For years I used to teach kids the Italian Game as their first real White opening once I wanted to get them away from mindless development in the Four Knights. If Black played Bc5, then c3 followed by d4, or if instead he played the Two Knights we went for the Fried Liver Attack with Ng5.
The problem with this, though, is that it’s very much about remembering forced variations, which doesn’t suit everyone and may possibly come at the expense of genuine understanding.
So why not teach the Ruy Lopez instead at this level? In my opinion there are a lot of reasons why you should.
As a not entirely irrelevant aside, most openings books are totally useless for less experienced juniors. In fact some of them are useless even at my level. In practical terms, I’m not interested in what grandmasters play. I want to know what the random player sitting opposite me in my next Thames Valley League match is going to play. If you’re teaching young kids you want to know what young kids who haven’t studied the openings very much are going to play. As someone once said, what good is the book if your opponent hasn’t read it?
So when I teach the Ruy Lopez I’m not going to show them Mickey Adams’s latest TN on move 35 of the Marshall. Nor am I going to discuss Vlad Kramnik’s most recent subtlety in the Berlin Wall. They’re not going to see the Marshall or the Berlin Wall at all. Nor are they going to play an early Nc3 and d3 and transpose into a boring Four Knights Game. They’re not even going to memorise any variations or learn very much theory. Instead they’re going to learn a lot of devastating tactical weapons which they can use against the sort of moves they’re likely to meet over the board in kiddie tournaments. They’re also going to learn about quick development, castling early, controlling the centre, the importance of the c-pawn in the opening, using open files, making pawn breaks, winning a pawn and converting it in the ending.
At this level, the Ruy Lopez is essentially about the resulting tactics when White tries to capture the pawn on e5, and when Black tries to capture the pawn on e4.
So we’ll start by showing them some moves: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5. The Spanish Opening or Ruy Lopez. Named after a 16th century Spanish priest. Why are we playing this? On move one we stick a pawn in the middle. Our opponent does the same thing. We attack it with our knight and he defends it. So we attack the defender. Now we’d like to trade off our bishop for his knight and then chop off the pawn. Or would we?
If you’re playing this in a low level kiddie tournament there are all sorts of replies you might meet. Beginners will often move the knight away because they don’t want to lose a piece, not understanding that a trade of equal value pieces is fine (and forgetting that they moved the knight to c6 to defend the pawn on e5). They might decide to copy White and play Bb4. Fine – we’re going to play c3 to kick the bishop away, and then, before or after castling, d4. Important lesson about using the c-pawn to fight for the centre (which is why we’re not playing the Four Knights). They might play either Bc5 or Nf6, maybe because it’s what they’ve been taught to do against Bc4, or maybe because they look like sensible developing moves. If they’ve heard that doubled pawns are bad they might play Nge7. If they think their e-pawn is in imminent danger they’ll probably play d6. We’ll look at some of these in more detail in a later article, but we’ll start with what is, at most levels, the most popular reply: a6. They might play this because they know it’s the usual move, or just because they like creating threats, hoping their opponent won’t notice.
We continue, then, 3… a6 and see what happens if White carries out his ‘threat’: 4. Bxc6 dxc6 (we’ll explain that this is the better recapture because it opens lines for the bishop and queen). Now we’ll play 5. Nxe5 and ask them to select a move for Black.
As they’ve been taught not to bring their queen out too soon they’ll probably suggest various developing moves like Nf6 or Bd6 before considering the idea of a queen fork. They’ll need a bit of prompting to see that there are three queen moves which Black could employ to regain his pawn: Qd4 (forking e5 and e4), which happens to be the best option, Qe7 (skewering e5 and e4) and Qg5 (forking e5 and g2). We’ll play a few more moves: 5… Qd4 6. Nf3 Qxe4+ 7. Qe2 Qxe2+ 8. Kxe2 and agree that Black stands better: he has the two bishops in a fairly open position and White’s king is awkwardly placed. You might possibly want to leave the discussion about the relative merits of the minor pieces for another time though.
Big lesson number 1: look out for queen forks in the opening. These are easy to miss partly because you may not be looking for tactics when your brain’s still in opening mode and partly for the reason mentioned above: you usually don’t want to bring your queen out too soon.
So we’ll take a few moves back and try to do a bit better for White. Instead of taking the pawn on move 5 we’re going to castle. You’ll see the difference very shortly. If he hasn’t seen the position before Black is quite likely to play a natural developing move such as 5… Nf6. Now we’re going to capture on e5. It’s time to play Spot the Difference.
Let’s suppose Black tries Qd4 as he was advised to play the move before. So: 6. Nxe5 Qd4 7. Nf3 Qxe4 and it’s easy to see how White can win the queen.
Or Black could take the pawn at once: 6. Nxe5 Nxe4 when White again uses his rook on the e-file: 7. Re1. If the knight retreats a discovered check will win the black queen. They may well be familiar with this idea from the Copycat Trap in the Petroff. If not, they should be.
Finally, Black could try to drive the knight back first, just as in the Petroff, say 6. Nxe5 Bd6 7. Nf3 Nxe4 8. Re1. Again we use the rook on the e-file. This time there’s an enemy knight in the way so we have a pin. Black can defend the pinned piece with 8… Bf5 but now we can simply attack the pinned piece with 9. d3 (or Nc3) and come out a piece ahead.
Simple first lesson on the Ruy Lopez, then. A little bit of very basic theory, but much more than that. A graphic illustration of why we castle quickly in positions where the e-file is going to be opened, and how we use the rook there. A lot of vital tactical ideas as well: queen forks for Black, pins and discovered attacks for White. If there’s an enemy piece between our rook and his king we can pin and win it. If there’s a friendly piece in the way we can move it with a discovered check. Next time we’ll take the opening a bit further and look at some more ideas.