Understanding Chess Middlegames
This book has its origins in my earlier title Understanding Chess Endgames, which was published in 2009. The format of that book involved choosing 100 important topics and devoting two pages to each, and I wondered if it would be possible to treat the middlegame in the same way. The book you are holding is the result.
The middlegame is the most difficult part of chess to write about. With an opening book there are accepted formulae, such as the repertoire book, which provide a structure and limit the area you need to cover. The middlegame, by contrast, is a vast and poorly-charted ocean, and attempting to cover it in one book is a considerable challenge. It’s inevitable that the two pages devoted to each topic cannot penetrate very deeply; indeed, whole books have been devoted to some of the individual topics. However, my intention is not to examine in detail all aspects of the middlegame, but to offer an overview of the subject. Different readers will probably use this book in differing ways. For some, it will provide an introduction to many middlegame concepts that they have not met before, while for more advanced players it can provide a quick revision course and serve to highlight any gaps in their knowledge.
I hope that all readers will find the examples instructive and entertaining. Finding suitable examples is a particular problem for authors tackling the middlegame. Middlegames are inherently messy, and it is very rare for a game to be dominated by one theme. More often several themes are intertwined and as the game progresses different ideas come to the fore. Some authors tackle this problem by simply ignoring all aspects of the example apart from the one they are focusing on, but this can be misleading. Readers tend to develop a simplistic view of middlegames, and start to think that all they need to do is have a plan such as ‘dominate the dark squares’ and the game will play itself. Real games very rarely have such a simple course since your opponent will try to interfere with your plan and you will have to adapt your strategy to the evolving circumstances on the board. In this book I have adopted a different method, based on focusing on key moments and decisions, and trying so far as possible to describe the most important concepts in words. There is little detailed analysis in the book, but that doesn’t mean that the examples were not carefully analysed. All too often in chess literature, one finds a general description of a game which, when checked by detailed analysis, turns out to be a complete misrepresentation of what happened. With this book, I first analysed the examples in depth with computer assistance (Deep Fritz, Deep Rybka and the free engine Houdini, depending on the type of position) and used this analysis as a basis for my general description of the course of the game, omitting all but the most important variations. The result is that some examples may appear less clear-cut than is usual in textbooks, but I have preferred to offer an accurate portrayal of a game rather than paint over inconvenient details.
The examples have as far as possible been chosen from recent games, so there are many positions involving the stars of today such as Anand, Carlsen, Kramnik and Kariakin. At the very least, I hope readers will enjoy these 200 examples of middlegame play, but I would like to address a few words on the structure of the book to those who wish to do a little more than dip into the book at random. The book starts with two short essays, the first being ‘Myths of the Middlegame’, which warns that some concepts that are repeatedly found in textbooks are at best partially true. The myth of the queenside majority is taken as a case in point. The second essay, ‘Interconnectedness’, shows how middlegame positions should be considered in a holistic manner, since events on one part of the board can dramatically influence the situation in another part of the board, and strategic decisions can have long-term repercussions that influence every facet of the game. It’s wrong to divide positions into chunks which are then considered independently, and if you think like this you are going to miss a lot of important ideas.
After this, the book moves on to the 100 middlegame topics. These are spread across the eight parts of the book (see the Contents list for details), and each part starts with a two-page introduction which links the positions in that part together. These introductions are important and should be read carefully before going on to the individual sections in that part of the book. The examples have been chosen mainly for their instructive qualities, with a particular focus on the key point that I wish to make. It’s certainly worth going through the whole of the game, since a careful reader will pick up other useful tips. As an example, Anand-Svidler, Moscow 2009 appears in Section 15 on ‘Central Pawns’, but it could equally well have been placed in Section 76 on ‘Queenside and Kingside Majorities’ or even in the essay on ‘Myths of the Middlegame’ . I’ve chosen to emphasize the point that an extra central pawn can form the basis for a kingside attack, but I could also have mentioned the powerlessness of Black’s queenside majority or the fact that his superficially attractive central outpost on d4 didn’t help him to defend against White’s threats. When playing over the examples, bear in mind the other middlegame themes that are mentioned in this book, because several may crop up in one example.
I hope that readers will find this book informative and entertaining, and that they will in future have a broader view of the middlegame and better appreciate the many subtleties which arise in this phase of the game.
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