The Winning Academy 21: The Sharpest Middlegame

by Jan Markos
7/31/2023 – Opposite-coloured bishops (OCB) are tricky beasts. In many (but not all!) endgames, they turn the fight on the board into a boring tea-party, mostly ending in a draw. Many club players therefore expect that in the middlegame they will behave similarly. However, nothing can be further from truth. | Photo: pixabay.

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OCB middlegames are perhaps the sharpest middlegames in the chess world. Why? The reason is simple: these bishops never meet face-to-face. A light-squared bishop can never neutralize an attack of his dark-squared counterpart, and vice versa.

Therefore, in these middlegames the attacker is effectively a piece up. Thus, the main rule you should follow in OCB positions is: Attack! Do not look back, attack violently!

While the basic rule is simple enough, my experience as a coach is that the OCB middlegames are often being misevaluated and misplayed. For example, let us have a look at the following position:

Polgar-Anand, Mainz Rapid, 2003, Black to move:

Try to decide for yourself: Is White better, equal, or worse? What are the plans of both sides?

While many of my pupils (especially those rated under 2200) tend to be hypnotised by the c6-bishop and White´s queenside majority and usually answer that Polgar is equal or even slightly better.

The truth is that Black is winning. Why? Because in the OCB middlegames you have to attack and the most rewarding target of any attack is the king. And here, Black can organize an attack against the White king, making the white c6-bishop feel utterly useless.

Anand played 30…Kg7 and followed up with …h6-h5-h4 and …Rh8, destroying White´s kingside. Judit Polgar was totally helpless. Please, don´t forget to check the game in the viewer, it is definitely worth it.


In OCB middlegames, the attacking prospects are usually worth more than a pawn. In the following example, I will show you a very simplified middlegame (or a sharp endgame, if you want), which is also often misjudged by my students:

Giri-Tiviakov, Amsterdam 2015 (line), White to move:

Usually, my pupils expect White to experience no problems at all, although they understand that converting the extra pawn is far from easy. However, Tiviakov assessed this position as slightly better for Black. From a practical point of view, he was correct. While objectively equal, Giri´s position is difficult to defend. I usually let my pupils to play several blitz games against Stockfish, and most of them lose twice or three times until they find the correct defensive method. (A rather sadistic way of coaching, I know, but an effective one.)

So, what should White do? There are several interesting ideas at his disposal. Firstly, he might play h2-h4-h5xg6, opening Black´s king to possible perpetual checks. (In OCB positions, you should attack, remember!) Also, at the right moment White might play c2-c3 or a2-a3, perhaps even sacrificing a pawn while giving his own king a bit of a breathing space.

A move you should avoid is b2-b3, as this push would severely weaken the dark squares around your king. In OCB middlegames, we avoid putting pawns around the king on the colour of our own bishop.

Here's the complete game:


Sometimes there is no attack against the king in sight. What to do then? Let us have a look how Anatoly Karpov solved this riddle:

Karpov-Khalifman, Linares 1995, White to move:

Well, this position seems to be pretty boring and drawish, don’t you think? How should White add life and sharpness to this dull situation?

Karpov did something unexpected. He played 23.d5!?, putting his central pawn on the colour of his own bishop. Now how should Black answer? If he takes on d5, White retakes with his bishop, centralizing this important piece. Khalifman took a different pawn with 23…dxc4?, but after 24.dxe6! Karpov nevertheless got the d5-outpost, as it transpired that after 24…Qxe6 (24…fxe6 considerably weakens Black´s kingside) 25.bxc4 the white c4-pawn is taboo because of the bishop fork on d5.

The only correct way for Black was 23…e5!, enabling Karpov to get a majority on the queenside, but threatening to get counterplay with …f7-f5 and …e5-e4. Yes, you already know it: in the OCB positions you should always look for any counterplay you can get.

In the following fight, Karpov misplayed on several occasions and Khalifman got some counterplay. In the diagrammed position, Black is to move and ready to consume the unprotected a6-pawn.

However, Khalifman was not careful enough. He took on a6 immediately 35…Qxa6? and after the logical 36.Rb7! Rf8 37.Re2! he was completely tied up to the vulnerable f7-square. All Karpov had to do was to put the e2-rook to f3, hitting f7 once more, and Black´s position was smashed into pieces.

Instead of the naïve 35…Qxa6, Black should have remembered that attack in more than material in the OCB positions and played the prophylactical 35…Rc7! Then after 36.Rb7 Rdd7! the 7th rank is well defended and the a6-pawn is still looking as a nice snack for the black Queen.

And here's the complete game:


What to take away from this part of The Winning Academy? Please remember, that:

  1. The opposite-coloured bishops middlegames are usually very sharp, unlike the OCB endgames.
  2. In these middlegames you should be very active. You should try to attack, preferably the opponents king. If worse, you should prefer active counterplay to passive defence. Fortresses are very rare in OCB middlegames.
  3. Attacking prospects are often worth more than a pawn or two, as the attacking side is effectively a piece up.
  4. Try to put your pawns on the colour of the opponent’s bishop, restricting its activity. (This is also different from the OCB endgames. In the endgames you often want to have pawns on the colour of your own bishop, keeping it safe from the opponent´s bishop. However, in middlegames you are protecting space rather than pawns themselves.)
  5. Enjoy these positions! Being so sharp, the OCB middlegames tend to be fun to play!


See also: Summer Special: Jan Markos: Middlegame Strategy

Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.