As an amateur, I prefer the Scotch game as opposed to Ruy Lopez, since I feel that White loses tempo and Black seems to gain tempo with queenside counterplay in the main line.

 [title "Ruy Lopez"]
 [fen "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]

 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 {Bishop retreat at the expense of black gaining one queenside counterplay} b5 5. Bb3 {Another bishop retreat at the expense of black gaining a good queenside counterplay}

At the end of White's fifth move, it looks like Black is couple of tempo ahead and already has queenside counterplay going. Despite this, why is this one of (if not the most) celebrated openings? Can someone offer an explanation at the level of an amateur?

  • 2
    Black might have gained some queenside space (though it's worth bearing in mind that, depending on the exact variation, it's also possible that black has simply created positional weaknesses), but the key point is that white has more control of the center than does black. – ATLPoly Nov 20 at 17:50
  • @ATLPoly: But black has a wide spectrum of opportunities for attacking white's centre and building up black's own centre position. – Sean Nov 21 at 17:12
  • I wonder why the inline comments in the PGN aren't rendered correctly. Bug? – fuxia Nov 21 at 20:45
  • @Leg Hi, the post has received very nice answers, please consider accepting if you've found one answer satisfactory. It helps the site to have closure on well answered posts. Thanks. – user929304 Nov 26 at 12:30
  • @user929304 Done! – Leg Nov 26 at 17:51
up vote 26 down vote accepted

Sure black's a6-b5 come with tempo, but let's say at a very basic level, if you just compare pieces, structure and development progress, you can see that white is:

  • Ready to castle whereas black hasn't yet developed either kingside pieces, so at least 2 tempi away from castling. This translates into white having a safer king 1-2 tempi earlier, which means white has the upper-hand in launching some sort of attack or push.
  • White has developed two minor pieces that stand quite well: Knight on f3 attacks e5 and has the potential to coordinate on f7 with the bishop on b3 already eyeing black's kingside. In contrast, black has only developed a knight, one that stands defensively on c6 covering e5.
  • Besides the e4 pawn, white has nearly kept all pawn advancement options still on the table (therefore, can opt for various pawn structures still), whereas black has made 2 additional commitments that cannot be undone, which can on the one hand, prove to have been self-inducing weaknesses, and on the other hand, be hooks (targets) for white's pawn advancements on the queenside, e.g. an a4 push, to which black has to react immediately.

These ways of reasoning can be adopted to conceptually assess nearly any opening you see, at least at a basic level.

The point on pawn commitments cannot be emphasized enough, they're the most committal moves in the game (trades come close but at least in principle a piece can be brought back to life with a promotion, but pawns cannot! :P ). Even at the highest level, for instance take a look at any of Caruana's openings in the match so far, where roughly speaking, he intentionally favours lines where he can delay unnecessary pawn moves and keep most of his options open. Examples:

Game 2:

 [title "Game 2, move 13, only 3 central pawns moved, compare to white!"]
 [fen "r1br2k1/pp3ppp/2n1p3/q1bp4/2P2B2/P1P1PN2/2Q1BPPP/3R1RK1 b - - 0 13"]

Game 4:

 [title "Game 4, move 13, only 2 central pawns moved, compare to white!"]
 [fen "r1bqr1k1/ppp2ppp/3b4/4p3/1P6/2BP1BP1/P3PP1P/1R1Q1RK1 b - - 0 13"]

game 6:

 [title "Game 6, move 13, only 2 central pawns moved, compare to white!"]
 [fen "r1b1kb1r/pppn1ppp/3pn3/3N4/3P4/N1P2P2/PP4PP/R1B1KB1R b KQkq - 0 13"]

game 8:

 [title "Game 8, move 16, only 3 pawns moved, compare to black!"]
 [fen "1rbq1rk1/1p2b1pp/pN1p4/P2Pnp2/4p3/8/1PPBBPPP/R2Q1RK1 w - - 4 17"]

Anyhow I think the idea is clear now! It's important to add that in all these examples, the simple fact of having moved less pawns doesn't directly or necessarily translate into having a better position, chess is never that simple or linear. Partly, specially in this examples, it is a case of style and preference (and thus the adopted openings), but on the other hand it shows you the importance of diversity in pawn structures that can still be opted for as they translate into having more choices, abundantly clear even at the highest level.

I hope these ideas have shown you why the Ruy Lopez is such a liked opening, which I have only tackled from the white side in this post, and clearly, black's side has its own merits in the Ruy Lopez compared to alternative options that are available for black against 1. e4, but that's a discussion for another time.

  • Greatly appreciate and thanks for a detailed explanation! Will wait for a few more answers before deciding on accepting, though the natural question is why not Italian or Scotch. Both seem to satisfy more of less the same criteria in terms of pawn structure and ability to castle immediately. – Leg Nov 20 at 18:43
  • I see that you have answered my comment as well in my question, i.e., Black's pawn structure is now fixed. – Leg Nov 20 at 18:45
  • 4
    @Leg "Why not Italian or Scotch", there is no real answer, all of these are perfectly playable but different approaches. That said, it may help to think in terms of the basic differences of these openings w.r.t. the Ruy Lopez: in the Scotch early trades are abound, e.g., the f3 knight and d pawn for white and the c6 knight and e pawn for black. In the Italian, Bc4 changes completely the dynamics already as it doesn't challenge the defender of the e5 pawn at all, in contrast to Bb5. So you see the emerging structures are of a completely different nature and at the end it's a matter of style. – Phonon Nov 20 at 20:35
  • 2
    @Leg Concerning the Italian, the bishop is bound to lose tempo on c4 as well (after the inevatible ...d5 break). It will often end up in the same place anyways (f1->b5->a4->b3/c2 versus f1->c4->b3->c2), and as this answer correctly points out, Black has to commit to more pawn moves in the Ruy Lopez (which in general are less desirable than the natural ...d5 which Black wants to play in any case). – Annatar Nov 21 at 8:42

Note that while black gains space on the queenside, the advanced pawns offer white some opportunities later on to undermine black's pawns with a timely a4-push. Moreover, the queenside expansion doesn't develop a piece, nor does it help black to contest the center of the board. Further, white's bishop is quite a happy camper on b3, being less exposed than it would be on c4 while at the same time being basically just as influential as it would be on c4. So while white has spent 3 tempi to get the bishop to b3, black has spent 2 tempi on a queenside pawn expansion that doesn't develop a piece.

In essence, white gets to develop a piece to a very good square, while black gets to expand on the queenside, which doesn't really aid in development very much and has a potential of weakening black's position in the future. So the expansion is not without drawbacks for black.

  • But white's bishop now has no way of defending the pawn on e4 when black inevitably attacks it (unless white gives up yet another tempo to advance the c2 pawn), and the danger of white moving on a4 is largely negated if black plays 5. ...a5 (following which 6. a4 is easily countered by 6. ...b4, and now white's pawn on a4 is locked in place and essentially useless, white's rook on a1 and knight on b1 are also essentially immobilised, and the rest of white's queenside is severely limited in its options, whereas black has an unrestricted queenside and multiple ways for attacking into the centre. – Sean Nov 21 at 17:28
  • @Sean White will usually play c2-c3 in the Ruy since it supports future d4 breaks, so it's not like it's a move that white didn't want to make to begin with. Moreover, if black wants to play ...a5 to stop white from going a4 it might just be a waste of time; it's not like white needs to play a4. As you noted, white's pieces on the queenside are still left in their starting positions and need to get out, but they will be able to get out once white moves the d-pawn forward. – Scounged Nov 21 at 19:24
  • And if white doesn't play 6. a4 in response to 5. ...a5, then black forces white's bishop off b3 with 6. ...a4. If white played 6. c3 (or, less optimally, 6. a3, which sticks the bishop in the corner and blocks in white's rook, or 6. c4, which, after 6. ...a4, either gives up the c-pawn for nothing with 7. Bc2 bxc4, or else sends the queen dashing into enemy fire with 7. cxb5 axb3 6. bxc6 bxc2 7. Qxc2 dxc6 8. Qxc6+ Bd7), then fine, but if he played 6. anything else, then white either loses the bishop to 7. ...axb3, or else exchanges it for one of black's knights after 7. Bd5 Nf6. – Sean Nov 21 at 22:19
  • @Sean Black does not want to play ...a5 early on in the Ruy Lopez since it wastes time and is committal; development is more important than unneccessary pawn moves on the flank. Meanwhile, white really wants to play c3 in the Ruy Lopez since it strengthens white's central control and prepares to free up the queenside for white. Therefore white will be dancing in joy if black is cooperative enough to waste time with ...a5 in order to "force" white to make the move c3 that white is already going to play either way. – Scounged Nov 22 at 0:16

What has Black gained by a6 and b5?

  • He is no more developed than he was before those moves.
  • Primarily he has removed BxN options from White.

What has White gained from a6 and b5?

  • The advanced pawns are often targets for White.
  • White's Bishop is now on a nice diagonal and doesn't have to worry about d7-d5 moves hitting it as in some lines of the Two-Knights or Bishops Opening (2.Bc4 and 3.Bc4 lines)

So in general your assertion that Black is gaining tempos and counter-play are completely misguided.

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