another post.

It is this type of chess understanding we are seeking when we say we are studying the middlegame.


So, in summary, for middlegame study, we have:

1) Annotated Games by GM's
2) Traditional (Classical) Theory
3) Modern Theory
4) Correspondence Chess

To help you with correspondence chess, here are two sites I recommend:

Chessworld.Net - Correspondence Chess on the web
IECC - Email Chess

I really hope this gives you some good guidance on how to spend your middlegame study time effectively and to begin to see results in your OTB/Online play. As usual, please post any questions or ideas YOU have of your own and we will discuss the pro's and con's of those ideas in a constructive manner.

Keep in mind that PLAYING every day will help tremendously, and is an important part in our 4-day study plan, so PLAY PLAY PLAY!

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