I have started to play chess more seriously recently by playing some tournaments. During all my tournament games, I faced serious problems coming up with plans during the middle game. Is there a methodical way of thinking to come up with a plan by looking to a given position? Is there a good book that I can read to improve this skill? My current elo is +1600 and I have played around 20 standard time control games.
Its a great question! When teaching chess, I get on my students about always having a plan. However, many of my beginning students have the impression that making a plan means "I'm going to use a combination of Queen and Knight to Checkmate my opponent's King on the 27th move." Of course, this is unrealistic.
Chess is a constantly changing landscape and two or three moves can completely turn a winning position into a losing position. Therefore, plans have to be flexible. That's where it gets tricky. I tend to create flexible plans in which I play elastic moves. Planning really comes into play during the middle game.
Once the opening is complete and you have your pieces on ideal squares, you get down to the middle game. At the start of the middle game, I go through a checklist included pawn structure, position of my opponent's King in relation to his or her defending pieces, material balance, etc.
If I'm down material, I create a plan that evens the material balance which repositioning my pieces on good squares. I try to keep it simple and flexible. I think a lot of players have narror plans and when something goes wrong, they find their pieces on squares that do them no good. I try to play elastic moves that prepare for more than one response from my opponent.
My plans change as the game changes. However, I try to play positions that allow me to maintain my original plan while still dealing with the potential curve-balls some times thrown by my opponent.
It's a tough call because you want to have a plan that goes forward but often you have to rethink your plan and alter it to fit the current position. I would say that your plan has to take into consideration imbalances but that is often the cause of a change in plans. A master can see many more moves ahead than I can so it is easier for them to create a plan that they can stick to. Moreover, Andrew Martin has mentioned on numerous occasions the need for playing flexible moves.
is there a methodical way of thinking to come out with a plan, by looking to a given position? Or a good book that I can read to improve this skill?
Yes there is a methodical way of thinking to come up with a plan; basically the plan has to come out of what Jeremy Silman calls the imbalances of the position. The method would be by doing a
positional assessment of the imbalances present in the position.
I liked Silman's book a lot "How to Reassess Your Chess" Fourth edition by Jeremy Silman.
You could also look at this middle-game classic by Alexander Kotov "Play Like a Grandmaster"
You will read the books to learn about the planning skill, you will play chess games to improve that skill.
I think a counter-point to all of the advice so far needs to be raised.
Willy Hendriks argues in Move First, Think Later (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Move-First-Think-Later-Improving/dp/9056913980) that planning in chess is over-rated. He reckons you are better off simply looking for good moves instead.
What does this amount to? If I understand him correctly, this does not mean that you should play aimlessly, but that instead of following abstract "plans" or "strategies" (like looking for "imbalances", or "attack in the center when your opponent attack on the flank", or "anticipate the critical moment of the game"), you should focus on finding good moves and putting your pieces on good squares and preventing your opponent from doing the same.
The problem with plans are that they are either so abstract to be useless, or so inflexible as to get you into trouble if you should try to follow them to the letter. Let's take an example from one of the other comments on this page:
Panzer writes: "If I'm down material, I create a plan that evens the material balance which repositioning my pieces on good squares. I try to keep it simple and flexible... I try to play elastic moves that prepare for more than one response from my opponent."
This sounds awesome when you read it, but in reality it does not say much. It really could be summarized as: find the best move for the position.
A chess game is usually said to be in three phases: opening, middlegame and endgame. However there are not any fixed borderlines between these phases so your phrase about "plan in the middlegame" is very vague.
There are many possible openings you may choose as white or black which will affect the positions which may arise in the middlegame. When you say you have problems finding a plan in the middlegame, this may mean you have not chosen the right positions to play.
It is easier to understand when you think planning as merely pattern recognition. As Philidor once said, "pawns are the soul of chess" and pawn structures usually determine the characteristics of positions. As an example, isolated d-pawn is a very common structure which you can find in the opening lines of Caro-Kann Panov Attack, many variations of Queen's Gambit (Tarrasch is one of them). Some of those are completely different openings but in a middlegame position with a similar structure the patterns are similar thereby common plans are also similar. White usually plays for a kingside attack given the fact that the isolated d-pawn (d4-pawn in this example) makes e5-square available. Black, in turn, hopes for a blockade on d5-square and tries to eliminate White's attack by exchanging pieces with the hope that every piece exchanged makes the isolated pawn more and more exposed.
The more patterns you can recognize, the easier you can come up with plans. To recognize patterns you have to learn from the masters. Start with classic games. However old they look they will make you understand both how the chess theory improved and how ideas were formed.
This is not a confirmed information but I have heard once that Vladimir Kramnik analyzed lots of classic games as part of his preparation against Garry Kasparov. You see, even grandmasters find some value in relatively old looking games.
As for the book, I can recommend Chess Fundamentals by Jose Raul Capablanca. This is a fantastic book where the third world champion explains his moves and positions with astonishing simplicity.