Chess Middle Game Principles to Follow

While the essential principles of the opening are all about developing your pieces, the mid game is all about using them to achieve a goal.

You can’t have a strong mid game if you didn’t have a strong opening, and you can’t checkmate your opponent as easily without knowing how to get your pieces coordinated.

The bonus to the opening article is what really makes up the mid game: Have a plan.

Today we’re going to look at the 7 main principles of the chess middlegame that will help you formulate that plan.

Main Goals in the Midgame

The mid game is all about executing your plan and trying to gain a piece over your opponent which will give you an edge in the end game.

 It’s because of this goal that sometimes players will resign in the mid game if they have lost material.  

I don’t recommend ever giving up if you have a fighting chance because you never know if your opponent will make a mistake.  However, it’s this reason that some higher level players will just resign since they know their edge in the end game when less pieces are off the board is severely lessened.

In most cases, you’re officially in the mid game when all your pieces are developed and both players are fighting for an edge in position. 

Once this position is established and pieces are traded off, you generally find yourself in the end game

Some players will say you aren’t in the end game until the queens are off the board, but sometimes the queens are still very active in the end game, so it all depends.

I wanted to put together 7 main ideas to always follow in the mid game to help you become a stronger player.  Like the opening principles, these are ideas or principles and can be deviated from, but they are the best practices based on years of playing and observing grand masters play the game of chess.

Connect your Rooks

There are three main things to consider with rooks:

  1. Rooks are more powerful together
  2. Having rooks separated makes them weak to diagonal attacks
  3. They excel at end games

Being able to connect your rooks is entirely dependent upon your ability to develop your minor pieces in the opening.  If you can accomplish this and then move your queen off the back rank, then the first principle of the mid game is automatically achieved.

connecting rooks

In the mid game, rooks maintain the same backrank mentality as they do in the opening.  They are still not usually well suited in the middle of the board, and instead should use their long sight to help attack or defend pieces.  

Because having your rooks connected is a strong position, a great mid game strategy is to attempt to force your opponent to move their rooks away from each other.  Rooks become easier targets when they are not protecting each other.

For example, attacking your opponent’s rook with a bishop, and forcing it to move up one square away from the backrank, can make the other rook an easier target.

diagonal rooks

Open Files for Rooks and Occupy Them

The second principle of the mid game is to focus on creating open files for your rooks. While rooks are not strong in the opening of chess, they are extremely valuable in the mid game because they can help protect pieces and give you an advantage in the end game.

To create an open file, you need to remove both pawns on the file (a-h) which can be tough to accomplish easily.  You have control of 1 out of 2 pawns, but you can’t force your opponent to move their pawn by trading all the time.  

To get your pawn out of the way, you can either let your opponent take it (through a gambit) or use your pawn to attack another pawn or piece and move off the file.

Smith Moore Gambit

smith moore open file

Getting your opponent’s pawn off the file that you want open can be troublesome at first.  However, if you can remove your own pawn first, then you have what is known as a semi-open file.  This means your pawn is gone, but your opponent still has one occupying the file still.  While your opponent maintains the pawn, you can use one or both of your rooks to attack the pawn that still remains, threatening to take it and open up the file entirely.  

semi open file rook

An open file makes rooks very powerful as they unlock their full potential as an attacking piece.  If you have your semi-open file, you can put your rook, another attacking piece, against the pawn that is still on the semi-open file, and potentially turn it into an open file.  The best part about turning a semi-open file into an open file is that your rook will most likely be the first rook occupying the open file.  When this is achieve, you have a great strength in the end game.

Creating an open file is the first step, and having your rooks occupy them is the second step. If you have an open file and you don’t occupy it with one of your rooks, your opponent may get there first and achieve an advantage.

Being able to control open files is the best scenario you can have it because it allows you to control what happens on that file and what pieces may move to that file.

Think about your Pawn Island Structure when Trading

The most difficult part of the end game for many players is overcoming a mistake the occurred in the mid game. Some openings are designed around doubling up pawns in an effort to gain an end game advantage.

doubled up pawn islands

Maintaining a smaller number of pawn islands is essential to gaining an edge in the end game.  Pawn islands are a group of pawns that are right next to each other.  For example, each player starts off with 1 pawn island each because all of their pawns are connected.  In this scenario, when the e pawn is traded, each player now has 2 pawn islands.

2 pawn islands

If you have 4 pawn islands in an end game, you will usually be at a disadvantage because each pawn cannot protect each other naturally.  The only way they can do so would be to an adjacent file by attacking other pieces.  

4 pawn islands

Just because you have doubled up a pawn does not mean that it will be stuck that way.  Do your best to trade pawns to your advantage to “undouble” your pawn and bring it back to its original file.

undouble your pawns

In general, you want to have less pawn islands in an end game.  More pawn islands can lead to a higher potential for isolated pawns, which are easier to attack and gang up on.

An example opening of an opponent attempting to create more pawn islands for you would be the Ruy Lopez.  In this, white can opt to capture their opponent’s knight and force them to double up their pawns.  However, in this opening, black has momentum towards the center and can potentially “undouble” their pawns and save their end game.

ruy lopez double pawns

If you do end up doubling your pawns, don’t immediately resign from the game.  Pawns can be undoubled by trading or attacking into another file.  If you have a doubled up pawn, it can be considered the same as only having one pawn on that file because both pawns cannot support each other.

You will definitely want to avoid tripled up pawns because these pawns are in a straight line and cannot support each other. They do create a crazy looking wall that could potentially help you block pieces off to one side of the board, but this is a pretty unlikely scenario.

rare tripled pawns

Pawns can only move forward and attack diagonally so having them on the same file just makes it tougher for you find a good position.

Always think about how many pawn islands you will have after trading pieces and visualize what that will look like in your end game. The main goal of the mid game again is to get to the end game in a superior position, so definitely consider this principle while trading pieces that revolve around pawns.

Trade Pieces to Give an Advantage

In general, you want to follow this rule:

  • Trade when you are up in position or pieces

Knowing when to trade pieces is a very important part of Chess whether you’re in the opening, mid game, or the end game. If you remember nothing else, remember that when you are ahead, you should always trade equal pieces.  

trade when ahead

In this scenario, white has just blundered a knight by taking the d4 pawn.  If it were black’s move in this position, he would do well to trade the black bishop for the white knight on c3.  When you have more pieces in the game, the more equal trades you make, the better your overall position will be.  Trading here is not 100% needed because black can have a great attack on the f2 pawn with that black bishop, but it would give a nice advantage.

To understand what makes up an equal trade, check out this chart that details the point values of pieces.  For example, trading a bishop for three pawns is an equal trade.

Piece Value How Many Your Start With
Pawn 1 8
Knight 3 2
Bishop 3.25 2
Rook 5 2
Queen 9 1

 

However, just because points are equal for pieces, this does not automatically mean you should follow this chart and trade at all times. Sometimes your opponent will offer a trade, but you don’t have to always accept. Unless it is forced or you will lose a big position or piece, think about the situation before you trade your pieces.

A lot of the time trades occur because one player wants to open up the position.  When you have a cramped position and your pieces have limited movement, it would be more beneficial to trade pieces.  If you have an open position and your opponent is cramped, you should avoid trading so that your opponent’s movement is restricted.

In this scenario of the King’s Indian Defense, black is unable to move the queenside bishop, rook, and even the b pawn.

kings indian cramped position

The most common pieces you’ll consider trading in the mid game will be pawns as there are still a lot out there.  Think about your pawns islands (referenced above) before trading, but if you can trade your pawns for minor pieces, you will be at an advantage.  Attempt to corner knights and bishops by limiting their movement with pawns in the mid game.  If you can trade 1 or 2 pawns for a minor piece, you will be ahead.  In some situations, trading 3 is alright as well, but that depends on how developed your opponent’s other pieces are.

 

trapped bishop

The other pieces you’ll consider trading a lot in the mid game are the minor pieces: knights and bishops.  If the position is very cramped, you may want to trade your bishop for a knight so you have more movement.

If you are in an open position,  you will want to hold onto your bishop.  You may find your opponent will do what they can to trade their inferior knight for your superior bishop.  You should do what you can to avoid this trade from happening unless if give you the knight and a pawn, or a better position.

In this scenario, the bishop is wide open and much more likely to help out than the black knight.  Therefore, black will want to trade while white will want to hold onto the bishop.  Even this pin is very strong as the knight cannot move.

not trading bishop for equal piece

Think about the Long Term Effects of Weak Squares

While you’re in the mid game, you always want to be thinking about the end game. Some openings just seem to create backwards pawns and weak squares that you want to avoid in the end so you should know this going in.

najdorf with e5

An example of this would be the Najdorf.  Most players push e5 which ends up making the d6 square weak.  While it’s not a big threat in the beginning of the game, if the pawn stays backwards, your opponent could exploit it.

Because your pawns can only go forward and never backward, it’s important think about the long-term effects of these pieces later on in the game.

Since weak squares can never be fixed, only compensated for, it’s best to think about them ahead of time in the mid game.

Sometimes knights can jump around and end up occupying a weak square that your pawns can never approach.  This is a dream spot for knights as they must be traded with an equal or greater piece.  They have completely removed the threat of a pawn capturing them and in the center they are so strong because they attack and protect so many squares.

Here’s an example of the King’s Indian where black can weaken the e6 square, potentially allowing a knight to come in at some point.

kings indian

While not an immediate threat because the bishop defends the knight coming in, this threat can occur if black were to fianchetto his queenside bishop in addition to the kingside bishop.

kings indian weak square

In the mid game, if you notice that your opponent has a light squared bishop, and your pawns are stuck on white squares, they will be an easier target for that bishop later in the end game.  Consider moving them to dark squares with tempo on pieces if you can.

It’s always best to think about what bishop your opponent still has and where you want your pawns. The easiest way to think about this is to look at the colored squares your opponent’s bishop can attack. Because bishops can only occupy one color (light or dark) , you will want to keep your pawns on the opposite colored square so they cannot be taken.  

light squared pieces vs bishop

Keep your Bishop Pair

It’s important thing to think about keeping your bishop pair. This means that in an even game, you have both of your bishops.  Your opponent could also have their bishop pair, but if they have either two knights or a bishop and a knight, you could have a slight edge, depending on the position.

bishop pair chess
white is winning with bishop pair

Because bishops have a slight edge in end games, being able to keep both of your bishops, instead of a bishop and at knight, would be very advantageous.

There are some situations where knights are better than two bishops because of the knight’s unique ability to jump over certain squares so always be aware of this when you trade if you can.

Because your own bishops can never attack or defend each other, they can sometimes be considered weak.  However, their long sight of the board is invaluable in the end game.

Because bishops are so strong in the end game, you want to consider keeping both of them in the opening and mid game to keep your advantage.

There are a lot of things to think about, but being able to think ahead and plan ahead is pivotal to getting to the end game with a stronger position than your opponent.  Use this when considering if you should trade your bishop for a knight early on.

Restrict your Opponent’s Piece Movement

Sometimes the biggest advantage you can achieve over your opponent is not how you move your pieces, but how you restrict your opponent’s.  

Something as simple as a pawn being pushed can lead to an edge for yourself because it forces a knight to move away.

sicilian restricting movement
The knight must retreat to the starting square, wasting a move.

In this game, because I was able to control all of the squares the knight could go, I forced a bad move.  If you remember the opening principles [link] you’ll remember that moving a piece twice in the opening is bad.

You can also apply this to the mid game because sometimes there is so much going on that it’s hard to come up with a plan.  I’ve absolutely been there, but if you can remember to do what you can to restrict your opponent’s moves, you will be in a better position and be able to exploit a weakness.

Simple pawn moves are an excellent example of this.  Just by moving a pawn in the below example, the knight’s moves potential threat is eliminated.

knight cannot move forward
knight cannot move forward

Bishops can do a great job of controlling knights as well.  In this example, the knight cannot move forward past the bishop because all four squares it can move to would be covered by the bishop

bishop restricting the enemy knight
bishop restricting the enemy knight

Conclusion

The mid game is all about getting to the end game. Use these principles outlined above to help guide you and understanding of what to trade, when to trade, and what pieces you want to have in the end.

Having multiple pawn islands will not benefit you in most situations so think about where your pawns are positioned in the mid game.  Where they end up will have a significant importance on your end game.

Knowing your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses is very important. You may find yourself play against Magnus Carlson, the current world champion and a grand master chess player. Magnus Carlson is fantastic at and games so if you were playing at his level, you would want to make sure he does not get to the end game.

If you don’t manage to get Magnus in an opening blunder, you’ll have to hope to secure such an advantage that even his skill in the end game cannot counterbalance the fact that you are up in material.

While you may not be playing Magnus Carlson, think about who you are playing and what you know about them. Of course you don’t always know your opponent, but if you do know them, you can exploit their weaknesses you know and focus on what you excel at.

For example, there are some club players I know who struggle with specific time controls.  Knowing this, I like to make more complicated games so they have to think more and waste more time.  Having less time remaining will always help as it increases your opponent’s rate of blundering.

I hope this article helped you understand the basic principles of the mid game and apply them to your game. Doing so will help you get to a superior end game.  Go here to view my end game principles.

Best of luck in Chess! if you have any questions or comments, please put them below or check out my YouTube channel where I highlight other games and things to consider in chess.