Review of GM Smirnov’s ‘Winning the Middlegame’

Quick Look

Middlegame courseWinning the Middlegame

Topic: middlegame, specifically pawn structure and pawn play

My Take: a good resource for intermediate players, but nothing completely new

Length: About three hours of lectures, roughly 100 practical problems

Buy it here.

In Depth

Finally!  GM Smirnov hadn’t released a new course since 2013.  Yes, RCA had released several smaller courses, but they were done by guest GMs and were of much less quality.  Fear not, this is 100% Smirnov: not other GMs, not English voice-overs, just Smirnov.

Even better, this course deals with the middlegame, which is the one weak link in Smirnov’s syllabus.  His opening course is great, his endgame course is very good, but his only middlegame course, Your Winning Plan, is a bit more abstract.  I found it a lot harder to implement it in practice.

This course helps bridge that gap.  It takes the middlegame, perhaps the hardest and most complex phase of the chess game, and makes it completely understandable.  More than that, you know exactly what you should look for in any position, which is rather incredible.  Often, we get bogged down because there are so many options, so many tempting moves.  Smirnov’s course helps us zero in on the one or two moves that really matter.

If you’ve studied any of Smirnov’s other courses, you know roughly what to expect.  First, he gives us a very general outline of middlegame strategy.  It’s only four things, four key points to remember, and they flow in a logical order.  He then spends the rest of the course going deeper into these points, so we fully understand them.

Winning the Middlegame focuses mainly on pawn play, so when and how to move your pawns and how to evaluate the pawn structure.  You likely already know most of the content here: doubled pawns, isolated pawn, weak pawns, etc.  None of this information is new, but Smirnov explains it in a fantastic way that really makes it click.

For instance, how exactly do you attack doubled pawns?  Smirnov gives us a position with the following pawn structure, asking us how we’d hit White’s weak pawns:

Doubled pawns are weak.  We know this, we’ve heard it a thousand times, but how can you take advantage of the above pawn structure?  All the pawns defend each other.  Black could put pieces on virtually any square he wants and still not make a dent in White’s position.  I know I’ve been frustrated by such setups, and I’ll never forget Smirnov’s simple plan for playing against it.  It really works.

Smirnov doesn’t have secret chess knowledge that no one else has.  Rather, his gift is getting us to fully understand the basics, to appreciate the little things that no other chess coach can.  He explains the rules with such crystal clarity that you can’t forget them, and he puts them in a system that lets you use it in your games right away.

I enjoyed this course very much, but as a 2100+ player, I didn’t learn a whole lot of new things.  This is the first RCA course designed specifically for the 1400-2000 player.  Indeed, the lower your rating the more you’ll get out of it.

I would say it’s greatest strength is teaching us how to play the middlegame when you can’t attack.  In my 1800 days I struggled with this, and I notice most of the sub-2000 players I face have the same problem.  If they can attack the King, they are fine, but if they can’t then they are lost.  Having a detailed, step-by-step plan for dealing with these situation is essential for chess improvement.

This great strength, though, is also its greatest weakness.  Pawn play is the only thing this course covers in any depth.  Most people associate the middlegame with attacks against the enemy King, and this course barely touches this subject.  There’s a lot known about attack, with multiple books written on this subject alone, and it’s given precious little attention.  True, most players are far better at attacking than taken advantage of premature pawn moves, but it would be nice to see even a small lesson on it.

Finally, this course only deals with open and semi-open positions.  There is nothing on dealing with blocked or cramped positions.  There is some talk about pawn chains, but it’s more QGD structures than French or KID structures.  My biggest weakness is playing in cramped positions with interlocking pawn chains, and there’s nothing in this course that helps that.  [Though, to be fair, there is a lot of coverage about this in Your Winning Plan, but it seems a curious omission for a course mostly based around pawn structures.]

In the final analysis, this is a good middlegame course, maybe even a great one, but it doesn’t cover everything.  If you are beyond intermediate level, I’d wager you could safely skip this, unless you really suffer in positional middlegame positions.  If you are more intermediate range, you will get much more value.  I’d say sub-1700 would be the perfect target audience.

If you are a beginner, if you haven’t studied a GM Smirnov’s course before, I’d recommend GM Secrets (under 1400) or GM’s Positional Understanding instead.  Those two courses are the perfect introduction to Smirnov’s style of teaching, and they will both improve your middlegame play as a bonus.

Once again, GM Smirnov’s greatest strength is making us fully understand the simple truths of chess.  If you’ve read multiple chess books and haven’t been able to make it work in your own games, then this course might do the trick.

You can check it out here.

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