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I am trying to train tactics as well as my general understanding of the beginning/middlegame. I spent a good bit of time understanding endgames, per chessmaster recommendations and those I can understand.

As far as tactics, I have been able to "train" them through chesstempo.com and "see" lots of variations through chesstactics.org.

But how do I learn to understand what I am training? I feel like I can execute tactics now without thinking, but I am not really sure what I just did. It just "feels right" because I trained it.

So what I am really asking:

Is there a good place to get a real understanding of the middle game, or is it just raw calculation? Maybe I am missing a positional understanding?

I am thinking about getting a chess.com membership and going through the chess mentor courses.

I feel like by just doing raw training I am missing out on the real soul of the game.

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Hi Jeff, welcome aboard (and +1). I changed your question's title, based on what you say your main question is in the body. If I've inadvertently misrepresented your intention, don't hesitate to change it back. –  ETD Jul 23 '12 at 16:29
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Great question by the way. I find myself always wanting to know the why as well as the what of things too :) –  xaisoft Jul 24 '12 at 0:43
    
@Ed I think that is also what I am trying to say. Enjoying the responses as well. –  Jeff Davis Jul 24 '12 at 13:28
    
I always wish I could accept multiple answers. Every answer adds more understanding to the previous and after reading all of these I have several good plans to gain an understanding. I find myself reaching to bookmark this page, and realize, oh stack exchange does that for me :) –  Jeff Davis Jul 24 '12 at 13:38
    
Let me suggest these analogies about middle-game and about game of chess in general; chess works sometimes like a boxing fight or sometimes like a judo wrestling match; you may get to face both kinds of fights in the same game. –  Only You Mar 31 at 4:53

6 Answers 6

up vote 16 down vote accepted

In principle, the middlegame is indeed just raw calculation. In principle, the entire game of chess boils down to only that. But since the space of possible move sequences is so vast, chess is of course too complex from the standpoint of pure calculation for that to be all that we do when we play. And after all, even our computational superiors (chess engines) need to be guided with built-in positional understanding in order to play a good game of chess.

So yes, if you're feeling fairly comfortable with your grasp of calculation and the execution of tactical operations, but often find yourself "not really sure what [you] just did," then it does sound like positional understanding is what you need to accrue. A good way to look at things is this: tactics are a means to an end - and at bottom they are the means to all ends in chess - but it's not terribly useful to see tactics as the ends themselves, and that is where heuristic positional knowledge is most useful, as a guide telling you what purposes various tactics should be put toward.

For instance, former champion Vladimir Kramnik described the play of two of his predecessors thus:

To a certain extent, Smyslov was the pioneer of this style, which was later brilliantly developed by Karpov, i.e. the gradual mounting of positional pressure based on the most accurate calculation of short lines.

Now, regardless of whether you want to play like a Smyslov or Karpov, or more like an Alekhine or Tal, I point to Kramnik's words here just because they bring out this idea of letting positional considerations guide your hand, while your tactical acumen gives you the wherewithal to achieve your aims. OK, so how to acquire positional understanding?

Here there are many many options. You mention chess.com's chess mentor course; I have no knowledge of that, and so have no opinion. I can point you to a couple of books that are designed to begin to steer amateurs toward an expert/master understanding of positional play:

  • How to Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman. This is perhaps the most widely-known book on the subject these days, and with good reason I think. Silman does a fine job of getting the reader to (1) look at positions through the lens of various types of imbalances - e.g. who has more space, is one side's bishop better than the other's, is one king safer than the other's, etc. - and (2) begin to use those imbalances as guiding factors in determining what your plan/goals should be - e.g. I have two bishops against two knights, so I'd like to open up the position to make use of the bishops' long-range power.

  • The Giants of Strategy by Neil McDonald. This book is less systematically instructional than Silman's, but it is still instructive. McDonald looks at examples of play from Kramnik, Karpov, Petrosian, Capablanca and Nimzowitsch in chapters grouped around positional themes (e.g. the seventh rank, outposts, pawn breaks, planning). This isn't an overly advanced book, and is probably well-suited to the same audience as Silman's. I wouldn't recommend this book alone for gaining positional understanding, but I think it can act very nicely as a supplement to Silman, say.

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I have seen the recommendation for how to reassess your chess, but then I read the reviews and it sounds daunting! 406 pages! Yikes, the new one is 658 pages! Will I learn from it, or is it just a dry technical manual? –  Jeff Davis Jul 24 '12 at 13:43
    
@JeffDavis, it's true that there's a lot of material packed into the book (though the new one has a great deal of whitespace on the pages, so the 658 isn't directly comparable to the earlier 406). But it's not the sort of thing that you have to work through front-to-back in order to get something out of. You can pick and choose, and hop around from topic to topic as you see fit; in that sense, the huge amount of material is just a plus, as you can make as much use out of whichever parts as you please. –  ETD Jul 24 '12 at 15:23
    
@JeffDavis, As to it being a dry technical manual, I don't think so. The focus is on illustrative examples from actual games throughout, so the raw content can be at least as inherently interesting as a collection of games. Silman's writing is very clear (IMO), and if you've never looked into the positional side of the game all that much, I would guess that you'd find HTRYC genuinely eye-opening. –  ETD Jul 24 '12 at 15:26
    
Ok. I think this is the way I am going to go. I am still trying to decide between this book and the online mentor courses, because, guess what: Many of the chess mentor courses are by Jeremy Silman! (Not a promo, just a funny coincidence) –  Jeff Davis Jul 24 '12 at 18:28
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Just coming back to this page, I should mention that I am gaining a lot from reading this. It's a little more like work than I would want, but the benefits are tremendous. I find myself able to understand positions better every time I complete a chapter. –  Jeff Davis Aug 21 '12 at 16:02

I think you partially answered your question. The main fact that you can "...execute tactics now without thinking..." is definitely a good start. Also that fact that you said, it "feels right" is also a good start although you don't really want to play a tactic just because it "feels right".

Information on tactics can be found from Louis Holtzhausen site at http://www.chess-strategies-tactics.com/chess-tactics. Here is some information from that site:

Understanding why you would do a particular tactic can be made simple by the definition:

A Chess tactic is a move or a combination of moves whereby you force an advantage. The advantage is usually to win material but it could also be to achieve a positional advantage.

I think the fact that you said you can make tactical moves without thinking much means that you have improved your chess tactical awareness.

You can solve 1000's of tactical puzzles, but with no overall view of the specific skills you are trying to improve, solving them is not as effective. The 3 main focus areas of training chess tactics skill are:

1. Tactical patterns(how is the tactic executed)
2. Tactical themes(which elements of the position made the tactics possible)
3. Tactical awareness(knowing when to search for a tactical combination)

I think for each tactics puzzle that you do, before you do the next puzzle you must have a deep understanding of 1) themes and 2) patterns that made the tactics possible in the puzzle.

See if you can figure out which aspects of the position actually made the combination possible. This style of tactics training will hone your "tactical awareness".

Here are tactical themes and patterns that you should be familiar with. You can find many of these themes on chess tempos website here

Fork or double attack
Pins and skewers  
Sacrifice  
Discovered attack  
Deflection (or distraction)  
Double check  
Counter-attack  
Hanging (undefended) piece  
Exposed king  
In-between move  
Trapped piece  
Clearance – Opening a critical square, file or diagonal  
Blocking – blocking a critical file or diagonal  
Advanced pawn  
Attraction  
Zugzwang  
X-ray attack  
Weak back rank  
Removing the defender  
Overloading a defender  
Simplification into a winning endgame  
Indirect defense  
Domination in chess  

Here are checkmate patterns you should be familiar with. Checkmate pattern details can be found here.

Back Rank checkmate
Lolli’s checkmate
Epaulettes checkmate
Shepherd’s checkmate
Fool’s checkmate (fool’s mate or 2-move checkmate)
Scholar’s checkmate ( or 4-move checkmate)
Two Rooks checkmate
Mayet’s checkmate
Smothered checkmate
Anderssen’s checkmate
Pillsbury’s checkmate
The Arabian checkmate
Legal’s checkmate
Anastacia’s checkmate
Greco’s checkmate
Gueridon’s checkmate
Blackburne’s checkmate
Boden’s checkmate
Damiano’s checkmate

Understanding the tactical themes is useful… but training your mind to recognize the theme instantly and apply it in your game is only possible once you have turned your understanding into a skill. So how do you turn your understanding into a skill? Practice, practice, practice. Practice till you can apply your understanding almost without thinking.

Even if you find the content on these chess tactics themes and patterns obvious – it won’t do any harm to go over it again. It is vital to make this knowledge your second nature. It is better to understand a few patterns deeply than to understand many patterns superficially. Patterns you understand deeply will be much easier to apply!

Here are some tactical articles that will help you with tactics in the middle game: http://www.kenilworthchessclub.org/links/middlegame.html

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It should be noted that the definition of tactics given in this answer - as well as the lists of 3 main focus areas, tactical themes and checkmate patterns - are all due to Louis Holtzhausen, from the following site: chess-strategies-tactics.com/chess-tactics –  ETD Jul 23 '12 at 20:46
    
Added the site at the top. –  xaisoft Jul 23 '12 at 21:59
    
This is kind of the other side of the same coin. I need to understand the tactics as well as the positions. Thanks xaisoft, this is helpful too. –  Jeff Davis Jul 27 '12 at 16:38

Excellent question and you made a good assumption.

I feel like I can execute tactics now without thinking, but I am not really sure what I just did.

Maybe I am missing a positional understanding?

That's exactly what you are missing, because tactics are the consequence of good positional understanding (this is a startling claim, feel free to disagree!).

I'd like to recommend you some books to study for improving the middlegame.

"Think like a grandmaster" by Alexander Kotov concentrates on middlegame aspects. This book "feels" lightweight since it's very easy to read, yet I'd like to conventionally call it "middlegame strategy lessons for dummies", because Kotov often quotes Steinitz (who pioneered the positional approach) yet explains his postulates in a way that's understandable by the average chess player, not only by grandmasters.

"My System" and "My System In Practice" by Aron Nimzowitsch. These two books are widely acknowledged by many strong chess players as being the greatest chess manual ever. There's a shorter work of Nimzowitsch that literally translates from Russian as "How I became a grandmaster". It's a short chess centric biography which describes the early Nimzowitsch as a strong tactical player who totally lacked positional understanding. Just like you, he would "see" combinations, but couldn't explain why they are possible. He tried to play in some tournaments against masters and failed, so he took a break trying to understand what's going on. And his deep understanding of strategy came from "scratching the positional itch".

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I will check out these books. Thanks! –  Jeff Davis Jul 24 '12 at 14:02

By definition, the middle game is the point in the game where the pieces are pretty much developed and the opening ends.

The middle game is not raw calculation. Calculation is just a skill we have to develop. The middle game is not just tactics, though tactical opportunities begin to present themselves in the middle game.

At the beginning of the middle game, you start to formulate a plan and execute it. Without a plan, you won't know where to point your pieces and what you're trying to accomplish. When you see a 'tactics trainer' puzzle, what you're seeing is the fruit of planning. Those piece sacs and amazing moves didn't happen randomly; someone made the situation possible. That's what you're doing in the middle game.

An inability to plan is one of my greatest faults - I'm so unimaginative that I can't formulate a plan. Therefore I am always end up playing defensively. Now, I calculate pretty well for my category, so when someone attacks me (that is, they formulate a plan and execute it, lol) I frequently gain an advantage and get the win.

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I have seen this advice many times: "Formulate a plan and execute it." But what does this mean, and how do you do that? Maybe I should ask another question... –  Jeff Davis Jul 24 '12 at 13:32
    
One could probably write an entire book about formulating middlegame plans, and as per my last paragraph, I would not be the author. That being said, one way is to identify key squares and take them. Another could be to improve a piece while diminishing the value of your opponent's pieces. Eventually, when you squeeze enough, your opponent will falter and a tactic will yield a tangible gain. –  Tony Ennis Jul 24 '12 at 23:25
    
I asked IM Silman on chess.com about planning. This sort of thing is right up his alley. If he responds I'll share. –  Tony Ennis Jul 25 '12 at 1:41
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A (attacking) plan - find a weakness (or two) in your opponents position, use your imagination to visualize how this weakness could be exploited or increased, execute a series of moves that pile on the pressure until something has to give. Be prepared to adapt in response to counter threats. –  AndyM Jul 26 '12 at 12:14
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A (defensive) plan - sometimes you can't really see anything constructive to exploit. Sometimes it better to sit back, ensure that everything is tight and wait for your opponent to get bored and do something a bit crazy (e.g. a piece sac for a couple of pawns). You'd be surprised how often this happens. –  AndyM Jul 26 '12 at 12:19

A chess game is usually divided into three phases: opening, middlegame and endgame. In a game that contains all three phases, there will be two transitions: opening to middlegame and middlegame to endgame. Therefore, the opening (e.g. the first 10 moves) will have a big effect on how the middlegame position will look like. While the middlegame will have a big effect on what the endgame will look like (or if you ever get this far).

First of all, how can you define the middlegame? It begins when most light pieces have been developed and one or both Kings have castled. It ends when both Kings can start marching around on the board virtually without the risk of becoming checkmated. Usually this occurs when enough (heavy) pieces have been exchanged off the board.

The middlegame begins when the opening finishes and therefore the results of the opening will decide what the middlegame will be like. Since pawns cannot move backwards, the pawn structure will be important. Also, when pawns capture other pawns or pieces, files open up for the heavy pieces. Therefore, the presence or absence of open files will be important. Finally, the exact placement of the pieces, the control of the center, the security of the Kings and the general situation on the board (calm, normal or sharp) will be important.

Generally, the goal in the middlegame is to get some sort of advantage (material, positional or both) and then keep this advantage until the endgame begins. Then, win the game in the endgame. Of course, if an opportunity is given, a check-mating attack can be initiated! In all these processes, the collaboration of your forces and them always being a part of a plan will have a big effect. Also, foreseeing the intentions of the opponent and showing skills of prophylaxis will make sure that you are in control. Thus, an attacker has to be a skilled defender and combine these two skills during the attack. While a defender should be a skilled attacker to counter-attack at the right moment.

After this not so brief introduction, how do you improve at middlegames? First off, by analysing and playing through games played by strong grandmasters through-out the history of chess. You will absorb typical plans and patterns from these games. Second of all, by reading literature on tactics, positional play and strategic thinking in the middlegame. Third of all, through experience by playing games, especially with classical time controls. Play against players of a bit higher strength whenever possible and learn from these games. Try to understand concepts like piece binding, pawn avalanche, minority attack, attack on an open a-file, eternal knight, bishop pair, rook storm on the seventh rank, light piece on the sixth rank protected by a pawn, protected passed pawn, blocking a passed pawn, etc. There are many tricks and patterns out there, learn them one by one. Calculation will tell you what positions you can get. But it will not tell you their upsides and downsides. To evaluate a position, you need knowledge, and knowledge takes time and effort to gain.

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Training with different opening and middle game position will slowly teach you to understand. It like learning to play a guitar, etc. It takes time to learn. By using different positions you will learn how to find weak spots and so on. But of course there are books that will give you a better understanding. Here are some:

  • John Nunn: Understand the middle game
  • John Nunn: Learn chess tactics
  • Artur Yusupov: there are 9 books here. GET THEM!!!

Also, find a friend that is just a bit better than you, and if you don't have a friend that play's chess, sign yourself up in a chess club, and find a player that is a bit better than you. Use this person to play around in different opening positions, and learn from them. It is important to write down your game so you can analyze the positions and where you go wrong. By doing this you will improve.

In a chess club you will possibly find players that you can beat with no problem, but also probably find players that you can't beat. Let's say that you move yourself up to 1450 in rating, now you should find a player around 1550 - 1600. Learn from this person, and slowly you start to get draws and eventually start to win, and at the end beat the player. Use a bit of time in that rating group, and when you feel ready, find a new player at 1650-1700, learn from this player and so on. If you do this seriously you can move yourself up to a rating around 1900-2100 within 1-2 years. Good luck!

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P.S.You can also find chess coach on: www.chess.com –  Bent Hansen Jan 24 at 15:41

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