What are the three phases of a chess game? Explained!

There are three phases in the game of chess namely the opening (from the first move until 10-20 moves), the middlegame (where most pieces are already developed), and the endgame (where there are only a few pieces left) each of which is all played differently.

Chess is a long game that is typically played for hours, making its phases naturally long, a total of three. A lot of beginners may not be familiar with the nature of each phase which I will explain here.

Take note that even when there are three phases in the game the match doesn’t necessarily have to reach all of them. The game could very well end in the first phase, the second phase, but also all the way to the third.

It is important for us to differentiate each of the game’s phases in order to develop a proper approach for it. Our playstyle will adjust depending on what stage of the game we are currently in and how we should approach it. Without further banter, let’s begin.

What is the opening phase of chess?

The opening phase is the first move until around 10-20 moves of a chess game where theories exist (memorized moves) where the center is being controlled, pieces are being developed, and the kings are castled.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the opening begins and ends, there’s no number to it. However I found that you can typically describe it around the first move until the 10 to 20 moves of the game.

It is the very first phase where standardized knowledge (memorized moves) can be applied and is not far away from the starting position. The 10 to 20 move metric is just something that is applicable to the general population with regular knowledge.

However, theories can in fact extend to more than 20 moves meaning the opening phase can be as far beyond there. Professionals who have extensive knowledge in opening theories can still consider move 25-30 in the opening phase.

The same game for beginners however is already a part of the middlegame since they don’t have the knowledge to apply the theories. The amount of memorized knowledge will dictate how far the beginning phase is a part of the opening.

There is an exception to this though, and that is 1-10 moves of the game which will definitely be part of the opening even when theories are not applied. It is so early that it cannot be a part of the middlegame and the memorization part will no longer be relevant.

The opening is where both sides control the center with pawns, develop their pieces, and castle the king. Since the pawns are still in their starting square, it needs to be pushed to control more space.

This will allow other pieces to develop that cannot do so when the position is blocked by ally pawns. Most first moves in the openings are in fact made with the pawn with the exception of the early knight move due to the blocking reason.

Another characteristic of the opening is where the pieces are starting to get developed (getting out of their starting square). Most chess pieces after all work better if they are out in the open instead of being limited at the back rank.

A lot of the moves in fact are not made with the same piece/pawn twice since the goal is to get everything out there. The pawns and pieces are usually directed towards the center as both sides are doing this.

The opening phase also typically involves both sides rushing to castle their king either queenside or kingside. King’s safety after all is prioritized before heading into the middlegame where attacks usually occur.

The most common moves in the opening are either with the bishop or the knight, making room for a kingside castle. This phase usually ends when there are no longer any theories (predefined set of moves) and both sides have to attack, defend, or plan their moves.

Of course there will still be attacks, defense, and planning in the opening, just not as complex in the middle game. Most moves in this phase are not really to attack/defend just to develop the pieces.

Due to this the moves are much easier to understand and with simpler purposes. Players don’t usually think as much in this phase as with the other two since things are less calculated and more memorized.

The opening phase is considered over when both players are out of preparation and started calculating.

What is the middlegame phase of chess?

The middlegame is where attack and defense usually occurs, where most pieces have already been developed, the moves are no longer driven by theory (memorized moves), and the kings have already castled (although not strictly).

The middlegame begins when most pieces are already developed, there are no longer any theoretical moves, or the king has already castled (not strictly). Since the main goal of the opening is to develop the pieces, most should already be active at this point.

Though a phase is still considered a middlegame even when one of the players does not have active pieces. As long as one of them has already made enough effort to develop their pieces, then it should already be considered a middlegame.

There will still be one or two underdeveloped pieces here and there but most should be active at this point. This phase of course is characteristic of a non-memorized game unlike the opening where here, a player has to analyze things on their own. 

The extent to which the moves are memorized is usually a good indicator that it is already the middlegame phase. This is where attacks, defense, and planning is the most critical than any other since the pieces will be most active.

The middlegame is where no exact plans are recommended since there are so many positions that the game can head to. It is unlike the opening or the endgame where there are tutorials on how to deal with specific positions.

We only teach concepts here that can be applied in very specific situations (not positions), creativity will take over at that point. If you want to learn these guidelines (principles) in the middlegame, my other article (will open in a new tab) will help.

The middlegame is usually the longest and most complex phase since there are so many pieces. It is the longest since the complexity just allows more opportunity to stall the game further.

Although some endgames can even reach longer (if one side is stubborn) but the middlegame is usually the long one.

What is the endgame phase of chess?

The endgame phase is characterized by having few pieces typically around three for each player (although not strictly), but also when the queens are already exchanged making it the last phase of a chess game.

The endgame usually begins when there are few pieces left on the board, about three of them (not strictly). Just from the name it is the endgame, a phase where the game is heading into an ending.

Unlike the middlegame where there are so many of the pieces, the number of pieces here is limited. When there are only 3 pieces (either a queen, rook, bishop or a knight from each side) then it must be an endgame.

This phase is almost as complex as the middlegame although not at the same level, though every move here is more important than in the middlegame. Of course every move is important in other phases too just not as important as the one here.

If one made a mistake/blunder in the opening or middlegame is made, it usually can be taken back later down the road. If one made an inefficiency in the endgame then it will cost the game most likely (there are lesser opportunities for retribution).

The three-piece endgame identification rule is not always applicable, some people will already call a game without queens an endgame. But really, it is just a term that players use to indicate the game ending or about to end.

This is the phase where the pawns, rooks, and kings become powerful unlike in the opening and the middlegame. The pawns become powerful since there are fewer pieces to stop them from achieving promotion. 

There are positions where it is better to give up a piece just to stop the pawn from potential queening. Due to this, players typically protect their pawns like gold in these late stages of the game.

This is where pawns are heavily protected and pushed to be promoted in order to bring victory. Another piece that will be dominant is the rooks since there are no more tight spaces that prevent them from becoming influential.

The rooks can basically be as strong as the queen in an open board which is not possible in the middlegame. They can move fast from coast to coast of the edges and influence multiple tiles from one point in the endgame.

Along with the king, they will be the powerful forces that will escort the running pawns. The king will infiltrate the position while the rook will serve as the cover, this is usually the theme in the endgames.

The endgame is over of course when the game ends (a checkmate, stalemate, insufficient material, or resignation occurred). This is the phase where the promotion of the pawns is usually where the plans are built, so the game revolves around them.

Do you now know the difference between the opening, middlegame, and endgame?

The three phases in chess really have distinct characteristics that make them different from one another. Understanding them is critical in letting us players know the priorities and approach we need to take.

Finding peculiar characteristics upon entering one phase is dubious yes, but there are ideas that make identification easier. The three phases in themselves properly express the essence of the chess game in summary.

I hope this has provided enough information to prompt new perspective towards this pursuit, sleep well and play chess.