HomeLearn to Play ChessImprove Your GameChess HistoryChess for FunChess Blog

Improve Your Middle Game (Part 1 - Patterns)
Pattern recognition is one of the skills that makes a master. It's not inherent; it's learned.

Why is one chess player a struggling club player and another a master? There are many skills that make a master, but one of the most important is pattern recognition.

In an average middle game position there are about 40-50 legal moves. A beginner will look at a position and work out the legal moves one by one, perhaps overlooking the most important. An intermediate player will look at the position and see all legal moves without too much trouble, but will have some problem determining which moves are worth further consideration and which aren't. A master will look at the position, will see all of the legal moves without even thinking about them, will quickly decide which side is better, and will start examining the most promising continuations.

On the path to chess mastery, a player sees and studies many different types of positions. Every time a master encounters a new position, the previous experience helps to find the right path in the new position. This is pattern recognition.

Here's an experiment which you can do at your local club. Show a position from a real game to players of different strength. Show it only for a short period of time, hide it, and let each player set up the position from memory on another board. Stronger players will set up the position with fewer errors than weaker players.

Now try the same experiment with a random position where the pieces are scattered on the board in ways which are not likely to occur in a real game. The stronger players will make more errors setting up the position than they did before.

What do you think about the following position?

White to move

How many legal moves are there? How many good moves? How do you evaluate the position -- who is better and what is the probable outcome? Work out a possible continuation and we'll come back to it later.

How can you improve your own pattern recognition? Unfortunately, there's no magic solution. You have to play and become familiar with standard positions that arise frequently.

There are a few exercises which can help. The first is to visualize the minimum number of moves for a Knight to go from one random square to another. The Knight is the only piece which does not move in a straight line. It's the trickiest piece on the chessboard and beginners often have trouble with it.

On an empty board, place a Knight on a random square, like d4. Now work out the shortest path to arrive on another square, like d5. The answer, of course, is that it takes three moves to go from d4 to d5 and there are many paths. On the Knight's first move off d4, how many of the eight legal moves are not on one of the shortest paths? Now answer the same questions to go from d4 to each of the four corner squares. Then try the same thing with f5 & b2 instead of d4 & d5.

Another useful exercise is to identify the color of a random square without looking at the chess board. What color is f5? Let's see, h1 is always white, so f1 is white, so is f3, and then f5. How about c3? Well, it's on the a1-h8 diagonal, which is black, so it must be black. How about e2? And so on. Try this with a couple of friends to see who answers faster.

Here's another trick I use frequently. It's a procedure for setting up a position on a board. First, clear the board. Don't try to set up a position by adjusting the pieces already in place unless the old position is almost identical to the new. Second, place the two Kings on the board. Third, set up the Pawns. Then add the Queens (both White and Black) if they are present, then all the Rooks (White and Black), and finally all of the minor pieces (ditto).

'What's the big deal?', I hear you asking. What difference does that make? Perhaps no difference whatsoever, except that it works for me.

Setting up the Kings first tells me immediately where the most important pieces on the board are located. Are they on their original squares, on the same side, on opposite sides, or in an unusual place?

Setting up the Pawns without the other pieces gives me a quick picture of the Pawn structure. Does one side have a numerical advantage? Are there any classic weaknesses like doubled or isolated pawns? How many islands are there? Since the pawn structure changes very slowly, it's often the key to devising a long term plan. This is one of the things Philidor meant when he said, 'The Pawn is the soul of chess.'

Setting up the Queens, then the Rooks, then the minor pieces gives me another quick count on the material. Is there an advantage? An imbalance? How do the minor pieces match? Does one side have two Bishops and a Knight where the other side has two Knights and a Bishop?

By the time I've set up the position, I've already registered a lot of information about what's happening on the board. This makes up for the lack of information from not having played the game from the starting moves.

Let's go back to that 'White to move' diagram. Did you work out that there are 44 legal moves and 4-5 good moves for further consideration? How did you evaluate it? The game is the adjourned position from the 21st game of the Kasparov - Karpov World Championship match, Lyon, 1990. Kasparov, playing Black, just moved 40...Qd8-e8, leaving Karpov to seal his move.

In his book on the match, Kasparov wrote,

'The adjourned position was extremely difficult for me. Even now I do not know its correct evaluation. As [Kasparov's second] Dolmatov said, this ending demonstrated human helplessness in the face of chess. The two teams spent a total of about twenty hours analysing the adjourned position, and still could not decide whether it was a draw or a loss. Incidentally, Karpov sealed the strongest move.'
The sealed move was 41.b5, and the continuation was 41...Ra1+ 42.Kc2 Nc5 43.Rxg7 Kxg7, where Karpov sacrificed the exchange. The game ended in a draw on move 86. Most people are never going to spend 20 hours analysing a single chess position.

Even world champions encounter unfamiliar positions that they can't fathom after hours of work. That's how hard chess is. Whatever spare time we have to improve will be well spent on developing pattern recognition. More about that in Part 2.

 Related Resources
• Part 1 - Patterns
• Part 2 - Combinations
• Part 3 - Plans
• Part 4 - Double Attacks
• Part 5 - Open Lines
• Part 6 - King Safety
• Part 7 - Pawn Structure
• Part 8 - Piece Placement and Chess Strategy
• Part 9 - Kasparov - X3D Fritz, New York, 2003