We know that most Spanish Opening games enter the Morphy Defense but what is the most trodden path after 3...a6? We have seen many possible avenues the game could go down but what is the main highway?
The diagram shows the main starting position of the Ruy Lopez. White has preserved his prized light square Bishop, even providing a safe haven on c2 should it be required. The move c3 also supports a push in the center.
Black has his characteristic three pawn islands pointing in the direction of the White King. He also has a number of approaches he can take to the middlegame. The battle for the edge starts here.
9.d3 kicks off the Pilnik Variation, named after the German IM Herman Pilnik. You might think it is better to go straight in with 9.d4 (Yates Variation) and save the tempo. This is certainly an option.
Pilnik liked this move as it further strengthened his e4-pawn and it released his Bishop for action on the Kingside. You haven't committed to any irreversible adventure in the center. You can always play d4 later if the position suddenly starts calling for it.
When you opt for the Pilnik you are settling in for a positional game. You will use your solid structure to gradually impose your will on the game. The Ruy Lopez Knight Maneuver: Nb1-d2-f1-g3(e3)-f5 is always on your agenda. Post your pieces to squares where they will support the center and be effective when things open up.
The Yates Variation is a more aggressive way to proceed with the immediate pawn break in the center. Here you go with 9.d4 and Black has a decision to make.
What if you have the Black pieces? How best to respond? You can relieve the tension in the center with 9...exd4. White can then reply with 10.cxd4. Now he has a majority in the center and a spot on c3 for his Knight.
If you don't like that you can pin the f3-Knight and White has some difficulties to overcome. There are good chances and opportunities for tactics available to both players in these lines.
Continuing in the Yates, Black plays 9...Bg4 and pins the Knight in the Bogoljubov Variation. This move got it's name from the London game between Capablanca and Bogoljubov. The Russian actually played the pin on his 10th move, preferring to trade pawns on d4 first. But it's the same position in the end.
Now White's control of d4 is weakened. The Queen's mobility is also reduced with the light square Bishop on the Queenside. She will have to protect the Knight or Black will trade, doubling pawns and leaving the King vulnerable.
If you have Black you can think about getting your Queen's Knight into an advanced position. Here you can make a nice home on c4 or force the concession of White's Bishop pair. You also want to get those Queenside pawns moving.
With White you are scheming to break the pin and play f4. Hopefully this can support a central advance, putting the squeeze on Black.
White can prevent the pin and a lot of Black's counter play on the Queenside with the simple move 9.h3. Black can still cause some problems though and the c-file should be used.
9...Na5 takes the game into the Chigorin Variation. You're preparing the ...c5 advance with this move. This whole variation has a lot of the overall Ruy Lopez characteristics. Closed position with tension in the center. Both players maneuvering before the eventual opening of some lines.
Tactics play a big part in the following sequences. Both players are massing their forces where they think things will open up. No one wants to get caught offside as Black pushes his Queenside pawns forward.
Black can go with the Breyer Defense to regroup his pieces and shore up his e-pawn. It seems like you're wasting two moves playing 4...Nf6 and then 9...Nb8.
It's okay though as ...Nf6 did serve a useful purpose in holding the e-pawn. Now that he has been joined in this task by the d6-pawn, the Knight can be rerouted to resume the role on the e7-square. This allows the light square Bishop to increase pressure on the White center along the long diagonal.
You can play this variation from either side and White has options too. You have the a4 pawn break to try and embarrass the b5-pawn. You will be going with the Ruy Lopez Knight maneuver, as in many variations, with a view to landing on f5 or sometimes even h5.
Black may play ...g6 to counter this, in which case his Rook may come to e8. This allows his dark square Bishop to get to g7 via f8. And thus the regrouping is completed.
This line is named after Igor Zaitsev who coached Anatoly Karpov in the 1970s. The Zaitsev Variation was a pet line of the coach. Karpov adopted it and gained great success from it. It's popularity grew from there.
This time as Black you will increase control over your strong point e5 in another way. The King's Rook will go to e8 and the dark square Bishop will drop back to f8. Your e-pawn and g-pawn are stronger and you have a harmonious position.
As in the Breyer Defense you will be operating mainly on the Queenside. In some lines you can get a pawn to c4 and if White's not vigilant you may even plant a Knight on d3. There is also an ...f5 pawn break to consider.
If you play against this variation as White you will compete on the Queenside. Try to seize the initiative there. On the other hand you also have scope to mount a Kingside attack.
The Karpov Variation is also sometimes known as the Keres Variation. It became associated with Karpov after he used it several times against Kasparov in the World Championship in 1990. He got a number of draws with the Black pieces but returned to the Zaitsev line after Kasparov won Game 18.
Again the objective is to overprotect e5. Hostilities break out on the Queenside as both sides attempt to get the initiative there. Black is trying to get pawns on a6, b5 and c4. His Knights are looking for good squares on b4 or c4 where they can paralyze the White Queenside. The d7-Knight can sometimes slip on to c5 and get established on the dream d3 outpost.
When Kasparov finally found the antidote, he played a4 to eliminate the key b5 pawn. He then won the a-pawn after trading a Bishop for a Knight. Black was then left with a backward c-pawn and White won after a long battle. So maybe White's best bet in this line is to liquidate Black's powerful Queenside pawns.
The Kholmov Variation was played regularly in the 1980s but not so much now. Black wants to trade light square Bishops but White will not capture on e6. That would give Black a powerful center and an open f-file.
Black usually takes on b3 and White can recapture with the pawn or the Queen. Black is then playing for piece activity. In the Main Line he gambits a central pawn with ...Ne4 for precisely this outcome.
The GMs dropped this variation from their repertoires after experience showed that Black's more active pieces and White's ruptured Queenside were not quite enough compensation for that central pawn. Something tells me though that this line has potential further down the ladder.
The Smyslov Variation 9...h6 is played to prevent Ng5 when 10...Re8 is played to support e5. The Bishop drops back to f8 to allow the pawn to feel the glow of the Rook's protection.
This line was popular until the 1970s when Karpov started playing the Zaitsev. When White played Ng5 against the Zaitsev it was found that the move carried no threat.
There is a draw by repetition in this position (of the Zaitsev). When ...Re8 is played White can respond with Ng5 threatening the weak f7-pawn. Black can answer this with the calm ...Rf8. Game after game revealed that White could not get a dangerous attack through the g5-Knight.
Turns out the best response to ...Rf8 is Nf3. Both players can go back and forth if they wish for a half point. Thus 9...h6 was shown to be a wasted move and the Smyslov disappeared into the night.
The Main Line of the Spanish is a great training ground for all beginner and intermediate players. A beautiful mix of positional play and tactical puzzles. The opening is full of interesting themes that change the way you approach all openings.