Berlin Defense – How to Play Guide (for White & Black)

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Table of Contents

The Berlin Defense to the Ruy Lopez is one of the strongest defenses available to black. 

  • Master the Berlin Defense endgame with black, and you will no longer need to feat the Ruy Lopez again. Additionally, you will find your improved endgame play helpful in many of your other chess games, no matter what the opening.
  • Many of the top players have turned to a different move order since black is holding his own in the Endgame Variation. White has used 5.Qe2 and 5.Rc1 to avoid the Berlin endgame.
  • Unsurprisingly in an opening as rich as the Ruy Lopez, both sides have lots to play for in middlegames that are typically well-balanced.  

Introduction

Although it was not the first time the Berlin Defense appeared in chess at the elite level, Vladimir Kramnik used it in his 2000 World Chess Champion match with Garry Kasparov.

Playing the Ruy Lopez with black, Vladimir Kramnik got draws in all five games in this opening and went on to become World Chess champion. If Garry Kasparov cannot find a way to defeat the Berlin Defense, you can feel confident of its soundness.

By far, the most famous variation of the Berlin Defense is the endgame variation. However, rather than enter this variation, White can avoid the exchange of queens with 5.Qe2.

5.Qe2 is one of several anti-Berlin options for white to try. The toughness of the Berlin Defense makes it an opening that provides a tremendous challenge for those who play the Ruy Lopez.

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Lifetime Repertoires: Berlin Defense

Ideas and Strategies Within the Berlin Defense

The starting position of the Berlin Defense is reached after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6

3...Nf6 is the defining move of the Berlin Defense against the Ruy Lopez.

Black wastes no time with pawn moves and develops the knight to its best square, from which it attacks White’s pawn on e4. There is no need to defend the pawn immediately since the e5-pawn will come under fire after 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Re1 or 5.Qe2.

Another option for white is to meet 4…Nxe4 with 5.d4 and after 5…Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qe2, White avoids the exchange of queens in the d-file.

5…exd4 might not lose the knight on e4, despite being on an open file in front of the king, but it gives White a dangerous initiative, and Black must play extremely precisely not to lose material.

No matter which color you are playing, it is never a good idea to take unnecessary risks early in the game.

White need not worry about entering the famous endgame or giving up the bishop pair because there is always the option to simply defend the e4-pawn with 4.d3. This closed system has served white nicely despite its modest appearance.

Ideas Within the Berlin Defense Endgame

Of course, the main variation of the Berlin Defense is the Endgame variation, which you enter after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8 Kxd8.

Although commonly known as the Berlin endgame, there are enough pieces on the board to ensure dynamic play. Being comfortable playing from this position is essential if you want to succeed with the Berlin Defense against the Ruy Lopez.

Despite how dangerous White’s kingside pawn majority appears, Black has a tremendous defensive resource in his unopposed light-squared bishop.

Surprisingly enough, Black’s doubled c-pawns can prove an advantage rather than a hindrance. Learning how to get the most from them will allow you to play for more than a draw with the black pieces.

Do not let the many games ending in a draw make you think there is no reason to play for a win with either black or white.

Many chess players neglect their endgame studies, and even if they have worked on improving their endgame technique, there are still many moves and opportunities to make an error. A draw is not a foregone conclusion in this position.

The Closed System With 4.d3 and 5.c3

No matter how modest this move appears, it has appeared in the games of top players, including Carlsen, Anand, Kramnik, Caruana, and Aronian. 

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3

White decides to support the e4-pawn and retain a stake in the center. In response to 4.d3, Black’s most popular option is 4…Bc5, preparing …Nd4.

4…Bc5 5.c3 0-0 6.0-0 Re8 7.Nbd2 d6 8.d4 exd4 9.cxd4 Nxd4 10.Bxe8 Qxe8

5…0-0 allows White to win a pawn with 6.Bxc6 bxc6 7.Nxe5, but after 7…d5 8.d4 Bb6 9.0-0 dxe4 10.Bg5 c5, Black makes good use of his doubled-pawns.

Even though black is an exchange down, he holds his own in this exciting middlegame position. Levon Aronian was willing to play this exchange sacrifice line against his 2700 Elo opponent, Leinier Dominguez Perez.

The Closed Variation With 5.Bxc6 and 6.Nbd2

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 Bc5 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Nbd2 Nd7

This move is a flexible move that keeps White’s options open. The knight can put pressure on e5 from c4; on b3, it will attack the bishop on c5 and support d4, or it can continue to g3 via f1.

White retains the option to castle on either side, although the f2-pawn needs defending.

Black need not fear Nxe5 thanks to tactics involving …Bxf2+ and …Qd4+.

The most popular move for White in this position is 7.Nc4 when Black does well to overprotect the pawn with 7…f6.

8.c3 Nb6 9.Na5 Bd6 10.b4 c5

Black makes good use of his doubled c-pawns in this balanced middlegame.

Anish Giri had no trouble holding this position against former world champion Vishy Anand.

White Avoids the Berlin Endgame

When it comes to avoiding the Berlin Endgame, White has two main options on the fifth move – 5.Qe2 and 5.Re1.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Qe2

White hopes to regain the pawn while keeping the light-squared bishop. 

Johannes Minkckwitz played the move 5.Qe2 over a hundred-and-fifty years ago against Adolf Andersen in 1866.

5…Ng5 6.Nxg5 Qxg5 7.d4 Qe7 8.dxe5 a6

Apart from 8…a6, Black can play 8…Nd4, which wins a center pawn after 9.Qd3 Qxe5. Kramnik chose 8…a6, and it might be the safest option since it does not leave your queen on the open e-file in front of your king.

5.Re1 is a more direct way of regaining the pawn and the move chosen by Wilhelm Steinitz against Zukertort in their World Championship Match in 1886.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Re1

5…Nd6 6.Nxe5 Be7 7.Bf1 Nxe5 8.Rxe5 0-0 9.d4 Bf6 10.Re1 Nf5 

Black’s bishop on f6 and ability to undermine the d5-pawn with …c6 means he is easily holding his own in this position. 

The Berlin Defense Endgame With 9.Nc3

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8 Kxd8

This position is the start of the renowned Berlin Defense Endgame. Because White has not developed a single piece on the queenside, the natural 9.Nc3 makes a lot of sense, and it is the most common move.

9.Nc3 is well-met with 9…Bd7, intending to keep the king safe on the queenside. White, meanwhile, will play h3 to support the g4 advance and fianchetto his bishop on b2 to connect the rooks. 

9.Nc3 Bd7 10.h3 h6 11.b3 Kc8 12.Bb2 b6 13.Rad1 c5

Yes, …c5 leaves the d5-square open for White’s knight, but it also allows Black to develop the bishop on e6. If Black hadn’t played …c5, a white knight could easily harass the bishop from d4.

Nd4 would follow g4, driving the knight away from f5.

Take a look at this great position reached after move twenty. Only one of Black’s pieces (the c6-knight) is not on the back rank, yet Black is doing fine.

Gerd Wichert went on to draw his game against Elke Schludecker.

The Berlin Defense Endgame With 9.Rd1+

The rook check stops Black’s king from finding shelter on the queenside as it did in the previous variation. Black has no real option other than 9…Ke8 since 9…Bd7 is powerfully met by 10.Ng5.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8 Kxd8 9.Rd1+ Ke8 10.Nc3 Be7

White’s most popular move in this position is Bg5. 11.h3 is almost as popular but often transposes into the 9.h3 variation we will look at next.

11.Bg5 Bxg5 12.Nxg5 h6 13.Nge4 Ne7 14.f4 Ng6

Notice how Black’s light-squared bishop, while still on c8, prevents the white pawns from advancing on the kingside. Even a grandmaster as strong as Sam Shankland couldn’t make break down Black’s defenses.

The Berlin Defense 9.h3

Developing the bishop to e7, as played against 11.Bg5 is a common motif for black in the Berlin Defense endgame. In light of this, it is easy to predict we meet 9.h3 with 9.Be7

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8 Kxd8 9.h3 Be7 10.Nc3 h5

The most played move by Black is 10…Nh4 seeking to exchange knights, but 10…h5 can catch your opponent by surprise. Another advantage is it makes it more difficult for White to get his kingside majority moving.

The only slight downside is playing many quick draws. Still, getting a quick draw with black is not a bad result. 

In Conclusion

You do not often get to choose a defense that helps improve your endgame play. The Ruy Lopez Berlind Defense does precisely that. 

The endgame is often the one area many chess players could improve in. Knowing this might stop you from playing the Berlin Defense, but look upon it as a challenge.

Despite what many think, understanding the strategies in the Berlin Defense will serve you well when you cannot remember the theory. Improving your endgame play will help you play the game from as early as move eight using endgame strategies. 

The Berlin Defense has stood firm against the very best chess players in the world today and in the past. There is no doubting the solidity of this great defense in the Spanish Game.

Berlin Defense Lifetime Repertoire

GM Sam Shankland is an aggressive player and will undoubtedly prove an excellent coach as you learn the Berlin Defense. 

This video is from the course Lifetime Repertoires: Berlin Defense, by GM Sam Shankland

The best part is that you can confidently meet the Ruy Lopez for the rest of your playing career with the lifetime repertoire. Everything you need to know about the Berlin Defense is covered in this course that got shortlisted for the best opening course and course 2021.

The Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense Lifetime Repertoire will ensure you meet the Spanish Game with confidence and a deeper understanding of the opening.

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Lifetime Repertoires: Berlin Defense

The Berlin Defense: Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Berlin Defense?

The Berlin Defense is a chess opening used by black against the Ruy Lopez chess opening. The defining move is 3…Nf6, instead of the usual 3…a6.

Is Berlin Defence good?

Yes, the Berlin Defense is an excellent chess opening for black and a sound defense to the Ruy Lopez.

Why is Berlin Defense good?

The Berlin Defense is good because Black often gets the bishop pair advantage in an open endgame or queenless middlegame position. 

Is the Berlin Defense for black or white?

Black plays the Berlin Defense.

How do you play the Berlin endgame?

The critical piece for black in the Berlin endgame is the light-squared bishop. This bishop often plays a crucial role in blockading the white pawn majority on the kingside. Black’s king will find a safe haven on b7 or f7.

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