Returning to my series of articles on introducing kids to the Ruy Lopez, let’s start with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4.
What could be more natural or logical than playing 4… b5, driving the bishop back again and negating the potential pin on the a4-e8 diagonal? Children are more interested in creating threats than putting pieces on good squares, and, at low levels, you’ll win a lot of games because your opponent doesn’t notice your threats.
You won’t read a lot about this sequence in openings books, though, because it’s not popular with stronger players, and on the rare occasions they play it they follow up with Na5, immediately trading off the white bishop at the cost of a tempo. Mamedyarov, Morozovich and Agdestein have all started this way a few times, when play usually continues 5. 0-0 d6 6. d4.
It’s very natural again, though, especially for children who are probably more familiar with the Italian than the Spanish, to continue with a developing move like Bc5 or Nf6 just as they would after 3. Bc4. The position might look similar but the analysis is very different. If you’re playing chess at lower levels, particularly in junior tournaments, though, it’s good to know what’s happening.
By and large, the differences favour White, mainly because the bishop is safer from immediate attack on b3 than it is on c4.
Let’s take a closer look.
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 b5 5. Bb3 Bc5 as in the Giuoco Piano.
The first point is that White can play, if he chooses, the Fork Trick with 6. Nxe5. You can’t do this in the Giuoco Piano, of course (although kids sometimes try) because 6… Nxe5 will hit the bishop on c4 and you’re not going to get the piece back.
Alternatively, White can continue in Italian fashion with 6. c3 Nf6 7. d4 exd4. We have two strong options here. 8. cxd4 Bb4+ 9. Bd2 Bxd2 10. Nbxd2 is very pleasant for White. In Italy Black can equalise with d5 hitting the bishop on c4, but in Spain we can meet d5 with e5 giving us a nice space advantage. We could also choose 8. e5, which again is well met by d5 in Italy, while in Spain Black has to move his knight to an awkward square.
So perhaps Black should play Nf6 instead. The stats favour White in many of these variations, mainly because a lot of the games feature stronger players beating weaker players, but the engines seem to think Black’s position is not unreasonable.
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 b5 5. Bb3 Nf6. Many kids like to play Ng5, going for the Fried Liver Attack. After 6. Ng5 d5 7. exd5 Nxd5 8. Nxf7 seems even stronger for White than the Fried Liver proper, but Black can do much better with 7… Nd4 to trade off the bishop when necessary. Regular readers will be aware than in Italy Nd4 seems to give White a slight advantage if he knows what he’s doing, but in Spain it’s absolutely fine for Black.
Instead, White might want to try 6. d4 here. The engines seem happy with d6 or Nxd4 for Black. 6… d6 seems rather passive but 6… Nxd4 leads to interesting complications. White plays 7. Nxd4 exd4 8. e5 and Black has to give up his knight because of tactics with Qf3 or Qd5. Instead he can play the strange looking computer move 7… c5, trapping the bishop with c4 when the knight moves away. 7. Bxf7+ has also been played, which looks scary to me but not to the engines.
If Black knows the Two Knights Defence, though, he’ll probably play the Italian move 6… exd4. Now White, as in the line above, can play 7. e5 as d5 is not an option for Black. Black is quite likely to play Ne4 when either O-O or the immediate Bd5 are possible for White. We’re now in a position which can arise from a variety of move orders. For some idea of White’s prospects in this sort of position, consider the following short game in which a strong player suffers a painful defeat.
There are one or two loose ends which I may or may not tie up later. One of the ideas of this series of posts was to make the point that most opening books are written by and for very strong players. They have little relevance for those of us playing club standard chess and no relevance at all for kids just starting out in competitive chess. Opening books for kids should be based on what happens in kids’ games, not what happens in grandmaster games. I’ve been asked many times to recommend a good opening book for kids at this level. My answer has always been the same: I haven’t written it yet, but at least I’m now working on it.