Introduction to the Ruy Lopez
The Ruy Lopez, also known as the Spanish Game, is one of oldest documented openings in chess – and amazingly, still one of the most popular and powerful to this day. Dating back to at least the late 1400s, the seemingly endless supply of rich, interesting positions have made the Ruy Lopez a favorite for both White and Black.
In fact, the Ruy Lopez is a staple in the repertoires of both professional and club players. Its basic solidity and wide range of options are sure to bring you a lifetime of winning results – and entertainment – if you study it well. This article will serve as your introduction to the exquisite opening we call the Spanish Game.
Is the Ruy Lopez Good for Beginners?
Even though the Ruy Lopez is a favorite of the chess elite, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good opening for beginners. Quite the contrary, in fact. Though certainly more complex than other openings, the Ruy Lopez is an opening that can teach you much about chess in general, including general opening principles, strategy, and tactics.
Fundamentals of the Ruy Lopez
The Ruy Lopez starts with the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5, resulting in this position:
The beauty of these three opening moves is that every single one fights for the center. With 1.e4, White stakes a claim in the center with a pawn, and also provides a doorway out for their king’s bishop. Black responds in kind, stopping White’s pawn from advancing any further. Then, on move 2, White already attacks this pawn, and develops a piece in the process. Black defends it and also develops a piece with 2…Nc6. But White continues the pressure with 3.Bb5, which threatens to capture the knight, the defender of e5 pawn, allowing White to capture the pawn with Nxe5 in the following moves.
That was the original intent of the opening in the early days, anyway. But it was eventually discovered that White can’t capture this pawn even if he does take the knight. This is due to a tactical sequence at Black’s disposal. Suppose play continues 3…a6, asking the question to White’s bishop. If White plays 4…Bxc6, Black can play 4…dxc6. If 5.Nxe5, Black has 5…Qd5! with a double attack on White’s knight and pawn. It’s in White’s best interest to retreat the knight with 6.Nf3 and let the pawn go. But in so doing, Black will play Qxe4+, losing the pawn and the right to castle.
Perhaps even deadlier is 5…Qg5!, with a double attack on the knight and White’s g-pawn. By taking the g-pawn instead, Black ruins White’s best real estate for a castle. They attack the h1 rook, the g-file has a hole in it, and White’s king is altogether uncomfortable.
Black punishes White for their greed
For these reasons, the Exchange Variation is not typical at a high level. Club players may still employ it occasionally, resisting the urge to capture the pawn and instead playing against Black’s damaged pawn structure in the long run. In a rapid or blitz game, it can be a fairly practical weapon. But much more ambitious setups are available if White refrains from capturing the c6 knight.
Main Line with 3…a6 4.Ba4
Instead, if Black plays 3…a6, White is better off retreating the bishop to a4, keeping the pressure. Here, it is important to note that 3…a6, the Morphy Defense, is not the only option for Black, even if it is the most common. The other major response is 3…Nf6, the Berlin Defense, a complex response that warrants its own section of this article.
But, back to 3…a6. After White saves the bishop with 4.Ba4, Black’s intent is 4…b5, eliminating the threat of Bxc6 once and for all. The reason is that sooner or later (sooner, actually), White will castle, and the threat of Bxc6 followed by Nxe5 will become real. The main line usually continues like so:
4. Ba4 Nf6
Black doesn’t need to play …b5 right away. Isn’t it more fun to put some pressure on White’s pawn and develop a piece at the same time?
“Big deal!” White says. If Black gets greedy and captures the pawn with 5…Nxe4, White can play 6.Re1! And will recoup a pawn after Black moves the knight away from the rook’s attack. Not to mention another nice feature of this move – White gets their king to safety!
Time to execute this move. Black ends the threat of Nxc6, especially now that White castled and can safely execute Nxe5 after Nxc6.
The only move, if White values their bishop! And this is where the theory really starts to take off. Black has a multitude of options here, and White has plenty of ways of facing them. Truth be told, Black had alternative defenses even earlier than this, although we can easily say that these moves are the main line. Let’s take a look at some of the main defenses for Black.
A key starting point in the Ruy Lopez
Mainline Defenses for Black
Black has many options against these main line moves. One of the most common is 6…Bc5, the Arkhangelsk Variation. By placing their bishop on an active square, Black is getting more of their pieces in the fight for the center. The drawback to this move is that White can push this bishop around a bit, and ultimately it may not see much action after all.
Instead, Black can opt for the quieter Martinez Variation, 6…Be7. Though the bishop is on a less active square than c5, it aids the general safety of the king side and may even come in handy in a future kingside attack. 6…Be7 is also a precursor move to the Marshall Attack, an important strategy that every Ruy Lopez player should be familiar with.
The Marshall Attack arises from the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O b5 6.Bb3 Be7 7.Re1 O-O 8.c3 d5:
If you’ve been paying attention closely, Black is giving up a free pawn! If White declines the free pawn, Black has a massive center that will crush White positionally. However, if White accepts the pawn, Black will launch an aggressive attack on White’s king. In the main line, play will proceed with 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5. Here, White is up a pawn, but Black will start the attack. After a preparatory 11…c6 preempting future counterplay from White, play will continue 12.d4 Bd6 13.Re1 Qh4.
This scary-looking attack from Black may have White questioning whether the pawn was worth it. Indeed, White can end up in a world of trouble if they are not careful. After 14.g3 preventing Qxh2, Black has ideas to continue the attack, such as Bg4.
With careful play, White will be fine nevertheless, but the Marshall Attack can be quite sharp. Practically speaking, if both sides know what to do, the Marshall Attack tends to end in draws. But at club level, the Marshall Attack can be a dangerous weapon, and White should know how to deal with it. See the resources in the section “Learn the Ruy Lopez in Depth” for how to fight back the Marshall Attack properly.
All of these variations barely scratch the surface of Ruy Lopez theory (I wasn’t lying when I said it was a rich opening!) We can further subdivide the Martinez variation into other variations which all have their own interesting ideas, such as the Chigorin Variation (…Na5) Breyer Variation (…Nb8), and Zaitsev Varation (…Bb7) just to name a few. Black could have even changed the nature of the game majorly early on with 5…Nxe4, leading to the Open Spanish.
All of these variations are playable, and any good Ruy Lopez player should study all of them. See the “Learn the Ruy Lopez in Depth” section for further reading.
Key Ideas in the Main Line for Both Sides
In the main lines described above, the center is often closed or fluid, creating a no-man’s-land of sorts. This directs play onto the wings, with White attacking on the kingside and Black attacking on the queenside in most variations.
Typically, White will regroup their pieces by transferring both knights over to the kingside. In fact, the queen’s knight will usually make a long journey all the way to f5, via Nbd2, Nf1, Ng3, and Nf5. The f5 square often serves as a perfect outpost for this knight in a kingside attack.
Black will often attack on the queenside, with moves like …Na5, …c5, …c4, …Qc7 and so on. A valuable target for Black will be the d3 square, which can perhaps at some point be the outpost for a knight.
A typical position in the closed Ruy Lopez looks like this:
Note many of the key features mentioned above are present. Pawns lock up the center, meaning that play will unfold on the wings. The f5 square is beckoning for White’s g3 knight, Black’s pawn on c4 is preparing an eventual knight outpost on d3, and so on. Notice that White also has a pawn on h3. This is a typical prophylactic move to stop Black from developing their bishop to g4, pinning the f3 knight.
So far, we’ve talked about the main lines that arise after 3…a6. However, 3…a6 is just one of the possible defenses Black can play early on. In addition to less common resources such as the Cozio Defense (3…Nge7) and Steinitz Defense (3…d6), one of the other key defenses is the Berlin Defense, nicknamed “The Berlin Wall” due to its solidity. The Berlin Defense arises after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6:
Though the moves above referred to the Morphy Defense as the main line, you could certainly call the Berlin Defense a main line by itself. In practice, the Berlin Defense is a common way to make a draw, and for this reason top players often use it to play it safe in key tournament moments.
The Berlin Defense comes in two main flavors after 4.O-O: the Main Line (4…Nxe4) or Classical Variation (4…Bc5). The main line popular with the pros typically goes 4.O-O Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8, resulting in this position:
While White succeeded in ruining Black’s pawn structure, Black has compensation in the form of the bishop pair. All things considered, the position is equal, and most grandmaster games end in a draw.
The Berlin Defense is an extremely important chapter in the Ruy Lopez opening, and any player interested in playing the Ruy Lopez at a high level should study the Berlin Defense.
Learn the Ruy Lopez in Depth
With this, you’ve gotten a fair introduction to the Ruy Lopez, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg! Though very powerful, this age-old opening is immensely complex and takes years to master.
But, don’t be discouraged from playing it for that reason! You may not know all the theory at first, but your opponents won’t either. As such, it’s all the more reason to study and learn the ways you can get decisive advantages against your opponents. Chessable is a great way to study the Ruy Lopez, too. One of the world’s foremost authorities on the Ruy Lopez, Grandmaster Nils Grandelius, has published a comprehensive guide to the Ruy Lopez on Chessable, which joins many other great courses for both beginners and advanced players alike (you can even try a free Short & Sweet version!) Or if you prefer to shake things up on the less-traveled path, try learning the Exchange Ruy Lopez with this course.
Learn another continuation of the Ruy lopez here.
But first, I encourage you to check out some master games featuring the Ruy Lopez so you can see the awesome power of this weapon of world champions in action. Check out these analyzed games on the Chessable blog:
An example of Martinez variation: Jorden Van Foreest – David Anton Guijarro, Wijk an Zee 2021
An interesting game in the Open Spanish, featuring none other than the World Champion: Hikaru Nakamura – Magnus Carlsen, FTX Cryptocup 2021
A famous and recent game in the Berlin Defense (played in Berlin!): Levon Aronian – Vladimir Kramnik, Berlin 2018
Another very heated Berlin Defense: Wesley So – Hikaru Nakamura, Skilling Open 2020
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is the Ruy Lopez a good opening? Absolutely! The world’s top chess players have included the Ruy Lopez as a key weapon in their opening repertoires for well over 100 years. Its popularity shows no signs of slowing, either. You can regularly find the world’s chess elite playing the Ruy Lopez in major tournaments today. In fact, chessgames.com, one of the largest online databases of chess games, holds over 64,000 games featuring the Ruy Lopez…more than 33,000 of which were played after the year 2000!
2. Is the Ruy Lopez an aggressive opening? Yes, the Ruy Lopez can be quite aggressive – and from both sides of the board. In main lines such as the Arkangelsk and Martinez, the center often locks up or remains tense, directing both players to start attacks on the wings. In White’s case, that wing is the kingside, which means Black must be ready for a direct assault on their king.
But Black is not without their own aggressive options. Variations such as the Open Spanish and Marshall Attack can lead to very sharp play.
3. What is the point of the Ruy Lopez opening? The point, and indeed the beauty, of the Ruy Lopez is that it immediately fights for the center. By 2.Nf3, White is both developing and already attacking the e5 pawn in Black’s center. And when Black defends that pawn with 2…Nc6, White threatens to remove the defender with 3.Bb5. As explained above, strictly speaking, White can’t actually capture that pawn so easily by removing the defender, because Black meets 3…a6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.Nxe5 with 5…Qd4! attacking both White’s and e4 pawn. That said, every move in the main lines does something to pressure the center and fight for its control.
4. Is the Ruy Lopez open or closed? Like many openings, it depends on the variation. The Open Spanish, as the name suggests, is open, as are variations such as the Exchange. The Berlin Defense main lines are also quite open.
Other main lines, such as the Arkhangelsk and Martinez, tend to be closed, and play progresses on the wings.
5. Is the Ruy Lopez good for Black? Yes. Although White scores an impressive 40% win rate with this opening, Black’s 30% win rate is certainly nothing to scoff at. The Ruy Lopez holds a reputation for complex, dynamic play with good chances for both sides.
6. Is the Ruy Lopez for beginners? The Ruy Lopez is a fine opening for beginners. Though perhaps a bit more difficult to learn than other openings, it teaches extremely important principles. You can learn much about the game as a whole, including purposeful development, pawn structure, attacking on the wings, and more.
7. How do you beat the Ruy Lopez? There are many ways to fight against the Ruy Lopez. Popular variations for Black these days include the Arkhangelsk, Open Spanish, Martinez, and Berlin Defense. The Berlin Defense is a particularly challenging for White to handle, although it can be rather drawish. This means that while you will likely repel White’s attack and stop them from winning, it won’t be too easy to get a win of your own.
The Berlin Defense is a big chapter of the Ruy Lopez. In fact, many books and courses on the Ruy Lopez focus many pages to fighting the “Berlin Wall.”