Chess Opening Basics: Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation


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What is the The Ruy Lopez, Exchange Variation?

Let us take a look at the basics of this interesting opening.

Opening Moves

The Ruy Lopez opening starts with these moves.

1 e4 e5

2 Nf3 Nc6

3 Bb5

The Ruy Lopez

The Ruy Lopez Opening

Ruy Lopez was a Spanish priest in the 16th Century. This is why the opening is also known as The Spanish Game.

The Grand Ruy Lopez by Grandmaster Nils Grandelius

Ruy Lopez was not only a keen player but also one of the first people to write about chess in any depth.

Black has many ways to meet the Ruy Lopez; some solid, some sharp. The Berlin Defense with 3 …Nf6 is currently the most popular way to play, thanks to Vladimir Kramnik’s success with it in his 2000 title match against Garry Kasparov. He drew every game as Black (no mean feat against Kasparov) and this helped him wrest the ultimate crown from the head of the reigning champion.

However, the traditional third move is  3 …a6, which ‘asks the bishop a question.’ The main lines are reached after 4 Ba4, but White has an interesting option with 4 Bxc6.

Ruy Lopez, Exchange Variation

The Ruy Lopez, Exchange Variation

It is a controversial variation and one which has never achieved mainstream popularity. The reason for this that the king’s bishop is powerful piece and it usually exerts significant pressure on the black position in the Ruy Lopez. Additionally, many players prefer bishops to knights and are reluctant to swap them off for knights during the opening phase of the game.

White’s Reasons for Playing the Exchange Variation

Why does White exchange the bishop for Black’s knight? At first glance it looks like a beginner’s move.

One immediate point to note is that White cannot win a pawn after 4 …dxc6 (Black can also recapture with 4 …bxc6 but that way is considered inferior)  5 Nxe5 as Black will win it straight back with either 5 …Qd4 or 5 …Qg5, with a fork on the knight and a pawn in both cases.

Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation Black Wins Back the Pawn

Black wins back the pawn with 5 …Qd4

White is definitely not after immediate gains. The main plan is deep and it relates to the endgame.

This is the position with all of the pieces removed, leaving just the kings and the pawns. White has also traded the d-pawn for Black’s e-pawn, producing this classic structure.

Ruy Lopez Pawn Ending

White’s desirable pawn structure

White’s position is extremely advantageous and in practical play the first player will have excellent chances to win the game.

This is because White can create a passed pawn on the kingside, where the pawn majority (four pawns against three pawns) will be able to advance, with the help of the king.

Black has a pawn majority on the queenside but there is a major difference: the doubled pawns make it impossible to produce a passed pawn by normal means.

White will try very hard to reach this ending and Black must avoid it at all costs.

Highlighted course

Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual 5th Edition

Famous Practitioners

The names of two World Champions are forever linked to the Exchange Variation: Emanuel Lasker and Bobby Fischer. Both of them used it at the highest levels of play.

Lasker’s most famous game with the Exchange Variation was at the St. Petersburg tournament of 1914, in which the wily old champion outfought the young pretender, José Raúl Capablanca, in a game pivotal to the former’s notable success in the event.

Fischer favoured the main move (4 Ba4) over the Exchange Variation but had terrific success after 4 Bxc6. He even played it in one (drawn) game during his titanic title match against Boris Spassky in 1972. The variation appeared twice more in their 1992 rematch. This time Fischer won one and drew one of the two games.

Another World Champion, Vasily Smyslov, was on the losing side of the variation in an earlier blog post and this shows how potent this underrated variation can be in practical play.

There are not many openings in which the endgame is ‘decided’ as early as move four, which makes the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation very special.

New Chessable Course

We shall return to the subject of the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation another time. Meanwhile, anyone wanting to investigate the Opening in much greater detail may like to know our new Chessable course on the subject, The Smart Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation by Grandmaster Jan Werle, which can be found here.

There is also a free Short and Sweet course, which is here.

Here are links to the other parts of our ever-growing series on Chess Opening Basics.

Arkhangelsk Defense

Budapest Gambit

Caro-Kann Defense

Göring Gambit

Leningrad Dutch

London System

Nimzo-Indian Defense

Ragozin Defense

Semi-Slav Defense

Taimanov Sicilian

Highlighted course

Thinking In Chess: A How To Guide

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Check them on individual course pages