The Berlin Defense is a response to the Ruy Lopez opening. The game begins with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6
Within the past couple decades, the Berlin Defense has acquired the reputation of being one of the toughest defenses to the entire King’s Pawn Opening. Several high-profile games from elite chess players have featured the Berlin Defense being used as a “drawing weapon.”
The analysis goes very deep in some of the main lines, but white also has ways to avoid these hyper-analyzed lines and simply play an equal middlegame.
Often in the Ruy Lopez, white does not want to defend the e-pawn with Nc3 or d3. This is because white often wants to play an early c2-c3 and d2-d4, fighting for a central space advantage.
Because of this, white often reacts to …Nf6 by simply castling. White can play Re1 next turn to defend the e4-pawn, and if black plays …Nxe4, then black could be in danger of the center opening up before black gets castled.
Let’s translate these words to concrete moves. After 4. 0-0 Nxe4 5. d4, white is threatening to open the center before black can castle. Black’s point in the Berlin Defense is revealed with 5…Nd6:
Now we see why black didn’t kick the bishop away from the b5 square! The knight escapes any e-file pins, while also gaining a tempo by attacking this bishop.
If white wants to win their pawn back, the most logical way to do so is to exchange this bishop off for the knight, and then take on e5. After 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. dxe5 Nf5, white even gets to prevent black from castling with 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8
This is the famous “Berlin Endgame.” Optically, white looks better. Black’s king is stuck in the center. Furthermore, white has a healthy 4-on-3 pawn majority on the kingside, whereas black’s queenside majority is crippled because of the doubled c-pawns.
In a pure king-and-pawn endgame, this turns out to be a winning advantage for white – but getting there is no easy task! In the meantime, black has the two bishops in an open position, which is a significant advantage.
This endgame has been analyzed very deeply. Many top-level games here have been draws, but the position is not a dead draw by any means! In the video above, I show a game where black was able to get an advantage out of the opening (against me, sadly), and a super-GM game where white was able to win with extremely accurate play.
Many players with white want to avoid playing this endgame – even though it’s considered the only real attempt for an advantage against the Berlin Defense. Let’s consider some other ways for white to play.
This unassuming move has been played by Magnus Carlsen and other elite Grandmasters to avoid the highly-analyzed endgame. It might appear unambitious, but white simply wants to play a middlegame where they can develop their pieces before taking any sort of concrete action.
Play might continue with 4…Bc5 5. c3 0-0 6. 0-0 d6 and both sides have tons of options. The game is equal.
This is another way to avoid the endgame. Rather than playing d4, white attacks the knight with his rook right away.
After 6…Nd6 6. Nxe5, black is not able to capture the bishop right away (6…Nxb5?? 7. Nxc6+ wins for white) Instead black can play 6…Be7 to develop his bishop and seal off the e-file, and after 7. Bf1 (avoiding giving up the pair of bishops) Nxe5 8. Rxe5:
The pawn structure is entirely symmetrical. Perhaps white can argue that the d6 knight is misplaced, but this knight will often come to f5 very shortly, and black should have no trouble completing his development. White’s advantage is very minimal – if it exists at all!
The Berlin Defense is a very solid defense to the Ruy Lopez. It’s not as popular in amateur chess, as most players do not want to defend the Berlin Endgame with their king stuck in the center, but the endgame is by no means impossible for black to win (as I’ve found out from the white side more than once!)
If white wants to avoid the endgame, white has some options that lead to a more-or-less equal middlegame, when both sides will have their chances.
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