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Improve Your Middle Game (Part 3 - Plans)
Plan = strategy = positional play. No plan = defeat.

'Play with a plan.' How many times have you heard that phrase? There are many ways to lose a chess game, but playing without a plan is guaranteed to put you on the path to defeat.

What is a plan and how do you make one? Here's what Emanuel Lasker had to say.

The thought behind position play is called the plan. The plan has breadth and depth which are imposing and which, by slow, methodical building, give a structure to the position. The position-player thinks backward: he conceives a position to be arrived at and works toward that position of which he is more conscious than the one on the board. He sees successive stages of the position of the position aimed at and he visualises the stage in a reverse order. (Lasker's Manual of Chess)

Siegbert Tarrasch offered specific advice for the middle game.

The strategic conduct of the Middle Game generally arises out of the Opening. Frequently one of the players has secured a slight advantage in the Opening and this must be further developed in the Middle Game. Often the pawn formation shows the direction the attack is to take. [...] In chess, to play correctly, we can never do what we wish, we must do only what we are forced to do, what the position demands. (The Game of Chess)

These two great masters make several important points:-

  • Positional play is based on the plan. Your individual moves should fit into your overall plan.
  • The plan is formulated by visualizing a future position and working toward it. A common example : you see a possibility to checkmate, so you aim your pieces at your opponent's King. Yes, that's a plan.
  • The plan arises from the position on the board. The pawn structure is one of the most important elements of the position.

The plan is not unique to the middle game, but is important to all phases of the game. Following are two familiar positions.

The plan starts with the first move

White to move

The plan for this position is one of the first learned by most players:-

  • Push some Pawns to open lines for the Bishops and the Queen.
  • Develop the minor pieces with an eye on the center.
  • Place the Queen where it is active, but safe.
  • Castle.
  • Develop the Rooks with an eye on open or potentially open files.

Yes, that's a plan. It's a very good one, and it applies to both players. A player who follows a different plan is asking for trouble.

Even the simplest position demands a plan

Either side to move

The plan here is another one of the first learned:-

  • Move the White King close to the Black King.
  • Use the King and Queen to drive the Black King to the side of the board.
  • Deliver checkmate with the Queen.

Yes, that's also a plan. If White fails to execute it, the game will eventually be drawn because of the 50 move rule.


As Tarrasch said, the middle game plan follows from decisions made during the opening. Here are some typical positions where the plan can be stated in a few words. All of these positions are typical of a game at the end of the opening and the start of the middle game.


White to move

In this position from the King's Gambit, White has sacrificed a Pawn for rapid development and an open f-file. Who has the better of the deal?

White's plan will be to take advantage of the lead in development. Black's plan will be to consolidate the material advantage, or perhaps give it back to neutralize White's pressure.

Opposite side castling

Black to move

The choice of when and where to castle sets the stage for plans based on an attack against the King. When the players have castled on opposite sides -- White on the Queenside, Black on the Kingside, as in this diagram -- the plan of the opponents is the same. Avoid weakening the pawn structure around your own King and launch the other Pawns against the opponent's King.

Here, White will advance the g- & h-Pawns; Black will advance the a- & b-Pawns. The player who does not follow this plan will probably lose.

Blocked center

White to move

In this diagram, both players have immobile d- & e-Pawns. The c- & f-Pawns have become the most important Pawns on the board.

White will play cxd6 or c6 as required. Black will play fxe4 or f4. The subsequent play will depend on which lines have been opened by these variations.

Pawn chain

White to move

A blocked center is often associated with a pawn chain, as in this diagram. The plan then revolves around attacks on the head and base of the chain.

Black threatens fxe5. If White pre-empts this with exf6, Black will reply gxf6 planning to attack the chain again with e6-e5.

Hanging pawns

White to move

Are the Black Pawns on c5 and d5 strong or weak? They control key squares at b4, c4, d4, and e4, but they are attacked easily.

White will try to make one of them advance, creating a weak square in front of the other. Black will try to reinforce the slight space advantage by placing the other pieces appropriately.

Minority attack

Black to move

White has used the last few moves to threaten the advance b4-b5. Black has used the moves to take a strong position on the e-file.

After b4-b5, if Black captures 1... axb5 2.axb5 cxb5, the Black Pawn on b7 will be weak. If Black doesn't capture, 1.bxc6 bxc6 will leave a weak Pawn on c6. Black's plan must consider this threat.


The preceding diagrams are examples of various plans which are familiar to many players. Just as every position is different, so every position has its own corresponding plan. Your task during a game is to formulate that plan in the time available to you and to play your unforced moves according to that plan. It is by no means an easy task.

 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