Chess’ real battle lies in the middlegame, and it’s where good players make their mark. The middlegame requires many important chess skills such as calculation, judgment, intuition, assessment, and planning that strong players often create the decisive advantage in this phase of the game.
Studying the middlegame poses some of the most difficult challenges in chess training. Whereas reasonable proficiency at openings and endgames could be achieved with general understanding, memorization of choice lines, and honing of technique, mastering the middlegame always proves baffling.
Sure, chess books can tell us what middlegame skills are vital or instruct us how to improve calculation or intuition, but the extent that we develop them depends much on our chess aptitude. The middlegame, in other words, measures true chess talent.
In my opinion, the best way to develop our middlegame abilities is to identify which skills we are wanting and find books that will fix them. One part of this process is serious self-reflection, and the other is the diligent survey of middlegame literature which we, fortunately, enjoy much of.
I’ve paid my dues as a chess player, and here are my list of the best middlegame books that I turned to at one point in time and still refer to whenever my middlegame play gets very depressing.
1. How to Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman
Everyone begins by learning tactics and we get very adept at them. Pinning, forking and skewering all become second nature to us that we don’t really miss them except in time trouble or blitz games.
Intermediate players are considerably good at tactics, but while some will remain at this fundamental level, others will develop understanding of real chess and mature from being just a tactical to a positional player. Jeremy Silman’s How to Reassess Your Chess helped me cross this divide.
In this book, Silman teaches the foundations of positional play through a very logical system of thinking. This system is based on imbalances, which are essentially the differences in White and Black’s position insofar as strengths and weaknesses are concerned. The key to playing and winning the middlegame is to be quicker than your opponent in exploiting your respective strengths, and to be grittier when it comes to your weaknesses.
Silman points out seven different imbalances or areas where they may lie, specifically: superior minor piece, pawn structure, space, material, control of a key file or square, lead in development, and initiative. He gives a chapter to each of these and illustrates thoroughly how advantages in these imbalances are skillfully and decisively exploited.
A playing-system like this requires and develops various essential skills. Chief of this is assessing positions correctly, the key to determining strengths and weaknesses from both sides. Another is the mastery of imbalances that naturally arise from the different openings. Not least is accurate calculation, which is very necessary for pushing advantageous imbalances to a favorable result.
Playing with a plan is a fundamental middlegame precept as it will give harmony and cohesion to one’s play. Silman’s logical and imbalance based-approach allows intermediate players to view the middlegame the way masters do, and this will only take their level a notch higher and improve their practical results.
2. Zurich 1953 by David Bronstein
This monumental work by the great David Bronstein is a book on the 1953 Zurich Candidates Tournament. As tournaments books go, they are not necessarily treatises on the middlegame, but Bronstein crafted this to be one, and what a middlegame book for the ages it has come to be.
Bronstein’s approach in this book is to explain the middlegame encounters among the world’s top players vying to become Botvinnik’s challenger for the World Championship the following year. He managed to produce a masterpiece that provides a feast of middlegame lessons and makes the games come alive at the same time.
The best about Bronstein the annotator is that he much prefers verbal explanation over heavy calculation. As he explains in the book’s introduction: “Variations can be interesting, if they show the beauty of chess; they become useless when they exceed the limits of what a man can calculate; and they are a real evil when they are substituted for the study and clarification of positions in which the outcome is decided by intuition, fantasy and talent.”
The book, thus, emerges as a middlegame instructional manual where important concepts such as weak color complexes, Bishop pair, play and counter-play in opposite wings, relative strength of pieces, over protection, swift exploitation of dynamic advantages, and standard plans out of major openings are very well-explained.
Concrete lines are kept to a minimum, usually only to prove why a certain line does or doesn’t work. On top of this, it captures superbly the heat of battle, putting the readers in the seat of the world’s top players as they made excruciating decisions under extreme pressure.
In all, this book is a piece of masterful annotation, a thorough study and presentation of the middlegame, and a wonderful account of a very strong tournament all in one. It belongs in every chess player’s library.
3. My Best Games of Chess 1908-1937 by Alexander Alekhine
To understand why Alekhine’s collection of games is a terrific middlegame book, one must understand his style.
Alekhine is known as one of the greatest attackers in history. Many of his contemporaries marveled how his attacks sprung like lightning from out of the blue, which he concluded with dazzling combinations.
In truth, these attacks didn’t come out of nowhere but were carefully prepared by his earlier play. Max Euwe, twice Alekhine’s adversary in the World Championship, succinctly described his play:
“Alekhine’s real genius is in the preparation and construction of a position, long before combinations and mating attacks come into consideration at all.”
It’s this book that illustrates the brand of chess Alekhine played, which Euwe so keenly observed. His games show the active and dynamic style where the opening, middlegame, and endgame are a seamless whole, and where the attack is brought home by astonishing accuracy.
This book may not take you to the level of Alekhine’s chess, as his abilities are the stuff of legends. Still, it will teach you the interconnected of the middlegame with the opening and ending as well as any book can, and the part that coherence and harmony play in a true virtuoso’s game, as they should in ours.
4. Chess Structures by Mauricio Flores
By chess structures GM Mauricio Flores means pawn structures, and it can’t be overemphasized how important the subject of pawn structure is to chess and winning.
If chess were a real battle, pawn structures define the terrain on which depend important combat considerations such as troop deployment and tactical operations. In chess, the terrain determines piece placement and the correct plan for the middlegame.
Many books have been written on such an important topic as pawn structure, but this one stands out for its organization and clarity.
Here, the chapters are arranged by opening, and Flores discusses the standard plans for White and Black in typical pawn structures that arise from Queen’s Gambit Declined systems, Sicilians, French, King’s Indian, Benoni, and others. He then shows these plans at work through model games.
Flores’ discussions are the clearest and most instructive you can find. They are strategy at its finest, and are very helpful in several ways. In one way, with the knowledge and ready-made plans they give, you only have to worry about calculation and concrete lines whenever you face a certain pawn structure. In another, they will boost your openings significantly. If you prefer and play a structure particularly well, you can design your openings so that they lead or transpose to these structures. A big factor to winning is playing to your strengths and entering familiar positions.
When chess strategy is next on the study list, this book is a must have.
5. Small Steps to Giant Improvement by Sam Shankland
Pawn play is too vast for one book to handle, so here is another book on the subject, albeit one with a slightly different focus.
GM Sam Shankland believes pawn moves are just about the most permanent ones you can make. Unlike pieces, pawns can’t ever jump back and every move forward vacates or releases the squares they occupy or protect. His book, therefore, addresses the delicate matter of moving pawns; when is it safe to launch pawns forward and when is it more prudent to leave them where they are?
Shankland provides clear answers to these questions through model games, which he formulates into a set of rules. There are many of these in the entire book and you will not remember them all, but their essence can be easily grasped, and very often your knowledge and understanding of them will spell the difference between a win and a loss.
Another subject of the books is the matter of doubled pawns, why they are often detrimental and how to inflict these structural defects on your opponent by force. Shankland treats doubled pawns the way he does pawn pushes and also formulates rules for them.
Of course, pawn play is more than just these two subjects. Shankland has come up with sequel to this book, which is very likely to be just as good.
In all, Shankland has produced an excellent book on an important aspect of pawn play that hasn’t been treated deeply by other authors. It is a very welcome addition to chess literature.
6. Foundations of Chess Strategy by Lars Bo Hansen
This book by Lars Bo Hansen is not exactly a middlegame book, but it can certainly influence your middlegame play. It is, in fact, about chess’ practical and psychological aspects.
Hansen’s thesis in this book is that chess players can be generally categorized into four groups depending on their appreciation of concrete facts and concepts and on their predilection to use intuition or logic to arrive at their chosen moves. These four groups are the Reflectors, the Activists, the Theorists, and the Pragmatists.
It will take much discussion to know the characteristics of each group, but suffice it to say that each one has its strengths and weaknesses, that there are openings suiting one group better than it does the rest, as there are also training methods more apt for one than for the others.
Quiet openings are much a fit for concept-based players like Reflectors and Theorists, while sharper ones are for concrete and fact-based players like Activists and Pragmatists. Training by studying model games are for Theorists, while solving puzzles and practicing calculation are for Pragmatists.
Just as importantly, Hansen shares that every group has its “anti-thesis,” or that playing style they find difficult or at least uncomfortable to face. Concept-based players, for instance, are always hard put to reckon with positions where exact calculation is of prime importance.
Hansen’s categorization may not be exact science, but I can verify his assumptions by my own practical playing experience. His outlook and categorization of playing styles has allowed me to adapt openings that match my personality and temperament, and to train in a way that is suitable for me, too.
More importantly, it has taught me how to give opponents of each particular category the kind of game they may find too difficult to handle. I am sure the book will do the same to everyone.
7. Improve Your Chess by Learning from the Champions by Lars Bo Hansen
Another book by Lars Bo Hansen, this time one that focuses on the history and evolution of chess thought. How, then, could it help your middlegame?
Vladimir Kramnik once said that the study of chess history is absolutely essential to improving one’s game. He couldn’t tell exactly why, but just felt that a thorough examination of chess from the days of Philidor to the present raises your overall skill.
If I may offer my own explanation, immersing yourself in chess history exposes you to the different ideological and philosophical framework by which chess was seen and understood throughout the ages. These ideas and philosophies were improved and refined over the years, but those of chess’ early years are not necessarily as backward as many think they are. They are all part of the body of chess theory, and they could always be incorporated into our play and thinking.
For instance, Romanticism may be of a bygone age, but if we are gifted with a situation where the opponent’s king is stranded in the center, we could unleash the Anderssen in us and end the game right there and then with a brilliant flurry.
It’s in this sense that history books like Hansen’s are extremely helpful; they expose and arm us with many approaches to the game, and we could always draw these approaches out whenever the need arises or the opportunity presents itself.
Furthermore, chess history helps us establish our identity. Are you a Classical or a Hypermodern player? These two schools of thought emerged from chess’ different eras, and by identifying yourself with either of them you can tailor your openings to your playing preferences, inner workings, and natural tendencies.
This book is very essential to chess education, and the earlier one studies it as he sets out in chess, the better.
8. My Great Predecessors by Gary Kasparov Volumes 1-5
Here are the books of the man many consider as the greatest in history, Gary Kasparov. It’s his breathtaking view of chess history captured in five volumes.
Kasparov’s books function in the same way that Hansen’s does, only that the World Champion prefers to put more emphasis on rigid analysis. Whereas Hansen focuses on the pervading ideas in the different eras of chess, Kasparov rather digs the truth in the great battles between the greatest players of chess’ storied history. Thus, they may appeal even more to concrete and detail-oriented players.
While the books provide good information on chess thought just as every history book should, they also offer many thoroughly analyzed games not only of the World Champions but of the great ones as well who nearly conquered the chess summit. Thus, they serve as excellent material for those who wish to study outstanding players for the purpose of finding someone to pattern their game after. I, for one, have taken a liking to Siegbert Tarrasch for his classical orientation.
It may be difficult to work through these five volumes, but if you could muster the time, there is no doubt you will find the books treasures of chess literature.
9. Underneath the Surface by Jan Markos
Here is the most unique middlegame book I have ever encountered. It does not dwell on any particular subject, but presents random concepts and lessons GM Jan Markos learned in the course of his playing career.
This book really stands out for being a labor of love and a highly personal work. GM Markos entitles the lessons in a way that bears personal significance to him, and they don’t seem to make sense in the beginning. They all become clear much later, however, and help impress the lessons, in fact. The author’s passion for chess and his enthusiasm to share significant learning’s both in winning and losing really shine through.
The best way to make the most out of this book is to understand the concepts very well and to be vigilant if they crop up in your own tournament games. When they do, you must have to compare your game with those the author presented, find out why the concept worked in both cases, or why they worked in one and not in the other. This way you will gain a deep understanding of these concepts, and applying them in your games becomes second-nature.
This book’s unique approach and the relevance of its lessons give much reason it is considered a modern classic by many.
10. 50 Essential Chess Lessons and 50 Ways to Win at Chess by Steve Giddins
If there are chess books that can be so effective in being very simple, two of them have to be the books written by FM Steve Giddins.
In 50 Essential Chess Lessons and 50 Ways to Win at Chess (intended primarily as a sequel to the first book, but which can stand independently), Giddins provides lessons that he illustrates very clearly with model games. These lessons encompass all phases of the game but the bulk of these pertain to the middlegame. Topics include Attacking the King, Defense, Piece Power, Pawn Play, and pawn Structures.
These books’ value lie in their ability to deliver and impress the lessons with their singular approach. Other books try to cover as much ground as possible, but these books’ approach of presenting only one lesson per game make the lessons indelible in the minds of the readers. They learn more by being given less.
As with every concept-based and general strategy book, you’d be wise to pair these with a good tactics or calculation book, because strategy and tactics always go hand in hand. Giddins’ books will familiarize you with many ideas, but a good tactics or calculation book will help you verify whether these ideas will work in your games.
These books may be light and breezy, but time and again their ideas have proven potent for me.
These, then, are my ten best chess middlegame books. I am certain that they will be as helpful and enjoyable to you as they have been to me.