The Ruy Lopez

Welcome once more aboard the open games train! Today, we are visiting one of the most exciting destinations, and certainly one of those you have been looking forward to the most. We are going to learn all about the Ruy Lopez, also known as the Spanish Game.

If you are reading this article, you are probably already familiar with the concept of open games; they are chess games that begin with the moves 1.e4 e5. Since these first moves are played extremely often, by players of all levels all over the world, it is fundamental to know what you are doing when playing them.

The Ruy Lopez is, by far, the most played opening in the open games. Children giving their first steps in the game play it; amateur chess lovers play it; dedicated chess players of an average level play it; and World Champions play it.

If you are curious about learning why this opening is so popular, grab your chess board and get ready to visit a world of possibilities!

 

How does the Ruy Lopez happen on the chess board?

If you have been playing chess for a while now, it is likely that you are already familiar with the move order that leads to the Ruy Lopez opening. In case you’re not, or need to refresh your memory, here it goes:

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5
Diagram 1a: The Ruy Lopez: starting position.

That’s right; as is very common in the open games, White begins by developing his King’s Knight to f3, in order to attack the e5 pawn, and proceeds to develop his King’s Bishop. This is a classical approach to the game, because every move that White plays is bringing him closer to the main goals of the opening stage:

  • Developing your pieces;
  • Protecting your King (white is getting ready to castle Kingside);
  • Attack the center (Nf3 attacks the e5 pawn);

If you have already read our article on the Italian Game, you already know that c4 is a perfectly natural square for this Bishop.

However, in the Ruy Lopez, the Bishop’s home is the b5 square, and we will now analyze why this move is such a good idea.

 

Why play the Ruy Lopez?

When building a repertoire in the open games, there are many things you should take into consideration. To name a few:

  • Your preferred playing style;
  • How much experience you have in chess;
  • The amount of time you are willing to spend studying chess openings;
  • How each opening is going to bring you a potential advantage.

If you are into classical chess and enjoy a natural piece development and a slow build-up towards a lasting advantage with the White pieces, then the Ruy Lopez is for you.

Being an experienced chess player will allow you to go deeper into each variation and find different ways of grabbing the advantage out of the opening – but it is not necessary to be a top level player to add the Ruy Lopez to your repertoire. As mentioned in the introduction, this opening is seen in games played by people of all levels – including newbies!

At the most basic level, if you think about it, the Ruy Lopez is quite straightforward. It threatens the defender of the e5 pawn, which is the c6 Knight. Together with the natural development we mentioned in the previous section, this rather primitive, yet effective idea is what appeals to many young and inexperienced players when choosing their repertoire.

The third point is, however, the reason why some chess players prefer to stay away from the Ruy Lopez. They know that it involves a lot of opening theory that they are not willing to study. But the truth is that knowing all of the variations we will present you in this article is the price to pay so that you can play what many consider to be the best opening in chess.

If you take a careful look at top-level chess games nowadays, played between strong Grandmasters, you will realize that a great percentage of those that begin with 1.e4 e5 go into the Ruy Lopez. There is a reason why; with White, they firmly believe that the Spanish Game is the one opening out of all that brings the opponent the most difficulty to equalize. With Black, they believe that 1…e5 is the most solid and respectable reply to 1.e4.

Most Grandmasters have played this opening with both colors, and are extremely experienced in navigating its intricacies.

If you aim high and like a challenge, it’s time to go deeper into the analysis of the Ruy Lopez opening.

 

How does Black reply to 3.Bb5?

After the introductory moves of the Ruy Lopez:

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5

Black has two main alternatives, which we will analyze individually.

a) 3…Nf6 (The Berlin Defense);

b) 3…a6 (The Morphy Defense).

a) 3…Nf6 (The Berlin Defense)

Diagram 1b: The Berlin Defense: starting position.

If you follow top-level chess rather closely, you will be very familiar with the Berlin Defense. It was brought to life by Vladimir Kramnik, who used it in the World Championship match against Garry Kasparov, with a lot of success.

From that point on, this variation, which was seen as rather drawish or passive, experienced a remarkable renaissance at the hands of many renowned Grandmasters of our times, such as the current World Champion Magnus Carlsen and former World Champion Viswanathan Anand.

It’s also frequently called the Berlin Wall, due to its reputation for being extremely solid and, even, unbreakable.

Black’s most primitive idea is to attack White’s e4 pawn. However, as you will soon see, if this pawn gets taken, White will win back the pawn on e5.

There are a couple of alternatives White can choose from in this position:

a1) 4.Nc3 (The Four Knights Game);

a2) 4.d3 (The Steinitz Variation);

a3) 4.0-0 (Main line)

 

a1) 4.Nc3 (The Four Knights Game)

Diagram 1c: The Four Knights Game: starting position.

This move entails a transposition into the Four Knights Game, covered in our article here.

In order to play 4.Nc3, players must be extremely familiar with the intricacies of the Four Knights Game and the Ruy Lopez at the same time. Of course, if Black had played 3…a6 instead of 3…Nf6, White would have had to play a classical Spanish Game position.

For that reason, not many players are comfortable at alternating between two openings with the White pieces, and choose not to get into this variation. It is not one of the most popular alternatives, and it is certainly far from being the main line, but let’s look at the common follow-up after 4.Nc3:

  1. Nc3 Bb4
Diagram 1d: The Four Knights Game: position after 4…Bb4.

This move, in a way, “copies” White’s Bf1-b5 idea. Black wants to finish developing his Kingside and put more pressure on the e4 pawn, already attacked by the Knight on f6, by threatening to take its defender.

White is still threatening to do the exact same thing to Black by taking the c6 Knight and e5 pawn, so, in this position, he usually castles, prioritizing his development.

  1. 0-0 0-0
  2. d3 d6
Diagram 1e: The Four Knights Game, position after 6…d6.

Both sides continue developing symmetrically, and opt to castle and then give their central pawns more support by pushing d2-d3 and d7-d6.

However, White must strive for an advantage and get out of the symmetrical chain if he does not want to enter a passive game.

The way to do so is by pinning Black’s Knight with the move 7.Bg5.

Diagram 1f: The Four Knights Game: position after 7.Bg5.

White enjoys the fact that the move d7-d6 has blocked the dark-squared Bishop away from the Kingside, and cannot go back to break the pin of the Knight on the e7 square.

That being said, the same is true for White’s light-squared Bishop, blocked by the d3 pawn. However, this is one of the perks of having the first move: it is no good for Black to copy White and go Bc8-g4 in this position.

Diagram 1g: The Four Knights Game: position after 7…Bg4.

If this move were to happen, White would have the possibility of exchanging the Bishop for the Knight on f6. If Black takes back with the Queen, which is the most logical in order to avoid ruining the pawn structure, White can win a piece with Nc3-d5, attacking both the Queen and the Bishop.

  1. Bg5 Bg4
  2. Bxf6 Qxf6
  3. Nd5
Diagram 1h: The Four Knights Game: position after 9.Nd5.

For that reason, Black does not move his Bishop to g4. Instead, the most played move is to take the Knight on c3, doubling Black’s pawns, though giving up the Bishop pair.

  1. Bg5 Bxc3
  2. bxc3
Diagram 1i: The Four Knights Game: position after 8.bxc3.

This is where we end our brief coverage on the Four Knights Game transposition. If you want to learn more about it, we encourage you to check out our article once more.

Let’s only quickly go through the main ideas for both sides:

White’s plans

  • Use the c3 pawn to support a central advance d3-d4, with the idea of gaining more space. If Black allows it, push d4-d5 to gain even further space;
  • Put pressure on the pinned Knight on f6, now that Black does no longer have his dark-squared Bishop to defend it. Eventually play Nf3-h4-f5 followed by Qd1-f3 and launch a Kingside attack with pieces, while also putting pressure on the vulnerable Knight;
  • Make use of the open b-file to pressure the b7 pawn with a Rook.
Diagram 1j: Plans for White in the Four Knights Game.

Black’s plans

  • Pressure White’s potential central d4 pawn with c7-c5, and use the c7 square to unleash an attack against the weakened double pawns, with the Queen and a Rook;
  • Transfer the c6 Knight to the Kingside with Nd8-e6, to attack the g5 Bishop and eventually play Ne6-f4;
  • Since Black has a majority on the Queenside (that’s where White’s doubled pawns are), he can expand with a6-b5.
Diagram 1k: Plans for Black in the Four Knights Game.

 

a2) 4.d3 (The Steinitz Variation)

Diagram 1l: The Steinitz Variation: starting position.

This move was popularized by the first World Champion in chess history, Wilhelm Steinitz, hence the variation’s name.

Usually, when White plays this move, his idea is to avoid the overly analyzed main variations of the Berlin Defense, which start with 4.0-0, as we will see in the next chapter.

Black’s most logical reply to White’s somewhat quiet move is to bring the Bishop out to c5, preparing to castle and support the center with d7-d6 without leaving the Bishop locked in by the pawn chain.

Diagram 1m: The Steinitz Variation: position after 4…Bc5.

To this move, White usually replies by preparing his main idea: a potential d3-d4 push, supported by a pawn. For that, he has to play c2-c3, which also has the advantage of controlling the important d4 square, ensuring that Black’s Knight won’t find a comfortable central home there.

In return, Black also continues with his plan of castling, in order to protect his own King.

Therefore, play usually goes:

  1. c3 0-0

Reaching the position on diagram 1n.

Diagram 1n: The Steinitz Variation: position after 5…0-0.

White also decides to safeguard his King by castling. Please note that all of these moves are played very naturally because they are in the spirit of classical chess. This type of play prioritizes the King’s safety and the pieces’ development and harmony.

In return, Black gives his central e5 pawn more support, and provides the c8 Bishop with a free route to be developed.

  1. 0-0 d6
Diagram 1o: The Steinitz Variation: position after 6…d6.

As you can see, the Steinitz Variation entails easy play, natural development and quick castling for both sides. However, it may be an interesting possibility for you to avoid theory with the White pieces – and if you are hoping to meet the Ruy Lopez with the Black pieces, then you certainly must be aware of what to do in case you find it on the board.

Here is a quick summary of plans for both sides:

White’s plans

  • Play d3-d4 to gain more space in the center and limit the activity of Black’s pieces, namely the dark-squared Bishop;
  • Maneuver the b1 Knight with Nb1-d2-f1-g3, in order to control the f5 and h5 squares and defend the e4 pawn;
  • Play h2-h3 to stop Black’s Knight from going into g4. Proceed to develop the dark-squared Bishop to e3, in order to support the center and eventually exchange Bishops;
Diagram 1p: Plans for White in the Steinitz Variation.

Black’s plans

  • Play a7-a6 to safeguard the light-squared Bishop on the a7 square and chase White’s light-squared Bishop. Eventually start a Queenside pawnstorm with b7-b5 and c7-c5, to combat White’s central control;
  • Maneuver the f6 Knight with Nf6-d7-f8-g6, in order to control the f4 and h4 squares and defend the e5 pawn;
  • Play h7-h6 to stop White’s Knight from going into g5. Proceed to develop the light-squared Bishop to e6, and eventually use this Bishop to support a central breakthrough with d6-d5.
Diagram 1q: Plans for Black in the Steinitz Variation.

 

a3) 4.0-0 (Main line)

Diagram 1r: The Berlin Defense, main line: starting position.

This is the starting position of the main line of the Berlin Defense, and the one that has given it all of the popularity it has in chess nowadays.

White’s idea of castling is natural: it continues the classical style development that you may already be used to seeing, at this point of your Ruy Lopez study session.

You may be wondering if this move is any good, however. The past two moves we have looked at (4.Nc3 and 4.d3) have one thing in common: they both protect the e4 pawn. Castling, however, does not add any protection to this pawn.

In fact, taking it is the most popular move by Black – but it does not lead to a material advantage, as you will now see.

Diagram 1s shows the position after Black has taken the e4 pawn with the f6 Knight.

Diagram 1s: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 4…Nxe4.

White’s idea is to open up the center with d2-d4. This is actually the perfect moment to do so, as, if Black takes on d4, Rf1-e1 pins the Knight and gains some activity, forcing Black to push d7-d5 to protect the Knight. Then, Nxd4 with a comfortable position follows.

For example:

  1. d4 exd4
  2. Re1 d5
  3. Nxd4
Diagram 1t: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 7.Nxd4.

White is now threatening to take on c6 with either the Knight or Bishop and win a pawn, while Black’s Knight is still uncomfortably pinned by the Rook on e1. Black still has to develop his dark-squared Bishop before castling, which means that it is difficult to find a practical way to survive White’s threats in this position.

For this reason, players and theoreticians of the Berlin Defense, looking at it from Black’s perspective, have figured out that the best way to maintain the position is by retreating the Knight to d6 instead of taking on d4.

The following position is achieved after 5. d4 Nd6:

Diagram 1u: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 5…Nd6.

This move simultaneously attacks the Bishop on b5 and retreats the Knight from its potentially dangerous situation.

White cannot bear to retreat the Bishop and allow Black to take on d4, since that would mean that Black would have a material advantage. Let’s say that, for instance, White were to retreat his Bishop to a4 – Black could simply play exd4, as pictured in the diagram below.

Diagram 1v: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 6…exd4.

As you can see, Black has effortlessly gotten out of the opening stage with an extra pawn, which gives him a comfortable advantage and puts White in the difficult position of having to fight for a draw.

For this reason, White’s move against Nd6 is forced: to take the Knight on c6 with the Bishop, forcing Black to recapture – play goes 5…Nd6 6.Bxc6.

Diagram 1w: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 6.Bxc6.

Now that Black is forced to recapture White’s Bishop in order not to give a full piece away, White will be able to take the e5 pawn, regaining the pawn he had lost on e4 and avoiding an uncomfortable situation.

Usually, Black takes the Bishop with the d-pawn, in order not to create too many asymmetries in the structure – remember that this variation is supposed to be a solid possibility for Black, and the possibility of making a draw with the Black pieces has to be regarded as positive. If Black wants to find a way to fight for the full point with more weapons, he must turn to the variations we are about to look at, with 3…a6 – The Morphy Variation.

Diagram 1x: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 6…dxc6.

In order to strive for a potential advantage and avoid drawish positions at any cost, White’s best bet is to take on e5 with the d-pawn. This creates an asymmetry in the structure and attacks the d6 Knight – and the pawn on e5 gives White a significant spatial advantage.

Diagram 1y: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 7.dxe5.

Black is now forced to move his Knight. Moving it to c4 or e4 would cause it to be attacked by White’s Queen in a very direct way, and force it to lose more time. Take a look at diagram 1z to see this in practice.

Diagram 1z: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 7…Nc4 8.Qe2.

This explains why placing the Knight on any of these squares is not the best of ideas. Instead, Black should place the Knight on f5, a square in which it cannot be attacked by White’s Queen at the moment.

Diagram 2a: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 7…Nf5.

If White attempts to keep the Queens on the board by playing Qd1-e2, Black has an interesting maneuver with the idea of sweeping more pieces off the board: playing Nf5-d4, attacking the Queen and threatening to exchange Knights at the same time.

Diagram 2b: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 8…Nd4.

If White exchanges these Knights, Black’s Queen will be superbly placed in the middle of the board, and Black can easily complete his development, perhaps even with a slight advantage.

For this reason, White’s best bet to claim a slight advantage and try to put some pressure is to exchange Queens, with the following moves:

  1. Qxd8+ Kxd8
Diagram 2c: The Berlin Defense, main line: position after 8…Kxd8.

White’s position is considered to be slightly better, due to the better pawn structure and the bad placement of Black’s King, in the middle of the board and having lost the right to castle.

However, the Berlin Wall is not called so haphazardly. This position bears some interesting solid resources for Black to claim equality, and many pieces have already been exchanged – which increases Black’s drawing chances.

Black also has the Bishop pair, and the weakness of the doubled pawns is not easy to exploit, since they are heavily protected.

Its solid reputation is the reason why many chess players choose to employ it in their games – however, don’t be mistaken! Not all games in the Berlin Defense end in dull draws, and Black even manages to grab a couple of wins from time to time.

These are the plans and ideas you must keep in mind:

White’s plans

  • Occupy the d-file with the Rooks. Since Black has his King in the center and the Bishop still on c8, it will be hard for him to fight for the control of this file;
  • Try to take one of Black’s Bishops to avoid the Bishop pair activity. This can happen with Nf3-g5 if Black plays Bc8-e6.
Diagram 2d: Plans for White in the main line of the Berlin Defense.

Black’s plans

  • Play Kd8-e8, to fight for the d-file with Ra8-d8 and possibly transfer the King to the Kingside in order to increase its safety;
  • Gain space on the Kingside with h7-h5. This is also an interesting plan to develop the Rook via h6 and g6;
  • Breakthrough with f7-f6, to eliminate White’s strong central pawn.
Diagram 2e: Plans for Black in the main line of the Berlin Defense.

 

b) 3…a6 (The Morphy Defense)

Diagram 2f: The Morphy Defense: starting position.

Although the Berlin Wall has been increasing in popularity, players who want to fight for the full point with the Black pieces may find that the winning chances are insufficient – and they will, most likely, switch to playing 3…a6, known as the Morphy Defense. This is, by far, the most played move in this position.

This move faces White with a choice, since his b5 Bishop is under attack. White has two main options: to retreat the Bishop to a4, from where it can still put pressure on the c6 Knight; or to exchange the Bishop for the Knight on c6, doubling Black’s pawns.

Please note that other moves are not ambitious possibilities for White in this position. For instance, retreating the Bishop to c4 instead of a4 leads to a position from the Italian Game, but in which Black has an extra tempo, having played …a6 already.

These are the two lines we are going to analyze in detail:

b1) 4.Bxc6 (The Exchange Variation);

b2) 4.Ba4 (Main line).

 

b1) 4.Bxc6 (The Exchange Variation)

Diagram 2g: The Exchange Variation: starting position.

At the most basic level, this is the most sensible move for White. He is avoiding losing a tempo by retreating his Bishop, and he is also doubling Black’s pawns, as Black will be forced to take the Bishop back with the b or d pawns.

Many chess players, especially those who are starting out, will also see the possibility of taking a pawn for free on e5 after the Knight stops defending it – even though that is not as clear as it may seem at first sight.

However, if you have some basic concepts of chess strategy, you will know that White is also making a compromise by exchanging this Bishop.

He is losing the right to the Bishop pair, which will from this point on exclusively belong to Black. As Bishops control different color complexes, they complement each other, and tend to be a great attacking asset.

This decision is not as straightforward as it may look at first sight – and it certainly is not the most popular continuation, but it still holds chances for an interesting game for both sides.

After White’s decision to take on c6, it is Black’s turn to decide which pawn to capture with.

Taking with the b-pawn is not as popular, as it allows White to play a straightforward continuation that leads him to an advantage.

Diagram 2h: The Exchange Variation: position after 4…bxc6.

White’s main idea in the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez is to occupy the center under good conditions, by pushing d2-d4.

With Black playing 4…bxc6, he can do so immediately – and after Black takes on d4, White’s Queen will be truly majestic in the center of the board.

In addition to this, playing …bxc6 also weakens the a6 pawn, which can become a target in a later stage of the game.

The variation continues:

  1. d4 exd4
  2. Qxd4
Diagram 2i: The Exchange Variation: position after 6.Qxd4.

For this reason, players with the Black pieces have shifted to playing …dxc6 almost exclusively.

Diagram 2j: The Exchange Variation: position after 4…dxc6.

Please note that White should not take the pawn on e5, as that would allow Black to gain some energy and a slight advantage in the position, by playing Qd8-d4.

Diagram 2k: The Exchange Variation: position after 5…Qd4.

This move centralizes the Queen and attacks both the Knight and the e4 pawn at the same time – causing White some serious trouble.

For this reason, White does not take the pawn on e5, saving that trick for later on in the game – it is commonly said in chess that having a lingering threat may even be stronger than playing a move in itself, and White follows this rule.

But if White is not to take the pawn on e5, what should he play?

Playing 5.d4 is not as effective in this position, as White would have to capture with the Knight – capturing with the Queen, as in the …bxc6 variation, allows Black to exchange Queens and enter a comfortable position, in which the Bishop pair advantage is more evident.

This continuation would be:

  1. d4 exd4
  2. Qxd4 Qxd4
  3. Nxd4
Diagram 2l: The Exchange Variation: position after 7.Nxd4.

Since this does not bring enough of an advantage, and as White has gotten his Bishop and Knight out of the way, a logical follow-up, instead of the two moves we have just looked at, is to keep things simple, and just opt to castle.

Diagram 2m: The Exchange Variation: position after 5.0-0.

Black has two effective ways of defending the e5 pawn: pushing f7-f6 to secure it, or pinning the Knight with Bc8-g4. Both are good options that entail similar plans, and the decision of which one to play with the Black pieces ultimately comes down to taste.

Diagram 2n: The Exchange Variation: options for Black after 5.0-0.

Please note that once Black plays f7-f6, the d2-d4 push gains some strength, as the e6 square is weakened and a Knight on d4 could potentially put pressure there. This move effectively protects the e5 pawn, but it does compromise with a newborn weakness; which is why some modern players prefer the Bc8-g4 approach.

All in all, the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez is not the most ambitious alternative for White. It has the advantage of effectively solving the problem of the attacked Bishop on b5 in a rather direct and effortless way; but allowing Black to keep the Bishop pair may be a serious commitment.

This variation is mostly played by people who do not wish to dive deep into the Ba4 lines, knowing that they have heavy amounts of theory behind them.

Let’s briefly conclude before we start analyzing the main lines of the Ruy Lopez.

White’s plans

  • Try to exchange pieces and put pressure on Black’s doubled pawns;
  • Take control over the center with d2-d4; if possible, try to take with the Queen in an advantageous situation; if Black plays f7-f6, take with the Knight and put pressure on the e6 square;
  • Gain space on the Queenside with a2-a4-a5;
Diagram 2o: White’s plans in the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez.

Black’s plans

  • Avoid exchanging pieces in order to take advantage of the Bishop pair;
  • Establish more central control and gain space by playing c6-c5;
  • Breakthrough with b7-b6 once White has played a2-a4-a5, or eventually f7-f5. It is important to open up diagonals for the Bishops to play along on.
Diagram 2p: Black’s plans in the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez.

 

b2) 4.Ba4 (Main line)

Diagram 2q: Main line of the Ruy Lopez: position after 4.Ba4.

We have finally arrived at what is, perhaps, the most important part of this article: the main lines of the Ruy Lopez.

If you are relatively new to this opening, you will probably have heard one or two things about its main lines: they have heavy amounts of theory, but they also offer chances for a rich game, and they are preferred by many top-level chess players, both with the White and Black pieces.

The main line of the Ruy Lopez begins with White retreating the Bishop to a4. As mentioned earlier, if White is going to move the Bishop – and not take the Knight, as we have seen in the Exchange Variation above – the only square that really makes sense is a4.

From a4, the Bishop can still put pressure on the c6 Knight. If you recall correctly, one of the things we had mentioned about the Ruy Lopez was that White’s most basic idea is to eventually take the pawn on e5, although that may not happen directly.

To the move …Bb5-a4, Black should reply by keeping things natural, and bringing a piece out – preferably with a threat himself, so that he can retaliate White’s direct play.

For this reason, the move 4…Nf6 is played in nearly every game, once this position is reached.

Diagram 2r: Main line of the Ruy Lopez: position after 4…Nf6.

As you can probably tell at this point, most of the Ruy Lopez moves have something in common: they are natural, simple and aimed at very basic purposes and ideas. These principles build what we know as classical chess, and this opening is one of its biggest bastions.

Along these lines, it is only natural that White replies with a normal move, that continues development, and so does he. The best move for White is 5.0-0 – which, at first sight, may seem like a mistake.

White opts not to protect the e4 pawn, and the truth is that he needn’t. White’s threat of the pawn on e5 and Black’s threat of the pawn on e4 counterbalance each other, and while they exist, neither of the sides will be too worried about defending his own pawns in a passive way. As you may know by now, at times, the best defense is actually to attack something of your opponent’s!

Diagram 2s: Main line of the Ruy Lopez: position after 5.0-0.

At this point, the pressure is on Black’s side, since he must decide how to continue the game. There are three main options for Black’s fifth move, although the third one we will name is, by a significant margin, the most played move in this position.

b2.1) 5…Nxe4 (Open Defense)

b2.2) 5…b5 (Arkhangelsk Defense)

b2.3) 5…Be7 (Closed Defense)

 

b2.1) 5…Nxe4 (Open Defense)

Diagram 2t: Open Defense: position after 5…Nxe4.

The Open Defense is characterized by a move that many will consider to be the most logical for Black: simply taking the pawn on e4, as White has castled instead of defending it.

However, as we know by now, neither of the sides should have the illusion that they will win a pawn in the Ruy Lopez.

If White wanted to, he could win back the pawn by playing:

  1. Bxc6 dxc6
  2. Ne5
Diagram 2u: Open Defense: position after 7.Ne5.

However, this position is fairly dull, and, similarly to the Exchange Variation that we have previously analyzed, White has to give up the Bishop pair.

Therefore, theoreticians and players have realized, once again, that the most straightforward path is not the most correct one.

If you look closely, you will realize that by taking the pawn on e4, Black’s Knight is somewhat exposed on e4. A Rook coming into e1 and the pawn on e5 disappearing would lead to it being pinned to the King.

You may think that this is rather unlikely, but the truth is that you must always keep your eyes peeled for this kind of potential tactical ideas.

Trying to cause some trouble to the Knight on e4, White’s move is disruptive, but certainly natural if you keep these ideas in mind: 6.d4.

Diagram 2v: Open Defense: position after 6.d4.

If Black replies by taking the pawn on d4, Rf1-e1 is incredibly dangerous, pinning the Knight to the King and putting Black under some serious pressure.

Diagram 2w: Open Defense: position after 7.Re1.

As this is rather dangerous, Black’s best bet is to chase White’s Bishop on a4. This is a good idea because it removes the potential threat of Bxc6-Nxe5, and because it expands on the Queenside while opening up the possibility of the Bishop coming into b7 and protecting the Knight on e4. You may have guessed it: the correct move is 6…b5.

Rather naturally, White replies by playing 7.Bb3, the only available square for the Bishop at the moment.

Diagram 2x: Open Defense: position after 7.Bb3.

Now that the Bishop has been chased away, Black must try to stabilize his position. Taking the pawn on d4 is still a bad idea, for the same reason as before.

Because of that, Black’s best idea is to play …d7-d5. This move fixes the Knight on e4, providing it with some steady support, limits the Bishop on b3, and prevents White from potentially playing d4-d5 himself, expanding and chasing the c6 Knight.

Of course, as you will be able to tell, Black is not overly ambitious in trying to keep his material advantage. White will have the opportunity of regaining the pawn on e5 after this move – but the most important thing for Black, at the present moment, is simply to give his position some stability, so that he can complete his development and safeguard his King by castling.

Diagram 2y: Open Defense: position after 7…d5.

Naturally, having been given the opportunity to do so under good conditions (without giving up the Bishop pair, for instance), White opts to take the pawn on e5. He takes it with the d-pawn and not the Knight, in order to keep more pieces on the board and aim for complications later on in the game.

Diagram 2z: Open Defense: position after 8.dxe5.

The material balance has been re-established in this position, and a whole world of possibilities awaits. The Open Defense is not played very regularly nowadays, as White is believed to have a slight, yet comfortable edge, due to the spatial advantage of having the pawn on e5, and of having castled and completed development already.

Let’s move on, but first, we must remember a couple of important ideas from this variation:

White’s plans

  • Play c2-c3 to stop Black from eventually expanding with d5-d4 or b5-b4 and use the c2 square to place the Bishop, aimed at a Kingside attack;
  • Play Rf1-e1 to support the pawn on e5 and free the f1 square for the Knight, from where it can be transferred to g3 or e3 in order to control important squares on the Kingside and the center, namely f5, d5 and h5;
  • Potentially play b2-b4. This is a tough decision, as the c3 pawn may be left backwards, but White may gain a lot of space on the Queenside and exploit Black’s weakened dark squares, namely c5 and a5.
Diagram 3a: Plans for White in the Open Defense.

Black’s plans

  • Play Bc8-e6 to support the d5 pawn and block the e5 pawn. If possible, push d5-d4 under good conditions to release this Bishop;
  • Play Ne4-c5 to exploit White’s weakened light squares (especially d3) after he has pushed c2-c3;
Diagram 3b: Plans for Black in the Open Defense.

 

b2.2) 5…b5 (Arkhangelsk Defense)

Diagram 3c: Arkhangelsk Defense: starting position.

Another sensible idea for Black is to leave the e4 pawn alone for the time being, and focus on chasing White’s Bishop on b5.

As has been previously mentioned, chasing this Bishop with a6-b5 is a good idea, since it prevents White from having the Bxc6-Nxe5 trick up his sleeve, and it gains some space on the Queenside, while also preparing Bc8-b7.

White’s reply is not too hard to predict, as the Bishop only has one square to move to without being captured for free: b3.

Diagram 3d: Arkhangelsk Defense: position after 6.Bb3.

This variation is called the Arkhangelsk Defense because it has been brought to life by players from the Soviet city of Arkhangelsk.

However, theory has largely evolved, and many things have changed since it has first been developed.

The “old-fashioned” Arkhangelsk Defense is characterized by the natural developing move 6…Bb7, in this position.

Diagram 3e: Arkhangelsk Defense: position after 6…Bb7.

Although this is a logical and understandable move, modern theory tells us that there is a better way of playing the Arkhangelsk variation: 6…Bc5.

The idea is that Black delays the decision of where to place the light-squared Bishop: he can either place it on b7 and control the center from afar, or place it on g4 and pin the Knight on f3 and indirectly increase the central pressure.

This is a more refined way of playing the same ideas, and the one that is most often seen on top-level players’ chess boards nowadays – it is called the Modern Arkhangelsk Defense.

Diagram 3f: Modern Arkhangelsk Defense: position after 6…Bc5.

At this point, White is at a crossroads. He can choose between two plans: trying to disrupt Black’s Queenside structure by breaking through with a2-a4, or expanding in the center with c2-c3 followed by d2-d4.

7.a4 is a complex and sophisticated line, to which Black replies by supporting his Queenside pawn structure and aiming to open up the b-file, with 7…Rb8.

Diagram 3g: Modern Arkhangelsk Defense: position after 7…Rb8.

This leads to a complex and sophisticated line, with heavy amounts of theory. For this reason, many players opt to continue with the more classical 7.c3, which is quite in the spirit of the Ruy Lopez opening.

Diagram 3h: Modern Arkhangelsk Defense: position after 7.c3.

Black’s most logical reply is to open up the way for the c8 Bishop to be developed, while also providing the center with some extra support: 7…d6 is the way to go.

Diagram 3i: Modern Arkhangelsk Defense: position after 7…d6.

White’s most obvious reply is to expand in the center with 8.d4, the logical follow-up to 7.c3. However, it is still possible to play 8.a4 and enter the complicated line we had mentioned earlier.

Since there are still many open possibilities in this position, let’s leave it here before we head to the absolute main line of the Ruy Lopez – but not without summarizing plans for both sides in the Arkhangelsk Defense first.

White’s plans

  • Expand in the center with d2-d4, to harass Black’s Bishop on c5 and gain a spatial advantage;
  • Break Black’s pawn structure apart in order to try to create weaknesses, with a2-a4;
  • Play Bb3-c2, in order to put indirect pressure on the Kingside (namely on h7) and support the center.
Diagram 3j: Plans for White in the Arkhangelsk Defense.

Black’s plans

  • Play Ra8-b8 and try to open up the b-file by either pushing b5-b4, or taking on a4 if White plays a2-a4 himself;
  • Put indirect pressure on White’s central formation by pinning the Knight on f3 to the Queen with Bc8-g4;
  • Eventually pressure White’s weak b2 pawn if he plays a2-a4.
Diagram 3k: Plans for Black in the Arkhangelsk Defense.

 

b2.3) 5…Be7 (Closed Defense)

Diagram 3l: Closed Defense: starting position.

You now know that 5…b5 and 5…Nxe4 are two decent possibilities for Black, that entail interesting and complex games. However, if you happen to take a look at a chess board in which a Ruy Lopez opening is being played and come across the position after White has played 5.0-0, you will most likely see the player with the Black pieces blitzing out this move: 5…Be7.

This is known as the Closed Defense. It has this name since Black opts not to open up the game by taking on e4, which, as you recall, was precisely called the Open Defense.

However, most people simply name it the main line of the Ruy Lopez. This is an indispensable position for any chess player, regardless of level or category, and it is where all of the long lines of theory begin.

White’s most popular reply to 5…Be7 is, by a wide margin, to play 6.Re1. This is a sensible move that is very much in the spirit of the opening. If you recall correctly, we have previously mentioned that an important plan for White is to transfer the Knight either to e3 or g3, in order to control important squares, such as d5 and f5. This move prepares that exact plan.

Diagram 3m: Closed Defense: position after 6.Re1.

Black’s reply is also the most popular by a wide margin, and, since it is still very much in the scope of well-known theory, most players also play this move rather quickly and effortlessly.

We are talking about the move 6…b5. As you know by now, this is also a recurring idea for Black – it limits White’s light-squared Bishop while, at the same time, expanding on the Queenside and gaining some space.

As you can tell rather easily, White only has one square to move this Bishop to, so the next move is not too hard to predict: 7.Bb3.

Diagram 3n: Closed Defense: position after 7.Bb3.

Once this position has been reached, it is up to Black to decide which plan to follow up with. There are two main possibilities for Black in this position: 7…0-0, which may lead to the adventurous Marshall Attack, and 7.d6, the main line.

Let’s take a brief look at the ideas behind the Marshall Attack.

Diagram 3o: Closed Defense: position after 7…0-0.

For the Marshall Attack to take place on the board, White must play 8.c3 in this position. Of course, there are many other moves that can be played, but certainly pushing c2-c3 is one of the most logical possibilities, as it prepares the typical central onslaught with d2-d4.

Diagram 3p: Closed Defense: position after 8.c3.

Black can, of course, play 8…d6 and transpose to the main line, whose ideas we will be covering next. However, in order to differ from them and play the Marshall Attack, the continuation is 8…d5.

Diagram 3q: Marshall Attack: starting position.

This is one of the sharpest and most aggressive attempts for Black in the whole Ruy Lopez opening. It entails a pawn sacrifice, and, should White accept it, a powerful Kingside attack will take place. Let’s look a few moves further into the variation:

  1. exd5 Nxd5
  2. Nxe5 Nxe5
  3. Rxe5 c6
Diagram 3r: Marshall Attack: position after 11…c6.

Generally speaking, Black’s idea is to chase the Rook on e5 with the Bishop, by playing Be7-d6, and then joining the attack with the Queen, coming into h4 and putting pressure in White’s Kingside pawns.

Diagram 3s: Marshall Attack: Black’s ideas.

The Marshall Attack may not be 100% sound for Black, but it certainly creates a mess on the board. Not all players who have the White pieces and employ the Ruy Lopez opening in their games will feel comfortable being heavily attacked on the Kingside, despite being a pawn up.

That was the reason why many players started playing moves other than 8.c3, called the Anti-Marshall variations. The following diagram shows some of the most popular ones:

Diagram 3t: Anti-Marshall moves: 8.h3, 8.d4 and 8.a4.

Going back to the position in which White has played 7.Bb3, as mentioned, Black can play 7…d6 and enter the main line, which is far quieter – and, some will argue, a lot less fun! – than the Marshall Attack.

Diagram 3u: Closed Defense: position after 7…d6.

Being faced with this move, players who employ the Ruy Lopez with the White pieces always follow their very typical plan: to expand in the center with c2-c3 and d2-d4. And that’s what the next move is all about.

Diagram 3v: Closed Defense: position after 8.c3.

Black’s reply is also the same in nearly every game played in the Ruy Lopez: to simply castle. Please note, again, that the moves in this opening are all quite classical, quiet and aimed at development and slow maneuvering – except for a few more aggressive lines, such as the Marshall Attack we have previously analyzed.

Diagram 3w: Closed Defense: position after 8…0-0.

Right now, you may think that White has done all of the so-called “typical” moves of the Ruy Lopez: 0-0, c2-c3, Rf1-e1… It could be the perfect timing to play d2-d4, the central push that White slowly builds up throughout the opening stage.

However, Black has an interesting idea to make White’s life more difficult if he plays 9.d4 in this position: to reply with 9…Bg4, pinning the f3 Knight to the Queen and eventually threatening to take it and remove the protection of the d4 pawn.

Diagram 3x: Closed Defense: position after 9…Bg4.

White does not need to be in a rush and play 9.d4, allowing 9…Bg4 to disturb his piece placement.

For this reason, many chess players have adopted a prophylactic approach to the position, and have started playing 9.h3, in order to prevent Bc8-g4.

Of course, White will still push d2-d4 later on: but he can do so when all of his pieces are correctly placed, and when Black does not have active counterplay chances, such as this one.

Diagram 3y: Closed Defense: position after 9.h3.

This is where we will finish our coverage of the Closed Defense in the Ruy Lopez Opening. The heavy amounts of theory are impossible to fit in this article, and surely, from this position on, there are hundreds of thousands of chess games, with many different ideas, approaches and results.

The most important thing for you to take out of this article are the plans and ideas for both White and Black, so that you can play the Ruy Lopez confidently. As usual, we will now precisely review those plans in which concerns the scope of the Closed Defense.

White’s plans

  • Expand in the center with d2-d4, to gain a spatial advantage (in green);
  • Transfer the Knight to the Kingside via d2-f1-g3/e3, from where it can control important squares, namely d5, e4 and f5 (in red);
  • Start a Kingside attack with pieces, by playing Bc1-e3 and Bb3-c2 and pointing the Bishop pair at Black’s King (in yellow).
Diagram 3z: Plans for White in the Closed Defense.

Black’s plans

  • Expand on the Queenside, namely by playing a6-a5, b5-b4 and, sometimes, c7-c5. This is mostly aimed at gaining a space advantage and creating weaknesses on White’s Queenside (in green);
  • Breakthrough in the center to disrupt White’s control, by accurately preparing the move d7-d5 (in red);
  • Put pressure on the e4 pawn with the Knight on f6 and potentially a Bishop on b7 (in yellow);
Diagram 4a: Plans for Black in the Closed Defense.

 

Conclusions

Congratulations on reaching the end of this tiring and long journey throughout the intricacies of the Ruy Lopez opening!

It is time to draw a few conclusions, and you should keep these in mind if you are planning on playing this opening in your own chess games. If, instead, you have only read this article to increase your chess knowledge – then you must keep these conclusions in mind as well, as it will be easy to recall everything you have learned!

  • The Ruy Lopez is the most played opening in the open games. Everyone, from top-level grandmasters to beginners, can play this opening, and it is seen extremely often in practice;
  • This opening is known for having extensive amounts of theory, and that is not wrong, since it has been heavily analyzed throughout the ages;
  • It entails classical play – pieces are harmoniously developed and moves are natural and flowing, most of the time;
  • One possibility for Black is to play the Berlin Wall, or Berlin Defense, an extremely solid variation, with a reputation for being rather drawish – but also unbreakable!
  • If Black does not play the Berlin Defense, he will play the Morphy Defense;
  • In response to the Morphy Defense, White can enter the Exchange Variation, by playing Bxc6;
  • The most common reply for White, is, however, to retreat his Bishop to a4, which leads to the main lines of the Ruy Lopez.
  • A few moves later, we can find three main variations for Black: the Open Defense, the Arkhangelsk Defense, and the Closed Defense;
  • The Closed Defense is, in fact, the absolute main line of the opening;
  • White’s main plan is to slowly but surely build up a controlling position, and eventually launch a Kingside attack with his pieces;
  • Black’s main plan is to expand on the Queenside and try to create weaknesses in White’s field, and also, potentially, break the center open in order to disconnect White’s pieces.

See you soon for many other pawn structure articles!

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