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I play with my 8-year old daughter chess often and about half of our games start with these moves:

[FEN ""]
[StartFlipped "1"]
[StartPly "7"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7

Today after I (black) made the move Be7, my daughter asked me:

Daddy, why don't you take the e4 pawn?

Well, I don't really know. I guess 5... Be7 the book move that I just play automatically. I know 5... b5 is also playable but far less common. I don't see top players take the e4 pawn often, except Magnus, who can play any opening, including the obviously dubious Bongcloud Attack.

But why not Knight takes e4 pawn?

My intuition is after 5... Nxe4, black has issues with the e-file and white can respond with 6. Re1. Then I realised that after 5... Nxe4, very few top players will continue with 6. Re1. The main move is actually 6. d4. (What's wrong with 6. Re1??)

So how do I answer her question:

why don't you take the e4 pawn?

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2 Answers 2

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Open Ruy Lopez

Nxe4 is indeed very legitimate - this is the Open Ruy Lopez and was very popular until the beginning of 20th century. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it, it's just a bit overexplored. Lines are more tactical and sharper than in the closed (Be7) variation, so subsequently they are narrower, longer and thus easier to (over-)prepare.

A famous game in this variation is Smyslov vs Reshevsky, 1945, in which Smyslov didn't leave his preparation until at least 20th move. In comment Rkovach shared this anecdote about the particular subvariation in the game:

Reshevsky sat for 45 minutes (!) on his 16th move. Shortly after receiving Smyslov's immediate reply, Reshevsky asked for time on Smyslov's clock - the response was "2 1/2 minutes" After several confirmations conviced him that it was indeed 2 1/2 minutes Al Horowitz came up, turned the score so he could read it and asked R "Sammy, have you kept up with the Russian journals? - Smyslov published 22 pages on this line and beats it in every variation" — Rkovach's comment

More recent example was played in this year Tata Steel: Firouzja vs Abdusattorov, 2024, with draw.

So in the end is a matter of taste and sporting concerns. If you are good at tactics and fine with fighting a long and forcing theoretical battle, Nxe4 is perfect for you - just be aware that these long and forcing lines often fizzle out to quick draws and, that if you mess up, you will lose quickly. Otherwise go for Be7, but be prepared to deal with white having lasting pressure.

6. d4 or 6. Re1?

White side prefers to play 6. d4 to 6. Re1 due to 6. Re1 Nc5. Position is similiar to Berlin variation, just a bit improved for black, since his knight is more active. Resulting positions are very drawish and tend to punish ambitious play for both sides. So if white is happy with quick draw he can go for 6. Re1, but 6. d4 is way more promising.

Popularity

As @IanBush commented the Open variation was played pretty much always - even today. However, since beginning of 20th century it was eclipsed first by popularity of closed variations and today by popularity of Berlin.

I made a quick plot based on Caissabase:

Popularity of Closed and Open Ruy

Where y-axes is % of all Ruys and open covers ECO codes C80-C83 and closed ECO codes C84-C99.

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    Do you mean "beginning of 21st century"?
    – Ian Bush
    Feb 27 at 11:43
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    @IanBush No, while open ruy was still popular in 20th century, it was already waning - it was very much the approach of the romantic school. Turn of the century brough the modern school (to use Vidmar's terminology), which much prefered closed variations. Feb 27 at 11:47
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    So for instance Korchnoi's repeated use of the open Lopez in the 1978 world championship against Karpov was very unusual? I'd have thought throughout the 20th century it was more common than you give credit. But that's just an opinion.
    – Ian Bush
    Feb 27 at 12:18
  • @IanBush - agreed, there was notable play in the open variation even later and is still present today. However, closed ruy is way more popular since beginning of 20th century than open - see updated answer. Feb 27 at 13:01
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why don't you take the e4 pawn?

Taking the pawn is a valid move so far as I can tell. According to lichess's master database it scores about as well as Be7. But after White plays 6. d4, Black has the choice of giving the pawn back fairly quickly, or taking a second pawn with 6... exd4 and putting their e4 knight in some danger (White will play Re1 now that it directly pins the knight to the king, and Black must play carefully to avoid losing that knight.) It's certainly not just a free pawn if White knows what they are doing.

(What's wrong with 6. Re1??)

According to WikiBooks:

The natural 6. Re1 is in fact a very minor sideline; not only does it commit the rook to the e-file unnecessarily, but it allows Black's knight to retreat to c5, forcing the exchange of the a4-bishop. If Bxc6 dxc6, Black is then doing rather well compared to the Exchange Variation as the bishop has lost a tempo and the disappearance of the centre pawns favours Black's bishop pair.

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