The Ruy Lopez chess opening, also called the Spanish Game, is perhaps the most studied chess opening of all time. This opening is attributed to the 16th c. Spanish priest Ruy Lopez de Segura, who wrote a book on the study of this and other openings in 1561. The Spanish Game has so many variations that in the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings, or ECO, all chess opening codes from C60-C99 are assigned to this one system (182 variations!). We cannot cover every variation, but we will look at the basics and the main lines of play.
The main sequence of the Ruy Lopez is as follows:
The pin of the c6 knight is the main feature of this opening.
Black has several answers. For starters, black could continue being defensive with 3. … g6, the Barnes Defence (C60). This would set up a strong king’s side castle with the bishop in fianchetto:
Black could go on the offensive with Bird’s Defence (C61), 3. … Nd4, forking the bishop and the knight, which would look like this:
In one continuation of Bird’s Defence, the Berger Variation, white focuses on pawn structure for a strong kingside game:
In the Paulsen Variation of Bird’s Defence, we have virtually the same game, but black’s knight is in a slightly more defensive posture:
Black could also answer the threat of the b5 bishop with Schliemann’s Defence (C63), 3. … f5, which diverts white’s control of the center.
White is threatening the bishop fork, so black threatens the bishop and the g2 pawn.
Another possibility is the Old Steinitz Defence (C62):
Black eliminates the power of the pin on the c6 knight by interposing the bishop. Both players bring in their other knights for defense. Since white has the tempo and a slight position advantage by attacking the center with d4, he forces the exchange at c6.
Black may choose to bring in the other knight to attack, employing something like the Berlin Defence (C67). This also prepares for a king’s side castle later on, as the queen’s side pawn structure could possibly be jumbled from the potential exchange at c6.
Though black is still vulnerable to the pin at c6, black has good development and center control.
After the defining move of the Berlin Defence, 3. … Nf6, black has a couple of other ways to carry out her plan:
This one is called the Closed Berlin Defence (C66). Black lets white have free development while she plans her strong defenses.
Another approach is the Open Berlin Defence (C67):
In the Open Berlin Defence, black has good protection and some development… but watch out for that battery!
Another significant answer to the pin of the c6 knight is the Cordel Defence (C64):
The idea is to ignore the pin and begin the attack for the center. Again, there are a couple of options:
Black aggressively brings the bishop out to attack; white castles. Black moves the knight out of the pin to attack, and white sets up the exchange with the b4 pawn. The result is similar to Bird’s Defence.
White may opt for a sharper response, perhaps along these lines:
White sacrifices his bishop pair for good center control and a great knight outpost at e5, leaving black with a center pawn that’s hard to defend. Black, however, is certainly not weak.
The most popular answer to the pin at c6, however, is the Morphy Defence; so much so that it is considered the main line of the opening: 3. … a6.
When White is faced with the threat of the a6 pawn, the only plausible options are to exchange for the knight, or retreat. First, let’s look at the Exchange Variation (C69):
White goes for the center, but black sets up a possible queen exchange.
If white doesn’t go for the exchange, the only option is to retreat the bishop, i.e. 4. Ba4.
Black has three major answers to the retreat of the bishop to a4: boxing in the bishop, attacking the center with pawns, or attacking the center with the king’s side knight.
After the bishop retreat in the fourth move, we have this:
Let’s look at the option of boxing in the bishop, called the Taimanov Variation (C70):
Black is behind on development, but he has a firm grip on the center of the board as well as a solid defensive set up. White must be careful, especially after giving away the tempo through castling.
Black can also answer the bishop retreat to a4 by attacking the center with pawns. This is exactly the goal of the Neo-Steinitz Variation (C71):
If white seizes the tempo by attacking with d4, black answers by boxing the bishop with the Noah’s Ark Variation (C71):
White tries to save the bishop but black’s attack is relentless. Black has strong queenside pawns but is a little behind in development.
If white answers the d6 pawn move with the queen’s side knight, we have the Three Knights Game (C71), which is a little bit quieter.
White has another interesting response to d6 called the Siesta Variation (C74).
White gives its bishop a safe haven that can still be useful in controlling the center. Black forces the issue by pushing the f5 pawn.
These variations in response to the bishop retreat to a4 are not nearly as common as the king’s side knight reinforcement. In fact, this is considered a continuation of the Morphy Defence:
If white answers with the queen’s side knight, we have a more defensive game, called the Tarrasch Variation (C77):
This variation transposes into the Four Knights Game. White gives up the tempo to black, who uses it to establish control of the center.
White can also answer by going through with the exchange at c6. This variation is called Exchange Deferred (C77).
This scenario is virtually the same as in the regular Exchange Variation, except it gives black slightly more development.
If White instead decides to develop his queen, the Gruenfeld Variation (C77) is the result.
After the double kick on the white bishop, black sets up a typical defence with good development. White’s position is equal, despite the double kick of the bishop.
More commonly, white will take this opportunity to castle. If black responds by attacking the center, we have the Spanish Open Game (C80):
Black has many strengths: both bishops are active; both knights are aggressive; strong pawn structure; and control of the center. However, white is not weak. He has a strong pawn in enemy territory, good defensive posture, and the tempo.
If black holds off on his attack and majors on defense after white castles, the Closed Spanish Game (C89) is what we get.
Black goes for the early castle to protect her king, and then launches into the famed Marshall Attack with d5.
White has a menacing rook in the middle of the board, as well as an active bishop and a safe king.
Some notable games to check out: