This week, were are going to look at a very important part of your opening, the transition into the middle-game. Most beginners assume that as soon their Rooks are connected, signaling the end of the opening phase, it’s time to start capturing pawns and pieces. The game’s three phases – the opening, middle and endgame – have transitional phases in which one phase changes into the next phase. As with all successful transitions, the cross over into the next game phase should be smooth and carefully thought out. While, there are often obstacles that make the crossover to the next game phase a bit bumpy, you should always aim for a smooth transition. We’ll continue with the game we’ve been playing through over the last few weeks. However, I first want to talk about the relationship between the opening and middle-game.
As we’ve learned, the opening is the phase in which we develop our material towards the board’s center. The more material (pawns and pieces) we have in play (off of their starting squares), the more opportunities we have to stop our opponent’s advances and launch our own attacks later in the game. However, while we want to make it difficult for our opponents to get their pawns and pieces into the game, we don’t want to launch early attacks unless we have a really good reason for doing so. Generally, it’s better to keep developing and hold off on any attacks until later in the game (after the transitional period going into the middle-game). The transition into the middle-game continues our opening development. But wait, didn’t we finish our development during the opening when we connected our Rooks?
The opening principles I’ve presented are easily achieved under ideal conditions. However, conditions are rarely ideal during the opening, especially for beginning players. Remember, the person you’re playing is also trying to achieve the same opening goals as you, so their plans may thwart your plans. This means that you might not be able to move one of your minor pieces to it’s strongest opening square. You’ll rarely be able to get all your minor pieces to the squares you want them on because your opponent will makes moves that stop you from doing so. Your opponent is trying to do the same thing, employing the opening principles for their own opening advantage. This is where the transitional phase between the opening and middle-game becomes extremely important.
Rather than use this transitional phase to start capturing your opponent’s forces, you should further activate any pawns or pieces that are on less active squares. Note that, before repositioning any pieces that have already entered the game, consider activating material that has not entered the game (pawns and pieces still on their starting squares). If the middle-game is where you start launching attacks and exchanging material, the transition into this phase is where you further activate your material to increase those attacking possibilities. The more opportunities your have for attacks, the harder it is for your opponent to thwart or stop all of them, giving you the chance to win material! Let’s go back to our game and look at move eleven for White:
White plays 11. Nb1, which is the move I asked you to look at last week. My beginning students have looked at this move and said “I can’t believe this player just moved the Knight back to it’s starting square!” So the question is, why did White make this move? Calculation is a skill that beginners must acquire and this skill comes over time. Beginners tend to see one move at a time during a game, not considering how that move affects future moves. While it appears that White is simply moving the Knight back to it’s starting square and wasting time, the reasoning behind this move is found in White’s next move. After Black plays 11…b6, White plays 12. c3, which explains 11. Nb1. The idea behind White’s eleventh move was to clear the c3 square for the c2 pawn, possibly pushing the d pawn to d4 later on. Black’s eleventh move seems passive until you consider Black’s following move. Black now plays 12…Bb7, which explains Black’s eleventh move. Let’s look at this move in more detail.
Black’s Bishop was originally on c8, which is was an active square. We know that we want to position our minor pieces towards the board’s center. Moving the Black Bishop from c8 to b7 puts the Bishop on a long diagonal (a8-h1) that strikes at the board’s center. Of course Black has a Knight on c6 that blocks the Bishop’s control of the center but that Knight will eventually move. White now plays 13. Nbd2, moving the Knight for a third time. White is wasting time by moving this Knight over and over again and, as we shall see, even strong players are punished for breaking game principles!
Black responds with 13…Qc7, which gives the Queen mobility. This is a good example of improving a piece’s activity or mobility during the transitional period. This is what you need to do (not this specific move) once you’ve followed the three big opening principles (controlling the center with a pawn, developing your minor pieces and castling). Keep continuing with your development. The Black Queen now sits on a active diagonal while opening up the eighth rank for the a8 Rook. Black is playing actively and developing all of his forces. White has wasted time by moving the same piece over and over again. White now plays 14. d4, attacking or challenging Black’s center. Remember, when the time is right, fight for the board’s center by challenging your opponent’s centralized position.
Black responds with 14…Nf4, which threatens the White Queen on d2. This move is good (but considered questionable by game analysts) because White’s Queen is worth three times the Knight, so White is forced to move the Queen, which White does with 15. Qd1. Black also forces White to waste developmental time by having to move the Queen again. Black responds with 15…Raf8, doubling his Rooks along the f file. All of Black’s pieces have been activated and brought into the game. Black has positioned himself well for the middle-game. What about the White position going into the middle-game?
White’s position isn’t terrible. All of White’s minor pieces are developed and his King is safe. The problem for White is that his d2 Knight is not as active as it should be and his Queen-side Rook on a1 is trapped, unable to freely move along the first rank. Another thing to note is that Black’s Queen and two Bishops are aimed along diagonals towards the King-side. Black’s Knight on f4 is also a thorn in White’s side. Play through the next five moves of this game and do some analysis. We’ll go through those moves next week. If you find a move that doesn’t initially make sense, play through the next few moves and you’ll discover the reasoning behind that initial move. See you next week when we’ll really start digging into the middle game!