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Ruy López on the Ruy López

It is triply ironic that the Spanish Opening, which begins 1. e4  e5  2. Nf3  Nc6  3. Bb5, is often called the Ruy López.  In 1561 the Spanish priest described this opening systematically in his 1561 book, Libro de la invención liberal y arte del juego del Axedrez.  López wrote this book in part to refute the first European chess book by Portugal’s Damiano fifty years earlier.   

If you do not recognize the word for ‘chess’ in his title, this is because López was following the lead of Damiano, who claimed that the game was invented by Xerxes of ancient Persia, the 16th century Spanish word for chess being ‘axedrez’ after Xerxes.

It is difficult to overestimate Ruy López’ impact on chess.  The 1890 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica claims, “Of López it may be said that he was the first who merits the name of chess analyst, as he gives reasons for his different variations in the openings, and for holding different opinions from his predecessor Damiano.”  It was Ruy López who introduced the word ‘gambit’ and it was he who proposed the modern 50-move draw rule that exists today.

Title Page from Ruy Lopez' 1561 book.

But López was known as much for his play as for his influential book. Centuries before Philidor astonished Europe with his displays of blindfold chess, Ruy López also demonstrated that ability.  He attained such fame for his chess skill that King Philip II of Spain gave him a gold rook on a chain as a gift. And Ruy López is sometimes described as the first unofficial world champion of chess, an honor also sometimes afforded to the great Philidor.

As counterevidence to this claim, however, the first documented international master-level tournament was held in Madrid in 1575, and that tournament was not won by Ruy López, but by an Italian with the magnificent name of Leonardo di Bona da Cutri.  However, defenders of Ruy López will justly point to the following short at that tournament in which he makes the Italian master appear to play like a beginner.

 

 The game above is interesting because it shows López’ fondness for the King’s Gambit opening, which was first described in his famous book.  I began above by saying that it is triply ironic that the Ruy López is named after this famous Spanish priest.  The first irony comes from the fact that Ruy López favored 2… d6 to 2…Nc6 as the best way to defend the e5 pawn after 1. e4  e5  2. Nf3, i.e. he liked Philidor’s Opening over the Ruy López.  It has been speculated that López’ view was influenced by jealousy over the success of the earlier book by his predecessor Damiano, who preferred 2…Nc6, the very move in the Ruy López Opening!

The second irony (or is this already the third, given Damiano’s view?) is that in seven of the eleven 2…Nc6 games described by Ruy López, he ends by saying that Black has the better position, which is a bit odd for someone who claims that 2…Nc6 is not the best move for Black. 

Here is one such Ruy López opening as described by none other than Ruy López de Segura, as he was known after becoming the bishop of Segura, Spain.

 

At the end of this opening López writes, “And the Black has a better game than his opponent.”  I would have to agree with Ruy López’ assessment that Black has the better game. However, it is important to note that Ruy López did not suggest the best moves for White in this opening, and history has proven him wrong in his assessment of 2…Nc6 vs. 2…d6, thus validating the Ruy López opening after all and against the beliefs of Ruy López himself in a third and final irony.

Comments


  • 4 years ago

    slvnfernando

    Ruy Lopez will remain as long as humans ( or machines, for that matter) play chess!

    Wonderful article!

  • 4 years ago

    Estragon

    Ruy Lopez also gave the advice to seat your opponent so the sun was in his eyes or, if at night, so the candle might distract him.  The guy didn't miss a trick!

    He was the first to analyze and recommend 3 Bb5, which isn't saying much since the previous chess book was Damiano nearly half a century earlier.  There was little demand for books in those days, since no one could read.

    The beautiful logic of the opening was only demonstrated much later, by Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Fischer, and Kasparov. 

  • 4 years ago

    staggerlee

    Great stuff!  5 stars.

  • 4 years ago

    broze

    Great stuff, the most interesting history article I have ever seen on this site.

  • 4 years ago

    Summum_Malum

    One wonders what title one would have achieved in chess history if one could go back and play these guys with the chess-knowledge a patzer such as one self has today... =)

  • 4 years ago

    PardalsemCasa

    Hummmm...

    by drumdaddy - 41 hours ago
    International 

    From now on I will refer to the King's Gambit as the 'Ruy Lopez', and I will change the name of the Philidor to the 'Ruy Lopez Defense'. Of course, the Ruy Lopez opening will henceforth be called the 'Damiano'. Hopefully all of the chess archives will follow suit.

    For me, after reading this article, it seems to be by far more accurate...

    Another curiosity: in Portuguese the game is named "Xadrez"...

  • 4 years ago

    jpd303

    five stars++ great blog. i didnt know anything about the man whos name i associate with mental torture.

  • 4 years ago

    owenwilson

    Hugely informative and entertaining article, kurtgodden.  A most interesting factoid was that ajedrez descended from 16th century Spanish,axedrez, which in itself was derived from Xerxes.

    Muchisimas gracias !

  • 4 years ago

    vincent_pang

    Very nice article. Very informative, I have always wanted to know about Ruy Lopez. Also, thanks for the reply to my note.

  • 4 years ago

    nico101rsa

    Very nice article!

  • 4 years ago

    fleiman

    I first time hear about international master-level tournament in Madrid in 1575.

    It's considered that the first international chess tournament was held in London in 1851.

  • 4 years ago

    Portuguesx2

    very interesting

  • 4 years ago

    drumdaddy

    From now on I will refer to the King's Gambit as the 'Ruy Lopez', and I will change the name of the Philidor to the 'Ruy Lopez Defense'. Of course, the Ruy Lopez opening will henceforth be called the 'Damiano'. Hopefully all of the chess archives will follow suit.

  • 4 years ago

    ipawnedmychessset

    Wow, great chess and history lesson all rolled into one! That King's Gambit short was amazing.

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