Chess myths: Are there really 3 phases to a chess game?

Is it always this simple? Can you define a phase of a chess game? And does your perception of them change how you play?

Opening, Middlegame, and Endgame. This model is simple and may be a useful one to teach, and to define books and DVD’s (Master the Middlegame!, Improve your opening play, etc.). And I must admit I am a fan of chess quotes like these:

“Play the Opening like a book, the middlegame like a magician, and the endgame like a machine” – Rudolph Spielmann

or

“To beat me you have to do it three times – once in the opening, once in the middlegame, and once in the endgame” – World Champion Alekhine, at the height of his career.

However I also believe that seeing the game this way can alter your evaluations of your play and it can be limiting (“I’m really bad at endgames”) or (“That was lost from the opening”). It can be harmful to stop at these categorisations. You can get stuck in thinking only in terms of these three phases to the extent that it actually harms your moves. A few years ago I was stuck in thinking that a ‘lost’ endgame is irreparable – and I would prefer to make highly speculative moves in the middlegame rather than brave a slightly worse endgame. I didn’t appreciate that the endgame is long – and includes several phases.

To improve your game, we have previously advocated asking other players what type of player you are, and I realised something about my own play when someone said that I “win all my games in the middlegame”. I hadn’t realised, but he was right, I reached an endgame less often than other players.

Now, I’m of course still more than happy to win games in the middlegame – but when I am on the losing side I have learned to fight on and test out opponent’s endgame skills, rather than test their ability to refute a wild sacrifice. Through this, I have learned that a chess game is pretty long after all. The ‘endgame’ especially – can be exceedingly long both in moves played, and the amount of ‘play’ left. One example is this unfavourable position last season, which I managed to turn around:

position1
White is a pawn ahead – and has been since the opening. But Black has been avoiding easy piece-swaps, and therefore keeping the game alive.

I was forced to give up a pawn after a bad opening. Crucially though I had kept the game slightly alive and decided not to panic, and offer to go into double-edged middlegames and endgames. That doesn’t always mean keeping the queens on, it doesn’t always mean closing up the position – it just means finding some imbalance. Here I found myself in a double rook endgame where I could attempt to get my own passed pawn. It still wasn’t great, but it was enough to try.

I eventually conjured up a passed f-pawn which won me the game after a very natural move Rb8 was played here: (Full playback below)

position2a
White is winning, but the best is b5! to gain another passed pawn. My opponent played the natural Rb8, to which I immediately replied Rxa7! There followed Rxa7? and f2! winning for black. See the game below for the cheeky preparatory move Kg7…

My machine says that the game was about +3 to White from move 28 until the mistake on move 43. That’s 15 moves where Black is effectively down a whole piece. But in human terms, it was an extra pawn and some serious work to make it count.

Losing the psychological game

It can be the hardest thing to win a won game. And in amateur chess there are so many swings in the endgame (like the game above!) But take this as a positive – you can play for a win in a lot of positions, just stay positive and try to either prolong or complicate things until your opponent slips up. When you think you are losing, don’t stop looking for wins!

Have you ever been on the back foot in a game, and offered/accepted a draw only to realise that you were actually winning in the end position?

I think this has happened to many of us. If you reach an endgame and think “okay – I’m playing for a draw” then you may miss chances to steer thing around and transition to a winning ‘endgame proper’ – and instead of hanging on, you’ll see ways to complicate the position and create chances for your opponent to slip.

Transitions

In A + B, the ‘+’ is an important ingredient. Or something like that. The point is there is a moment between the Opening and Middlegame, or between the Middlegame and Endgame, which are called transitions. They may last a few moves, and there may be several of them in a row. Some examples include:

  • Exchanges – e.g. trading the queens to go into a ‘Berlin Endgame’ or trading minor pieces to ensure an ‘opposite-coloured bishops ending’
  • Pawn advances to change the structure – e.g. advancing a pawn to block up the centre – turning the game into a blocky, manoeuvring battle
  • Pawn advances to attack – typically the f or g pawns moving two squares with opponent’s castled kingside, signify so much about your plan (and because pawns can’t move backwards, you’re sort of stuck with it!)
  • Sacrifices – these change everything!

There are others of course, but transitions are often more than just one move, they may be preceded by preparatory moves or by other exchanges. They can be short phases – but incredibly important.

The Endgame proper

One phase that definitely deserves recognition is the ‘Endgame Proper’ – how many half points – or even full points – have you seen be lost or won with just a few pieces left? For example this one:

pawntrick
White to move – Kd6! wins, but the natural Kd5 actually loses to Kf4.

Or how about a rook and king vs bishop and king? Can you draw with the bishop? Can you mate with a bishop and knight? These are all ‘Endgame Proper’ examples and well-worth knowing!

The education of a chess player

I may be over-simplifying this, then again it may be a useful way to think about it, but I believe that the more phases you are able to distinguish in a chess game, the more chance you have to improve in all phases.

Let’s follow this through a typical learning curve:

New player – 1 phase

At the very beginning, you see 1 phase – just the game of chess; one long, incredibly complex and surprising string of moves that don’t seem to relate to each other that much. Total chaos in other words!

Beginner – 3 phases

Soon after learning a few things, you see 3 phases:

  • Opening
  • Middlegame
  • Endgame

This helps to break down that enormity and – for example – help you focus on learning the Guioco Piano, or queening an outside passed pawn in a king+pawn endgame.

Beyond – 5 or 6 phases

Later on you see more and more phases and start to think differently. For example, right now I am trying to see up to 6 phases:

  • Opening
  • Transition
  • Middlegame
  • Transition
  • Endgame
  • Endgame proper

Some people have suggested 7, with the addition of another Opening phase – but I’ll need to know more theory for that one! And some have suggested 5, in various combinations.

Of course at some point the distinctions become a less and less practical – like arguing how many dimensions or universes there might be. But even thinking about going beyond 3 can lay the groundwork for improvement.

And who knows what really happens in the minds of the Super-GMs – there may be many more definable phases, as well as the infinite parallel-universe games played out frantically on analysis boards. (If you are a super-GM reading this, by the way, please let us know what goes on!).

Conclusion

Chess is a game where it can all change in one move – let alone one phase – but the longer you see the game to be, and the longer you are willing to play it, the more ways you will see to win it.


 

mikecircle

Mike is co-editor of the Bristol Chess Times and plays regular league and tournament chess

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