A Practical Manual on Improving Middlegame Thinking and Play
How does an experienced player think and play after the opening? Does he come up with brand new plans and ideas for every game? An experienced player- a player with a Master title or one who plays at a master level- will almost always outplay amateur and club players due to the better knowledge of middlegame plans & ideas amassed over time, either from from studying personal games or learning from master games.
With the information and technology boom in today’s chess, memorizing opening theory all the time can be very challenging for many from a practical standpoint. While one shouldn’t downplay the importance of remembering critical opening lines, studying the typical plans & ideas of various middlegame pawn structure is a very efficient and useful way to learn an opening and play the middlegame well!
In this article, I will be reviewing a recent book aimed at helping self-learners apply their new-found strategic ideas in their practice—Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide (CSGG) by GM Mauricio Flores Rios.
The book hopes to achieve this by systematically presenting the standard ideas and main plans for both sides through games according to commonly occurring structures, instead of randomly showing a series of annotated GM games. To give you, dear reader, an idea of how useful this book can be to both club and professional players, I will not be merely summing up the most attractive parts of the book but will also share its unique characteristics in relation to other popular books written on the subject of structures.
I. What is CSGG’s Unique Value compared to other books on pawn structure?
There has been a number of materials written on the topic of pawn structures, the more well-known ones are Winning Chess Middlegames by Sokolov and Pawn Structures by Soltis. There’s no doubt that these books have value in their own right, but here are reasons why I find CSGG more practical and helpful:
1) Better Game Selection. The sample games are well-picked because the games either have a spectacular tactic, an interesting positional struggle, or an instructive demonstration of smooth endgame play, rendering themselves memorable or inspirational to the reader.A feature that this book does equally well with existing books is that the set of games show how both sides can win e.g. a win for side playing with IQP and a win for side playing against IQP. This way of presentation helps the player become well-prepared and more objective during the game in any given structure. Last but not least, it uses both classical and recent games which lends the material useful for the modern player.
The book excerpt and positions from Part II of this review show a few of these classic & modern games.
2) Clean & Clear Chapter Layout. Each pawn structure-chapter begins with a short description on the structure followed by a list of general plans for both sides. Then each game is prefaced with a “Learning Objective” and ends with “Final Remarks" (see excerpt again), ensuring that the reader have “take-aways” after playing through each game. This design is consistent with author’s desire to create a manual that will help self-studying players to apply their knowledge in their games, as expressed in the introduction.
3) Easy to Use. It's easy to use because the games are annotated with a balance between light verbal explanations and concrete lines. While verbal explanations make any chess read light and entertaining, a helpful annotation must also present concrete moves and ideas. After all it is the moves that are the main argument when we are playing. The difficulty in studying some annotated games from other books and databases comes from the convoluted, thick supporting lines that gets confusing and holds one down on the chessboard for hours!! The author of this book provide concrete lines that are accurate (most probably because it’s engine-checked), and within a reasonable amount—usually one or two variations that sufficiently help the reader understand the better and worse choices. As a result, I can regularly go through at least one game at the end of the day.
4) Useful Exercises. Exercise positions can be in every book if reader wants to guess or solve the next move in any diagram position! Very few of the existing books on pawn structure are encouraging with this by having White/Black to Play underneath select diagrams. Chess Structures: A Grandmaster Guide yet again goes another mile by allotting a chapter for exercises. The Exercise Chapter consists of 50 exercises divided into 4 levels, whose solutions are well-explained verbally and concretely in the following chapter. I am still going through this chapter and so far I think it has multiple purposes:
a) Test knowledge of typical ideas gleaned from the chapters
b) Feed more ideas (typical & atypical) on a given structure
c) Give practice on correctly executing the idea (using concrete analysis & tactical skills)
Here’s a few of the exercises with the author’s solutions:
Carlsen, Magnus - Radjabov, Teimour
White to play
"The reader should note that the squares around Black's king are weakened, and there are no pieces to provide immediate protection, hence it makes sense to open up the positions with:
1.f5! +/- the standard break in French structure.
1... exf5? making things easier for White.
( The only defence was1... Ne4 though White has many attractive options such as 2.Bxe4 dxe4 3.Qf4 exf5 4.Nxf5! Diagram when the attack continues, since4... gxf5? 5.Qg3+ Kh7 6.Rxf5 +- )
2.Nxf5 gxf5 ( Qe6 loses to 3.Qxc5 gxf5 4.Bxf5 +- )
3.Qg3+ Black resigns due to the unavoidable mate after 3... Kh7 4 Rxf5."
Leitao, Rafael - Di Berardino, Diego
White to play
"In addition to the plans described in Chapter 3, if White's pieces are active enough, then the following break is possible:
1.d5! +- this gives White an overwhelming intitiative as Black lacks time to organize a defence.
The game continued:
1... cxd5 2.Nxf6+ Bxf6 3.Bxf6 gxf6 4.cxd5 Qe7 ( exd5 doesn't help: 5.Rd4! Diagram threatening Rg4 then Qxf6.5... Qd8 6.Rxd5 Qb6 7.Re4 followed by Rg4 or Rh5 with a decisive attack.)
5.Qg4+ Kh8 6.dxe6 fxe6 7.Rxe6 and the game soon turned into a won endgame."
Braun, Arik - Polzin, Rainer
White to play
"One of White's standard plans in this position is the c4-c5 break. This idea is often stronger once Black has played b7-b5 because the c6-pawn becomes vulnerable, hence:
1.c5! this yields a big advantage to White.
1... dxc5 ( Worse is:1... exd4 2.cxd6 Qxd6 3.Nxd4 Qc7 4.Bf4 Qb6 5.e5 +- )
2.dxe5 Nxe5 3.Nxe5 Qxe5 4.Bf4 Qe6 5.Bd6 Re8 ( A better try was: Rd8 6.Bxc5 ( 6.e5?! 6... Ne8)6... Bb7 7.f4 Nd7 8.Bd6 +/- )
6.e5 Nd7 7.f4 Bb7 8.Ne4 White has a decisive advantage, which he exploited as follows
8... f6 9.Bxc5 Rad8 10.Nd6 Nxc5 11.Nxe8 Qxe8 12.Qxc5 fxe5 13.fxe5 Rxd1+ 14.Rxd1 Bxe5 15.Qb6 1-0."
Stay tune to my next article for Part II of this book review, where I will share my favorite ideas from the book!
Have more to add to this article? Do share your thoughts in the comment section below! We will be happy to read your comments.