The Spanish Opening: Fighting the Berlin Wall

The Spanish Opening: Fighting the Berlin Wall

  Berlin variation of the Spanish Opening has become part of the main opening weapons for black in today’s chess. The Berlin Defense had a reputation of being a drawish/boring option for black. However, everything changed when Grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik used it successfully against Garry Kasparov in the match for the World Chess Championship.

Berlin Defense – Introduction

Kramnik used it in four games and they ended in draws. The whole perspective people had on this opening suddenly changed and it attracted almost all of the elite players, and therefore the rest of the mortals. Many dynamic players started to use it frequently, the likes of Topalov, Shirov, Anand and even Kasparov himself tried it after the match. In the present time the current World Champion Magnus Carlsen continues to play it quite often, and so do other strong players like Wesley So and Levon Aronian.


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Spanish Opening – Why is it so popular for black?

After the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 white usually continues with 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 5.dxe5 Nf5 6.Qxd8+ Kxd8

This question is often asked, why would an opening in which black trades queen, loses the right to castle, and gets doubled pawns be so popular? The reason is fairly simple. Castling is not so important after the queens are traded off the board and the king is not only safe in the center, but many times it is also useful there. Black gets doubled pawns but no weaknesses. The most important and attractive element for black is that he obtains the bishop pair.

This is where the winning hopes are, when white tries to exploit his superior pawn structure the position can be opened and black’s bishops can generate enough counterplay. From a last but not less important point of view, the theory factor, the play is less forced, and black does not have to make only moves as in the Sicilian, for example. Here black can afford little mistakes and still be okay.

Berlin Defense – Avoiding it

In this article, we are going to show a couple of ideas for white in order to avoid the mainline and keep the game somewhat tenser. It’s true that it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to claim any opening advantage with the lines we examine here but, nevertheless, they deserve serious attention.

Our recommendation is to play 4.d3, keeping things in ”Spanish style”. Here black usually continues with 4…Bc5. White can now capture on c6 and play in the spirit of the Spanish Exchange Variation. Objectively, the play is about equality but both sides have chances. This method has been played several times by Magnus Carlsen and other notable players so it definitely needs to be taken seriously.

Spanish Opening – Games played

In the game Carlsen – Caruana, the world champion played for the rupture with f2-f4 after capturing black’s dark squares bishop. The resulting position was a middlegame with opposite color bishops in which white had some pressure along the F file.

The second game was played between Yu Yangi and Kramnik. With this victory over the former world champion, Yu Yangi secured the sole first place in the Qatar Masters last year. Yu Yangi is one of the specialists in this line, so it’s worth looking at his games.

Finally, in the last game, we can see some other ideas for white, such as the rupture d3-d4 later in the middlegame.

Berlin Defense – Conclusion

As you can see from the games we have examined, white does not have any great opening advantage. However, the middlegame is full of pieces. The pawn structure is asymmetrical and, therefore, there are many options and ideas to explore for both sides.

Want to know more about Berlin Defense? Look at The Complete Guide.

We also recommend reviewing Ruy Lopez.

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Updated 12.22.2023