Ruy Lopez — A Guide For Black, The

Leif Johannessen, Sverre Johnsen

Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
Gambit Chess
207 pages

When one wanders about the tournament hall of any significant Swiss System event, you’ll see that 1.e4 is usually answered by 1…c5 (the overwhelming favorite), 1…e6, 1…c6, with just a few double e-pawns (1…e5) appearing here or there – though to be fair, 1…e5 is the almost universal choice in scholastic tournaments (the position after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.d3 d6 seems to be on every board!).

However, when you look at the games in the various “super tournaments,” you’ll see Anand, Topalov, Kramnik, Ivanchuk, Adams, Morozevich, Bacrot, Leko, Valejo, Aronian, Svidler, Radjabov Carlsen, Ponormariov, and just about everyone else making occasional to constant use of 1…e5 as their defense against 1.e4. There are reasons why the world’s best often seek the battle-tested waters of 1…e5. Safety, soundness, flexibility, and positional complexity are just some of the perks that 1.e4 e5 offers to its worshipers.

I get a lot of requests for repertoire advice. And though I often recommend the Caro-Kann for those that want to put in minimal study and achieve a sound position, I must admit that double e-pawn openings like the Petroff Defense and the Ruy Lopez are also excellent choices. The Ruy Lopez: A Guide For Black is a great way to enter the black waters of the Ruy. It covers Black’s proper answers to the Exchange Variation, Delayed Exchange lines, and other ways White can avoid the Closed Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3). But its main focus is on the Closed, and here it does a stellar job.

The first thing that impressed me was the preface by the Norwegian grandmaster Leif Johannessen. He describes how a study of the classics convinced him to give the Closed Defense in the Ruy a shot. Other topics in his preface are the preparation of two sound lines (“In order to be properly prepared, you need to know one, or ideally two, lines better than most opponents. Objectively there is no great risk in picking two random Ruy Lopez lines that are played at grandmaster level. The chances that they will be fully playable for the rest of your life are excellent.”), how to prepare your new opening, identifying critical positions, and the usefulness of finding chess heroes that play the same lines you do. These fifteen pages are pure gold.

Yet, after this epic preface, we still don’t get the expected reams of analysis because the introduction (all twenty-five pages of it!) takes us on another instructive “how to study openings” ride. Here we are treated to topics like, A Quality Opening, Classical Principles, On the Shoulders of Giants, Room for Creativity, A Modern Favorite, A Great Learning Tool, Closed Ruy Lopez Strategy, Some Closed Ruy Lopez Concepts, Ruy Lopez Overview, and… the useful information just keeps on coming!

When we finally hit the masses of analysis (always filled with instructive prose that explains the ideas and plans), we are already on page 51. It’s at this point that the non-master might feel a bit of panic. The book’s main choice of Closed Lopez system is the Zaitsev, a dynamic line that often leads to some of the most complicated and insane positions ever seen. For example, on page 54 we’re given the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Bb7 10.d4 Re8 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.a4 h6 1.Bc2 cxd4 14.cxd4 Nb4 15Bb1 c5 16.d5 Nd7 17.Ra3 f5 (17…c4 is a whole other animal and is also analyzed in detail) 18.Nh2 Nf6.

At this point White can choose between 19.Rf3, 19.Rg3, and 19.g4!?, while alternatives on move eighteen are 18.Rae3 and 18.exf5.
I must admit that, in my view, nobody under 2200 should ever touch this line. It’s too complex, demands too much memorization, and calls for a tremendous amount of tactical acumen. Don’t get me wrong, the Zaitsev is a fantastic system (and their treatment of it is magnificent), but it’s simply too much opening for a non-master to handle (just like a Formula 1 is too much car for the non-professional driver to touch).

Fortunately, the authors’ save their lower rated readers a heart attack by offering alternatives: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 and now both 9…Bb7 10.d4 Qd7!? and 9.h3 Re8!? ensure a solid position for Black without the tactical meltdown (or necessary super-memory) of the main line Zaitsev.

But the authors aren’t done yet. In case these don’t appeal to you, or if you want a second Ruy line for Black, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Qd7!? is given a serious look.

Here I have to digress a bit. Thirty-one years ago, I decided to answer 1.e4 with …e5 as a surprise weapon. I looked at all of Black’s choices in the Ruy and then noticed an old, relatively unexplored creation of Smyslov’s: 9…Qd7!?

I analyzed the thing, decided it was pretty cool, and gave it a drive at the first opportunity.
deFirmian – Silman,
Lone Pine 1976:
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Qd7!? 10.d4 Re8 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.d5 Ne7 13.c4 c6 14.a4 bxc4 15.dxc6 Qxc6 16.Nxc4 Be6 (Black has come out of the opening with an excellent position) 17.Na5 Bxb3 18.Qxb3 Qc7 19.Bd2 Rab8 20.Qc3 Qb6 21.Nc4 Qc6 22.Qd3 Ng6 23.Nh2? d5 24.exd5 Nxd5 25.Rac1 Ndf4 26.Qg3 Bb4! 27.Nf3 Bxd2 28.Nfxd2 Nh4! 29.Ne4 Nhxg2? 30.Ncd6 Nxe1 31.Nf6+? Kf8 32.Nxh7+? Ke7 33.Nf5+ Kd7 34.Rxe1 Qg6 35.Ng5 Qxg5!, 0-1. If Black’s position in this game and the kind of play he got against White’s center appeals to you, then perhaps 9…Qd7, and this book,
will prove to be a good fit.

Unfortunately, after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Qd7!? 10.d4 Re8 11.Nbd2 Bf8 12.d5 the retreat 12…Ne7 was shown to be wanting by Khalifman. Fortunately, The Ruy Lopez: A Guide For Black makes a good case for the untested 12…Nd8, and it indeed looks quite playable. The beauty of 9…Qd7 is that there’s very little to memorize. Instead, ideas and knowledge of typical structures and plans rule the day.

Summing up, I think The Ruy Lopez: A Guide For Black is useful for players from 1400 on up. Non-masters should avoid the Zaitsev, but the other lines are easy to learn and very solid. Masters that have a great memory and lust after hyper-sharp situations will love the Zaitsev, and be more than happy with the book’s superb coverage of this theoretical minefield.