Learn Chess Opening: The Ruy Lopez

Are you here because you want to get better at chess? Or because you just watched The Queen’s Gambit Series on Netflix? It’s okay, y’all are welcomed here.

Chess is a recretional and competitive board game played between two players. If you want to improve your chess game, you need to learn several theories. Chess theory usually divides the game of chess into three phases with different sets of strategies: the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame. Now, we’re gonna focus on the opening called Ruy-Lopez. In this article, I will just cover some common lines.

Note: If you already familiar with the chess notation, go straight to the second chapter and skip the first one. If you’re having hard time to visualize the notation into actual moves in your head, go ahead prepare the actual chess board or digital chess board so that you can clearly see the moves.

I. Reading the chess notation

Algebraic chess notation is a system for recording chess movements. Being more concise and less ambigous, algebraic chess notation has become the standard method for recording chess moves.

If you are serious about chess, it is very important to learn how to read and use algebraic chess notation correctly, so you can enjoy the vast amount of chess literature available and study your own games. Many tournaments require you to take the notation, and it is for you benefit during post-game analysis so you can improve your game. Here’s I assume you already familiar with the square’s name (files and ranks) and the legal moves for every piece in chess.

Usually, each chess piece is denoted by the first letter of its name in uppercase, except for the knight (which uses an “N”) and the pawn (nothing). For figuring algebraic notation, a spesific symbol is used for each piece.

  • King = K or ♔ or ♚
  • Queen = Q or ♕ or ♛
  • Rook = R or ♖ or ♜
  • Bishop = B or ♗ or ♝
  • Knight = N (since K is already taken by the king) or ♘ or ♞
  • Pawn = (no letter) — pawns are denoted by the absence of a letter or ♙ or ♟

For special situations,

If two or more identical pieces can move to the same square, the letter for the piece is followed by:

  • the file (column) of departure if they differ;
  • the rank (row) of departure if the files are the same but the ranks differ;
  • both the rank and file if neither alone uniquely defines the piece.
  • For example, if two knights on d2 and f2 can both reach e4, the move is denoted as Nde4 or Nfd4, as appropriate. If two knights on d2 and d6 can both reach e4, the move would be denoted as N2d4 or N6d4, as appropriate. If three knights on d2, d6, and f2 can all reach e4, with capture, the move would be denoted as Nd2xe4, N6xe4, or Nfxe4, as appropriate.

For pawn promotion, the piece to which it is promoted is written after the destination coordinate. For example, a pawn on e7 moving to e8 and promoting to a knight would be denoted as e8N. Sometimes an equal sign (=) is used, as in e8=N, or parentheses are used, as in e8(N), or a slash (/) is used, as in e8/N. Only the first type is used in FIDE standard.

For castling, O-O denotes king side castle, while O-O-O denotes queen side castle.

A check is denoted by + after the move notation; double check may be denoted by ++ (keep in mind that some use “++” to signify checkmate as well and many will simply write double check with a single “+”.

Checkmate is denoted by # after the move notation. Some older chess literature may denote ++ as checkmate.

A 1–0 is used at the end of the game to denote a white win, 0–1 to denote a black win, and ½–½ (or 0.5–0.5) to denote a draw. The words “White Resigns” or “Black Resigns” may be used to denote a resignation.

II. Theory

The Ruy Lopez is objectively one of the most solid opening with white and is Magnus Carlsen’s (The current world champion chess since 2013) most successful opening. If you enjoy open positions then this opening is for you. There are not many sidelines Black can go for so you will not to spend a week booking up. This study will give you full reportoire against 1. e5.

The good thing about this opening is that it is very hard to go wrong and with decent play, white will always have a small positional advantage. Objectively, this is regarded to be the most promising opening after 1.e4 e5.

The Ruy Lopez (alternatively known as the Spanish Opening) starts with a King’s pawn game and features a bishop on b5 (Spanish bishop). If you are a beginner that is very new to the game, I would recommend the Italian opening where you will play 3. Bc4 instead of 3. Bb5 (Maybe I will cover the Italian Opening in the future posts).

Figure 1. The Ruy Lopez Opening (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 …)

Note: The left-hand side bar is an evaluation bar. It tells us the positional advantages the players have after the last move played. It shows +0.32, it indicates White is slightly better. If it shows -0.32, it indicates Black is slightly better.

If you want to, you can play a classical traditional position by developing Knight to c3 (4. Nc3).

Figure 2. The Ruy Lopez Classical Variation with 3… Bc5 4. Nc3

However, for intermediate and advanced players, I highly recommend going for the center with 4. c3 to prepare d4 on the next move. This idea is also more effective amongst humans.

Figure 3. The immediate center attack after 3… Bc5 4. c3 to prepare d4.

There are traps with the bishop on b5 because of the alignment with the Black’s king, there will probably a pin in the future. So good players kick the bishop back with a6 at some point. If this occur, you should re-route the bishop to the highlighted diagonal (Look at Figure 4 below), ideally to c2.

Figure 4. The best diagonal for the White light-squared bishop if Black plays a6 at some point.

The main idea is to castled, play Re1, built the center (c3 and d4), play h3 to stop the Black’s light-squared bishop coming to g4 and start maneuvering the knight on b2 to f5 (through e3 or g3). But be careful because if Black’s light-square bishop is guarding that square, Black will gladly trade it off. The Ruy Lopez requires patience.

Figure 5. The main Idea for The Ruy Lopez

You should know that normally White’s dark-squared bishop is not a great piece. You can slot it on e3 to help with d4 control but if you do this, make sure e4 is sufficiently protected. White could just leaves the bishop on c1 for a long time and only develops it when White absolutely needs to.

The Ruy Lopez Main Line start with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 a6

Figure 6. The Morphy’s Defense.

4. Ba4 Nf6

5. O-O b5

6. Bb3 Be7

7. Re1 d6

Figure 7. The Ruy Lopez: Morphy defense variation main line.

Look at the ideas both sides used and you will get a better understanding of this opening.

The Open Ruy Lopez starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 a6

4. Ba4 Nf6

5. O-O b5

6. Bb3 Nxe4

Figure 8. The Open Ruy Lopez Line

This is the open Ruy Lopez. To get out of this without material loss black must play very well and it is easy for white to play this position. Usually, the people playing this only play it because they don’t know theory. You can play 7.Re1 but the better move is 7.d4!!

Figure 9. The Open Ruy Lopez with 7. d4!!

Opening the center while black’s king is in the center. Please note: You are not playing a Ruy Lopez without castling early.

7. d4!! exd4

Figure 10. The Open Ruz Lopez with 7.d4!! exd4

This is one of the moves black can play. It is the main one. 7…Nd6 is also played but runs into 8.dxe5 and white is better.

8. Re1 d5

Figure 11. The Open Ruy Lopez with 8. Re1 d5

White plays 8. Re1 to pin the knight and Black has to play 8…d5 otherwise Black is gonna be in trouble. The purpose of 8…d5 is to defend the knight and also preparing to develop the light-squared bishop. In this position there are countless candidate moves. For example, if you want to win the pawn back immediately, 9.Nfd2 threatening f3. 9…Be7, breaking the pin and then 10.Nxe4 and you will win back the pawn.

9. Bg5

Figure 12. The Open Ruy Lopez with 9. Bg5

Another move you can play. This is saying that I will take my time to regain the pawn but for now I have rapid development. Bg5 is the best move but make sure you are prepared. If you want to be safe and you can’t remember theory, go for Nfd2 or even the interesting Nc3 if you have done your research on that line.

The Berlin Defense starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 Nf6

Figure 13. The Berlin Defense

The immediate Nf6 before expanding the queen side pawns is called the Berlin defense. This is an indication that black is wanting a draw. This is very hard to break through with white and the Berlin is the most solid, drawish defense against the Ruy Lopez.

Figure 14. Berlin Defense with 4.d3 or known as Anti-Berlin.

This is the move that recommended, just keeping the position nice and solid. You will play for the same ideas as the main line Ruy Lopez, but using an extra tempo. 4. 0–0 is also played a lot, which transposes into the main line but black’s pawns on the queenside are not extended and white’s bishop is still on b5. The reason I prefer 4. d3 over 4.O–O against the Berlin is because in the main line White will always have a4!, a move common in the Ruy Lopez, to break down/undermine black’s over-extended pawns. In the Berlin though, black has not pushed those pawns. Also, on move 4.O-O the best move for black is now 4…Nxe4. This is now possible because as you saw in the game I linked in the open variation chapter the black pawns that were pushed encouraged the light bishop to go to b3 from where it plays an important role in pressuring d5. If you decide to go for this line (4. O-O Nxe4), the best move is 5. Re1, and the game will be very drawish.

So if you go for 4. d3, just use the normal ideas but taking one extra tempo to complete the plan. Remember, the Berlin is very solid so do not ruin your position trying to break through.

The Classical Ruy Lopez starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 Bc5

Figure 15. The Classical Defense

This is the classical Ruy Lopez. It is not played that often at a high level, but it follows opening principles which makes it a favourite among beginners. The difference between this opening and the main line is that black’s dark bishop is on c5 instead of e7. Having the bishop on e7 is more solid but the bishop on c5 can lead to pressuring f2.

Against the classical you must take the center with 4. c3 preparing d4.

Figure 16. The Classical defense with 4. c3

The idea of developing the knight to c3 is bad because then you will not be able to exploit the bishop on c5. I always play c3 in this position but you can castle right away if you want. Instead of c3 or O–O if you try the center fork trick with 4. Nxe5 followed with d4

Figure 17. The Classical Defense 4. Nxe5 Nxe5 5. d4Trick

this will not work as well because Black doesn’t have to capture the White’s knight and plays Qe7 and Black is actually okay here.

Figure 18. The Classical Defense 4. Nxe5 Qe7

Assuming you play 4.Nxe5 Black can either play 4…Qe7 or Qg5 winning back the pawn. One of the lines is


5. Nxc6 Qxe4+

6. Qe2 Qxe2

7. Bxe2 dxc6

and Black has already opened up the light-squared bishop.

Figure 19. One of the lines in The Classical Defense

As you can see from Figure 19, objectively the game is so drawish but it is easier to play with Black because Black has more activities here.

Back to the Main Classical Defense line,

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 Bc5

4. c3 Nf6

5. O-O O-O

Figure 20. The Classical Ruy Lopez Main line

Black could not have taken the pawn on e4 for the same reasons in the open Ruy Lopez and here d4 will be even stronger because it comes with a tempo on the Black dark-squared bishop. So Black better plays 5…O-O.

6. Re1 d6

7. a3

Figure 21. The Classical Ruy Lopez Main Line 7.a3

7. a3 is important to cover the b4 square because if you just go straight 7.d4, Black would trade (7…exd4 8.cxd4) and then Black could play 8…Bb4 attack the Rook on e1. But, 7.d4 is still theory (deep theory but I won’t cover them right now).

After this position (Figure 21), if Black response with 7… Be6, that would be a tactical blunder because White will win material after 8. d4 attacking the Black’s dark-square bishop and threaten to play d5 to fork the Black’s knight and Black’s light-square bishop. The best move here is 7…Ng4 attacking the f2 pawn twice. There are a lot of lines here. If you want to really have advantages in every position, you should remember the lines. But I can’t cover it all because it will take much time for the research and to write them all.

The Ruy Lopez Archangel Variation starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 a6

4. Ba4 Nf6

5. O-O Bc5

6. c3 b5

Figure 22. The Ruy Lopez Archangel Variation

This is the Archangel variation. The idea for Black is to put a dark-square bishop on c5 and a light-square bishop on b7 from where they will be staring down the white king. Sometimes, you will have to play d5 to shut down the light bishop on b5 but make sure you don’t over-extend your center. The classical variation usually transposes into the Archangel. Use similar ideas to the ones you would use against the classical by playing 6. c3 to prepare d4.

The Breyer Defense starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 a6

4. Ba4 Nf6

5. O-O Be7

6. Re1 b5

7. Bb3 d6

8. c3 O-O

9. h3 Nb8

Figure 23. The Breyer Defense

This 9…Nb8 is move is Breyer Defense. We have transposed from the main line to the Breyer defense. The idea of this opening is that the knight on c6 does not really have a purpose because of the move d6. With Nb8 you are preparing to maneuver the knight to a better square e.g. to d7 from where it will contribute towards the center.

10. d4 Nbd7

Figure 25. The Breyer Defense 10. d4 Nbd7

This looks weird, but it is worth trying. It is Magnus Carlsen’s second favorite defense against the Ruy Lopez. Black will keep trying to undermine white’s center with moves like c5. As White, just continue with the normal ideas. After c5 do not be afraid of black exchanging all the pawns on d4. This will leave you with a great knight on d4. It is best to leave the tension for as long as possible.

The Chigorin Defense starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 a6

4. Ba4 Nf6

5. O-O Be7

6. Re1 b5

7. Bb3 O-O

8. c3 d6

9. h3 Na5

Figure 25. The Chigorin Defense

This move 9…Na5 is the Chigorin defense. It is the Breyer defense but there is a knight on a5 instead of b8. As White, you definitely won’t want to give up your Spanish bishop for that knight so you should play Bc2.

10. Bc2 c5

Figure 26. The Chigorin Defense 10. Bc2 c5

Black still has the idea of c5 that we saw in the Breyer, but with the knight on a5. The thing that makes the Chigorin different is that instead of re-routing the knight to d7, you first play c5 and bring the knight back to c6 because knight on a5 is a bad piece.

Marshall Gambit starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 a6

4. Ba4 Nf6

5. O-O Be7

6. Re1 b5

7. Bb3 O-O

8. c3 d5

Figure 27. The Marshall Gambit (or Marshall Attack)

This 8…d5 move is The Marshall Gambit. This is an aggressive relpy to the Ruy Lopez. Black will be the one attacking but white will be up a pawn.

As White, you could either accept or decline the gambit. First, I will show you what happen if you accept the gambit.

9. exd5 Nxd5

10. Nxe5 Nxe5

11. Rxe5 c6

Figure 28. The Marshall Gambit Accepted

Black will get sufficient compensation for the pawn. They have open lines which can lead to a devastating attack.

12. d4 Bd6

13. Re1 Qh4

14. g3 Qh3

Figure 29. The Marshall Gambit Accepted line

White has some weaknesses around his king but if White defends properly you should end up being up a pawn.

If you are not interested in accepting the Marshall, I will show the sideline how you can decline it and still keep a small advantage.

The Marshall Gambit decline starts with 9. d4.

Figure 30. The Marshall Gambit Decline

If black plays exd4 then e5 grabs some space and after the knight has moved you can recapture on d4 with the pawn. The best move for Black is 9…dxe4.

9. d4 dxe4

10. Nxe5 Nxe5

11. dxe5 Qxd1

12. Bxd1 Nd5

Figure 31. The Marshall Gambit Decline line

Here you can take on e4, so I suppose d4 is not really declining the gambit if Black plays these moves. But I just showed one line, there are a few Black can choose. This line is very safe and it is around equal.

The Scliemann Variation starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 f5

Figure 32. The Schliemann Variation

This is the Schliemann variation. Black immediately attacks white’s center with the f-pawn. This opening is extremely rare- I only know one player who plays this and you will barely ever run into this. If you accept the pawn, the players playing this will know the next 50 moves of what to play. I would just recommend play 4.d3.

Against the Schliemann you might have to play a bit more traditionally by developing the knight to c3 instead of going for the standard c3, d4 idea, which will not work as well because then it will be easy for Black to undermine your center.

The Bird Defense starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 Nd4

Figure 33. The Bird Defense

This is the Bird defense. The aim for black is to get good control of the center with c6, d5 at the cost of doubling his pawns. This opening is quite dubious and not popular at the highest level.

Don’t tunnel vision and take the e5 pawn because your bishop is hanging on b5. Don’t move your bishop otherwise Qg5 is strong. You should take the knight on d4.

4. Nxd4 exd4

5. d3 c6

6. Ba4 d5

7. exd5 Qxd5

8. O-O

Figure 34. The Bird Defense line

After Re1 you will play normally and eventually undermine d4 with c3.

The Norwegian Defense starts with

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 a3

4. Ba4 b5

5. Bb3 Na5

Figure 35. The Norwegian Defense

This is the Norwegian defense. This is not very popular but there are traps to fall in to at a lower level. The e5 pawn isn’t really hanging because if you take it, Black has a beatiful sequence move to win back the pawn.

6. Nxe5 Nxb3

7. axb3 Qg5

Figure 36. The Norwegian defense 6.Nxe5 variation

As you can see from Figure 36, you can’t defend both the knight and the g-pawn. You have to play Nf3 and give the g-pawn.

Instead taking the pawn, the main line is just castling.

6. O-O Nxb3

7. axb3

Figure 37. The Norwegian Defense Main Line.

You usually want to keep your Spanish bishop but This is an exception where you will get the open a-file. The b-pawns are doubled but doubled pawns are only weak when they can be attacked and exploited. Now you are threatening to take on e5 because g2 is defended.

In this position, Black just have to defend the e5 pawn with d6 and the game continue. If Black is trying to counter-attack the e4 pawn, Black is gonna be in trouble. This is the trap line where Black trying to counter-attack the e4 pawn.

7… Bb7

8. Nxe5 Bxe4

9. Re1 d5

10. c3 Bf5

11. Nc6+

Figure 38. The Norwegian Defense trap

This is what would happen if Black is trying to take the e4 pawn. Black is losing the queen whatever Black moves.

III. Benefit

Maybe you’re wondering what is the benefit playing the Ruy Lopez. The Benefit for playing this opening for Black is to play for a draw. If White doesn’t know the theory, Black could get the advantage.

The benefit for playing this opening for White is to get the solid position at the early game and basically playing the new game after 8 until 12 moves. So you will start to think your original moves in the middle-game and the end-game.

IV. Source

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chess#Theory
  2. https://www.wikihow.com/Read-Algebraic-Chess-Notation
  3. lichess.org/study

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