Get Your Chess Planning Into Top Gear

Chess planning is key to getting the right endgame. You've come out of the opening and your army is nicely developed. You followed the recommended book moves of your chosen opening. You stayed loyal to best practice through your knowledge of the main lines and now you're sitting pretty heading into the middlegame. But what to do now?

How do you construct a fail safe plan for the middlegame? What elements within your position do you pay special attention to? How do you evaluate a position? How do you analyze the game in real time as you play it? How do you think about chess?

Install the correct chess culture into your mind. Bring a fixed order to your play, an entire frame of reference. Have a flexible game plan that can be molded or shaped to deal with any problem that your opponent poses for you. You can do this while still remaining inside failsafe general parameters.

General Principles

Chess Planning: General Principles

Chess Planning: Knights belong on outposts with support from Rooks. Rooks belong on open or semi-open files. Bishops should patrol key diagonals.

You need to build on your solid play in the opening. You want to create and attack weaknesses in your opponent's position. Get your pieces in nice active positions, poised to threaten the King.

Even if your opponent can repel your attack, this may come at a material or positional cost. You are set for a good endgame if you can force concessions from your opponent either on the board or on the clock.

Get your Rooks on open or half open files. Get your bishops on long diagonals eyeing the enemy King. Get your Knights on outposts controlling squares in your opponent's camp. Mold your forces into a harmonious, cohesive unit. They should be supporting each other, combining their power against the enemy. There are several things you need to think about as you formulate your plan.

Weak Enemy Squares

Chess Planning: Weak Enemy Squares

Chess Planning: e5 and d4 are weak squares for White. The Black Knight can capitalize on this with either ...Nd5 forking the Bishop and Queen with damage to White's pawn structure to follow, or ...Nd4 driving the White Queen back home to prevent a fork on King and Rook.

Look out for weak squares in the enemy camp. They make great outposts particularly for your Knights but also for your Bishops. Every move you make on the chess board gives you control or increases control on some squares.

This inevitably means you release control on others. This is inevitable, a fact of life, a fact of chess. So your chess planning will factor that in. When a pawn is advanced it releases control on the squares in front of the pawns adjacent to it. The pawn structures take shape and the two armies clash and exchange.

There will be weak squares, undefended squares for you to station your minor pieces on. This will give you a foothold from where you can prepare operations with a view to attack at the right moment.

Open Files

Chess Planning: Open Files

Chess Planning: The Black Rook is stationed on the c-file, controlling it

You should have just the two connected Rooks on your back row if it's an open game. If it's a closed affair things may be slightly more log jammed. Either way sooner or later pawn exchanges will open up a file or two.

It's never a bad idea to place your Rook on an open file. It can control the file and support other pieces there. You may be able to place a Knight into an outpost on that file. A Knight that enjoys the support of a pawn and a Rook is a very happy horse indeed.

You may be able to double up your Rooks on an open file. The Rook battery increases your dominance of the file exponentially. Taking control of a key file to this extent can give you a significant advantage in the game.

Planning in Stages

Chess planning is crucial for securing a good endgame

Chess Planning: Devising an achievable plan is crucial for securing a good endgame

Good chess planning is carried out in a structured way. The strong Soviet Master Peter Romanovsky advocated a five stage planning system. Firstly squares and lines (files) are designated as special purpose objects of the plan.

The preparatory stage comes next. You must quietly lay the conditions for your plan to come to fruition with preliminary moves that pave the way.

Next you form a concrete definition of a position. You visualize the position you need to reach. And finally. Realization of successes achieved. You're fully prepared. Implement the plan, achieving the desired results.

Central Considerations

Chess Planning: Central Considerations

Chess Planning: White must take care to retain his center in the face of pressure on e4 from Black.

Control of the center is still important. Command of the central files and long diagonals give you the upper hand. The center must be secure before you think about committing troops to a flank attack.

The Knights lock horns in the central area. The Bishops join the melee or support from fianchettoed positions. Trades are, sooner or later, inevitable. If you break even on material try to get an advantage from the exchanges by destroying your opponent's pawn structure.

Sometimes you can prevent him from castling by forcing the King to take part in the exchanges. If he is forced to take a piece he loses the right to castle.

Hanging Pawns

Chess Planning: Hanging Pawns

Chess Planning: White has hanging pawns on c4 and d4

Hanging pawns are two adjacent pawns that form a pawn island on their own. They stand on the same rank. They are cut off from the rest of the pawns by open files. If one is advanced it enjoys the protection of the other. However this makes a backward pawn of the latter. Advances must be made at the right time.

Hanging pawns are a double edged sword. Sometimes you're on the ropes and the other guy is forcing you into ever more cramped positions. It can be hard to hold them in situations like that. They may get picked off at some point.

But when you're on the up and you've got the enemy pieces tied down it can be a different story. Those hanging pawns can be like terrible twins. Just rolling forward, an irresistible force. A horrible price must be paid to halt them.

The e5 Knight

Chess Planning: The e5 Knight

Chess Planning: The White Knight on e5 carries the potential to support a deadly attack on the Black King

You should know favorite squares for certain pieces and incorporate their postings there into your plan. The most well known example is the e5 square for the White King's Knight. One old chess quote states: The great master places a Knight at e5; mate follows by itself.

If Black's d and f-pawns are blocked, advanced or captured, he cannot drive the Knight from e5. If Black has not yet managed to castle his King is in mortal danger in the center. The e5 Knight controls the mating squares, d7 and more particularly the weak f7.

Even if Black's King is safely castled the e5 Knight still poses serious problems from his premium outpost. He exerts a sphere of influence hitting the points c6, d7, f7 and g6.

He provides support for his troops to land on these advanced points. Two of these points are on the 7th rank, the ideal location for the Queen or Rooks. The Knight also seriously compromises Black's freedom of movement deep in his own camp by taking away these squares.

Pawn Storms

Chess Planning: Pawn Storms

Chess Planning: Black saw an opportunity to take advantage of the vulnerable White King and played ...g5! to start a pawn storm. He won within 10 moves.

Pawn storms usually occur when the Kings are castled on opposite wings. The pawns facing the enemy King are free from the burden of protecting their own and can roll down the board towards the target.

However players sometimes throw forward the pawns in front of their own King when castled on the same side. If you think you have initiative and the plan will work, go for it!

These games are not long, drawn out strategic slogs. They are often short, violent affairs. They are effectively a race to hunt down the opposing King.

The key is to have well placed active pieces ready to take advantage of the open files and diagonals when the pawns open them up. Castle on opposite wings and launch a pawn storm if you are ahead in development. Avoid doing so, if possible, if you are behind.

Handling the Heavies

Chess Middlegame: Alekhine's Gun

Chess Planning: Nimzowitsch with the Black pieces resigns in the face of Alekhine's Gun

The Queen tends to take up positions on the second or third ranks during the middlegame. She will only take up more advanced positions if an opportunity to attack the enemy King presents itself.

Otherwise she will be deployed on protective duty supporting pieces or pawns. She may also be used on long diagonals or semi-open files to bear pressure on the opponent.

The Rooks are placed along the home rank. They are usually stationed on semi-open files as they emerge to take control of them.

They can also be doubled up on an open file with each other or with the Queen to increase their dominance of a file. Alexander Alekhine once had a Queen and both Rooks stacked on an open file. It was called Alekhine's Gun.

Maneuvering for the Edge

Chess Planning: Maneuvering for the Edge

Chess Planning: Capablanca - Ragozin: White could quickly trade off some pieces and use his 2-1 Queenside majority to force a win. But he played patiently and took almost 40 more moves. 'Why didn't you try to convert your material advantage straight away?' Mikhail Botvinnik ventured to ask the great chess virtuoso. He smiled indulgently: 'It was more practical to wait'.

Your plan must involve maneuvering your pieces into their key squares. Identify the ideal point for each piece to occupy and get them there. As White you may feel your Kingside Knight belongs on f3 with the option of jumping to e5 at some stage.

Your light-square Bishop often dreams of a gig on c4 where he may have the option of dropping back to b3 or even a2. There he will control that key a2-g8 diagonal.

As Black, depending on the system you're playing, you may like g7 for your dark-square Bishop. If it's the Sicilian Defense you may see your Queen's Rook look for a stint on c8 and the Queen might go to c7 or b6.

Whatever the position you must try to control key files and diagonals. Knights belong on outposts. When you achieve a winning position, don't rush. Play cat and mouse, slowly grinding your opponent down.

The Bishop Pair

Chess Planning: Bishop Pair

Chess Planning: Black has no chance against this Bishop pair

A Bishop is stronger than a Knight in most cases. His main advantage over the horse is his long range powers. The Knight does have the advantage of being able to reach both colors. This allows a single Knight to dominate a single Bishop in certain instances.

A Bishop pair removes the only weakness that exists for the piece in minor piece battles. Now the Bishops have maximum range and access to all squares. A Bishop pair is stronger than a Bishop and Knight for this reason. They are infinitely more powerful than a Knight pair who incidentally do not usually combine well.

The Bishop pair working in tandem can wreak havoc on the enemy when in the hands of a skilled operator. There is little that worries a King more in the middlegame than a pair of menacing Bishops sitting side by side bearing down on his fortress.

Positional Awareness

Chess Planning: Positional Awareness

Chess Planning: Black's pawn structure is compromised following the exchange but White has a vulnerable backward pawn at d3

You need good positional awareness in the middlegame in order to correctly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses in your position and those of your opponent. Not just the obvious things like a pinned defender or doubled pawns.

You're also scanning for more subtle things like a piece that needs a certain station. This could be to support a planned maneuver much later in the game.

When deciding on a plan you need to visualize a desired position with all of your pieces optimally placed. You need them stationed where they can work together as one giving you dominance of the board. From there you can continue to turn the screw, trading your way to a winning endgame.

Moving On

Chess planning is absolutely crucial to outfox your opponent. Usually you will not have a decisive advantage from the opening unless your opponent has made a blunder. Generally everything is there to play for in the middlegame.

Can you find a way to undermine your opponent's position? Is there an enemy piece you can deflect allowing you to take something it was defending? Is your positional awareness solid enough to yield tactical opportunities for you?

If you can find the right plan in the middlegame you can undermine your adversaries to such an extent that the endgame wins itself. What could be more ideal? In order to carry out a successful plan your positional chess must be top notch.

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Play the Chess Middlegame Like a Magician
Time to start thinking as you move into the chess middlegame. After a flawless execution of your favorite opening your army is poised and ready to strike.