Ruy Lopez Opening – Quick Start Guide

Ruy Lopez Opening – Quick Start Guide

The Ruy Lopez Opening is one of the oldest openings in chess history. Together with the Italian, it is among the most used weapons against 1…e5. Also referred to as the Spanish Opening, we reach it after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5.

The opening is named after the Spanish priest Ruy Lopez de Segura, who studied it in depth in the 16th century. In 1561, he published a book, “Libro de Axedrez”, where he argued the superiority of 3.Bb5 to 3.Bc4 (the Italian Opening). The popularity of the Ruy Lopez increased in the 19th century, thanks to Carl Jaenisch, a strong player in his day and a respected chess theorist. Nowadays, the Spanish Opening is a common guest in every tournament, at all levels. It is a principled opening, suitable for a beginner, for example, but it can become a lethal weapon as well in the hands of an experienced Grandmaster.

Ruy Lopez Opening - Quick Start Opening Guide

Theory Overview

The theory of the Ruy Lopez is very well developed and still constantly being developed. At the highest level, top theoreticians try to find new ideas that can pose black practical problems. There is a large amount of theory available in this opening, as well as many books written by renowned authors. However, being quite a solid opening, it can be played at any level if you understand its plans and ideas.

Black’s most popular 3rd moves are 3…a6 (the Morphy Defense) and 3…Nf6 (The Berlin Defence). The next two most played moves, but much less popular than the Morphy and the Berlin, are 3…d6 (The Modern Steinitz Defence) and 3…f5 (The Jaenisch Gambit or the Schliemann Defence). While the Steinitz Defence isn’t considered dangerous, the latter can get pretty aggressive. It’s important to know how to react with white and avoid getting surprised over the board.

There is one thing white must watch out for in the Modern Steinitz Defense, and that’s the Noah’s Ark Trap:

5.d4 b5 6.Bb3 Nxd4 7.Nxd4 exd4 8.Qxd4??

5.d4 b5 6.Bb3 Nxd4 7.Nxd4 exd4 8.Qxd4??

Now, after 8…c5 followed by 9…c4, the white light-squared bishop is trapped. White can try 9.Qd5, but after 9…Be6 10.Qc6+ Bd7 white will run out of threats to create and lose the piece.

Here we’re going to take a brief look at black’s most popular replies, 3…a6 and 3…Nf6

The Morphy Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6)

Ruy Lopez Opening - Quick Start Opening Guide

4. Ba4

The alternative is 4.Bxc6, the Exchange Variation. This is a solid, but much less popular line. Many players prefer to go for the more complicated Spanish middlegames, where the light-squared bishop is usually a key piece. It can exert pressure on the kingside from b3 or can help the central d4 break from c2. When placed on this square, it defends the e4 pawn and is ready to join the attack once the b1-h7 diagonal opens up. The main idea of the Exchange Variation is seen in the endgame. White hopes to get into a favorable endgame, where black’s doubled pawns on the c file will give the first player good winning chances. The following pawn structure is what white is hoping for:

4. Ba4

In the diagrammed position, white will be able to create a passed pawn on the kingside, while black’s queenside pawn majority is difficult to advance.

Fischer is one of the players who had great results with this line. His win against Spasksy is a classic:

Another point to remember is that white will not win a pawn on the 5th move after 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.Nxe5:

Ruy Lopez Opening - Quick Start Opening Guide

After 5…Qd4, black wins back the material, with good play.

4…Nf6 5.0-0

This move leads to the next main crossroad. Black’s most-played move is 5…Be7 (the Closed Ruy Lopez), but 5…b5 and 5…Ne4 are both possible.

Quite often, 5…b5 transposes to the 5…Be7 line after 6.Bb3 Be7 7.Re1.

5…Nxe4 takes us to the Open Ruy Lopez, a more dynamic and aggressive line:

4…Nf6 5.0-0

Play continues with 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.c3 Bc5 10.Nbd2 0-0 11.Bc2 Nxf2 12.Rxf2 f6, with a complicated position

Ruy Lopez Opening - Quick Start Opening Guide

White is of course completely fine, but black has good excellent attacking chances, as shown by Shirov in the following rapid game:

6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6

Black’s alternative is 7…0-0. The two moves can transpose to each other, but not necessarily. Castling first allows black to go for the Marshall attack, if white replies with the same 8.c3. 8…d5 is now a dangerous line where black will lose a pawn, but gain the initiative after 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6 12.d4 Bd6 13.Re1 Qh4:

6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6

Many strong players have employed this line with the black pieces, but Svidler’s win over MVL is particularly nice:

If white wants to avoid the Marshall theory, then the alternative is to go for 8.a4 instead, the Anti-Marshall:

Ruy Lopez Opening - Quick Start Opening Guide

8.c3

White prepares to strike in the center with d4 at the right moment.

8…0-0 9.h3

Before advancing d4, white has to make sure that black won’t have the Bg4 move. This would pin the knight and create unpleasant pressure on the d4 pawn.

8…0-0 9.h3

This position is one of the most popular in all of chess opening theory. We can say that this is where the game begins. Black has a number of ways to play here. The most popular is 9…Na5, the Chigorin Variation:

Ruy Lopez Opening - Quick Start Opening Guide

10. Bc2 c5 11.d4 Qc7

Black will usually play on the queenside; the light-squared bishop can go to d7 and the a5 knight can, in some lines, be re-routed to c5 via b7. White can choose between keeping the central tension or advancing d4-d5. Most of the time, play will happen on the queenside and center.

9…Nb8

… or the Breyer Variation, is another popular line for black.

9…Nb8

Black’s plan is to bring the queenside knight to d7 and eventually go for the same c7-c5 idea. White usually replies with 10.d4 followed by Nbd2-f1-g3, eyeing f5.

The Berlin Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6)

Ruy Lopez Opening - Quick Start Opening Guide

This is a line that has always been considered sound but became really popular after it was used with great success by Vladimir Kramnik in his World Championship match against Garry Kasparov. Nowadays, it is a common guest at top tournaments and we are used to seeing a lot of quick draws between strong players.

4.0-0

This is the main line of the Berlin, but white can also avoid the main theory and go for 4.d3 instead.

You also might fancy 8 Chess Openings Played by Magnus Carlsen.

4…Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8 Kxd8

4…Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8 Kxd8

We reach the so-called Berlin endgame, a position that has also been analyzed thoroughly. Many games have ended in a draw from here, but this position is rich in ideas and, if you are a player who enjoys endgames, this is one worth studying. One of the experts with the black pieces is, of course, Vladimir Kramnik. His game against Grischuk shows how to deal with this position:

If in this game black’s position looked safe, things could change if the black king remains in the center. Kasparov won a nice game against Kramnik in Astana in 2001:

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Updated 07.08.2024

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