Who hasn't gotten out the chess set on a rainy afternoon, set up the board and, with a dramatic flourish, pushed the king's pawn up two squares?

Ruy Lopez notation: 1. e4 e5     2. Nf3  Nc6     3. Bb5 ...

This opening kicks off with the standard Open Game pawn face-off in the centre of the board.

If you know even a little about the Ruy Lopez opening, whether you play White or Black, you know that that move pair signals one of chess's most popular openings. Alternatively called the Spanish Opening or the Spanish Game, everyone from Magnus Carlsen to the new players in my chess club love the Ruy Lopez.

It is named after Ruy Lopez de Segura, a 16th Century priest and chess devotee who wrote a book about chess openings in 1561. He did not pioneer the move, though. The opening predates him, as it is featured in the 15th Century Göttingen manuscript - though obviously, that entry does not list Ruy Lopez's name.

If you should happen to play Black, you might not call it by that name or any of the names listed, either.

Because it is so hard for Black to gain equality when this opening is played, that side of the board likes to call it the Spanish torture. It doesn't have to be that bad!

Let Superprof show you some hacks that could make the Ruy Lopez your fav opening, too.

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The Theory Behind the Ruy Lopez

Much like opening with The Queen's Gambit, the Ruy Lopez opening signals strategy will feature heavily in this game. It appears more of an aggression, though, because, from the outset, White and Black stake their claim on the board's centre, as seen by its notation, written above.

Black plays the Ruy Lopez at a disadvantage
The Ruy Lopez opening is meant to keep Black scrambling for defense. Photo credit: glyn_nelson on VisualHunt.com

The idea behind the Ruy Lopez opening is to keep Black on the back foot by ruining any attempt Black might make to establish a pawn structure. After the initial pawn moves, White knight threatens Black's e6 pawn and, upon their third move, White pursues an even more aggressive stance by positioning their white bishop on square b5, effectively threatening the knight protecting Black's e6 pawn.

Only three moves into the game, and already Black is left with only not-so-good recovery choices. For a beginner player playing Black, this opening could be seen as particularly fraught.

Fortunately for Black, Whites have eased off the traditional follow-up; Bxc6 - taking Black's knight is no longer the go-to move. They may instead pull their bishop back from b5 to a4, especially if Black's a-file pawn is played. Another bit of hope for Black: some defences are better than others; all need not be lost.

We'll cover some of those defences in the next segment.

The Ruy Lopez is the most extensively developed theory of all Open Games - those that open with 1. e4 e5, with every line thoroughly analysed. Practically every move offers more than one alternative response; could the same be said for the King's Gambit Strategy?

Ruy Lopez Defences

As just mentioned, after White moves for the third time, two of Black's pieces, their e6 pawn and b6 knight are in jeopardy. An inexperienced player may wonder which piece to sacrifice or they could respond to 3. Bb5 by moving their kingside bishop to c5.

3. Bb5 Bc5 is known as the Classic defence.

The Classic is likely the oldest Ruy Lopez defence, embrace by chess grandmasters Boris Gulko and Boris Spassky, among others. Also called the Cordel defence, it kicks off our list of potential defences and how White might proceed.

As an aside, did you know that the first two moves of the Scotch Game are exactly the same as the Ruy Lopez? Find out White's next move... hint: it's not Bb5!

The Morphy defence may have been deployed in this game
Considering Black's pawn structure around the a-file, that player may have employed the Morphy Defense. Photo credit: 1DayReview on Visualhunt

The Morphy Defence

Chess players today prefer to develop their pieces - and also test the mettle of their opponents rather than immediately attacking so, when Black moves their a-file pawn to the 6th rank, White's response is usually to pull their bishop back to a4.

Naturally, White has the option of capturing Black's knight, which may set off a flurry of captures that could negatively impact White's game. Furthermore, their retreat to a4 may leave that knight vulnerable for trapping so, if White was going to respond to Black's a6 question, they will have to play a solid middlegame to avoid any pitfalls.

Paul Morphy, the American 19th Century chess prodigy was enamoured of this defence, invoking it often as he played across Europe and the US. Naturally, this defence predates him; it was named in his honour because he invoked it so often and with such success.

The Morphy Defence has several alternatives, the Closed Defence and the Main Line among them which, in turn, each come with a host of variations. Remember, we did say the Ruy Lopez opening is one of the most extensively developed theories. 

Besides the Classical and the Morphy defences, other defences Black might opt for include:

  • the Cozio Defence: 3: ... Nge7 (kingside knight to e7) - not very popular or oft-played
  • the Berlin Defence: 3: ... Nf6  is the most popular alternative to a6
  • the Schliemann Defence: 3: ... f5 allows development of the kingside game; causes confusion for White
  • the Modern Steinitz Defence: 3: ... a6 4: Ba4 d6 is vastly preferred to the original Steinitz Defence (3. ...d6)

Other Black defences include the Bird and Smyslov Defences but they have fallen out of favour over the years. They can be used to shock/surprise your opponent but, if that's your strategy, but you should know them very well before using them.

Like the Italian Game, they are full of risks.

How to Build Ruy Lopez Traps

Because this opening overwhelmingly favours White, one of the best strategies Black can deploy is trapping their opponents' key pieces. One such trap, called the Noah's Ark Trap, may result from White's response to the Morphy Defence. It's when White's kingside bishop gets surrounded while on b3 as the game progresses.

The Riga Variation of the Open Game may result in an endgame trap for Black, particularly if White's 15th move is Nc3. Conversely, the Dilworth Variation may signal danger for inexperienced White players because of the many opportunities for Black to lay traps.

The Mortimer Trap essentially amounts to Black playing dumb, making moves that seem inferior to lure their opponent into moves that will ultimately cost them, perhaps only in the short-term but maybe the whole game.

The Tarrasch Trap is particularly vicious, not the least because there are two variations.

In the Open variation, Black's queen is primed to fall into the trap by the 11th move and, while the queen may not be lost, Black's d5 pawn has been rendered useless - along with any piece on the a2-g8 diagonal. So, while it looks like Black has good control over the centre, they are in imminent danger of losing at least one piece.

The second Tarrasch Trap manifests in the Steinitz variation. This trap favours White but they too can be caught, especially if Black is a particularly astute player.

These traps make the Ruy Lopez opening a bit more challenging. Much of their effectiveness depends on players' skill level and even, to an extent, whether they prefer the middlegame or endgame.

But then, the same could be said for all of the top chess openings, right?

The Ruy Lopez is often played in tournament
The Ruy Lopez has opened many tournament chess matches. Photo credit: ninahale on VisualHunt.com

Notable Matches Featuring the Ruy Lopez

As noted in this article's introductory paragraph, the Ruy Lopez is a firm fav among world chess champions and local club players alike. That might make it sound like there could be nothing remarkable about this opening, especially as there are so many possible defences and variations.

Unlike games that open with the Sicilian Defense, a more combative opening, the Ruy Lopez allows for more piece development and more thoughtful, strategic playing. That makes it sound rather unengaging too, doesn't it?

Still, a few games featuring the Ruy Lopez opening stand out. Let's take a look at some of them now.

Kasparov-Karpov World Championship Game

In 1990, these two grandmasters faced off for the title of World Chess Champion. It was the last of a series of matches wherein the two would oppose each other. Kasparov, having recently attained the unattainable - an Elo rating beyond 2800, was considered the overwhelming favourite.

Kasparov, playing White, opened with the Ruy Lopez. The game played out along standard lines, with Karpov answering his opponent's Nb5 with a6 - the Morphy Defence.

Kasparov knew that, at some point, Karpov would invoke the Zaitsev Variation. The two men, hardly bosom buddies, had faced off often enough that Kasparov knew that defence was Karpov's go-to move. Kasparov played along until he saw his opening. In the 18th move, he lifted his rook to a3 and... the rest is history. 

Kasparov claimed the championship title and Karpov, for all intents and purposes, retired the Zaitsev Variation.

Capablanca-Marshall game, 1918

Reaching back into the annals of chess, we find this game, which yielded the Marshall Attack: 7: ... 0-0, 8: c3 d5.

This famous gambit got its name from American chess champion James Frank Marshall, who had plotted it for use precisely against the opponent he faced in this legendary game.

It is a particularly aggressive strategy for Black to pursue, for all that it looks like that player is being careless. However, Black's initial pawn sacrifice places White at a much greater disadvantage overall.

Opening with the Ruy Lopez, Capablanca (white) thought he would have the upper hand until Marshall deployed his attack. It took Capablanca aback for just a bit but he nevertheless went on to win the match.

There are plenty of other notable games that opened with the Ruy Lopez; as this opening is the most common of all Open Games, we would be hard-pressed to list them all.

Why not learn how to use the French defence now, for a bit of variety in your chess game?

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.