The Ruy Lopez is a King’s Pawn Opening  beginning with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5. Named for a 16th-century Spanish priest who popularized it, the Ruy Lopez remains a popular opening at all levels of chess to this day.

 

White plays Bb5

The Ruy Lopez is known for its adherence to classical opening principles.  White and black both grab central space on move one, and develop a knight on move two.  With 3. Bb5, white accomplishes three things:

  • White develops another piece
  • White gets closer to castling kingside
  • White puts some positional pressure on black. At the right moment, white may be threatening to exchange this bishop for the c6 knight to remove the defender of black’s e5 pawn, when white could win a pawn with Nxe5.

Black has many ways to deal with the Ruy Lopez:

  • 3…a6, forcing white to clarify the intent of the intruding light-squared bishop immediately, remains the main line of the Ruy Lopez. It turns out that white’s idea to win a pawn with Bxc6 followed by Nxe5 doesn’t work yet, as we’ll soon see!

 

  • 3…Nf6 is the sturdy Berlin Defense. Black counter-attacks the white e-pawn right away.

 

  • 3…Bc5 is the Classical Defense, and indeed, the active development of the dark bishop seems aligned with the classical opening principles! That said, the bishop can be a target if white later expands with c3 and d4.

 

  • 3…Nge7 is the Cozio Defense. Black reinforces the c6 knight with its partner. 3…g6 will often transpose to the Cozio.

 

  • 3…Nd4 constitutes the Bird Defense to the Ruy Lopez. Black “turns the tables” – now the knight is attacking the bishop instead of vice versa!

 

  • 3…f5 is the aggressive Schliemann Gambit. Black takes the fight to white right away, grabbing more central space and disrupting white’s presence in the center – even at the cost of a pawn!

 

Let’s delve a bit deeper into the main line with 3…a6:

Will white exchange or retreat?

4. Bxc6 is the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez. World Champion Bobby Fischer was known to play this variation as white.

Black should recapture away from the center with 4…dxc6, opening the path for the light-bishop to develop and keeping black’s pawn structure compact.

Another benefit to this move is revealed if white plays the misguided 5. Nxe5?!, seeming to win a pawn:

White took the pawn too early!

Black can play 5…Qd4!, forking the knight and e-pawn.  Black will win their pawn back with a pleasant position.

Instead, white often continues by playing 5. 0-0, getting the king to safety.  With the king having evacuated the center, white really is threatening to take the e5 pawn (…Qd4 and winning the white e-pawn back in response now fails to the disastrous Re1, winning the black queen), so 5…f6 or 5…Bg4 are reasonable moves for black, ensuring that white cannot safely take their key central pawn.

In the Exchange variation, white forces black to accept doubled pawns on the c-file and thus obtains a better pawn structure.  In some endings, this can be a winning advantage, especially if white is able to create a healthy “4-on-3” kingside pawn majority that can create a passed pawn, while black’s crippled queenside majority is unable to.

But black has advantages too. White’s fourth moves hands black the Bishop Pair on a silver platter. The position is quite open, so two bishops could easily prove to be stronger than a bishop and knight.  In some lines, black can even castle queenside behind his large pawn mass!

 

Instead, 4. Ba4 is the main move. White simply retreats from the threat of the pawn, and maintains the ability to take the knight at a later point if white so chooses. Black can kick the bishop away with a later …b5 at some point, but the bishop will stand quite well on b3, eying the vulnerable f7 square.

4…Nf6 is black’s main move, developing a piece and attacking the white e-pawn.

Now 5. Nc3 is reasonable, but this is more in the spirit of the Four Knights Opening than the Ruy Lopez. 5. Qe2, defending the pawn with the queen, is a line I’ve employed myself as a surprise weapon from time to time.

But 5. 0-0 is by far white’s most popular move:

White castles

White highlights the key advantage of the Ruy Lopez and its strict adherence to classical opening principles by castling as soon as possible. White is not concerned that black can take the e4 pawn – if black chooses to open the center when white is castled, and black is not, white can capitalize on this!

Now black has a couple options:

5…Nxe4 is indeed possible.  This is the Open Ruy Lopez. White should play 6. d4 and seek to open the center! White is temporarily down a pawn, but is likely to get it back.  Black’s e5 pawn is now threatened, and playing 6…exd4 is incredible risky – it opens the e-file to black’s uncastled king.

5…Be7 is much more popular.  Black simply keeps developing and gets one step closer to castling.  (5…Bc5 looks like a more active square for this bishop and is sometimes played, but it walks right into white’s plan of playing c3 and d4, when this bishop will have to move again.)

6. Re1 is now the main move. After black’s last move got them one step closer to castling, their threat to the e-pawn became much more credible. White defends the pawn with the rook.

Black should now play 6…b5, because white’s idea to exchange bishop-for-knight on c6 and win the undefended e5 pawn is finally viable after white’s e-pawn is defended! (The …Qd4 fork trick, explained in the above section on the Exchange variation, would no longer work to recover the pawn for black).

7. Bb3 is forced, and black usually plays 7…d6, adding support to the king’s pawn and opening the path for the light bishop to develop. White’s most ambitious move is now 8. c3:

White wants to play d4

White wants to play d4 in the near future and fight for a space advantage. While this move deprives the b1 knight of the c3 square, white will often maneuver this knight to the kingside: Nb1-d2-f1-g3 is a good idea to remember in the Ruy Lopez!

The following sequence, known as the Chigorin variation, is a great illustration of the character of the Ruy Lopez.  Both sides put great emphasis in the classical opening principles of fighting for space and piece development:

8…0-0.  Black gets the king to safety)

9. h3. White wants to play d4 next, but 9. D4 Bg4, with pressure on the d4 pawn via some “removing the defender” ideas, is somewhat annoying, so white preempts it.

9…Na5 (Black threatens to exchange this knight for the strong bishop on b3, and also clears the path for the c-pawn to join the fight for central space).

10. Bc2 c5 11. d4:

White plays d4 and grabs some space

White grabs some central space, and adds a second attacker to black’s e-pawn.

11…Qc7 (Defending the e-pawn and developing a piece)

12. Nbd2 (The knight looks passive here, but white often brings this knight to g3, via f1!)

We’re 12 moves in, and all material is still on the board, with a complex strategic game to follow!

 

I strongly recommend the Ruy Lopez as a mainstay in the opening repertoire for any beginner, and I still play it myself to this day.  The adherence to classical opening principles and the strategic complexity it creates are sure to be good for your chess development.

 

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Blake

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