Chess Opening basics: Ruy Lopez (or the Spanish opening)

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Though traced back to the 15th century, this opening came into prominence in the middle of the 19th century. Since then, it has remained ever popular and is frequently seen in tournaments. It takes its name from a Spanish clergyman of the 16th century Ruy Lopez who made a systematic analysis of this opening. The basic ideas are easy to understand and the strategic and tactical possibilities appeal to players’ imaginations, giving rise to a large number of variations. New ideas or modifications of old ones keep coming up and these have helped to retain interest in this opening.

The present discussion, though made with reference to Ruy Lopez because of its wide prevalence, is to show you how you can analyze openings to understand the issues involved. An introduction to Ruy Lopez was given earlier, this description takes it a little more forward and shows the moves step by step that may appeal to the very beginners.


The diagrams on the left show the main line of play. Those on the right, when they appear, show the possibilities after the last main move.


basic idea All openings aim to achieve a control of the center i.e., control of the four squares d4, e4, d5 and e5 as marked out in the diagram. You may like to refer to point 4 under positional strategies in 50 Strategies to gain the upper hand over your opponent.
1. e4 RuyLopez_first_move White KP is trying to take control of d5 and f5
1. … e5 RuyLopez_black_first_move Black likewise counters with aim to control d4 and f4
2. Nf3 RuyLopez_white_move2 This tries to wrest control of e5 by attacking the black pawn and exerts control on d4
2. … Nc6 RuyLopez_black_move2 This defends the e5 pawn and holds on to its share of control of the center and challenges White’s control on d4
3. Bb5 RuyLopez_white_move3 The starting of Ruy Lopez. This indirectly tries to seize control of center by attacking the defender knight of the e5 pawn. If this Knight is removed, White will be able to capture Black’s e5 pawn
This move also indirectly prevents Black to move his QP (which would help Black to support his KP and free the line for his QB) because the Knight will be pinned against the King.
3. … a6 RuyLopez_black_move3 This move is known as Morphy Defense, apparently ignoring White’s threat. After this move, Ruy Lopez variations get into two broad categories, one with 3. … a6 and the other without this move.
This move tries to drive White’s KB away, preparing the way for b5 at some stage that will force the Bishop to abandon its attack on black QN. But such pawn moves create some weakness in Black’s pawn structure while retaining his hold on his KP.
4. Ba4 RuyLopez_white_move4 The Bishop retreats while still retaining its attack on the Knight.
You may ask: why not capture the Knight after what was said at move 3?
This is because of the following possibilities.


4. Bxc6 If the Bishop captures the Knight … RuyLopez_white_alt_move4
4. … dxc6 … the QP captures the Bishop … RuyLopez_black_alt_move4
5. Nxe5 White Knight captures Blacks KP … RuyLopez_white_alt_move5
5. … Qd4 … Black Q attacks both the White Knight and Pawn at e4 and in trying to save the Knight, White has to surrender his e4 pawn and its control of the center. Black may have got doubled pawn on c-file but retains the advantage of having both Bishops.
Black has another alternative also …
5. … Qg5 … Black Q attacks both the Knight and g-pawn and thus gets compensation for the loss of his KP.
So White’s immediate capture of Knight with Bishop at move 4 does not give any benefit but it can be done after his KP is supported. Black has to watch out for such moves by White.


4. … Nf6 RuyLopez_black_move4 Secure in the knowledge of above possibilities, Black is not worried about his KP for the present and tries to make a counter-attack on White’s KP to wrest control of center.
5. 0-0 RuyLopez_white_move5 It is now White’s turn to disregard Black’s threat and proceed with castling to secure his King’s position and bringing KR into play.
Why is the threat not considered? The following possibilities show that.


5. … Nxe4 If Black Knight captures the KP … RuyLopez_black_alt_move5
6. Re1 … The Rook attacks the Knight and captures Black’s KP when the Knight moves away.
Alternatively …
6. d4 … White’s QP directly attacks Black’s KP … RuyLopez_white_second_alt_move6
6. … exd4 … if Black tries to capture White’s d-pawn … RuyLopez_black_second_alt_move6
7. Re1 … White Rook pins the Knight against Black King RuyLopez_white_alt_move7


5. … Be7 RuyLopez_black_move5 Being aware of above complications, Black places a guard in front of the King which also develops the Bishop and opens the line for castling.
6. Re1 RuyLopez_white_move6 This provides support to the KP and thereby reinstates the initial threat of Bxc6 posed at move 3. At this time, White had three other options to support his KP viz. …


6. Qe2 … support by the Queen … RuyLopez_white_alt_move6
6. Nc3 … support by the QN … RuyLopez_white_second_alt_move6
6. d3 … support by the QP RuyLopez_white_third_alt_move6


6. … b5 RuyLopez_black_move6 Black is aware of the revival of the threat against his Knight at c3 and thereby on his KP, so he parries the threat by attacking the Bishop
7. Bb3 RuyLopez_white_move7 The Bishop has to retreat but now has a line to Black’s vulnerable f7 square
7. … d6 RuyLopez_black_move7 The e5 pawn is supported further and lines have been opened for developing QB
Black has the option of castling now and playing d6 on the next move.


This is the main line of Ruy Lopez Closed Defense, Classical Variation. It can be seen that Black’s 3. … a6 is instrumental in maintaining his e5 pawn and so long as Black is able to hold on to his KP and thereby a control on the center, his position is satisfactory. If the KP gets exchanged, strategic advantages accrue to White.

You can see that even within a span of 7 moves, so many different possibilities may arise including the strategic and tactical considerations that come into play. Any opening that you plan to follow should be analyzed this way to find the inherent strategies with positive and negative aspects. Your play should be consistent with the strategies to get the maximum benefits till you reach the middle game when you are on your own.