Spanish Torture? The Ruy Lopez


Introduction *

The Ideas behind the Ruy Lopez *

Some Key Variations of the Ruy Lopez *

Variations of the Ruy Lopez without 3...a6 *

Strong-point lines with ...d6, ...Nge7 and/or ...g6. *

Active lines with ...Bc5 and/or ...Nf6 *

Make a mess with 3...Nd4 *

Variations of the Ruy Lopez with 3...a6 *

The Exchange Variation *

The Closed Morphy Defence *

The Tchigorin Counterattack *

Modern variations in the Closed Morphy. *

Index of games: *

Bibliography *



The Spanish priest Ruy Lopez, who was the strongest player of his day, described in the 1500s the opening which now bears his name. At least, the British and Americans know it as the Ruy Lopez: in Europe they are more likely to call it the Spanish Game, and Tartakower wryly referred to it as Spanish Torture. (Because I was brought up in East Anglia and not Spain, I described it for years as the "Royal Opez", but I believe it is properly pronounced more like "Ree Lop'eth".)

It remains the most important of the King's-side openings, and is still generally considered the best way to keep White's initiative going after 1...e5. It is no accident that most of the games in Bronstein's book "200 Open Games" begin with the Ruy Lopez opening.

The ideas for each side in the Ruy Lopez are very many and varied; I hope below to introduce some of the basic concepts and give you some landmarks for your own exploration of this fine opening.

The first few moves of the Ruy Lopez opening are easy to follow: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 is very natural. The moves often played by juniors here, 3. Bc4 and 3. d4, are also easy to understand, but may not be the strongest. 3.d4, the Scotch Opening, leads to an early clash but perhaps also an early simplification, with a loss of tension and thus winning chances for both sides. The Italian game with 3. Bc4, hitting f7 and hoping to deter ...d5, paradoxically rather invites ...d7-d5 and an early exchange in the centre, with equality. This is because the logical follow-up 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Nf6, results in Black regaining control of the d5 point.

The Ruy Lopez move, 3. Bb5, keeps the idea of taking over the centre with d2-d4 (or with c2-c3 and d2-d4), but first does a number of important other jobs. Like in the Italian Game, the Bishop clears the way for White to castle, and then play Rf1-e1. But on b5 rather than c4 the Bishop cannot be hit by ...d7-d5. If Black does ever move the d-Pawn, the half-pin of the Knight on c6 becomes a full pin, undermining Black's control of e5 and d4.

In the short term there is an immediate threat: the Bishop attacks the Knight that defends the pawn attacked by the Knight (the house that Ruy built). It would be great for White if it worked so simply, but after 3...(pass); 4 Bxc6, dxc6! 5 Nxe5?! Qd4! Black will regain his pawn through the double attack. So, the immediate threat to the Pawn isn't quite so deadly, but once White has castled and/or protected the e-Pawn the threat will become real. Also, the Pawn on e5 is a lot easier to get at than the one on f7, and Black can get badly tied up or just stiff and cramped trying to hold on to a share of the centre.

The other tactical point to note is that the counterattack by Black on e4 by ...Nf6 can be met by White castling, since after ...Nf6xe4 White has Rf1-e1: if White does not win a piece, it is at least often awkward for Black to get the King's-side sorted. So : 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O! Nxe4 5. d4! and White has an edge.

The most natural sequence of moves trying to hold onto e5 leads to trouble for Black: after 1 e4, e5; 2 Nf3, Nc6; 3 Bb5, d6; 4 d4, Bd7; 5 Nc3, Nf6; 6 0-0, Be7; 7 Re1, exd4; 8 Nxd4, O-O; 9 Bf1! (to stop the exchanges threatened by 9...Nxd4) when Black has lots of pieces but not enough space.

Why does Black play 7...exd4 when I said the idea is to hold on in the centre? Tarrasch's famous trap showed that Black cannot play 7...0-0 because of the forcing continuation 8.Bxc6 Bxc6 9.dxe5 dxe5 10.Qxd8 Raxd8 [10...Rfxd8 allows 15 Kf1 - see later 11.Nxe5 Bxe4 12.Nxe4 Nxe4 13.Nd3 f5 14.f3 Bc5+ 15.Kf1] 11.Nxe5 Bxe4 [11...Nxe4 12.Nxc6] 12.Nxe4 Nxe4 13.Nd3 f5 14.f3 Bc5+ 15.Nxc5 [15.Kf1 Bb6 16.fxe4 fxe4+; 15.Kh1 Nf2+ 16.Nxf2 Bxf2 17.Rf1] 15...Nxc5 16.Bg5 Rd5 [16...Rde8 17.Be7] 17.Be7 Re8 18.c4 winning the exchange. (If instead 10...Rexd8 White would have 15 Kh1 (15...Rxd3; 16 fxe4).) Tarrasch won a game with this against Marco AFTER publishing it as analysis! (If instead 10...Rexd8 White would have 15 Kh1 (15...Rxd3; 16 fxe4).)

These lines had a strong effect on players who started to realise just how good the Ruy Lopez is. The Giuoco Piano is a great opening for your early chess years; the Ruy Lopez is an opening for life.

Black has many lines, which fall into basically two approaches (as usual): defence or counterattack. Defence of the strong point at e5 we have looked at with 3...d6, the Steinitz Defence, (or 3...a6; 4 Ba4, d6, the Deferred Steinitz Defence), but we have seen that the point cannot be held for long; counterattack may be attempted with 3...Nf6, the Berlin Defence, or 3...a6; 4 Ba4, Nf6; the Morphy Defence. The Morphy move 3...a6 was an important refinement of Black's resources, making the Bishop choose its diagonal and allowing the pin-breaking ...b5. Reuben Fine gives an instructive comparison of variations with and without ...a6:

In reply to the Morphy the obvious 5 Nc3 is rather boring, but White can play 5 O-O since, as we have seen, Black cannot really win the e4 pawn. The Morphy has itself a strong point line, 5 O-O, Be7; 6 Re1, b5; 7 Bb3, d6, the Closed Morphy Defence, and a counter-attacking line, 5 O-O, Nxe4; 6 d4, b5; 7 Bb3, d5, the Open Morphy Defence. These are systems of great richness, and the Closed Morphy best avoided until your chess understanding is well advanced.


The Ideas behind the Ruy Lopez

White plays for an immediate break in the centre

5 d4 or 5 Qe2 (idea O-O and Rd1) or 5.Qe2/6.Qe2 lead to more familiar open and attacking e-pawn styles of game. An example: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. d4 exd4 6. O-O Be7 7. Re1 b5 8. Bb3 d6 9. Bd5 Nxd5 10. exd5 Ne5 11. Nxd4 O-O

This is about even, and, I hope, a game juniors would enjoy playing as either colour; these variations are a good introduction to the Ruy Lopez.

Black plays for an immediate break in the centre

This is probably a good way to play the Ruy for Black in your early career. The Open Morphy Defence relies above all on piece activity, and obeys two good general opening rules for Black:

(a) If your opponent lets you take a central Pawn, take it off if you do not lose a piece (viz. 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 and now after 6. Re1 Black is in no pin, so 6...Nc5 or 6...Nd6 are quite all right.)

(b) Aim to play ...d5 yourself if you can

Grandmaster theory suggests that Black is taking on rather a lot of weaknesses when playing this way, but that may not be so important if you are not playing Grandmasters. Siegbert Tarrasch, who was so effective playing the Ruy as White, preferred to play this way as Black, and since then Max Euwe, Victor Kortchnoi, Artur Yusupov, Jan Timman and Viswanathan Anand have all been happy to play the Open Morphy at World Championship and Candidates' level, so you can see that this is not very much of a handicap.

The veteran English player Vernon Dilworth suggested the most aggressive way of playing the Open Morphy as Black:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.c3 Bc5 10.Nbd2 0-0 11.Bc2 Nxf2

Black sacrifices two active pieces for a Rook while White is still getting the Queen's-side organised. Black will follow up with ...f6, attacking down the f-file.


Black can play more calmly at move 11 (11...Bf5 is fashionable since Kortchnoi adopted it), or earlier play 9...Be7 (Euwe's preference) or 9...Nc5 (Kortchnoi's other preference). These lines are all rather complex and there is a lot of theory on them, but until your opponents know all the theory, get stuck in!

There are several other lines where we see an early ...d5 by Black:

...d5 in the Marshall Gambit, a favourite of club players: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6, e.g. 12.d4 Bd6 13.Re1 Qh4 14.g3 Qh3 15.Be3 Bg4 16.Qd3 Rae8 17.Nd2 f5 18.f4 Kh8 19.Bxd5 cxd5 20.Qf1 Qh5 21.Qg2 Re4 22.a4 bxa4 23.Rxa4 g5 24.Nxe4 fxe4 25.Rxa6 gxf4 26.Rxd6 fxe3 27.Rxe3 Bh3 28.g4 Qxg4 29.Rg3 Qd1+ 0-1, Kosten-Hebden, 1982.

...d5 in the normal Closed Morphy: e.g. Kasparov,G (2800) - Karpov,A (2730) [C92] Wch35-KK5 USA/FRA (New York) (8), 1990 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Nd7 10.d4 Bf6 11.a4 Bb7 12.Be3 Na5 13.Bc2 Nc4 14.Bc1 d5! TN

...d5 in the Classical Defence: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Bc5 4. c3 d5?!! Or more sanely, Unzicker - Fischer Leipzig 1960 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 Bb6 6.0-0 0-0 7.Re1 exd4 8.cxd4 d5 9.e5 Ne4 10.Nc3 Bg4 11.Bxc6 bxc6 12.Nxe4 dxe4 13.Rxe4 Bxf3 14.Qxf3 Bxd4 15.Be3 Bxb2 16.Rb1 f5 17.exf6 ½-½

And wherever else White is slack, e.g. 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5. Nc3 or 5. d3 when Black should get castled and look for ...d7-d5. Tiviakov,S (2625) - Sokolov,I (2665) [C86]Wijk (10), 1996 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.Qe2 Be7 6.c3 0-0 7.0-0 b5 8.Bb3 d5 9.d3 Re8 10.Re1 h6 11.Nbd2 Be6 12.Nf1 Bc5 13.Ng3 a5 (...0-1, 41),

White's outpost on d5

Tal - Bronstein [C96] 1956

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Na5 10.Bc2 c5 11.d4 Nc6 12.Nbd2 Qb6 13.dxc5 dxc5 14.Nf1 Be6 15.Ne3 Rad8 16.Qe2 g6 17.Ng5 c4 ! 18.a4 Kg7 19.axb5 axb5 20.Rb1 Na5 21.Nf3 Qc7

Every White piece is queuing up behind the e-pawn, waiting for...


22.Nd5 ! 22...Bxd5 23.exd5

White's pieces control many central squares, and the Bishops have new avenues of attack.

23...Rfe8 24.Qxe5 Qxe5 25.Nxe5 Nxd5 26.Ra1 Nb3 27.Bxb3 cxb3 28.Bh6+ ! 28...Kg8 ?! 29.Nc6 Rc8 30.Rad1 Rxc6 31.Rxd5 f6 32.Rxb5 g5 33.Rxb3 Kf7 34.Rb7 Re6 35.Rxe6 Kxe6 36.h4 Rg8 37.f4 Bc5+ 38.Kf1 gxh4 39.Rb5 Rc8 40.f5+ Kd6 41.b4 h3 42.Rxc5 h2 43.Bf4+ 1-0

White's outpost on f5

This is a simple way to play all closed double King's-Pawn positions: park a Knight on f5 and play for a King's-side attack.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.d3

White plays quietly in the centre, hoping to avoid distractions there.

9...Na5 10.Bc2 c5 11.Nbd2 Qc7 12.Nf1 Nc6 13.Ne3 Bb7 14.Nf5 Rfe8 15.Bg5 Nd7 16.Bb3 Nb6 17.Bxe7 Nxe7 18.Bxf7+ Kxf7 19.Ng5+ Kg8 20.Qh5 Nxf5 21.Qxh7+ Kf8 22.Qxf5+ Kg8 23.Qg6 Qd7 24.Re3 1-0

White's central play

You should never forget that one of the key aims for White in the e-Pawn openings is to take over the centre with c3 and d4. If Black takes his eye off the ball White can switch to this plan with effect, and in fact White can win a lot of games through simple domination of the centre. More space and more manoeuvrability means chances of attack:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Nb8 10.d4 Nbd7


11.Nh4 exd4 12.cxd4 Nb6 13.Nf3 d5 14.e5 Ne4 15.Nbd2 Nxd2 16.Bxd2 Bf5 17.Bc2 Bxc2 18.Qxc2 Rc8 19.b3 Nd7 20.e6 fxe6 21.Rxe6 c5 22.Ba5 Qxa5 23.Rxe7 Qd8 24.Ng5 1-0

White's King's-side attack

The Bishop that lurks on c2 is an ace up White's sleeve: while Black is distracted elsewhere White can suddenly whip out a King's-side attack. A glorious example of this was:

Kasparov,G (2800) - Karpov,A (2730) [C92] (20), 1990

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Bb7 10.d4 Re8 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.a4 h6 13.Bc2 exd4 14.cxd4 Nb4 15.Bb1 c5 16.d5 Nd7 17.Ra3 f5 18.Rae3 Nf6 19.Nh2 Kh8 20.b3 bxa4 21.bxa4 c4 22.Bb2 fxe4 23.Nxe4


23... Nfxd5 24.Rg3 Re6 25.Ng4 Qe8 26.Nxh6 c3 27.Nf5 cxb2 28.Qg4 Bc8 29.Qh4+ Rh6 30.Nxh6 gxh6 31.Kh2 Qe5 32.Ng5 Qf6 33.Re8 Bf5 34.Qxh6+ [34.Nf7+ is Mate in 6! 34...Qxf7 35.Qxh6+ Bh7 36.Rxa8 Ne7 37.Rxf8+ Ng8 38.Rgxg8+ Qxg8 39.Qxh7#] 34...Qxh6 35.Nf7+ Kh7 36.Bxf5+ Qg6 37.Bxg6+ Kg7 38.Rxa8 Be7 39.Rb8 a5 40.Be4+ Kxf7 41.Bxd5+ 1-0

White can also say nonchalantly that: Black is cramped, and so will find it difficult to organise a defence, so I will attack the King in any event. The situation is usually more complex than this bluntness implies, but the core plan is still played:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0

[8...Na5 9.Bc2 c5 10.d4 Qc7 11.h3 Nc6 12.Be3 0-0 13.Nbd2 Rd8 14.Rc1 Bd7 15.Nf1 b4 16.d5 Na7 17.c4 Nc8 18.g4 Nb6 19.b3 a5 20.Ng3 g6 21.Kh2 a4 22.Rg1 axb3 23.axb3 Bf8 24.Qd2 Ra2 25.Bg5 Bg7 26.Qe3 Rda8 27.Bb1 R2a3 28.Ne1 Kh8 29.Qd3 Ng8 30.Nc2 R3a7 31.Rcf1 Be8 32.Be3 Nd7 33.Ne1 Qd8 34.g5 Qa5 35.h4 Qd8 36.h5 Qe7 37.Nf3 Nb6 38.Rh1 Qd7 39.Kg2 Ne7 40.hxg6 fxg6 41.Rh3 Bf7 42.Rfh1 Bg8 43.Nf5 Rf8 44.Nxg7 Kxg7 45.Qe2 1-0 Capablanca,Jose-Kupchik,Abraham/New York (07) 1915]

9.h3 Na5 10.Bc2 c5 11.d4 Qc7 12.Nbd2 Nc6 13.d5 Nd8 14.Nf1 Ne8


"In olden times White would often attack by g4 and Ng3 in the Closed Spanish; once in a while White would break through with a Nf5 sacrifice, but now it is recognised that so long as all Black's pieces can reach the King's-side, a direct attack should not work. Thus, the emphasis has switched to diversionary Queen's-side play, with a King's-side attack being reserved for a favourable moment when Black's pieces have been lured away. Moreover, the King's-side attack is usually based on f4 rather than g4, since only f4 offers the chance of activating the light-squared Bishop on c2."

"White's preliminary a4 gives him control of the a-file; this may not appear relevant to the conduct of a King's-side attack, but watch what happens later!" John Nunn


[15.g4 g6 16.Ng3 Ng7 17.Kh2 f6 18.Be3 Bd7 19.Qd2 Nf7 20.Rg1 Kh8 21.Raf1 Rg8 22.Ne1 Raf8 = Robatsch-Padevsky, Amsterdam 1972]

15...Rb8 16.axb5 axb5 17.b4 c4 18.Ng3 g6 19.Nh2 Ng7 20.Rf1 Bd7 21.f4 Bh4 22.Qf3 f5 23.fxe5 dxe5 24.exf5 Bxg3 25.Qxg3 Nxf5 26.Qf2 [26.Qe1 +/-] 26...Nb7 27.Ng4 h5 28.Ra6 hxg4 29.Rxg6+ Ng7 30.Rxg7+ [30.Rxg7+ Kxg7 31.Bh6+ Kxh6 (31...Kg8 32.Qxf8+ Rxf8 33.Rxf8#; 31...Kh8 32.Qxf8+ Rxf8 33.Rxf8#) 32.Qh4+ Kg7 33.Qh7#] 1-0

Black's Queen's-side attack

Of course, what else may distract Black from defence of the King's-side is an opportunity to attack the Queen's-side, and this attack can succeed against the best opposition:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Bb7 10.d4 Re8 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.a4 Qd7 13.axb5 axb5 14.Rxa8 Bxa8 [14...Rxa8?! 15.Ng5±] 15.d5 Na5 16.Ba2!? N 16...c6 17.b4 Nb7! 18.c4 Rc8!? [18...Nd8+=] 19.dxc6?! [19.Qe2] 19...Qxc6= 20.c5?! [20.Bb2] 20...Nd8 21.Bb2


21...dxc5! =+ 22.bxc5 Qxc5 23.Bxe5 Nd7 24.Bb2 Qb4! 25.Nb3?! [25.Qb1] 25...Nc5-/+

Black has the advantage but there is still a lot of tension in the position.

26.Ba1 Bxe4 27.Nfd4 Ndb7 28.Qe2 Nd6 29.Nxc5 Qxc5 30.Qg4 Re8 31.Rd1 Bg6 32.Qf4 Qb4 33.Qc1 Be4 34.Re1 Qa5 35.Bb3 Qa8 36.Qb2 b4 37.Re3 Bg6 38.Rxe8 Qxe8 39.Qc1 Ne4 40.Bd5 Nc5 41.Nb3 Nd3 0-1

White's Queen's-side attack

Often, Black will stake out some space on the Queen's-side with ...a6 and ...b5. Whether in a given position this represents Queen's-side counterplay or Queen's-side weaknesses is one of the key Ruy Lopez questions!

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 5.0-0 Bd7 6.d4 Nf6 7.c3 Be7 8.Nbd2 0-0 9.Re1 Re8 10.Nf1 h6 11.Ng3 Bf8 12.Bd2

Modest, but White is not so much concerned to point a battering-ram at a weak spot (there aren't any) as to maintain a flexible position where Black will be less able to re-arrange the pieces to counter White's latest idea.

12...b5 13.Bc2 Na5 14.b3 c5 15.d5 Nh7 16.h3 Be7 17.Nf5 Nb7 18.a4 bxa4 19.b4 a5 20.Bxa4 axb4 21.cxb4 Bf8 22.Bc6 Qc7 23.b5 Nf6 24.Qc2 Reb8 25.Ne3 Bc8 26.Nc4 Be7 27.b6 Qd8 28.Ra7


The point of using an open file is to provide invasion points for rooks, although it's unusual for a Rook to arrive on the seventh, supported by a Pawn. Black cannot bear this, but the exchange concedes a monster pawn on a7.

28...Nd7 29.Qa4 Rxa7 30.bxa7 Ra8 31.Qa6 Qc7

Black's pieces are standing on each other's toes and cannot escape the attack of White's pieces. The Black Rook has nowhere to move to.

32.Bxd7 Qxd7 [32...Bxd7 33.Nb6] 33.Nb6 Nd8 34.Qa1 1-0

(see also the first game of the Deep Blue-Kasparov return match in 1997)

Black's King's-side attack

Not a common occurrence but there are several attacking plans for Black. There are several ...Bg4 lines where an incautious h2-h3 can be met by ...h7-h5!

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 d6 4.c3 Bg4 5. h3 h5! or

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 bxc6 5. O-O Bg4 6. h3 h5!

A more complex line is seen in the Archangel Variation: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 b5 6.Bb3 Bb7 7.Re1 Bc5 8.c3 d6 9.d4 Bb6 10.Bg5 h6 11.Bh4 Qd7


Black announces his intention to abandon all subtlety and play for a King's-side attack.

12.a4 0-0-0 13.axb5 axb5 14.Bxf6

[14.Na3 g5 15.Bg3 h5 16.dxe5 (16.h4 gxh4 17.Bxh4 Rh6 18.Nxb5 Rg8 19.Qd3 exd4 20.cxd4 Nb4) 16...h4 17.exf6 hxg3 18.hxg3 g4 19.Nd4 Rh7 20.Bd5 Rdh8 =+ BCO2]

14...gxf6 15.Bd5 Rhg8 16.Kh1 Qg4 17.Rg1 exd4 18.cxd4 f5 19.Nc3 fxe4 20.Nxe4 Qf5 21.Nc3 Nb4 22.Bxb7+ Kxb7 Klovans-Shirov 87 = BCO2

Black also has some gambit lines: as well as the Marshall Attack (see above), Black has several opportunities to play ...f5. The immediate 3...f5 (or 3...a6 4. Ba4 f5) is often frowned upon but also often played, and if White is a little slow in the Steinitz Variation Black may play the Siesta Variation, a far from sleepy line.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 d6 4.c3 a6 5.Ba4 f5 6.d4 fxe4 7.Ng5 exd4 8.Nxe4 Nf6 9.Bg5 Be7 10.Qxd4 b5 11.Nxf6+ gxf6 12.Qd5 bxa4 13.Bh6 Qd7 14.0-0 Bb7 15.Bg7 0-0-0 16.Bxh8 Ne5 17.Qd1 Bf3 18.gxf3 Qh3 0-1

Some Key Variations of the Ruy Lopez


Variations of the Ruy Lopez without 3...a6

These are less important at GM level than the main lines with 3...a6, but at club level they have many virtues: less theoretical, less well-known, and often sim pler to understand. Moreover, I often find that club players when faced with 3...a6 often play 4. Bxc6, and if they do play 4. Ba4, after 4...Nf6 they cannot be trusted to play 5.O-O, and instead play some clod-hopping move like 5. d3 or 5. Nc3. While these are not particularly strong lines they may be more stodgy than you would wish to play against as Black, and many of these old lines may lead to more open or complex games at club level. They may be grouped as follows:

Strong-point lines with ...d6, ...Nge7 and/or ...g6.

Black can hold the centre without 3...a6 using one or some combination of these moves. White's strongest plan in each case is undoubtedly to play an immediate c3 and d4, with or without O-O. Black can then hope to slug it out in a roughly equal position (although Black has not yet castled and may find it awkward if he has not castled and the centre opens up.)

Hindermann Felix - Yudkovsky Yair [C60/02] 05 European Youth U14 Boys, Tallinn EST, 1997

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nge7 4.c3 g6 5.d4 exd4 6.cxd4 d5 7.e5 Bg7 8.Bg5 0-0 9.h3 Bf5 10.Nc3 Be4 11.Nxe4 dxe4 12.Bxc6 bxc6 13.Nd2 h6 14.Bxe7 Qxe7 15.Nxe4 Rad8 16.Qa4 Qh4 17.Qxc6 Rxd4 0-1

Active lines with ...Bc5 and/or ...Nf6

Both Fischer and particularly Spassky have experimented with the Classical Variation (3...Bc5), and the related Berlin Classical 3...Nf6 4. O-O Bc5 . Again White is best advised to go for central break, and again it is reasonable for Black to hope for equality.

Ady JJ - Spassky BV [C65] London, 1984

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Bc5 5.Nxe5 Nxe5 6.d4 a6 7.dxe5 axb5 8.exf6 Qxf6 9.Nc3 c6 10.Qh5 d6 11.Bg5 Qg6 12.Qh4 h6 13.Bf4 b4 14.Ne2 0-0 15.Ng3 Re8 16.Rfd1 d5 17.Be3 Be7 18.Qf4 Bd6 19.Qh4 Bxg3 20.hxg3 Qxe4 21.Rd4 Qxc2 22.Rxb4 Rxa2 23.Rxa2 Qb1+ 24.Kh2 Qxa2 25.Bxh6 Qb1 26.Be3 Qc2 27.Qg5 f6 28.Qh5 Re5 29.Qh4 c5 30.Ra4 Rxe3 31.fxe3 g5 32.Qh6 Qxa4 33.Qxf6 Qc6 34.Qxg5+ Kh7 35.Qe7+ Kg6 36.g4 Bxg4 37.Qh4 Qd6+ 0-1

Make a mess with 3...Nd4

One on its own, Bird's Defence has never been refuted and leads to unique positions in which White may be uncomfortable, or at least less fluent:

Short Nigel D - Ivanchuk Vassily [C61] Linares (Spain), 1989

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nd4 4.Nxd4 exd4 5.Bc4 Nf6 6.Qe2 Bc5 7.e5 0-0 8.0-0 d5 9.exf6 dxc4 10.Qh5 b6 11.fxg7 Re8 12.d3 cxd3 13.cxd3 Ba6 14.Qf3 Qe7 15.Bf4 Qe2 16.Nd2 Qxf3 17.Nxf3 Bxd3 18.Rfe1 Be2 19.Bxc7 d3 20.a3 a5 21.Bf4 Re4 22.Bd2 Rae8 23.Bc3 a4 24.Ng5 Rc4 25.Rad1 Rc8 26.Ra1 Rd8 27.Nf3 Rxc3 28.bxc3 d2 29.Rxe2 d1Q+ 30.Rxd1 Rxd1+ 31.Ne1 Rc1 32.Re4 f5 33.Re8+ Kxg7 34.Kf1 Rxc3 35.Ke2 Rxa3 36.Nd3 Ra2+ 37.Kf3 Ra3 38.Rd8 Rc3 39.Kf4 a3 40.Rd7+ Kf8 41.Ne5 a2 42.Kxf5 a1Q 43.Rd8+ Kg7 44.Rd7+ Kg8 0-1

Variations of the Ruy Lopez with 3...a6

The Exchange Variation

We have seen that after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 White cannot win a pawn with 5. Nxe5 because of 5....Qd4.

What you may not know is that White can play this line to win, because in some sense, he is already a pawn up!

Let me explain.

If you have an extra pawn, you should:

  • ­ exchange off pieces, not pawns
  • ­ create a passed pawn
  • ­ advance the passed pawn and either:
  1. - force your opponent to give up material to stop it queening, or
  2. - force your way into the opponent's position to take material yourself (usually pawns)

With this in mind, let's look at the pawn formation after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. d4 exd4 6. Qxd4 Qxd4 7. Nxd4:


Now, if there were only Kings on the board, White could easily create a passed pawn with f4, e5 and f5 and e6.

But Black cannot do the same on the other side, unless White allows all the front pawns to come to a4,b4 and c4, when there is a trick with ...b3! e.g. axb3, c3! bxc3 and ...a3. As long as White avoids that trap, the passed pawn on the King's side should win.

This is what I mean by already being a pawn up. You have an extra pawn on the King's-side, and Black's extra Queen's-side pawn is useless. This is not the only thing going on in the position (else the Lopez would be an easy win for White) but it is a constant fallback plan for White.

Emanuel Lasker played this several times, and more recently, Bobby Fischer discovered that you could also play 5. O-O! with an awkward moment for Black, because now there really is a threat to the e5 pawn which is not easy to meet.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.d4 exd4 6.Qxd4 Qxd4 7.Nxd4 c5 8.Ne2 Bd7 9.b3 Bc6 10.f3 Be7 11.Bb2 Bf6 12.Bxf6 Nxf6 13.Nd2 0-0-0 14.0-0-0 Rd7 15.Nf4 Re8 16.Nc4 b6 17.a4 a5 18.Rxd7 Nxd7 19.Rd1 Ne5 20.Nxe5 Rxe5 21.c4 Re8


22.Nh5 Rg8 23.Rd3 f6 24.Kd2 Be8 25.Ng3 Bd7 26.Ke3 Re8 27.Nh5 Re7 28.g4 c6 29.h4 Kc7 30.g5 f5 31.Ng3 fxe4 32.Nxe4 Bf5 33.h5 Rd7 34.Rc3 Rd1 35.Kf4 Bd7 36.Re3 Rh1 37.Ng3 Rh4+ 38.Ke5 Rh3 39.f4 Kd8 40.f5 Rh4


41.f6 gxf6+ 42.Kxf6 Be8 43.Nf5 Rf4 44.g6 hxg6 45.hxg6 Rg4 46.Rxe8+ Kxe8 47.g7 Kd7 48.Nh4 Rxg7 49.Kxg7 Ke6 50.Nf3 Kf5 51.Kf7 Ke4 52.Ke6 Kd3 53.Kd6 Kc3 54.Kxc6 Kxb3 55.Kb5 1-0

The Closed Morphy Defence

This is the classic battle ground in the Ruy. Black may find it difficult to hold tight in the closed Morphy, but perhaps not as difficult as it is for White to keep everything under control. There are some classic positional themes here, determined by the pawn formation:


1. Space: Apart from any commitment to passive play being bad match tactics, as long Black has a Pawn on d6 it will always be a little more easy for White to manoeuvre than Black, for the Black position has a bottleneck on the d-file. Stean explains that this is why White spends so much time in the opening avoiding the exchange of the light-squared Bishop: while Black retains all four minor pieces, this slight cramp will be most clearly felt.

2. Flexibility: Moreover, it is extremely important to have good manoeuvring skills, because at any point the Pawn formation can shift: from the basic formation (a) we can go at least four different ways (b-e below)...

Another line of thought I found useful:

1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nf6 3.d3 Nc6 4.Nf3 Bc5 5.0-0 d6 6.c3 Qe7 [6...0-0 7.Nbd2 a6 8.Bb3 Ba7] 7.Nbd2 a6 8.Bb3 0-0 9.Re1 Be6 10.Nf1 [10.Bc2] 10...Ba7 11.Bc2

"...why is the Ruy Lopez (which this opening has virtually become) so difficult for Black to combat? Look at the present position: Black's pieces are sensibly developed; he has as much space as White; his pawns are strong. Yet he has problems."

"The answer seems to be that in this type of Ruy Lopez position Black can easily get caught in a situation where his game cannot unfold. Here for instance, White has his plans of Ng3-f5 and later d4, but it is less easy for Black to find something profitable to do without weakening himself or making some serious concession. His pieces may look reasonably placed, but they cannot readily achieve anything constructive or relevant. I should make it clear that this does not have to happen in a Lopez; it is far from being a bad opening for him. But in practice one error (6...Qe7) can leave him in misery. And so, if a player seems to have a respectable game (in a Ruy Lopez or any other opening for that matter), yet still loses, his misfortune may often be traced back to this lack of life in his position." -- NUNN AND GRIFFITHS

We also recognise that the tension may even be added to by Black playing ...c5, (the Tchigorin line) – see later.

(a) Closed KP centre, Tension form (Ruy Lopez)


Black may resolve the tension by playing ...e5xd4 (c3xd4) which results in an unbalanced position where White has an extra central Pawn (b).

(b) Double Pawn centre, KP unopposed


These adjacent Pawns in a more open position confer a bigger advantage, but in a more open position may be more vulnerable to attack e.g. along the e-file.

White may resolve the tension in the first formation, by playing either d4-d5 (giving a closed centre (c) with an advanced d-Pawn), or by playing d4xe5 (...d6xe5) with a balanced, semi-open KP centre (d).

(c) Closed centre with advanced d-Pawn.


The advanced d-Pawn gives a space advantage, particularly on the Queen's-side. To play for a win the c-Pawn and maybe b-Pawn should be advanced, to seize more space and perhaps open lines on that side. The opponent may consider an advance of the f-Pawn to undermine the d-Pawn and counter-attack on the King's-side.

(d) Balanced, semi-open KP centre


This is a very common formation in KP openings. If neither side can achieve a sharp advance of the f-Pawn, play will be dominated by piece play on either wing. There are natural posts for Knights on d5 and f5 (d4 and f4 for Black), and if Black's c-Pawn has pushed to c5 earlier, the d5 point is even more attractive. Control of the d-file is a good idea but can usually be countered, resulting in exchanges. Occupation of the mutual outposts f5 and f4 by Knights is less straightforward to counter, and while your opponent is sorting out that threat, it may be that you can get the d-file then.

(e) Semi-open unbalanced KP centre.


The e-Pawn confers a space advantage and attacking prospects on the King's-side, which may be added to by f2-f4. The e-Pawn is exposed on the half-open file, and should be restrained (e.g. by ...Re8) from breaking open lines for the attack by e4-e5. Black's break ...d6-d5 is a natural plan to dissolve the centre.

The Tchigorin Counterattack

So, as a result of facing all this hassle, Black developed a plan of Queen's-side counterplay in the closed Morphy:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Na5 10.Bc2 c5 11.d4

Black's idea is two-fold: to maintain the e5 point in the centre, while attacking on the Queen's-side.


Almost every legal move has been tried here:

11...Qc7 was Tchigorin's original recipe

11...Nd7 was famously tried by Keres

11...Bb7 is a good idea but may be squashed by d4-d5, so Black may prefer to preface this with 11...cxd4. After 12. cxd4 as well as 12...Bb7 we also see two new ideas: 12...Nc6 and 12...Bd7

As we have seen White has a variety of plans in response:


(a) just to manoeuvre, keeping the tension as long as possible and improving the position of your own pieces, relying on the slight extra space referred to above

(b) break up the Queen's-side with a2-a4,

(c) seal the centre with d4-d5 (a Ruy Lopez formation which has a lot in common with the King's Indian!),

(d) open up the d5 outpost with dxc5 (or dxe5). However, White is not yet terribly close to putting a Knight on d5, and Black can now think about a plan like ...c5-c4, and ...Na5-b7-c5-d3, with a monster Black Knight on d3. In fact, Black can aim for ...c4 whether or not White exposes the d5 point, and can play for it from formations other than the main line Tchigorin.


Kasparov-Karpov (1990), m14

So this is a formation that requires some delicate footwork by both players.

Modern variations in the Closed Morphy.

More recently Black has experimented with more restrained plans than the Tchigorin, hoping to avoid the disadvantages of this line (decentralised Knight on a5, potential Queen's-side weaknesses) and instead manoeuvre more adroitly to secure adequate play across the board. These lines have included, after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3:

The Breyer Variation, 9...Nbd7, where Black hopes to reorganise his pieces smoothly at a time when White is by no means well-developed. This was the 'grower' when I was a boy, and is still an important line.

The Smyslov Variation, 9...h6, waiting for White to show his hand, a line which has been superceded by...

The Flohr-Zaitsev Variation, 9...Bb7, which has been the height of current fashion since Zaitsev showed that the old plan with ...Na5 (e.g. Fischer,RJ - Stein,L, 1967) was less safe than re-organising with ...Re8 and ...Be7. This is a pretty heavyweight GM line outside my own experience and I won't comment further, but you will see it about:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Bb7 10.d4 Re8

[If White wants, there is a draw to be had by 11. Ng5 Rf8 12. Nf3]

11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.a4 h6 13.Bc2 Nb8 14.Bd3 c6 15.Nf1 Nbd7 16.Ng3 Qc7 17.Bd2 g6 18.Qc1 Kh7 19.b3 Bg7 20.Qc2 Nf8 21.Be3 Ne6 22.Rad1 Rac8 23.Bf1 Bf8 24.Rd2 Qb8 25.Qb1 Ba8 26.b4 Bb7


Amazing: 26 moves without any exchanges. And it has been suggested that White’s 27th was inferior to Qa2!

27.axb5 axb5 28.Red1 Qc7 29.Rc1 Bg7 30.Rcd1 Rcd8 31.dxe5 dxe5 32.Rxd8 Rxd8 33.Rxd8 Nxd8 34.c4 bxc4 35.Bxc4 Ne8 36.Qa2 Nd6 37.Bb3 Nb5 38.h4 Nd4 39.Bxd4 exd4 40.h5 Qe7 41.Qd2 c5 42.Qc2 cxb4 43.hxg6+ fxg6 44.Qc4 h5 45.e5 Bxf3 46.gxf3 Bxe5 47.f4 Bxf4 48.Qg8+ Kh6 49.Bc2 Qg7 50.Qxd8 Bxg3 51.fxg3 Qe5 52.Qf8+ Kg5 53.Kg2 ½-½


Index of games:


Tal - Bronstein [C96] 1956 *

Teichmann,R - Schlechter,C [C90] Karlsbad, 1911 *

Fischer,R - Barczay,L [C95] Sousse izt Rd: 1, 1967 *

Nunn - Short (Brussels) [C98] 1986 [JDMN] *

Kasparov,G (2700) - Karpov,A (2720) [C92] Wch32-KK2 Moscow (5), 1985 *

Karpov - Westerinen,H [C87] 1974 *

Reti,R - Capablanca,J [C74] Berlin (14), 1928 *

Lasker,E - Tarrasch,S [C68] Duesseldorf, 1908 *

Nunn - Olafsson (Teesside) [C54] 1982 *

Kasparov,G (2700) - Karpov,A (2720) [C92] WCh32-KK2 Moscow (9), 1985 *



+ STEAN Simple Chess (Faber)

+ EUWE/KRAMER, The Middle Game Vol.1 (Bell)

+ SUETIN The Complete Spanish (Batsford)

+ FISCHER My 60 Memorable Games (Faber)

+ SUETIN Modern Chess Opening Theory (Appendix) (Pergamon)

+ KING/PONZETTO, Understanding the Spanish (Batsford)

+ KARPOV The Open Game in Action (Batsford)

+ BARDEN The Ruy Lopez: Winning Chess with 1. P-K4! (Pergamon)

= YUDOVICH Spanish without 3...a6 (Batsford)

= THOMAS Spanish 5. d4! (Chess Player)

- TAULBUT, How to play the Ruy Lopez (Batsford)

+ SUETIN, The Complete Spanish (Batsford)

= YUDOVITCH, Spanish without …a6 (Batsford)

= SOLTIS, Winning with the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation (Chess Digest)

= RUNKE, Meet CARL (Centre Attack in Ruy Lopez)

= FILIPOWICZ & KONIKOWSKI, 4...d5 in the Cordel Defence, Spanish Game (Ruy Lopez) (Chess Enterprises)