The Berlin defense of the Ruy Lopez was played by the likes of Steinitz and Lasker.

[FEN ""]

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

However, it soon disappeared out of the play of World Champions and they rarely played it, before Kramnik revived it. What were the reasons for this? Was it merely a matter of the taste of the positions resulting from the Berlin or was the Berlin considered to be bad for Black after the period of Lasker?

6 Answers 6


The reason, as far as I know, it is because it is drawish. GMs look for opens that are either heavily imbalanced or uncertain, like the sicilian or the scotch, or quiet oppenings that allow positional manuevering, like the Caro-Kann. Drawish lines are used by GMs solely when they are required. Another reason is that the Berlin wasn't almost played at all in GM level. Kasparov didn't have such a deep knowlege of the opening, unlike Kramnik. Openings decide games in World Championships.


I used to read an old book about openings written by Ludek Pachman. It was probably published in 1980 though I am not sure of that because I read a translation... anyway, I digress :)

The interesting part of his analysis started after those standard moves

    [FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]

    1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4

At this point, he mentions that 5... exd4 is bad and mentions two moves. First, 5... Be7 that he recommends (I think he puts a (!) evaluation to it):

    [FEN "r1bqkb1r/pppp1ppp/2n5/1B2p3/3Pn3/5N2/PPP2PPP/RNBQ1RK1 b kq - 0 5"]

    5... Be7

Funnily, this move is now only rarely seen.

And, to comment the famous line that Kramnik revived in 2000:

    [FEN "r1bqkb1r/pppp1ppp/2n5/1B2p3/3Pn3/5N2/PPP2PPP/RNBQ1RK1 b kq - 0 5"]

    5... Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. dxe5 Nf5 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8

He mentions that this line cannot really be recommended as Black has some troubles finishing his development: the rooks are not connected, and also White's Kingside majority seems more efficient than Black's queenside majority. I guess this statement reflects the general feeling about this opening at that time: hard to play in practice.

I don't have the book next to me so I cannot really check my memories, but it should be close. So, kudos to Kramnik for having gone beyond this impression and proved that the whole line was playable.


The goal in a World Championship match is to press with white and draw with black. Kramnik was the first to realize what an incredibly solid opening it could be.

As to why it was dropped earlier,

From the Wikipedia article on the Berlin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruy_Lopez#Berlin_Defence): "The Berlin Defence was played in the late 19th century and early 20th century by Emanuel Lasker and others, who typically answered 4.0-0 with 4...d6 in the style of the Steinitz Variation. This approach ultimately fell out of favour, as had the old form of the Steinitz, due to its passivity, and the entire variation became rare".

The old way of playing the Berlin was 4...d6. When Kramnik brought it back, he played 4...Nxe4.


The reason apart from being a drawish opening, is that it can be unpleasant to play as black without correct play with the double pawn and disconnected rooks, in case one goes for the Queen exchange variation, like the one being played most often these days. A good thing going for black is the obvious bishop pair. Kramnik revived it successfully and used it in London against Kasparov as part of a strategy which worked.


It was considered unsound and unplayable before Kramnik revived it by introducing a number of improvements in Black's play. Before that, people believed that White's kingside majority was a winning advantage. The Berlin is a very drawish unless Black moves his king to the Queenside, which is risky.


I would disagree, if a player wants to draw, he would prefer the Ruy Lopez variation as a black. The Berlin Defense on the other hand provides all three results; it's possible to win with black (draw and lose as well), it depends how good black is in outmaneuvering his opponent. With advantage of two bishops (grandmasters value them more than knights, with their power in defense and offense, especially in the open game) vs. double pawns and lost right to castle which isn't the worst. Obviously this isn't an opening which I would recommend for beginners, cause misplay may cost you a game and some of the maneuvers aren't easy to find.

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