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Big Brain Chess - Initiative & Why Is The Ruy Lopez A Thing?
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Big Brain Chess - Initiative & Why Is The Ruy Lopez A Thing?

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I saw a question on Reddit today that got me thinking. It was from a complete beginner, so the wording was a little weird, but the gist of it was this:

"If Bxc6 isn't the plan, and white can simply meet 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 with 3...a6 4.Ba4 and 4...b5, why is the Ruy Lopez so popular?"

Here's the position in question, if you're a little lost already :

I'm going to give the most thorough answer I've ever given to this question now.
Ready?
Opening theory without theoretical openings.
Forget about 'book' openings for a second. What is the purpose of the opening, regardless of theory?
The simple answer: Your primary goal of the opening should be to develop your pieces and make sure your king is safe for the long term.
But we need to drill deeper. Why do we need to develop our pieces? The often overlooked answer is initiative.
Initiative? Wut?
In simplest terms, initiative represents the dynamic energy in a position. Here's a stupid example:
By virtue of having the first move, white has a slight initiative. In this case, it's been used in an inefficient way. But we've made an interesting point. White has a slight initiative here because there is an attack on e5, and black should (not must, but we'll get to that) protect the pawn. 
Ultimately the purpose of initiative is to limit your opponents options. White has forced black to make a move. In this contrived example, 1...a6 was possible, but 2...a6 would be losing. Therefore, white has limited black's options to some extent.
This is a bad example for two reasons, and it's important we understand the caveats before we continue:
  1. Nc6, defending the pawn on e5, is a good move anyway.
  2. Black doesn't have to defend the pawn. The threat is ineffective.

Let's dive deeper, again.

So white clearly had 'initiative' in the simplest sense. The problem is that the initiative backfired. Black was able to put pieces on squares that control the center, while white gained no additional lead in development. In fact, white's pieces are less optimally placed, since the white knight would be putting more pressure on black's central pawns if it was on f3 instead of e2.

Using the same example, black can actually fight for the initiative in an interesting way:

Summary: Initiative describes the 'energy' of one side on the chess board. It usually allows one side to create a series of threats and forces the other side to defend, possibly even making concessions. 

An important link.

This is very important:

The imbalance of power in a particular area of the board is what creates meaningful initiative.

If you use a tactics trainer (you should, by the way), pay close attention to the solutions of tactics you got wrong. Very likely, the tactic occurred on the quarter of the board where most of your pieces were located or pointing. 

It's only logical, you can move to more squares in an area where you have more pieces.

How does this apply to the opening?

One very important concept in the opening is to try to get your pieces out as quickly as possible, while making it difficult for your opponent to develop actively. Ultimately, even if you don't realize (or care) at the time, what you're doing is trying to gain an initiative. 

An aside about space

You need to know a little about space before we tie this all together. 

Space is the amount of room you have for your pieces, and the lack of room your opponent has.

Space ties in nicely with initiative:

Tying it all together!
One final super important point:
Weaknesses and lack of space are much more pronounced when your opponent has the initiative!
Look at the previous diagram again. Technically, black has a space advantage on the queenside. That advantage, however, was meaningless because white was faster.
Examples
We now understand the two main concepts of the opening:
  1. Develop quickly, aiming for an initiative.
  2. Try to gain central space.

So this should blow your mind:

A good teachable moment. If you have a space disadvantage, you must play as actively as possible. Try to destroy your opponents center. Remember that you need to avoid positions where your opponent has both space and initiative.
Here's a second example to balance things out: 
Wrapping up
I find a good rule of thumb is to avoid falling behind more than one developing move. Sometimes this means declining gambits with black:
There is an enormous amount of theory in the Ruy Lopez. Some professionals are still playing home preparation 30+ moves into a Ruy Lopez game. Concrete analysis trumps the positional principles we've talked about here, but if you're confused about what to do in an opening, the concept of activating your pieces is usually a good one! The Ruy Lopez is one of the fastest ways for both sides to activate their pieces, and so it will always be popular.