Chess Structures in Practice – The Closed Ruy Lopez

The following game is one of many interesting examples I had to leave out of my book simply because of space limitations. Anyway, watching over the games of the Women’s World Championship reminded me of this game, and I thought I should show it to you.

Karpov – Unzicker, Milan 1975

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7. Bb3 d6 8. c3 O-O 9. h3 Na5 10. Bc2 c5 11. d4
We have started with a Lopez Formation, in what’s arguably one of the oldest and most studied lines in opening theory. Black can capture …cxd4 possibly transforming the game into a King’s Indian type I, or White could push d4-d5 to turn the game into a Closed Ruy Lopez.

11…Qc7 12. Nbd2 Bd7

One of the most theoretical lines begins with 12… cxd4 13. cxd4 Nc6 14. Nb3 a5 15. Be3 a4 16. Nbd2 where the game is likely to transpose to a King’s Indian type I structure, after White’s d4-d5. Something positive about Black’s position after d4-d5 though, is the fact that the bishop on e7 can reach an active position within only two moves, by playing Bc7-Bb6 (or a5).

13. Nf1 Rfe8 14. d5!

White transforms the structure under good circumstances, as we will see later in the game, Black’s pieces are already poorly arranged for what’s coming up. The position we have resembles the Kings Indian type II (only difference is the pawn on c3 rather than c4). One of Black’s standard plans is f7-f5, though here it is not working as well since the rook is on e8, and the pawn is still on g7 (we need it on g6)

13…Nb7 15. N3h2 g6
In case of 15… c4 16. f4 exf4 17. Bxf4 Black’s knight on f6 is not so weak, but White still enjoys an edge after 17…Nc5 18. Nf3 a5 19. e5!? with a small edge

16. Ng3 c4 17. f4!

An excellent transformation of the position

Unzicker was more or less forced to capture on f4, since he is otherwise lacking a productive plan, for example 17… a5 18. Rf1 b4 19. Be3 Rab8 20.Qd2 with a small edge. White will double the rooks on the f-file, and it seems Black will eventually have to capture on f4 either way.

18. Bxf4

We have reached position of interest. White has carried out a standard transformation of the Closed Ruy Lopez, in order to open lines for attack. One might think the backward pawn on e4, or the e5 square could be a problem to White in this position, but in reality White enjoys a very pleasing advantage since Black lacks the time to arrange his pieces properly. If Black could swap his bishop on b7 and bishop on d7, and move his bishop from e7 to g7, the situation would be very different.

18…Bf8 19. Bg5! this well timed move prevents Black from reorganizing his forces 19…Be7

Black does not have time to rearrange his bishop with 19… Bg7? due to 20. Rf1 Qd8 (or 20… Nh5 21. Nxh5 gxh5 22. Qxh5+-) 21. Qf3+-

20. Qd2 Bc8

A more stubborn defence was 20… Qd8 threatening …Nxd5, though after 21. Be3! Black is helpless, for example Bf8 22. Rf1 Bg7 23. Bg5 with a big advantage for White

21. Rf1 Nd7 22. Ng4 1-0

Black resigned in view of White’s unstoppable threats. Probably a couple extra moves could have been played, though the outcome of the game is completely clear. If Black had continued with 22…Nd8 (it does not help 22… Bf8 23. Qf4+-) 23. Bxe7 Rxe7 24. Qg5! finishes off the game, since Re8 is met by 25. Nh5 +-

Final remarks:

  • From a purely structural point of view, the break f2-f4 is not so good, since it weakens the e4-pawn as well as the e5 square and the dark-squares in general. What makes this break so typical in this structure, and so strong, is the fact that White gains chances for a kingside attack, and since there are so many pieces on the board, Black’s lack of space often prevents him from taking advantage of the e5 square in an ideal manner.
  • The key aspect of this game is that the break f2-f4 worked ideally because Black’s pieces were arranged in a suboptimal way (possibly Black was not expecting f2-f4 at all). This poor arrangement prevented Black from organizing a defence on time.

To play through the game, click the link: Game Link.

The Decisive Game of the Women’s World Championship

At this point you might be wondering why did I connect the game Karpov-Unzicker with the Women’s World Championship. Well, it turns out that the decisive game of the final match, between Mariya Muzychuk and Natalija Pogonina was decided on the same pawn structure! The game was the second round of the match, where Muzychuk had the White pieces. The  critical position of the game was:

Black’s strategy has given good results so far, and the control of the dark-squares should give Black a small advantage. Now Black should have played 27…g5! 28 Qe2 Bxg3 29.Kxg3 Ng6 with an excellent control of important dark squares such as f4. As we can see in the resulting position:
Black has great prospects of kingside play after …Kg7 and the …h7-h5 break. Instead Black played 27…Bg5?, and after 28.f4! exf4 29.Bxf4 we obtained the position:

where White’s position is not nearly as good as it was in Karpov-Unzicker, (Pogonina has played better than Unzicker did) but at least many of the earlier ideas still apply. In particular, it is hard for Black to make anything out of the e5-square, and the “weakness” of the backward e4-pawn is non-existent. Mariya Muzychuk managed to slowly make progress in the position, gain control of Black’s weakened dark-squares, and never allow Black to control the e5-square with a knight. Eventually the game reached the position:

where White enjoys a great advantage. In this position Pogonina gave in to pressure by playing 45…b4 (which gives up a pawn), and she eventually lost the game. I believe this game was an excellent illustration of how classical concepts are applied in today’s practice. You should keep in mind though that current games often show great improvement over classics. Karpov’s win is certainly more appealing than Muzychuk’s, but Pogonina’s defence was also much better than Unzicker’s. Either way, if there is something to take away from these two examples is the power of the f2-f4 break.

Feel free to leave comments, suggestions or questions. If you liked this blog post, click “Follow” at the top of the page to receive an email once a new blogpost is out. I will try to post once per week.



2 thoughts on “Chess Structures in Practice – The Closed Ruy Lopez

  1. Hesse Bub

    Thanks for the postings and for the book. It made me really think about pawn structures. Yesterday I (1800 Elo) played with black a game vs. 1600 Elo. He played d4,c3,Bf4. During the game I realized I notoriously have problems to play this kind of structure. I always play something different and always run into problems. After the game I checked your book but could not find anything about it or the Colle (e3,d4,c3, without Bf4). Did I miss the relevant chapter or do you have any advice how to play these structures with black?


    1. Mauricio Flores Post author

      The structure e3-e4-c3 isn’t a “real” pawn structure since “nothing has happened”. The structure you refer is essentially a Slav, where White has an extra move (and therefore White will always have a position that’s at least decent) As Black you could try to play e7-e5, and after White trades on e5 you are in a CaroKann structure, or if you play c7-c5 and White takes, you are in a Slav-Formation.

      Anyway, the Colle system can be tough to face, I recommend looking at GM-level games to learn how to respond. Most 2700 never play Colle with White, and obviously there must be a reason why they don’t. I assure you that if you look at top games you will find great ways to play against.

      Good Luck!



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