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[FEN "r1bqkbnr/1ppp1ppp/p1B5/4p3/4P3/5N2/PPPP1PPP/RNBQK2R b - - 0 1"]

In the Ruy Lopez Exchange, black always takes back the bishop with 4...dxc6. In Timothy Taylor's 2011 book Slay the Spanish, he advocates 4...bxc6 instead.

I want to analyze his lines and reach my own opinion, but I've never played these lines before. I want to know more about the arguments for 4...dxc6 that he is arguing against first, so that I can be a bit more skeptical about the lines he gives.

White still can't win a pawn with 4...bxc6 5.Nxe5 because of 5...Qe7 6.d4 d6 7.Nf3 Qxe4+.

I can see that 4...dxc6 does more for development than 4...bxc6 does, and it leads to two pawn islands instead of three, but 4...bxc6 captures towards the center.

Is there more to it than that? What is concrete analysis that's usually used to argue that 4...dxc6 is so superior that it is virtually always played?

  • 1
    Part of the issue may be that unlike in the Scotch where bxc6 is normal, white is already prepared to castle. After 4...bxc6, white scores 64.2%. This is no substitute for concrete analysis, but it is concerning since one might expect black to gain some surprise value from this move. – Qudit May 6 at 8:06
  • I'm not a player of the Spanish, but a quick look through the variations on 365chess.com suggests white can either get a nice development lead or, after lines including d4 d6 dxe5 dxe5 saddle black with doubled, isolated queen bishop pawns - so basically an inferior version of the standard variation as blacks pawn structure is even weaker – Ian Bush May 6 at 9:28
  • As an addition to my answer: Remember that playing good chess is about getting the most out of any moving-opportunity. I feel that bxc doesn't do this. – Benjamin Raabe May 6 at 9:55
  • The Norwegian IM Svein Johannessen used to play 4... bxc6. – Dag Oskar Madsen May 6 at 12:03
19

Good question. Indeed 4..bxc6 is extremely rare compared to the main line, and the reasons are multi-fold specially strategically, but foremost, from a concrete point of view it leads to a rather poor position for black after the immediate d4-exd4-Qxd4 and white's completely controlling the centre:

 [title "Important concrete reply"]
 [fen "r1bqkbnr/2pp1ppp/p1p5/4p3/4P3/5N2/PPPP1PPP/RNBQK2R w KQkq - 0 5"]

 1.d4 exd4 2.Qxd4

From a strategic point of view, 4..bxc6:

  • leaves black with an isolated a6 pawn without any effort required from white.

  • More damaging to the structure than dxc6 as black's left without any prospect of a queenside expansion since move four already! First repercussion of the latter is the fact that white has the assured prospect of blockading black's isolated a pawn and in doing so render it into a permanent weakness.

  • Despite black having the bishop pair in principle, the bishops have very poor prospects in this structure, in particular the light squared one, e.g.: developing it along the long diagonal is no longer meaningful as the fianchetto option is gone and an indirect one with c6-c5-Bb7 will in turn block-in the f8 bishop. Moreover, to develop the bishop along the side diagonal c8-h3 is now at least delayed for an extra tempo, which means white could easily include h3 without any real drawbacks. Instead, with dxc6 both bishops are immediately activated and the bishop pair compensation is more tangible (specially with Bg4 being readily playable).

  • The latter is really pointing to the fact that with bxc6 black is left with very poor piece activity, and the structure guarantees no real outpost for the knight, in fact not even the immediate Nf6 is playable after bxc6 d4 exd4 Qxd4 Nf6 the knight is pushed around to non-ideal posts such as b6 or e7 after e5-Nd5-c4.

  • Unlike bxc6, dxc6 is in fact challenging the immediate d4 (which is one of white's main plans in this structure) as the queen trade becomes forced and having the bishop pair black definitely doesn't mind the endgame. Thus, as mentioned in the beginning, with 4...bxc6 black is even playing into white's hands by inviting d4.

  • This line of bxc6-d4-exd4-Qxd4 is really critical as it perfectly highlights the major differences between the two sides: white has all the space, perfectly healthy pawn structure, ready to castle (while black is at least 2 tempi away), while black has no prospect to claim the centre, nor to liquidate the isolated a6 pawn. I highly encourage you to play through some of the ensuing lines after this move order, you'll quickly develop a feel for the kinds of struggles black is facing.

Now consider going through all above points but with the position after 4...dxc6:

 [title "Main line after dxc6"]
 [fen "r1bqkbnr/1pp2ppp/p1p5/4p3/4P3/5N2/PPPP1PPP/RNBQK2R w KQkq - 0 5"]

in doing so, hopefully you'll be able to convince yourself that all the aspects of dxc6 outweigh that of bxc6, both concretely and strategically. Last but not least, note that here the immediate c3 (for d4) is not possible due to Qd3, moreover, black is well in time to keep the fight over d4 alive (e.g. 5.O-O Bg4 pinning white's most important piece of they're to ever play d4).

At the high level, the key downsides to be emphasized for 4...bxc6 are: isolated a pawn, no prospect of expansion on the queenside, extremely limited minor piece activity, delayed development, and the lack of any ability to create a target in white's camp.

  • A very well made answer! It is interesting that after bxc white even has the choice to go for a solid position with d3, mabe even b3,Bb2 - or to immediately pry open the center with d4. White is ready to castle, Black is afar away from any safety for his king. – Benjamin Raabe May 6 at 11:02
  • When you write "black definitely doesn't mind the endgame" after d4 exd4 Qxd4, I think it's a bit inaccurate because if black agrees to massive piece trades then white wins the endgame because black has doubled pawns, c.f. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruy_Lopez,_Exchange_Variation#Endgame – Allure May 7 at 1:49
  • 1
    @Allure At no point it is mentioned that black should liquidate towards the kvk endgame, which black is by no means forced to do anyhow in that line! In the context the comment was made, with a simple inclusion of queens' trade (thus an early onset of endgame), nearly all of white's aforementioned positional advantages in the corresponding line of 4..bxc6 5.d4 exd4 6.Qxd4 (the critical line of the entire discussion) will be lost. The latter is possible with dxc and not bxc, which can make all the difference. – Phonon May 7 at 9:14
  • Thanks, this is a good overview of the arguments against I think, now I'll start looking at the arguments for bxc6 that Taylor makes. As information for readers: it seems that in general he does aim for ...c5 and ...Bb7 combined with ...Bg7, answers 5.d4 exd4 6.Qxd4 with 6...Qf6 as played by Alekhine and also often plays ...Rb8 to make use of the open b file. – RemcoGerlich May 7 at 14:54
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First of all, you are correct in your assessment, that taking towards the center normally is preferred. The reason for this is, that taking towards the center usually (!) allows for easier development and generally more active play. As a rule of thumb (remember - few absolutes in chess!) taking towards the center leads to sharper positions, taking away from it tends to favor calm games.

The Ruy Lopez often results in extremely rich middlegames, which for many players pose some difficulties, as (especially with white) you need to find a plan in a position where you mostly won't get away with hurling all your pawns at the enemies king and checkmating. Mindlessly developing your pieces is easy - coordinating them on a full board is not. I personally do not like the positions resulting from 4... bxc as, while maybe inherently not being bad, it gives white concrete targets to attack. Moreover the benefits for black (development, supporting d5) are a while away. Let's take a look at it.

  1. Center
    Since you now have a pawn on c6, d5 is basically screaming to be played - attacking white's e-pawn. However after a rather quiet d3 by white (the bishop is already out of the garage anyway) d5 doesn't really achieve a whole lot. If white were to take with 6. exd, you would have solved all your problems. However white is in no way obligated to do so (and shouldn't!). Taking on e4 yourself results in just a joke of a pawn structure.
    Even if the tension is preserved black's pawn on e5 is in trouble. Nxe5 poses a realistic threat now - and there is no good way of defending that e-pawn (much like when white plays c3 too early in a Ruy Lopez!). Bd6 would kill the bishop, Qe7 is awful in so many ways and f3... Well, never play f3!

Here

[Title "Position after 4 ... bc 5. 0-0 d5 6. d3 de? 7. de"]
[fen "r1bqkbnr/2p2ppp/p1p5/4p3/4P3/5N2/PPP2PPP/RNBQ1RK1 w KQkq - 0 5"]

(Position after 4 ... bxc 5. 0-0 d5 6. d3 dxe? 7. dxe | Not the best moves for white - but the resulting position is not looking good for black.)

Which brings us to...

  1. ... the doubled c-pawns Which may come under fire. The c6 pawn is only defended by the d-pawn - and you are going to move that one away.

  2. Development Black opened b7 for his bishop, but the diagonal is now blocked by his c6 pawn. Developing to b7 anyway doesn't feel good. Another idea would be to push the a6-pawn and put the bishop on a6 - this however weakens the pawn severely and the bishop is somewhat misplaced on a6. Black doesn't really gain anything here.

I sadly do not have more time for more analysis, but white can find easy ways to put blacks position under pressure and will probably be in the driver seat for the rest of the game. Black is required to play really precisely to hold his position.

On a side note: 4. ... bxc 4. O-O has a 62% (!) win rate for white in the lichess masters database! The only commonly known grandmaster to play this is (Who else...? ^^) Bent Larsen. The game ended in a draw.

  • I think that "you are going to move the d-pawn anyway" is going to end up being the main thing. Maybe a d3 pawn can be undermined with c6-c5-c4, but white's also just going to play d4 asap. Anyway this is good stuff for me to keep in mind when I check out what he has to say :-) – RemcoGerlich May 6 at 10:10
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I was always taught that dc is simply to indirectly defend e5 since Ne5 Qd4 is advantage to black.

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