Ruy Lopez de Segura - Original Chess Champion

Ruy Lopez de Segura (1530 - 1580) was a Spanish clergyman and chess player. He was considered the first Unofficial World Chess Champion. He achieved this status with stunning victories in Rome over Leonardo and Boi, Italy's finest players in 1561. He held on as top dog for 14 years before Leonardo took over as champion.

Ruy Lopez is also widely considered as the Father of Chess Theory. His famed literary chess work, Libro de la Invencion Liberal y Arte del Juego del Axedrez (Book of Liberal Invention and Art in the Game of Chess) is said to be the beginning of a long road to document chess strategy.

He gave a detailed description of the Spanish Opening in the book. It's one of White's fundamental Kingside openings systems and came to be named after the Spanish master. You may have heard of it by it's alternative name, the Ruy Lopez Opening.

Young Ruy

Plaza Grande

Plaza Grande

Ruy Lopez was born into a wealthy family in the Plaza Granda in Zafra, Spain. The family had prospered as merchants and were well connected. Young Ruy developed a love for chess during childhood and it would last for a lifetime.

He was said to be influenced by the work of the Portuguese master Pedro Damiano who had written a book in 1512. He later claimed that Damiano's book gave him the idea to write his own.

Ruy and his brother Alonso wanted to be priests as children. The family enabled them to study in the clergy. His fame as a chess player grew quickly. He was beating many great players across Spain as a youth. Then he overcame the Spanish champion, Alfonso Ceron, of Granada. He was invited to the Royal Court in Madrid to play for King Phillip II.

The Court of King Phillip II

King Phillip II

King Phillip II

King Phillip II of Spain was the most powerful ruler in Europe. He had a deep interest in chess. When Ruy Lopez came to his attention, the King brought him to serve in the royal courts.

Lopez would play all of the best players, not only in Spain but throughout Europe. He proved himself to have no equal and the King rewarded him with gold and property, declaring him a noble.

Italy was the only country that could compare with Spain in chess during this era. It's not surprising as the two countries had deep political and cultural links.

Some fine players were emerging there, among them Giovanni Leonardo da Cutri, Paulo Boi and Giulio Cesare Polerio. Lopez would have to face them sooner or later.

Italian Adventures

Ruy Lopez attended the Rome Coronation

Lopez attended the Rome Coronation

Pope Pius IV was elected Pope in Rome in 1560. Lopez, as the Spanish King's Bishop, attended to take part in the ceremonies. While in Rome he played Italy's leading masters.

Leonardo and Boi ruled the chess scene in Italy. They were eager to topple the Spanish master to make Italy the standard bearer of European chess. But Ruy Lopez had no plans to give up his crown as the #1 chess player.

Lopez proved too strong for the Italian masters and beat them both. Not many games from this period were recorded but one game from the 1560 showdowns has survived. Ruy Lopez - Giovanni Leonardo 1-0.

Madrid Tournament

Leonardo Defeats Lopez

Leonardo defeats Lopez

Ruy Lopez returned to Spain feted as a hero. He brought honor on King Phillip II by ensuring that Spain remained the chess capital of the world. He continued to dominate for several more years.

He beat highly esteemed masters such as Esquivel, Alfonso Ceron and Pedrosa. No one could argue with the idea that Lopez was the best in the world. He returned to Rome in 1573 to honor the new Pope, Gregory XIII. He once again beat Leonardo and Boi during his stay there.

King Phillip decided to organize the first big international chess tournament in Madrid. Spain's best players, Lopez and Ceron, would be joined by Italy's best, Leonardo, Boi and Polerio to compete for glory.

The winner would be the first to win three games. Leonardo and Boi both beat Lopez. Leonardo won the tournament outright to become the new champion. The era of Lopez supremacy was over.

Blessing the Prisoner

Ruy Lopez the Chaplain

Ruy Lopez the Chaplain

This is a well known story concerning Lopez: King Philip II and his chaplain Ruy Lopez were in a hall of the palace of the Escorial. The courtiers were silent at one end of the room.

The door opened and the executioner came in. 'How well', asked the monarch, 'is all set to proceed?' 'Lord, the inmate refuses.' 'How is that?' 'Because if you want to cut off a noble's head he asks to be blessed by a bishop.'

'Granted, let it be as he wishes, but everything must be done by three o'clock.' The King turned to Ruy Lopez and said 'Arise, Bishop of Zamora, and go to assist the inmate.'

Ruy Lopez, with all the pain of his heart, rose and went to jail, compelled to issue last rites to none other than his close friend, the Duke of Medina Sidonia. The Duke was a former favorite of Philip II, now accused of conspiracy against the King.

The Duke of Medina Sidonia

Duke of Medina Sidonia

Duke of Medina Sidonia

The Bishop and the Duke engaged in friendly conversation. There was still plenty of time before the execution. Lopez proposed to kill time playing a game of chess. The guards, the mayor and the executioner were captivated by the game.

All wanted to see the current World Champion play one of his rivals. The Duke was also considered one of the best players of the time. The valiant Duke would spend his last hours of life locked in a chess struggle with the great Ruy Lopez. As the fatal hour of the execution drew near the game was at a critical point. The Duke was absorbed in the magnetic attraction of the war on the chess board.

He had glimpsed a winning combination. The chief guard and the executioner, meanwhile, tried to stop the game to immediately take the road to the place of execution. But the Duke wanted to finish the game. As the executioner insisted and attempted to use force, the Duke took the executioner's axe with great courage and arrogantly said, 'When you try to come near you'll lose your head.'

The Duke Defeats the Bishop

The Duke of Medina Sidonia on the way to his execution

The Duke of Medina Sidonia on the way to his execution

The game continued and the Duke won a great victory over Lopez. The victory gave the Duke irrepressible joy for a moment but this quickly gave way to the harsh reality of the impending execution.

Ruy Lopez smiled painfully and the spectators generously rejoiced the moment his noble adversary had achieved such a terrific result. He would die with the reputation of a victory over the World Champion.

After the game the Duke straightened up and went defiantly to his place of execution. He even found time to share jokes with his friend Ruy Lopez. He was ready to die but would not need to. His fortunes were about to turn for the better.

Conspiracy Uncovered

The conspirators against Phillip II were discovered

The conspirators against Phillip II were discovered

Back at the palace the King was talking with the Count, who had replaced the Duke as the King's confidante. 'Give me the decree relating to crime and punishment for the Duke.' The Count reached into a bag for the Royal Decree.

Unluckily for him, he took out the wrong document by accident. He took out the plan of the conspiracy with the list of conspirators and gave it to the King instead of the Royal Decree. He himself appeared first on the list.

The plan showed that the Duke of Medina Sidonia had been falsely accused. He had been supplanted in the favor of the monarch and unjustly accused of being a leader of that conspiracy. The King had the Count arrested and sent word ahead that the Duke had been pardoned.

The news reached those at the execution just in time and the Duke's life was spared. His life was saved by that game against Ruy Lopez that had delayed the execution by some hours.

Recorded Games of de Segura

Leonardo resigns when a Ruy Lopez combination ends in a Knight fork (12.Nf7+) winning the King's Rook

Not many games from this period were recorded. The only survivors are the handful that were described in those early books by people like Lucena, Damiano and Lopez himself.

Four games from Ruy Lopez de Segura are all that remains. All of these were played against the Italian Giovanni Leonardo da Cutri. The first two feature Lopez playing with the White pieces and winning in 12 moves and then in 9 moves. The wins were gained playing with gambits. These games were played in 1560 and 1572 respectively.

The second two are taken from Leonardo's successful trip to Madrid. They show the Italian winning with the White pieces. These two games are only 10 moves in length. While White achieves a decent opening position in both, the issue seems far from settled in both games.

The result is recorded none the less in Leonardo's favor. Whether the games are not fully recorded or Lopez resigned for some unexplained reason is hard to say. None the less here are the four known games of Lopez.

Legacy of Ruy Lopez

Libro de la Invencion

Libro de la Invencion

Ruy Lopez is widely regarded by chess historians as the Father of Chess Theory. He was said to be greatly influenced by the Portuguese master Pedro Damiano. The Portuguese published a treatise in Italian entitled Questo Libro e da Imparare Giocare a Scacchi et de li Partiti (The Book to Learn Chess). Lopez had the following to say about it: It contains many openings and endings, full games, in even a chapter on how to play the mind, I always liked this way of thinking, the mind play, ie the blind. There are also tips tactical and strategic in nature. I've always had a low opinion of the content of his book, so I wrote my own.

That's exactly what he did. He wrote Libro de la Invencion Liberal y Arte del Juego del Axedrez (Book of Liberal Invention and Art in the Game of Chess) in 1561. This work is widely considered to be the foundation of chess theory. The book has two parts. The first deals with the parallel between chess and war. It concentrates on the psychological elements of the battle of wills. The second part deals with the art of the game with a discussion on a number of openings. The Spanish Opening or the Ruy Lopez Opening is covered in great depth. The book also introduces the en passant rule and gives tips on blindfold chess.

Moving On

Ruy Lopez de Segura was the one of the earliest European masters. He is rightly recognized as the Father of Chess Theory.

His great legacy is his literature contribution. His writings on the Spanish Opening, now called the Ruy Lopez Opening make his influence on chess still felt today.

He gave honorable service to Spanish chess, making it the European epicenter of chess for many years until the Italians finally seized the torch.

His mantle as Europe's leading player was finally taken by a man who Lopez had great respect for, both as a gentleman and a chess player. That man was the Italian master Giovanni Leonardo da Cutri.

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Medieval Chess Masters Crossing Swords
Chess Masters from Medieval Europe shaped the early history of the game on the continent. They spawned many of the well known openings still in use today.