The Ruy Lopez

Posted on April 5, 2014


I’ve been playing chess since at least the second grade. Back when you used to open with rook pawns. I clearly remember playing at recess (when we also used to play marbles, anybody remember that?) I remember playing outside in the sun on summer vacation with other kids in the neighborhood.  My family had a friend from our time in Vermont and he had a beautiful hand carved pagan-themed board. He used to indulge me for hours and hours playing.  I played (meaning lost all the time to)  in high school with a friend who became a ranked player (Kenny Ho, a self-professed “grand patzer”), and my best friend Richard and I used to play endlessly, sometimes going to parties and having a running game going on the hosts’ board whilst we mingled around (the girls did not love that for some reason). Sometimes we would play cribbage, chess, and have a board on the side to solve chess problems all simultaneously. I taught R to play and she beat me in our first game. (I remember a funny story where one time we had been playing on the porch for hours and the police came up because we had been reported for disturbing the peace.  Tough neighborhood.)

Once in Moscow I played and beat a Russian physicist, and once in Barcelona while waiting for the (then)  world’s only absinthe bar to open (at 3 AM)  I played a guy for money. I was so drunk he beat me in about 7 moves. So, of course I requested a rematch. At some point I realized I had fallen into a trap and blundered my Queen away. However, if he took the queen it actually resulted in a forced mate on my part (queen’s gambit). I could barely remember the combination to win, but if I had been sober enough to have actually remembered to bet on myself, it might’ve gotten ugly trying to leave the bar. Recently, I’ve been playing my friend’s son, Ben. Well, losing to. Having a high school sophomore figure you out in a few games is pretty humbling.

One time Nick Good stayed at my house.  He mentioned that he was mentoring a teenage chess genius in return for lessons. Unfortunately, he let go a few key points on what he was learning.  We stayed up late into the night playing on this oversize board I’d bought for the kids, and I eventually ground out a win simply because I knew he wanted to castle and spent copious amounts of energy preventing it. That was my first real lesson that chess is about as much about playing the man as it is a sterile logical exercise. I never could’ve beat him without the information he gave me. I have to say, that lead to one of the best nights of my life. I’m not sure if it’s just incidental that mead was involved….

ruebenOver 7th grade summer vacation, I got a book out of the library, Ruben Fine’s Chess the Easy Way.  I tried to work my way through that whole book. Chess books then used “descriptive” notation (PK2 x KnQ3 – pawn on King’s file second row takes Knight on Queen’s file 3rd row). This is very descriptive, but of course has some issues, like the same squares have different names depending on if you are playing from the black side or the white side.  But chess books only show you an image of the board every 5 or 10 moves so if you are “reading” a book, without the board you can pretty much follow in your head without a board to play on. I bought a copy and spent a few hours a year with that book on and off. My copy used to be underlined (before they had highlighters). I also read Hypermodern Chess that summer (mostly because chess book titles are very sexy and always trying to lead you on to the “next big thing” and how much cooler a title could you have than that.)  Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess was enlightening. Literally, I read that book and felt like a better player, like he was able to convey a little genius to me.

I became interested in chess trivia. (One of the Polgar sisters once declared a force mate in 28 moves. Bobby Fisher started every tournament game he ever played with 1. e4, except when he played Spassky, which of course blew Spassky away). I read about the great games, the great players.  I read novels about chess. I started collecting chess sets on eBay.  One set (Reynard le Fox, featured image) I bought 3 times: once before the fire, once after but 50% of the pieces came broken, and one more time whole, but I dropped it taking photos of it and smashed it to bits before I ever played it.  I would buy the occasional book, and finally decided that the way to really progress was to study opening theory and get a few down so that I would have a plan and be strategic, and not just play by the seat of my pants all of the time these thousands of games later.

Yet, despite all of this I am in chess terms what is called a “wood pusher.” A duffer.  A coffee house dilettante. Worse than an arm chair angler.  Then at work I met a fellow named Cedric. A real  chess aficionado. He will have up to 16 simultaneous games going on. Which is kind of brilliant really because these days in corporate culture everybody sits in meetings and spend all of their time checking email on their cell phones. Instead of being rude, the less time you spend in the meeting and the more distracted and busier your seem, the more important you appear to be. Well, Cedric can just sit there and play chess the entire time on his phone and he looks like the most important guy in the building. I may just get a smart phone.


“Old-fashioned” notation

At any rate we put up a board in the corner of the room and he said some thing so smart, I’m a little chagrined I never thought of it, but it did point out my infantile appreciation of the game. He only plays one opening, the Ruy Lopez. This is one of the oldest openings (16th Century) that was really studied, earliest manuscripts are from 1490 and even though it is a King Pawn opening, even in books that have sections on king pawn and queen pawn sections, it usually gets its own chapter. It’s so old it’s easy to overlook it with all of the hypermodern openings, the Hedge Hog, Grand Prix and other seemingly “unorthodox” openings which seem to be taking over tournament play.  But by studying this one opening, and all of its variations (I lost count at 60 in the Wikipedia article), all of the basics for all of the other openings are there one way or another. And the discipline of studying one basic set up and exploring many of it’s variations is the first really systematic, disciplined way I have stumbled upon to improve my game.

So, we start every game the same way, he plays white and we start:

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

ruyIt might seem strange or boring to do this, but I remind you the blues has only three chords. If that doesn’t convince you, here is a little fun math:

  • There are 318,979,564,000 possible ways to play the first four moves of chess.
  • There are 71,852 possible positions or 197,742 total positions after four moves. There are 809,896 possible positions or 4,897,256 total positions after 5 moves.There are 9,132,484 total positions after 6 moves.
    In addition, America’s Foundation for Chess found that there are:

  • 169,518,829,100,544,000 x10¹² ways to play the first ten moves of a game of chess.…
  • There are more 40-move games possible than the number of electrons in our universe.
  • There are more game-trees of chess than the number of galaxies (100+ billion), andmore openings, defences, gambits, etc. than the number of quarks in our universe!…

So we are merely playing a rather large subset of a basically infinite number. I find solace in the fact that the approach gives some structure to what has seemed my entire life like an impossible problem to bound and understand. One of the cool things of modern chess is that there are huge databases of games and chess computers to analyze games from different positions.  In our first couple games as black I was able to develop possible winning lines against Cedric because by the fourth or fifth move, I had already developed lines which seemed really logical to me, but didn’t show up in any of the databases I searched! Therefore Cedric, who plays more advanced players,  versed in the classic lines, had never seen them, and I was thus able to give him some really sharp games.  I like to think that before I blundered them away, maybe even winning lines. Kasparov had similar issues when he played Big Blue, a childlike approach to the game that was outside his paradigms.


Classic Staunton

I have learned more from a few games than I ever learned in the thousand before. My mercurial interest in chess has been reignited by this. I bought a new Staunton tournament board with the”new”  algebraic notation written on it so that I can work through the Wikipedia article at length, and perhaps give Cedric a better game.  There is something so cool about this classic design, and I like the heft in my hand, yet the classic lines of the set are not as distracting at the Reynaud set, even though I love the way games with that set seem like moving sculptures, rearranging themselves in endless fascinating positions. Remember that set from blade runner?

Professionally, this has been a hectic and troubling time for me. I’ve lost my center, and second-guess myself. The discipline of chess has been good for me. It’s gotten to the  point where I can come home after work or sit in the bar while waiting for my friends and recreate the game on a little magnetic board from memory. Maybe, just maybe, with the help of a monk killed during the Inquisition, and my good friend Cedric,  I can graduate from being a wood pusher. At the least, I’m hoping to learn a little patience, and bring things back into focus.


Blade Runner set

Blade Runner set

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