Now it is time to speak about one of the main opening systems in Chess: the Ruy Lopez opening. It is named after a spanish priest who published one of the first books dedicated to Chess.
Let us start with a short line you must absolutely know if you play the Ruy Lopez with any color. We will clarify immediately if capturing on c6, then on e5 is a real threat by White.
We started with a very concrete line, but it is important to keep this point in mind: White indeed threatens to capture c6, and then e5, but this threat will not materialize immediately. The threat will be real only when White forbids the move Qd8-d4. Then only, Black has to worry about protecting the pawn.
This threat and its feasibility explain a lot in both sides’ first 5 or 6 moves in the Ruy Lopez, whatever precise line is played. Thus it is important to keep that in mind in your analysis.
Now, rather than exploring the full tree of moves played in the Ruy Lopez, which is huge, we are going to take a different approach: we will study the typical ideas for both sides one by one, and only after, give an example of line in which it occurs. This article and the following one details the ideas for Black.
Are you ready ? Because there are a lot of ideas. We will start with Black’s ideas: after all, it is up to Black to decide what to do to counter White’s Bishop’s move.
Playing the logical Nf6
Playing Ng8-f6 is certainly the first idea that comes to mind for Black:
- it develops a piece (and a good one ! Remember that according to the opening principles, Knights should be developed before Bishops)
- it attacks the e4-pawn
This move constitutes the Berlin defense.
This opening is called the Berlin defense and it is one of Black’s most solid defense against 1. e4. Basically, White has three options now:
- defending e4 with a Knight on c3, coming back to the four Knights’ defense
- defending e4 with the move d2-d3, that may seem unambitious, but is actually extremely interesting
- Achieving a fast development and castling quickly, at the cost of the e4-pawn
Those two last options are discussed in details in my article about the Berlin defense. More generally, even if Black does not play Ng8-f6 on the third move, this Knight will often be developed on f6 anyway. f6 is just the perfect square for this Knight in most cases !
Playing the solid d7-d6
As we have already seen, Black must pay attention to White’s threat to capture on c6, removing the defender of e5, followed by Nxe5. One radical way to counter that is to play d7-d6. The immediate d7-d6 is called the Steinitz defense, named after the first World Champion of Chess.
In both cases though, the move d7-d6 is not the most popular as it is known for being passive. The typical reply from White is a move you will also see against the Philidor defense.
White’s accurate reply to the move d7-d6 is often the move d2-d4 with a better position. This leads to a favorable version of the Ruy Lopez tense center. There is one exception to this rule though, in the so-called “modern Steinitz defense”. This trap allowed the great Capablanca (third world champion !) himself to win an easy game.
For this particular reason, playing d7-d6 is probably best played on the fourth move, after Black has played a7-a6.
Let’s finish by mentioning that d7-d6 is often a convenient way to protect e5 later in the opening, when White’s threat to capture the e5-pawn materializes. Take for instance this line of the Berlin defense:
The previous line has given you a hint of all the hidden threats within a seemingly quiet line. The move d7-d6 comes as a natural defense here, when played at the right time.
Fianchetto the Bishop
Developing the f8-Bishop in fianchetto is a quiet positional idea that can sometimes be used in conjonction of the previous d7-d6 idea. The immediate 3… g6 is called the Smyslov variation. Yet another line named after a Chess World Champion !
The fianchetto setup is really a solid one for Black and there is no easy way for White to take advantage of this.
You can find the g7-g6 move in some lines of the Berlin defense, in conjonction with d7-d6.
If we want to summarize the idea of developing the Bishop to g7: this is a solid option, often played together with d7-d6.
Attacking with f7-f5
But the next possibility is a totally different animal ! The move f7-f5 is an attempt to counter-attack on White’s main center pawn instead of defending e5.
Again, the move 3. Bb5 by White is a long term threat on Black’s position. So if Black wants to play sharp and concrete moves, now is probably the right time !
But f7-f5 can be found in other lines as well, where it serves the same purpose: pressuring White’s e4-pawn !
The move f7-f5 is interesting as it gives White a difficult question to answer:
- Should I capture on f5 ? Am I afraid of a potential e5-e4 to come ?
- Should I defend e4 ? But then, isn’t fxe4 giving Black too much play ?
It must be said, though, that f7-f5 must be played cautiously and only under the right circonstances (like above)! In particular, if White has castled and is ready to pressure the center, the f7-f5 can quickly become disastrous.
So, counter-attacking with f7-f5 ? Sure, but be careful, as it is a good idea that can quickly turn into a bad move if the perfect conditions are not met.
A quick a6-b5 to neutralize the white Bishop
The move 3… a7-a6 is important in the Ruy Lopez. First, it forces White to make a choice early: White can immediately decide to exchange.
In case White wants to keep the Bishop on the chessboard, the move a7-a6 is useful, too.
In particular, b7-b5 is often played by Black as soon as White threatens to play the typical Bxc6 followed by Nxe5.
But there are other ideas behind b7-b5, let’s look at two of them.
Exchanging White’s strong Bishop
This is one of the straightforward ideas behind b7-b5: driving the Bishop to b3 and then exchanging it.
So the immediate idea of using b7-b5 to capture the Bishop is probably asking too much to the position: the c6-Knight should remain there to defend e5 and that’s it !
But the quick b7-b5 can be used with another purpose in mind, perfectly sound this time.
The Arkhangelsk Defence
Here the primary purpose of b7-b5 is to fianchetto the Bishop on b7 where the Bishop has a great influence on the center.
Often in this line, Black is late to castle, but this point is counter-balanced by a greater activity in the center for Black’s pieces. The precise lines are probably too specific for an overview article like this one, but we will develop them in an article dedicated to the Arkhangelsk Defence !
Note that b7-b5 is not necessarily followed by a Bishop move to b7 as in the modern Arkhangelsk, Black plays first b7-b5 and then the bishop to g4 ! A reminder of the infinity of possible plans and moves in the Ruy Lopez !
This article should give you a first sense of what you can play with Black in the Ruy Lopez. In the advanced ideas for Black in the Ruy Lopez, we will look at more complex ideas for Black, including Bc5, Nxe4 and the sharp d7-d5 !