Ruy Lopez – A Comprehensive Guide

by | May 11, 2022 | Ruy Lopez, Complete Guides, Recent | 0 comments

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced chess player, there’s much to love about the Ruy Lopez opening. Even though beginners can quickly learn the opening, it also has much to teach more advanced players. So what is the Ruy Lopez opening?

The Ruy Lopez is a king’s pawn opening in which White develops the bishop early. White’s goal is to disrupt his opponent’s pawn opening while Black looks for ways to put White on the defensive. It’s a must-learn opening for beginning players, though it’s also used at the highest levels of play. 

The rest of this article will discuss the opening, the mainline, and the many other lines and variations that have been developed in the centuries since the Ruy Lopez opening has been in use. You’ll also be able to analyze some important games and some suggestions for further reading. Let’s get started.

What is the Ruy Lopez Opening?

The Ruy Lopez, also called the Spanish Opening, is so popular that it’s considered a cornerstone opening — one that all players should learn.

The Ruy Lopez begins with 1.e4 e5. Even though both players will fight for control of the center, Black’s early development of the bishop sets the tone for a game in which the player with a better understanding of the fundamental principles of chess—as opposed to the rules—will win.

Both sides need to avoid moves that will cause them to lose a tempo. Moves that cause a player to retreat need to be carefully thought out to serve a genuine purpose.

Principles and Theory

In the traditional Ruy Lopez, White’s goal is to disrupt Black’s pawn structure and prepare to attack Black’s kingside with an early bishop and knight exchange. More recently, players opt to save their bishop for later play.

White prefers to sacrifice its queen to capture Black’s and develop an open game. Black, on the other hand, prefers a closed game in which White must maneuver for position. Unless a player makes a serious blunder, a Ruy Lopez game will often be decided in the endgame, so pawn structure and keeping the correct minor pieces is essential.

This opening has been thoroughly studied, and lines and variations can run up to 30 moves. Luckily, beginning players don’t need to be versed in them. Instead, they should know the main line, the Morphy Defence, the Exchange Variation, and then study additional variations.

How to Reach and Play the Ruy Lopez

The Ruy Lopez starts with 1.e4, in which White challenges the center and attacks the d5 and f5 squares.

Black responds with 1…e5. This prevents White from playing d4.

Next, White plays the Knight to f3 (2. Nf3). This move attacks Black’s pawn and the d4 square. To avoid giving White control of the d4 square, Black brings out the Knight (2…Nc6) to protect the e5 pawn and prevent White from moving the pawn to d4.

White responds with an indirect challenge to Black’s Knight by moving the bishop to b5. (3. Bb5).

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5

The most common response for Black is 3…a6 to attack White’s bishop.

Why Play the Ruy Lopez?

The Ruy Lopez is an opening you should play if you want to

  • Learn and practice the best opening rules and principles,
  • Add a strong opening repertoire,
  • Become a better player, no matter your level,
  • Learn the importance of fundamentals like positional chess, maneuvering your pieces, and understanding the importance of strong and weak squares.

If you only learn one king’s pawn opening, you cannot go wrong with the Ruy Lopez. Even if you don’t plan to use it, you’ll face players who will. Without a good defense against it, you’ll learn why it’s sometimes called “The Spanish Torture.”

Main Line

The main line is sometimes referred to as the Closed Spanish, although some people say that the Closed Spanish is a different line. With so many lines, often the difference between them is one move. We will simply call it the main line and leave the debate for another post.

The main line begins with:

Ba4 Nf6

White’s bishop retreats but maintains pressure on the Knight. Black brings out the Knight to attack White’s e4 pawn and also control the d5 square.

0-0 Be7

White takes this opportunity to tuck the king away with a castle, and Black prepares to do the same by bringing the bishop out.

Re1 b5

Moving the rook to the e-file allows White to begin developing a powerful piece. Black responds by attacking White’s bishop.

Bb3 d6

Although in some lines, White castles on 4. 0-0, d4 is more common as it puts the pressure on Black and leads to a White plan to exchange pieces.

Although in some lines, White castles on 4. 0-0, d4 is more common as it puts the pressure on Black and leads to a White plan to exchange pieces.

  1. Qxd4 Qxd4
  2. Nxd4

Black’s most assertive move is Bb4+. Even though White can easily block with check, Black is disrupting White’s queenside pawn structure.

After White plays c3, the best move for Black is to retreat, either to Be7 or Bf8 and castle.

Variations on the mainline include the following

  • The Breyer – This variation was popularized in the 1960s by Boris Spassky, who used it to beat Mikhail Tal twice in 1965. It starts with 9.h3 Nb8 and has been analyzed to 19. Qd2 h5.
  • The Chigorin – This defense has fallen out of favor recently because Black will lose a tempo bringing the offside Knight into the center. It begins 9.h3 Na5., and the line continues through 10.Bc2 c5 11.d4 until it’s further categorized.
  • Zaitsev – One of Anatoly Karpov’s trainers, Igor Zaitsev, developed this variation. It’s highly theoretical, so be prepared. If you want to give it a go, start with 9.h3 Bb7, then 10.d4 Re8 11.Nb2 Bf8.

The Morphy Defense

If Black responds to 3. Bb5 with 3….a6, Black has forced White to decide—take the Knight or retreat. This move is named after the American Paul Morphy, whose use of the move turned it from rarely used to one often played today.

Any defense where Black plays 3….a6 is considered a variation of the Morphy Defence.

The Berlin Defense

The Berlin Defence is an advanced line that resembles the Exchange Variation but is far more complex. Therefore, beginners are encouraged to avoid it until they have more experience in endgame positions such as the Lucena, Philidor, and Vancura positions.


  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5 Nf6,

White castles and play continues like this:

  1. 0-0 Nxe4  
  2. D4 nd6  
  3. Bxc6 dxcf6  
  4. Dxe5 Nf5  
  5. Qxd8+ Kxd8

A defensive option for beginners would be 3….Bc5. This is the Cordel Defence and usually continues with 4.c4 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.e5 Ne4 7. Cxd4 Bb4+.


The Open Ruy Lopez

If you’re playing Black, the Open Spanish game will help you develop your pieces better than White.


  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5 a6
  4. Ba4 Nf6,

play continues like this:

  1. 0-0 Nxe4
  2. d4 b5

Here Black attacks White’s bishop since taking the pawn on d4 would lead to the loss of one or both knights.

  1. Bb3 d5
  2. dxe5 Be6
  3. Nbd2 Nc5

Black will try to build up an attack on White’s queenside while White works to protect the e5 pawn and attack Black’s king on the opposite side.

Marshall Attack

The Marshall Attack is a much-feared response to the Ruy Lopez. It’s named after Frank Marshall, who used it in a 1918 match against Jose Capablanca. Even though Capablanca won, top-tier players such as Garry Kasparov avoided it when playing Ruy Lopez.

After the:

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5 a6
  4. Ba4 Nf6

opening, play continues with

  1. 0-0 Be7

Black’s response to White’s castle is to prepare to do the same.

  1. Re1 b5

While White prepares to develop the rook on the e-file, Black uses the b5 pawn to threaten the bishop.

  1. Bb3 0-0

White has to move the bishop to safety, allowing Black to castle.

  1. c3 d5

The pawn move gives White a way to move the bishop to safety if Black moves the Knight to a5.

This leaves White in a sticky situation. The two most common moves are to exchange the pawn (exd5), which results in black capturing the pawn with Kxd5. After a series of pawn exchanges, Black can pin the queen with 12…Bg4.

The other choice is 8. d4. The lack of center control makes it more difficult for White to maintain control of the game. Indeed, Black has numerous opportunities to force White to be on the defensive.

Marshall Attack

Players have developed countless variations of the Ruy Lopez opening, including the Pilnik, Yates, Karpov, and Zaitsev.

Along with Berlin, you can also play the Cozio, Smyslov, and Schliemann Defence.

And variations of the Closed Defence include the Centre Attack, the Averbakh, Worrall, and Trajkovic Variations.

However, these variations are for advanced players who have mastered the essential ones.


If White is not familiar with this trap, Black can use it with devastating effect. It’s known as the fishing pole trap, and it starts from the Berlin Defence.

After 4. 0-0, Black brings his Knight to g4. White moves 5.h3 thinking that Black will retreat. Instead, Black moves 5….h5 to defend the Knight. If White takes the Knight, it’s game over.

Black will take the pawn, which forces White to move the Knight on f3. Black now brings out his Queen to h4, and White might as well throw in the towel. Although this trap will not work against rated players. You can tray this trap in online bullet blitz game.


One weakness to Ruy Lopez is that play can become quite theoretical. Therefore, top-rated players have analyzed the opening and developed many variations in which one move can change the game dramatically.

Players have had several hundred years to develop defenses, so if Black selects a defense that you don’t recognize, you could develop an attack that will backfire or lead you into a trap.

For beginning players, the biggest weakness is not understanding the strategic thinking behind the moves. For example, the point of 3. Bxc6 is to weaken Black’s pawn structure or the 8. C3 move is necessary if White needs to retreat the light-squared bishop.


Since there are so many lines and variations, this table highlights a few of the major ones.

  Wins Draws Losses
Ruy Lopez 37.8% 36.9% 25.4%
Morphy Defense 37.5% 37% 25.5%
Marshall Attack 34.2% 35.8% 30%
Berlin Defense 33.7% 42.3% 23.1%

These stats show that the Berlin defense carries the greatest risk for Black but also the lowest percentage of wins for White. If you play this defense, you stand only a 1 in 4 chance of winning, but 2 out of 3 times, you’ll keep White from defeating you.

The Marshall Attack has better statistics for Black, so you should consider focusing on it.

Famous Games and Players

  • In this 1948 match between Hermann Victor Hesse, playing as Black, defeats Franklin Howard using Ruy Lopez. It’s worth studying to see how both players kept their pawns safe. However, Hesse outnumbered Franklin 5 pawns to 3 in the endgame, and Franklin resigned.
  • Emanuel Lasker versus Jose Capablanca played Ruy Lopez numerous times in their matches and usually fought to a draw. This match is sometimes referred to as “The Whole Shooting Match.”  
  • In the 1990 World Championship, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov played Ruy Lopez several times. Kasparov’s victory in this game led to him winning the match. The end game shows how he used his pawns to protect his King. In addition, the use of two rooks and a bishop to force a checkmate is ingenious.


These books are available on

The Ruy Lopez: Move by Move:

The Everyman Chess books on openings are all good, and Neil McDonald’s is no exception. It’s organized by main lines and variations, which is helpful if you are interested in exploring a specific variation.

The Ruy Lopez: A Guide for Black

The Ruy Lopez: A Guide for Black: is an excellent resource, especially if you have difficulty challenging White. The principal variation, the Zaitsev, is one that Anatoly Karpov used frequently.

Chess: The Ultimate Chess Tactics and Strategies:

Chess: The Ultimate Chess Tactics and Strategies : is a good resource for beginners who want to improve their strategic and tactical thinking, which are central to success with the Ruy Lopez.


Is the Ruy Lopez a Good Opening for Beginners?

The Ruy Lopez is an excellent opening for beginners, especially those who want to become better players. By playing this opening, players learn the fundamentals of chess that become more critical as a player progresses.

The opening has been studied and played so often that some main lines can be 30 moves. However, a beginner should focus on the main line and a few of the alternative lines.

Peter J. Monte wrote in The Classical Era of Modern Chess that “Ruy Lopez deserves the epithet ‘father of opening theory.’”

What Are Weak Squares in Chess?

Weak squares in chess are empty squares that cannot be defended. Typically, discussions about weak squares focus on those that are in your opponent’s half of the board. Of course, you can have weak squares as well, and your opponent will look for them. 

If your opponent cannot defend the square, it’s possible for you to place a piece on it. In this example, Black cannot defend the d5

square. If you were to place your Knight there, you would have created a powerful outpost.

In this example, White has another advantage. Since Black has the dark-squared bishop, pieces on the light-colored squares are safe.

Final Thoughts

Some say that in the Ruy Lopez, the better player wins because the opening doesn’t rely on gambits and surprise moves. Instead, the player who better understands the fundamentals of chess wins.