The Ruy Lopez is an opening that withstood the test of time. It has been played by players of the highest levels of strength since the Renaissance. It is one of the evergreen, classical, super-solid opening choices which are in every strong player’s repertoire.
It was named after a 16th century Spanish priest, Ruy López de Segura, and first recorded at the end of the 15 century. And yet, we have seen it played in most e4 games at the recently (abruptly) finished Candidates tournament played in Yakaterinburg. Why is that? The reason for the continual popularity of this opening is the basic and simple, but deadly and dangerous strategy behind the opening sequence.
To understand an opening, one must not simply memorize vast amounts of theory and learn how to blitz out exact lines. One must understand what to do and how to do it. Where each piece belongs and what its role is, not just in the opening phase, but late into the middlegame as well. And, most importantly, one must understand the pawn structures which arise from the opening. Their nature, changes, mobility, strengths, weaknesses, holes, outposts, and targets.
In this article I will attempt to provide you with exactly that for the evergreen Spanish. The idea is not to give you opening novelties or variations to employ, but to enable you to find your way through a Ruy Lopez middlegame even when you are out of book.
It is an opening in which pawn structure determines the nature of the position very subtly. Unlike the French defense, or some Sicilians, where the holes and weaknesses are very obvious, and the plans as well, in the Ruy Lopez, the intricacies of the position and the plans connected to the features and changes in the central structure require a much closer look and much more patience to understand.
Since the Ruy Lopez has many theoretical variations which result in many types of pawn structures, the study has been divided accordingly – based on different types of pawn centers.
Even if you seldom encounter some of these pawn formations, read through the strategic plans and ideas connected to them nevertheless, as they will often overlap with those in the structures familiar to you.
We will study together the most common types of Ruy Lopez centers:
- plans in the Ruy Lopez tense center
- plans in the Ruy Lopez closed center
- plans in the Ruy Lopez mobile center
- plans in the Ruy Lopez symmetrical center
- plans in the Marshall gambit center
- plans in the Ruy Lopez exchange pawn center
The Ruy Lopez Tense Center
Everything starts with the tense center: it has characteristics of its own, and can lead to the other structures mentioned hereafter.
The main point here is the central tension between d4 and e5. Generally (and this word must be highlighted !), the side who breaks the tension by exchanging makes a concession. Therefore playing this pawn structure often requires pressuring the opponent’s position in order to force him to make a (slightly) weakening pawn exchange.
These strategies are thoroughly explained in the Ruy Lopez tense center strategy. Sooner or later, one side will move a pawn, changing the nature of the position. For instance, Black can exchange on d4 and the position becomes a mobile center.
The Ruy Lopez Mobile Center
Once Black has exchanged on d4, the nature of the position changes and the game becomes more open for both sides.
White can, therefore be very happy if this transformation does happen, as his extra space, mobility, and attacking potential because of the absence of the e5 pawn greatly increase his chances.
Black therefore often has to achieve some central transformation, that will in turn force White to make a concession himself.
Of course, the previous ideas are just an appetizer, the detailed plans can be found in the Ruy Lopez mobile center.
The Ruy Lopez Closed Center
Sometimes it is not Black, but White who has to release the tension in the center !
When there is no apparent central tension it is easier to undergo complicated, long-term plans without being interrupted by your opponent. The only thing here is that there are so many possible plans that it is easy to get lost !
To know more about the previous plans, check the Ruy Lopez closed center article, you will find everything you need to perfect your understanding of such positions !
The Ruy Lopez Symmetrical Center
White has another, less common way to release the tension in the center: exchanging on e5.
With the exception of the open d file, which both sides will share, the action is switching to the kingside. This formation is, along with being simpler to navigate, much more likely to lead to trades and simplifications which can result in a draw. The open d file is a magnet for rook trades, for example.
All in all, the exchange on e5 has simplified the position a lot, but there is still room to fight for an advantage, that are detailed in the Ruy Lopez symmetrical center article.
The Ruy Lopez Exchange Pawn Center
The exchange pawn center is one of the few typical structures that does not arise from the tense center described above.
By exchanging on c6, white has “ruined” black’s pawn structure and given him double c pawns. In exchange for that, black got the bishop pair, which can be an advantage should he manage to mobilize his forces favorably.
Additionally, Black will try to mobilize his Bishop pair. All in all, each side has arguments and possibilities to create an advantage. Find more details in the Ruy Lopez Exchange Center.
The Marshall Pawn Center
The Marshall attack of the Ruy Lopez is a different animal: instead of slow maneuvering moves, you reach it through a precise and concrete line. Also, the game switches from a positional play to a life or death tactical game. But it is at the same time a very common opening, so common that it is impossible to omit it here.
White, on the other hand, has a very discombobulated position. His queenside is completely undeveloped, his rooks are disconnected, and, most importantly, his king has no defenders.
Black will attack on the Kingside, and White will have to defend against this while at the same time trying to develop his Queenside. Not an easy task, described in the Marshall attack pawn center.
This overview of the Ruy Lopez plans should have given you some good ideas to play this opening. Go to the detailed sections for more insights on each particular structure.
If you want to study the Ruy Lopez further, look at the typical ideas for Black in the Ruy Lopez and follow up with the advanced ideas for Black in the Ruy Lopez. Similar articles detailing the typical ideas for White will follow soon, stay tuned !