Ruy Lopez Explained (Chigorin)

Aug 26, 2011, 8:07 AM |

This post is intended to give an idea to players who wants to build their first repertoire around the Ruy Lopez opening. Even the first move is explained so that beginning players can play the game without having to play based on memory (which is wrong).

I'm not an experienced Ruy Lopez player. I have never played it over the board myself. Nor I have ever read opening books. So my knowledge is only limited to what I need to build my basic repertoire, as an alternative to my King's Gambit repertoire.

Chigorin is a mainline. It can be considered as one of the best line for both Black and White. As a mainline, there will be many deviation possibilities. But studying the Chigorin is important if you want to understand most of the other variations. There is a few exception, such as the Open Defense which has it's own unique character.


 1.e4 The most common opening principle is to control the center squares (e4/d4/e5/d5) with pawns early in the opening. Ideally White will put his center pawns at fourth rank (d4/e4) while Black is forced to stay at the second or third rank (e6/d6). This way Black position is cramped and Black will have difficulty to find good positions for his pieces. But of course here in the Chigorin Defense Black will do his best to prevent White from building a strong center.

In the above position, White's e4-pawn controls the d5 square, ready to exchange if Black pushes his d-pawn (Scandinavian Defense).

1...e5 Black also plays by the same principle, i.e. to play for the center squares. Here Black tries to control d4 square or prevent d2-d4. Optionally Black can also control d4 square from the wing with 1…c5 (Sicilian Defense).

The Sicilian is very difficult to play, and is not suitable for beginners. 1…e5 is easier and probably stronger but Black has to prepare himself to face many opening possibilities, such as the dangerous King’s Gambit (2.f4).


2.Nf3 White develops the King’s Knight while at the same time attacks e5-pawn. It is preferable to prioritize Knight’s development than Bishop’s, because the Knight is slower, or has shorter influence than Bishops. For example, f1-Bishop can control a long diagonal up to a6 square, even without moving it. Or with one move (Bc4) can influence f7 or g8 in enemy camp.

It is also preferable to develop the King’s Knight than the Queen’s Knight because this allows quick castling (0-0).

Nf3 also supports a further plan to control the center with d2-d4. So it is apparent that Nf3 is a very strong move. Remember that by attacking the e5-pawn White can easily predict the likely answer from Black.


2...Nc6  Of course Black has to defend e5. The best way to do this is …Nc6 because this move also develop a piece and control d4 square. If White strive to take control of the center with d2-d4 Black is ready to exchange with …exd4 (Scotch Game).


3.Bb5 White prefers the highly positional opening, the Ruy Lopez than the Scotch or other openings. Here the Bishop leaves the back rank so the King can quickly castle, while at the same time creates problem for Black.

Naturally Black needs to push his center pawn in the opening but then his Knight is pinned (standing between his King and White’s Bishop). This is very anoyying for Black because he cannot anytime move his Knight.

Bb5 also attacks the sole defender of the e5-pawn. But at this moment White cannot yet win the pawn because there is a way for Black to also win e4-pawn (4.BxN dxN 5.Nxe5?! Qd4! attacking both the Knight and e4 so e4 pawn will fall).


3...a6 Bb5 is very anoyying for Black. It pins the Knight and threatens to win e5-pawn anytime soon (But White must first defend the e4-pawn with Re1 or d3 so Black cannot do the aformentioned combination to win back a pawn). That’s why Black prefer to attack the Bishop with …a6 (Morphy Defense) that is often combined with …b5 even tho this pawn push will slightly weakens the Queenside.

Black may also decide to let the Bishop alone and defend the e5-pawn with 3...d6 (Steinitz Defense). But the most critical defense is the solid and a bit complex Berlin Defense (3...Nf6). Other options are the sharp Schliemann Defense (3...f5) and the tactical Cordell or Classical Defense (3...Bc5).


4.Ba4 It is possible for White to exchange the Bishop with the Knight (4.BxN, the Exchange Variation) so to double Black’s pawns, hoping to follow up with exchanging all the heavy pieces and go straight into the endgame because White has a better pawn structure there (It is quite an acceptable plan if White player has superior endgame skill).

But the most common plan is to retain the strong “Spanish Bishop” for future needs to attack Black’s Kingside through b3 or c2.


4...Nf6 Black sees that White is ready to castle so it makes sense to pay attention to the King’s safety.

…Bc5 is possible to clear the back rank for castling but the Bishop may be attacked by c3 and d4. So the “slow” Knight is again prioritized to be developped, as this Knight attacks e4-pawn and controls or supports d7-d5 center pawn push.

Note that …b5 weakens the Queenside so it is not prioritized. But if Black really worry with the future threat of the Spanish Bishop, Black can play 4…b5 followed by 5…Na5 (Norwegian Defense) to catch the Bishop, but the compensation is White will have an open a-file and stronger center pawns.


5.0-0 Of course White has to defend the e4-pawn. Intuitively 5.Nc3 is a good option because it defends the e4-pawn while at the same time develop a piece to the center. But Nc3 will block c2-c3, a necessary move to give an exit way for the Spanish Bishop.

Luckily, castling is also a necessary move, and it can provide indirect defense for the e4-pawn (5…Nxe4?! 6.Re1 or 6.d4, the Open Defense). But White player must prepare himself to face the Open Defense because this defense even though favors White theoretically but is very tactical and complicated. The resulting endgame (usually Rook vs minor pieces) is also not easy to play.

If White doesn’t want to face the Open Defense, then White has to defend e4-pawn with 5.d3. In Ruy Lopez, the thematic move d3 is solid but passive and will result in more closed positional structure, but give Black an easy equality. Most theoretical attacking players will prefer d4 to d3, that’s why the e4-pawn was defended with 0-0, opening a possibility to go into the tactical Open Defense (5…Nxe4).


5...Be7 Black doesn’t want to go into the Open Defense. Instead, he continues with the plan to castle early, while giving White another problem.

5…Be7 is an indirect attack to the e4-pawn because at e7 the Bishop protect the King from Re1 so that after …Nxe4 White cannot win back a pawn with Re1.

5…Bc5 (Moller Defense) is possible but will be attacked by c3 and d4, and White may have a strong center.

Other critical defenses are the attacking Arkhangelsk Defense (5…b5 followed by 6…Bb7) or the Modern Archangels Defense (5…b5 followed by 6…Bc5).


6.Re1 Of course White prefers to defend the e4 pawn with Re1 because e1 will most probably be a useful position for the Rook.

6.Nc3? will hinder c3 and Bc3 (a plan to relocate the Spanish Bishop to attack the Kingside), and 6.d3 is against the spirit of an attacking player who plan to go with full d4 anytime soon.

Remember again that by defending the e4-pawn, White threatens to win e5 pawn with 7. BxN dxN 8.Nxe5 (8…Qd4 doesn’t work anymore to win back e4 pawn).


6...b5 So Black decided to defend e5 pawn by preventing BxN. Another way to defend the e5 pawn is by 6…d6 (Averbakh Variation). But this will give Black nasty 3 pawn islands after White exchange the Bishop (BxN) and later deflect the e5-pawn with d2-d4.


7.Bb3 The only way out. Here the Spanish Bishop control an important diagonal heading straight into Black’s King, so usually Black will continue harrashing the Bishop with pawns and Knight attack. But at the moment Black cannot attack the Bishop with Na5 because the Knight is defending the e5 pawn, so White still have a tempo to create an exit way with 8.c3.

White here has a plan to relocate the Bishop to c3 square to attack the Kingside, and also to relocate the Knight to the Kingside (Nbd2-Nf1-Ng3). At g3 the Knight is also expected to protect the e4 center pawn that often become a target of Black counter attack on the center.


7...d6 Black choses a simple plan here. By allowing the pawn to take over the job to protect e5 pawn, the c6-Knight can be moved so that Black can do a Queenside pawn storm (initiated by c7-c5). Black can relocate the Knight to defend e5-pawn through Nb8-Nd7, or to attack the Spanish Bishop with Na5. 7…d6 also opens a line for c8-Bishop to go to g4 where he pins the Knight to the Queen, preventing White to execute the d2-d4 center pawn thrust.

Optional plan for Black here is to do the dangerous Marshall Attack (7…0-0). The idea behind this move is that White pieces are rather underdevelopped (especially Bc1), while Black has a way to quickly send his King to safe position, open the center and develop his pieces (the double Bishops plus the Rook after 0-0) to attacking positions (targetting at g2 and h2), by sacrificing his center pawn (7…0-0 8.c3?! d5!).

Another optional plan for Black is to be flexible between the passive d6 or the sharp d5 move, by prioritizing the Bishop move 7…Bb7 (Trajkovic Variation).


8.c3 Of course now White must defend his Bishop against Na5 attack. This move allows Bc3, prevents further attack against the Bishop (…Nb4) and also support the d2-d4 pawn thrust.


8...0-0 Black sends his King to safety and wait for White action. Black can speculate to delay the castling and speed up the Queenside attack with 8…Nb8 and intend to continue with …c5 and …Bg4 but White has an option to sacrifice his Bishop at f7 at some point, leading to a draw.


9.h3 White chooses to delay the d2-d4 pawn thrust for the next move and prevents Bg4 first. Remember that d2-d4 along with f3-Knight is aiming at taking down the e5 pawn, as well as strengthening the center.

Optionally White can force a premature 9.d4 (Bogoljubow Variation). But after …Bg4! White cannot take the e5-pawn with dxe5 because Nxe5 is not possible as the Knight itself is pinned by the Bishop. This d4 pawn will later have to be pushed to d5 (to avoid release of tension), allowing Black to challenge it with …c6 that will open up the c-file for the Black’s Queen. This schenario seems to benefit Black.

Of course, White has another option to go with the passive 9.d3 move (Pilnik Variation), where White may follow up with relocating the Knight to Kingside (Nbd2-Nf1-Ng3). But as said previously, it gives Black an easy equality.


9...Na5 Luckily Black still have a tempo to prevent the d2-d4 attack. 9…Na5 (Chigorin Variation) releases the c-pawn and at the same time attacks the Bishop so White has to defend the Bishop first (of course White doesn’t want to exchange the good Bishop with an off-side Knight). Even though the Black Knight is in off-side position (Black will need a tempo to bring it back to the center or Kingside) but Black can fulfill his plan to develop the Queenside pawns while providing sufficient tempo to defend the e5-pawn from d2-d4 attack.

Another technique for Black to release the c-pawn and defend e5-pawn is by 9…Nb8 (Breyer Variation) followed by …Nbd7 (protecting e5-pawn) and …Bb7 to ensure that Black is ready to defend from White’s attack on any wings.

Another effort to defend the e5-pawn is by 9…Nd7 (Karpov Variation), but Kasparov can break that (World Championship 1990, game 18).

Another option for Black is to forget the c-pawn and the e5-pawn, and plan his own attack against e4-pawn with 9…Bb7 (Zaitsev Variation) followed at some point by …0-0, …Re8 and …Bf8, a plan for a very sharp tactical attack. The problem is, if White afraid of this line he can choose to draw with forcing a 3-move repetition. Black can avoid this drawing move by doing a preventive move 9…h6 (Smyslov Variation) as had been tried by Kasparov, but he got beaten by Deep Blue (Game 2, 1997).


10.Bc2 The only way to retain the good Bishop.


10...c5 Black develops the Queenside. Note that attacking the Black’s Kingside in the Ruy Lopez is not as easy as that in Dragon Sicilian (Yugoslav Attack) or in the KID. Black Queenside counter-attack in the Ruy Lopez is very dangerous.


11.d4! At last! White threatens dxe5 followed by Nxe5.

To prevent this Black can initiate the center pawn exchange (11...exd5 or cxd5) but White will have a good center.

Black can sacrifice the e-pawn and proceed with attacking the Kingside with 11…Bb7. White has the resources to defend but the extra pawn seems not enough for a win so no need to take risk and go with blocking the center (12.d5).

Or Black can defend the e5-pawn with …Qc7 and …Nd7 but White is better to close the center with d5 so to avoid Black from getting the c-file opened and use it for his counter attack.

Closing the center is necessary if White wants to initiate a Kingside attack (Remember the Nbd2-Nf1-Ng3 plan). It is a common knowledge that the best way to refute a wing attack is to counter attack at the center. So closing the center is a good idea.