Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
If you are a fan of asymmetrical pawn structures, active piece play, and dynamic battles then the Open Ruy Lopez is tailor-made for you.
What adds to the appeal of this opening is that it’s positionally sound. This balance between positional soundness and dynamic play is why it remains a popular choice year-after-year.
Although many openings come in and out-of-fashion the Open Ruy Lopez is a consistent choice by top players for its soundness and ability to improve the chess skills of those who play it.
The Open Ruy Lopez has been played by players of many different playing styles including Korchnoi, Timman and Yusupov. The current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, has also played it.
Common Ideas in the Open Ruy Lopez
The mainline opening moves are 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6.
Looking at this tabiya from white’s perspective you can immediately see that white has:
- A kingside pawn majority.
- A pawn on e5 to help launch an attack.
- And playing Nbd2 is a good way to exchange off the active knight on e4.
And from black’s perspective it’s clear that black has:
- The queenside pawn majority.
- A knight on e4 applying pressure on f2.
- The chance to play ..Bc5 increasing the attack against f2.
Common Strategies in the Open Ruy Lopez
White will try to:
- Put pressure on d5.
- Play against the queenside pawn majority with a4 and/or b4.
- Occupy the c5 and d4-square to limit the mobility of black’s queenside pawns.
- Seek to generate an attack on the kingside by playing f4-f5.
Black in turn will:
- Seek to support his knight with f5.
- Try to push the d-pawn to d4 opening up space for his pieces.
- Get his queenside pawn majority moving.
- Bring the bishop to the kingside with …Bg4 where it will act as a defender after …Bh4, and …Bg6.
The essential take-away from all of this is the position is exquisitely balanced. This balance is a dynamic balance allowing both players winning chances!
Sixth Move Options for Black in the Open Ruy Lopez
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4 6.d4.
Black has three main options on move six:
6…b5 – which is the mainline of the Open Ruy Lopez.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4 6.d4 Be7.
6…Be7 is becoming quite popular nowadays.
The key move in this line for white to remember is 11.Qe2. The queen can more easily move to the queenside from e2 than e1.
After 6…Be7 play usually continues 7.Re1 b5! 8.Rxe4 d5 9.Nxe5 Nxe5 10.Rxe5 bxa4 11.Qe2 Be6 12.f4 when white has a slight advantage.
6…exd4 7.Re1 d5 8.Bg5! This moves secures the advantage for white.
And now if 8…Be7 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.c4! and White is winning due to the pinned knights on e4 and c6.
That’s why black does better with 8…Qd6 9.c4 Be6 10.cxd5 Qxd5 11.Bb3 Qf5 12.Bc2 Ne5 but even this is not pleasant.
No matter what black plays, white gets a significant advantage after 8.Bg5!
6…b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6.
In this position, white can continue with either 9.c3, which carries a lighter theory load, or the modern 9.Nbd2.
The reason for modern players shifting from 9.c3 to 9.Nbd2 is to challenge a black bishop on c5 by playing Nb3.
9.c3 allows 9…Bc5 aiming for active play and now 10.Qd3 O-O 11.Be3 is a natural way for white to play. Intending to exchange bishops and play a positional game.
A solid approach for black after 11.Be3 is …f6. In this variation, black needs to know to play 13…Bxe3 when white retains only a small edge.
For example, 11.Be3 f6 12.exf6 Qxf6 13.Nbd2 Bxe3 14.Qxe3 Nxd2 15.Nxd2 Rad8! – another must-know move for black. This is a solid line and a good choice for black.
In this line, black is holding his own but it can be difficult to play. Play through a few games to see if you feel comfortable in these positions.
Here is Anand to show you how black might choose to play this position.
11.Nbd2 is another plan for white with more complicated play than 11.Be3 and chances for both sides.
Play might continue 11.Nbd2 f5 12.Bc2 Qd7 13.Nb3 Be7 14.Nbd4 Nxd4 15.cxd4.
This time Anand is showing us how to play the position with white.
The Modern 9.Nbd2
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.Nbd2.
This move is aimed at nullifying 9…Bc5 in the Open Ruy Lopez. By placing the bishop on c5, black combines it with the e4-knight to attack f2.
Black’s knight on e4 is his most active piece so trading it makes lots of sense for white.
Black has 3 main choices:
- 9…Bc5 if he is willing to allow White to simplify the position with 10.Nxe4.
- 9…Be7 is a safe move intending to avoid entering the theoretical battle of 9…Nc5
- 9…Nc5 10.c3 d4 is the sharpest and most complicated choice by black.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.Nbd2 Bc5.
When such a great attacking player as Veselin Topalov is willing to simplify you can trust it’s with good reason.
Although white is a pawn up on move 14 there is no way to retain the material which explains why Topalov plays 15.b3.
The move 9…Bc5 gives white the chance to transpose into an endgame which is certainly more challenging for black to play.
Here is a game by Topalov showing the difficulties black faces.
Of course, white doesn’t have to enter into the simplifications after 10.Nxe4. Here is the current world champion Magnus Carlsen showing the dangers black faces after 10.c3.
In this game, Magnus makes use of a bank rank checkmate threat to overload the black queen.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.Nbd2 Be7.
In many games, this variation often leads to bishops of opposite color endgames where white retains a slight edge.
Black can certainly hold this endgame but 9…Be7 is not the move to choose if you need to play for a win with black.
This is a variation where white might choose to play for a draw.
Since games follow very similar lines in this variation it’s best to learn it by playing through high-level games like this one between Adams and Giri.
9…Nc5 10.c3 d4
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.Nbd2 Nc5 10.c3 d4.
Black has nothing to fear if he is well-prepared and knows his theory.
The positions that arise are very complex but dynamically balanced.
In recent games white has favored 11.Bxe6 which has led to a number of games at the top level ending in a draw. The games of Mamedyarov from 2018 and 2019 are good to study for black.
A far more challenging move for black to face is 11.Ng5 which is a temporary piece sacrifice. After 11…Qxg5 white regains the piece with 12.Qf3 capturing the unprotected and pinned knight on c6.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.Nbd2 Nc5 10.c3 d4 11.Ng5 Qxg5 12.Qf3.
Now the best move for black is 12…O-O-O 13.Bxe6+ fxe6 14.Qxc6 Qxe5 15.b4 which brings us to a complicated position with everything to play for.
Here is Garry Kasparov showing us how to play the position against top-quality opposition.
Final Thoughts On the Open Ruy Lopez
There is very good reason the strongest chess players are willing to play both sides of the Open Ruy Lopez.
The positions offer a wealth of opportunities for either player to play for a win in most of the variations.
Usually, it’s the better chess player who wins, which is what most of us want from our games.
Studying the positions that arise in the Open Ruy Lopez will help improve your understanding of chess in general.
Above all, the Open Ruy Lopez promises you a lively game and many hours of fun at the chessboard.
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