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.
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.