Learn How To Play and Win With the Ruy Lopez as White

Learn to Win With the Ruy Lopez as White

The most common opening move is 1.d4, and many players have good luck with it.

But what if you want to try the king’s pawn—1.e4?

The Ruy Lopez is often mentioned as a 1.e5 opening,  but is the Ruy Lopez really a good opening for White?

Learning how to play and win with the Ruy Lopez as White involves studying popularly played main lines and mid game principles. This popular opening has been played since the 16th century and has several variations for both Black and White to play.

This opening is played at all levels and is one of the oldest chess openings. There is much to learn about it, but knowing basic principles and the most played variations will translate into success with the Ruy Lopez.

Basic Principles of the Ruy Lopez Opening

Knowing the basic principles of the opening will help you as the game progresses beyond the first four or five moves.  Here are a few key ideas to keep in mind:

  • The opening three moves establish center control, develop two pieces, and prepare the king to be castled.
  • As White, you want to weaken Black’s pawn structure by looking for ways to create isolated or doubled pawns.
  • Keep your eye on Black’s f7 pawn, the weakest pawn, and see if you can safely attack it.
  • Maintain control of the center. 
  • Push your kingside pawns forward to prepare for the endgame.

How To Play the Ruy Lopez as White

The Ruy Lopez starts with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5. These moves accomplish the following for White:

  • Places immediate pressure on the e5 pawn with 2.Nf3
  • Provides fast development of two minor pieces, the knight and bishop on 3.Bb5
  • Pins Black’s knight in place.
  • Prepares for kingside castle.

If possible, White will bring additional pressure to the e5 pawn with c3 and d4 pawns. Black’s moves accomplish these things:

  • 1…e5 stops White’s pawn from advancing.
  • 2…Nc6 protects the e5 pawn.

Black must decide how to respond to this attack and has several options. Let’s look at what some of those are.

Commonly Played Variations of the Ruy Lopez

The Morphy Defence

3…a6 is known as the Morphy Defence, and it is played in over 60% of Ruy Lopez games.  Black is forcing you to decide if you will exchange your bishop for a knight, or retreat. Beginners often make this move because they want you to retreat.

The Exchange Variation

One option is for you to take the knight, known as the Exchange Variation. Black will usually play 4…dxc6. This move weakens Black’s pawn structure, but in return, you have lost your light-squared bishop.

This move is suitable for players who feel comfortable playing for small advantages like pawn structure. On the other hand, giving up the light-squared bishop makes it more difficult to put pressure on the f7 square. And if the game opens up, having two bishops will give Black an advantage.

Someone starting with the Ruy Lopez might want to retreat and try one of the other two choices.

The Closed Ruy Lopez

The Open Ruy Lopez

After White castles, Black will sometimes choose to go on the offensive instead of castling.

5.0-0   Nxe4

Black takes advantage of the d4 pawn not being protected. The best option for White is

6.d4   b5

The temptation to move the rook to e1 will be strong but should be resisted. A move like d5 would support Black’s knight and give Black more control over the center.  Instead, 6….b5 forces White’s bishop to retreat.

7.Bb3   d5

White’s bishop retreats, and Black uses a pawn to support the knight.

8.dxe5   Be6

Protecting the d5 pawn is Black’s best option.

The game proceeds into the midgame now, so let’s focus on how to play the midgame.

5 Mid Game Principles To Help Win as White

The Ruy Lopez is a great opening because it utilizes sound opening principles—control the center, protect your king, castle early, and develop minor pieces early. But the best opening principles aren’t enough to beat your opponent.

To be successful with the Ruy Lopez (and any opening), you must use solid midgame principles. Most games enter the midgame after all the pieces are developed, and players begin fighting for advantages in position. Since the Ruy Lopez pawn move 3.B5 is part of the opening, it does not signal that the midgame has begun.

However, some of the early development can lead to good mid game positions. Here are 5 principles to abide by to increase your chances of a win as White:

1. Use Rooks Efficiently

  • Place your rooks on open files. The Re1 move prepares the rook to do that, although it will require both your and your opponent’s pawns to be removed. Using your e5 pawn to take Black’s d6 pawn creates a semi-open file and makes Black’s e5 pawn vulnerable.
  • Rooks are more powerful together. Avoid trapping the queenside bishop so that you can develop both bishop and knight. This clears the first rank for later attacks.
  • Rooks are important pieces in endgames. Once most minor pieces have been removed, rooks support the pieces that remain. In the end game, a rook is more potent than a bishop, for example. A bishop can only attack same-colored squares, so you’ll often see the opponent move their pawn pieces to the opposite color, reducing the bishop’s effectiveness.

2. Maintain Sound Pawn Structure

Try to have more pawn islands and fewer isolated pawns than your opponent. A group of pawns next to each other is a pawn island, but in the end game, a larger island—say three pawns—is more potent than a smaller, two-pawn island.

  • Isolated pawns often become targets in the endgame because they have to be defended by the minor pieces you have remaining.
  • Doubled pawns can also be a disadvantage since they cannot protect one another. In the Ruy Lopez some players capture the knight, forcing Black to create a double pawn structure.

As you trade away pawns, picture your pawn structure in the endgame.

3. Trade When You Are Ahead

When you have a superior position or an advantage in pieces, go for the trade. An advantage in material is not simply having more. You must consider the value, or potential power of a piece. For example, a rook has a value of 5, while the knight’s is 3.

Your position also needs to be part of the equation. If your opponent’s pieces are cramped, it benefits them to trade, so you should avoid a trade. But if your pieces are trapped, a trade can at least equalize your position.

4. Limit Your Opponent’s Moves

You don’t have to directly attack your opponent’s pieces to limit their movement. Pieces guarding a space will make your opponent think twice before moving there, especially if the trade will be between a pawn and a minor piece.

In the Ruy Lopez, 2.e5 stops White’s pawn from moving forward, but you will find other opportunities to accomplish this objective as you continue to play.

5. Bishops Are More Powerful Than Knights In Open Games

Although a knight can control up to 8 squares, its range of movement is limited. A bishop sitting on h8, on the other hand, could move to a1 if there are no pieces in the way. In a closed game, the knight has an advantage because it can jump over other pieces, but when most of the board has been cleared, the advantage goes to the bishop.

Bottom Line

The Ruy Lopez has been played since the 16th century and is still one of the most popular openings. In other words, it has stood the test of time. The opening is based on important opening principles. Although there are many variations, a beginner needs to be familiar with the ones played most often. That and the use of midgame principles will go a long way to helping you win with the Ruy Lopez.


All our articles are reviewed and edited by GM Marian Petrov, a top level GM coach, theorist, mentor and and former Bulgarian champion, as well as winner of many open tournaments around the world.

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