A Story of One Ruy Lopez
Today’s article will be based on a game that was played by me against GM Monika Socko at the recent European Club Cup. I will elaborate not only on the course of the game, but also offer general tips and approaches that can be applied in any chess match.
The chess encounter was revolving around a well-known endgame that occurs in the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez. The modern theory evaluates these positions as more or less equal. However, the endgame is complicated, and can be won by the more proficient side. In our match the endgame happened in the 5…Qf6 variation, but it also often occurs after 5…f6. White is giving up a bishop for the knight with the idea of doubling Black’s pawns and obtaining a pawn majority on the kingside. In this structure the endgame will favor White, so they are eager to trade pieces. The main plan for White is to push pawns on the kingside and create a passer. Another common idea for White is attacking on the queenside and marching with the a-pawn in order to create weaknesses in the Black camp. After provoking Black to play c5, White puts a knight on d5.
What about Black? For the doubled pawns Black gets a two bishop advantage and can play on both flanks. On the kingside this plan may involve f5 and other breakthroughs/clearing the space for the bishops. On the queenside – with pushing pawns, getting rid of the doubled pawn, and trying to create a passer. Therefore, Black should watch out for exchanges, as they usually favor White.
The situation on move 13 of the game is rather interesting. For Black it makes sense to meet a5 with c4-b5. Then b4 will be a threat. However, in this particular position allowing White to play a5 is risky. White has a promising pieces sacrifice up her sleeve.
Generally speaking, attacking the king involves the queen. As the queen is a very powerful piece, it can cooperate with just one more colleague to create a mating attack. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that even when the queens have been traded, mating attacks are still possible in some positions. The preconditions for those are the same: vulnerability of the king, including getting stuck in the center; misplaced pieces; lack of coordination between the pieces. If I played 13…0-0-0, White would start a strong attack. For a human it is hard to calculate all the lines, so I relied on common sense: with all those checks coming and my kingside being undeveloped, I decided to avoid forced lines.
Another important point was move 17. White started attacking too aggressively; trying to take advantage of the fact that Black’s king got stuck in the center. However, the variations were not in her favor. One of the main reasons for this was the knight on b3, i.e. its limited mobility. Try to compare this positions with the variations after a piece sacrifice after 13…0-0-0. In that case all the White pieces would be cooperating well to ensure a strong attack.
Move 19 was a critical moment. Normally, castling takes place in the opening, middlegame and only very rarely in the endgame. Adhering to stereotypes can be harmful for one’s performance. Don’t forget to evaluate the position not only on the basis of strategic principles, but try to understand what is going on in particular. Sometimes you might discover powerful and unexpected moves. In the game I forgot about the option of castling, as we have been playing the endgame for quite a while, so I just made a simplifying move 19…Bd5 with the idea of coming to e6 with the king.
After swapping bishops on d5, it is hard to win the endgame. If I could capture the pawn on e5 while keeping all the pieces on the board, my chances would be higher. Black has more opportunities, e.g. place a piece on d4 that would be very strong. If White tries to eliminate it, it will lead to giving Black a passed pawn.
As you can see, the endgame that occurs in the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez is far from being easy to play. When White started pushing for a win too adventurously, Black’s pieces burst into the game and made White switch to the defensive mode. However, before that it was Black’s turn to play very carefully so as not to end up being worse. Patience and a high level of attention are essential in such endgames.