The 3 phases of a chess game


  • Introduction
  • Lessons: The opening game
  • Lessons: The middle game
  • Lessons: The end game


A chess game consists of 3 phases and each phase has different objectives.

  • Phase 1: The opening game
  • Phase 2: The middle game
  • Phase 3: The end game

In each phase there are objectives to consider when making a move – if you do not know which piece to move, then think about the objectives or basic principles of a specific phase! Think King safety during all 3 phases! Not all games move through all 3 phases – sometimes a game ends quickly such as Fool’s Mate or Scholar’s Mate.

Your total planning starts with the opening game and intensifies during the middle game when you execute your plan, but prevent your opponent to execute his or her plan! In the end game the value of each remaining chess piece increases and the players must do everything in their power to hold on to each piece.

Can you name the 3 phases of a chess game? Let’s tackle the first quiz!

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Phase 1: The opening game

Why should you have knowledge about the chess openings?

A chess opening lays the foundation of a chess game. To win a chess game you must start to plan from your very first move – advancing step-by-step! Having knowledge about the openings helps you to decide which move to make first (i.e. where to put your first few pieces) and the positional advantage you want to achieve during the middle game.

To take the game in the direction that you want it to go you have to take the initiative! The more knowledge you have about the openings the better your changes will be to take the initiative! Studying openings gives you ideas how to better respond to your opponent’s moves and how to avoid traps and pitfalls! It also helps you to start with your attacking plan in the middle game!


The main objectives of the opening phase are to develop your pieces, to gain space and to control the centre of the board.

  • Develop your pieces efficiently and effectively before you start to attack your opponent’s pieces (do not waste time – bring your pieces to better positions; open the game with a King or Queen pawn to open up lines for your Bishops and your Queen), castle to bring the King to safety; establish a strong pawn structure; make your pieces more mobilised; develop your Bishops and Knights before your Queen (do not develop your Queen early – it is prone to attack)! Get your Rooks connected. See if you can open up a file to your opponent’s King and not vice versa. Do not move the same piece more than once before the development of your pieces are completed. Avoid traps, but surprise your opponent! All your pieces must work together as a team to support one another, especially when you are attacking your opponent’s pieces. Don’t let your pawns become ‘lone islands’! Create threats to your opponent – put your opponent under maximum pressure!
  • Gain space (restrict the movement of your opponent’s pieces – “cramp” your opponent’s pieces!)
  • Control the centre. Why is control of the centre important? Because the chess pieces control more squares from the centre of the board, i.e. they are placed in a better position to take control of the chess board and the chess pieces also have maximum mobility in the centre (squares d4, d5, e4, e5) (see diagram below). From the centre your pieces can attack or defend easier.

Centre control

In the examples below we illustrate the importance of centre control versus edge-of-board control. The Knight in the centre of the board controls 8 squares whereas the Knight on the edge of the board controls only 2 squares!

Knight centre control

The Knight on e5 (a centre square) controls 8 squares: d7, c6, c4, d3, f3, g4, g6 and f7.

Knight edge-of-board control

The Knight on a1 (an edge square) controls only 2 squares: b3 and c2!

In the examples below we further illustrate the importance of centre control versus edge-of-board control with a Queen. The Queen in the centre of the board has 8 directions of control whereas the Queen on the edge of the board only has 3 directions of control!

Queen centre control

Queen edge-of-board control

There are many variations of openings. Do not try to learn them all by heart, but rather try to understand the principles behind the openings. Experiment with a few openings and see which ones suit your style best. Study the openings of the chess masters – both those that they won and those that they lost. Study what they did right or wrong.

The opening principles are important to follow. However, if for example the principle says you should not move a piece twice in the opening, but you are in a position where you are going to lose a Bishop then you rather move your Bishop to safety instead of developing a new piece!

Be ready for the middle game! Practise, practise and more practise

As a beginner to chess you can start with the following openings.

Giuoco Piano

1. e4      e5

2. Nf3     Nc6

3. Bc4     Bc5

Ruy Lopez

1. e4      e5

2. Nf3    Nc6

3. Bb5

Philidor’s Defense

  1. e4      e5
  2. Nf3     d6

Bishop’s Opening

  1. e4      e5
  2. Bc4     Nf6
  3. d3      c6

King’s Gambit

1.e4      e5


Scotch Gambit

  1. e4      e5
  2. Nf3     Nc6
  3. d4      e x d4

French Defense

  1. e4      e6
  2. d4      d5
  3. e5      c5

Sicilian Defense

  1. e4      c5
  2. Nf3     d6
  3. d4      c x d4
  4. N x d4  Nf6
  5. Nc3

Queen’s Gambit

  1. d4      d5
  2. c4

Queen’s Indian Defense

  1. d4      Nf6
  2. c4      e6
  3. Nf3     b6

Grunfeld Defense

  1. d4      Nf6
  2. c4      g6
  3. Nc3    d5

PS: See “ Shortest chess games “.

We can summarise the opening phase as the laying of a strong foundation (position) before you start with your attack in the middle game.

Before we start with the middle game, let’s do a quiz to assess your understanding of the opening game principles.

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Phase 2: The middle game

The middle game is the transition between the opening game and the end game. It requires observation, reasoning and lots of concentration! Your pieces should work actively together as a team to launch effective attacks on the opponent’s pieces – a strong pawn structure is of utmost importance to assist you.

The middle game is when the real battle starts and where the real action takes place – active threats and exchanging of pieces are taking place! Pattern recognition plays an important role to assist you to recognise chess positions which have occurred in previous games or is part of a specific opening.


  • Tactics (short term actions).
  • Strategic planning (what, how, what if?). You must play with a plan – this plan starts with your first move in the opening game!

Think ahead (2-3 moves), improve and strengthen your position (weaken your opponent’s), take the initiative. How does your position look? Do you have more material (pieces) than your opponent (exchange pieces if you lead with more material)? Do you control more space on the board than your opponent? Do you control the open files with your Rooks? Do you take the initiative? Do you have any weak pieces?

When your pieces are in a cramped position exchange those pieces. Attack your opponent’s weak flank (if the pawn structure in the centre is closed!). Cumulate small advantages with tactical aids such as forks and pins. Chess puzzles are valuable training aids to improve your middle game.

The middle game is like a self defense situation: you are going to get attacked from all positions – you can either defend yourself or counter attack. Be prepared, do not walk open eyes into an attack – think ahead, be swift and surprise your opponent!

Exploit your opponent’s pawn weaknesses or avoid the weaknesses of your own pawn position such as:

  • doubled pawns (mobility of the pawns is restricted)
  • backward pawns (there is no support from other pieces).
  • isolated pawns (there is no support from other pieces).
  • pawns in front of the King (they can be attacked by the opponent and in this way put your King in danger or in checkmate!)

Think effective pawn position and defend your King from possible attack – think King safety! We are now moving to the final stage of the battle: the end game.

Before we are moving to the final stage of the battle, the end game, let’s first assess your understanding of the middle game basics in the next quiz.

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Phase 3: The end game

The players move into the end game once most of their pieces have been captured during the middle game.


  • The King participates actively in the end game.
  • Restrict the movement of your opponent’s King.
  • Force the opponent’s King to the edge (corner) of the chess board. To avoid checkmate your King must stay away from the corners of the chessboard!

Both players move from tactics to strategy as it now gets very difficult to attack. The value of each remaining chess piece increases and the players must do everything in their power to hold on to each piece – one mistake and a player can lose the game! Focus, persevere, think head and plan every move wisely! You must also be very patient – do not make your moves in a hurry. Think King safety!

Know how to gain a positional advantage, but at the same time also know how to get out of a disadvantaged position! Keep your pieces together as a team – if you only have a King and two pawns against a King and a Rook then your King must help to keep your pawns safe! Can you get a passed pawn? Can you promote to a Queen?

Examples of end games

  • King and Knight versus King
  • King and one pawn versus King and Knight. Set up the following 4 pieces:

White: Ke3, e4           Black: Kf6, Ne7

Complete the end game – can White hold onto its pawn and promote to a Queen? Can Black stop White’s pawn to promote to a Queen?

  • King, Bishop and Knight versus King
  • King and Rooks versus King and pawns!
  • King and Rook versus King
  • King and two Bishops versus King
  • King and two Rooks versus King
  • King and pawn versus King!
  • King and two pawns versus King and one pawn

Set up the above pieces any place on the board and complete the end games.

Q: How can White win the following game?

White: Kg5, g6, h7               Black: Kh8

White to move.

Q: In the following end game both players have the same material! Which player has the positional advantage? Can White promote first? Challenge a friend and see who gets checkmate first!

White: Kg5, f4, g6, h5          Black: Ke7, e6, f6, g7         White to move.

Q: What life skills do you need to be a successful [end game] player?

The last quiz test your understanding of the end game – let’s see if you are ready for the final battle!

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