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The Berlin defense, the opening in which Kramnik almost proved that Black can get a draw after 1. e4 !

The Berlin defense was used in 2000 by Vladimir Kramnik as a surprise weapon against the legendary Garry Kasparov in the World championship match, and even a great player like Kasparov did not manage to win a single game with White in this line.

Since that match, the Berlin defense is very often played and its solidity has been tested in many games.

The Italian game is driven by a tactical idea: pressure on f7 and attack on the black King.
In comparison, the Ruy Lopez is a positional system, where White is not trying to checkmate the opponent in 10 moves, but instead trying to put some pressure on Black, and in particular on the e5-pawn.
The Ruy Lopez is without any doubt one of the most common opening systems nowadays.

This article is about the Berlin defense, where Black plays 3… Nf6. We will study the so-called classical defense 3… a6 (followed by 4… Nf6) in another article. Although those two approaches share some common ideas, there are some important differences that are highlighted in this very instructional video.

From this point, White has mostly three ways to handle the development:

  • Going to the “Berlin endgame”
  • Playing for a small advantage in a symmetrical structure
  • Keeping a flexible and complex development

The Berlin Defense Endgame

This is the option that Kasparov unsuccessfully chose against Kramnik in 2000. This option leads to a very interesting endgame that is not as drawish as some may say !

White to play. Both Black and White have assets in their hands here, especially in terms of pawn majority.

The above line is similar to some variants of the Philidor defense where Black gets a difficult position early in the opening. If Black plays correctly, he can reach the Berlin endgame, with a very interesting and complex game ahead. The Berlin endgame is a very rich line, this video on the Berlin defense explain additional ideas for both sides.

The next possibility for White is to play for a safe and small advantage.

The safe option for White: 5. Re1

The Berlin endgame is very complex and requires subtle and accurate play. White has another option, probably simpler yet less promising.

First it is important to understand why d7-d5, which is in a sense the most obvious move, is bad.

Moving the Knight back to f6 is a logical idea that is much better than protecting the Knight with d7-d5. However, Black’s play is very difficult already.

Thus, Black’s only good move after 5. Re1 is to move the Knight to d6, attacking the b5-Bishop.

To make a small conclusion about the move 5. Re1, it certainly asks some questions that Black has to answer precisely in order to stay in the game. However, if Black plays the right moves, White finds himself playing for a small advantage in a calm and positional position.

Finally, one of the most popular ways to fight against the Berlin defense is the quiet-looking 4. d3.

Keeping Things Complex In The Berlin Defense With 4. d3

Vladimir Kramnik himself suggests that this move may be the best way to keep the tension with White in the Berlin defense; “I was very surprised that Kasparov did not start to play 4. d3 in London in 2000…”.

Indeed, as soon as you start looking at this line, you immediately realize that it is very flexible. There are so many possibilities to play for White that there is no immediate drawing recipe for Black. This is why this line is so interesting if you want to force your opponent off the beaten tracks. I am going to present three typical ideas to play this variation.

After 4… Bc5, the first question that comes to mind is if White can capture the e5-pawn.

Interestingly, White often chooses to exchange the minor pieces on c6, but with a positional idea in mind !

4… Bc5 and White plays positional

In this line, White chooses to play for small advantages and subtle moves.

4… Bc5 and White aims at the c3-d4 setup

White has a completely different way to handle this position and can decide to play a “regular Ruy Lopez” with a different move order.

As there are many possibilities here as well, the following line is just an example.

This setup allows White to sidestep the Berlin endgame and play the rich and complex Ruy Lopez middlegame instead. Here is a game on the 4. d3 Berlin with insightul comments from a Natioanl Master.

4… d6 and Black develops the Bishop on g7

This is the last main possibility for Black. Playing d7-d6 before moving the dark squared Bishop is passive in a lot of King’s pawn openings, but here it is perfectly playable.

Here again, White plays for the push d3-d4. However, compared with the previous variations with Black’s Bishop on c5, the position is more closed and the game will have a slower development.

This variation follows the same characteristics than the other 4. d3 lines: a rich (and probably long) game can be expected, with no way to simplify the game quickly. This should be enough to convince you that the 4. d3 move is much more interesting than it looks at first sight. You can actually avoid the Berlin endgame.

Conclusion On The Berlin Defense

The Berlin defense is an amazing opening, that practically neutralized 1. e4 at top level in the 2000s.

Yet, you should not be too afraid of this opening: at any level, the asymmetrical position creates a lot of possibilities for both players and the long endgame that follows is a very subtle one to play. The Berlin endgame is also a good weapon to play for the win with Black, as the saying goes: “Marshall for a draw, Berlin for a win !”.

But White also has many possibilities outside the main line: the 5. Re1 move allows a small but steady advantage, while 4. d3 promises a very rich and complex game for both sides !

Last, and to state the obvious, the Berlin defense is not the only defense to fight the Ruy Lopez with Black. For instance, you can play 3… a6 to fall into completely different positions, but this classical system will be studied in another article !

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