Berlin Defense

The Berlin Defense is a variation of the Ruy Lopez Opening that is a popular choice among stronger chess players. Black’s idea of bringing the Knight out as early as possible and attacking the central e4 pawn paves a positionally strong path for Black.

An infamous response to the Ruy Lopez opening, the Berlin defense is not a favorite among the amateurs. However, when the stakes are high, the opening has often been used as a “drawing weapon.” A famous example of such an incident is the Classical World Chess Championship of 2000 where the Opening gained a lot of attention due to the match between Vladimir Kramnik and Garry Kasparov.

It begins with the moves:

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5 Nf6
Berlin Defense

History and Origin

The opening derived its name due to the defensive and drawish nature of this opening, which was compared to the Berlin Wall. It was first analyzed in-depth in the 19th century.

General Concepts

The Berlin Defense often involves strategic maneuvering rather than wild tactical battles. Players must have good positional understanding and be able to move their pieces to the best squares where they can create threats. Despite its sound construction, Black has to watch for pawn breaks, such as c5, which can be very dangerous. Appropriate timing of pawn breaks can result in counterplay and dynamic positions.


Post the main first three moves that is:

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 Nc6
  3. Bb5 Nf6;

Black wastes no time with the pawn moves and immediately develops the knight to a perfect square, from where it attacks White’s pawn on e4. Further, there is no urgency to defend the pawn by playing 4…Nxe4 since the pawn will be under attack after 5.Re1 and 5.Qe2. Usually, in the Berlin defense, the players exchange Queens early, causing the game to move to the endgame.


After Nf6, White usually goes ahead with Kingside Castling, followed by Nxe4. White now has two main options:

1.  Main Line

5. d4 Be7

Berlin Defense Mainline

It is risky for Black to take on d4 with the possibility of White’s rook pinning the Knight. Thus, usually Black goes ahead with 5…Nd6 or 5…Be7. Be7 leads to the Rio de Janeiro Variation and White can respond with

6.Qe2 Nd6
7.Bxc6 bxc6
8.dxe5 Nb7


White’s chances are quite good here, making Nd6 a good option for Black.

Berlin Defense Mainline Variation

Now, if Black chooses to transition into a different line – the absolute main line:

6.Bxc6 dxc6
7.dxe5 Bf5
8.Qxd8 Kxd8

Here, the pawn majority on White’s Kingside gives good prospects for creating a passed pawn and on the other hand, Black has doubled pawns and the king is in the center. Irrespective of the doubled pawns, Black can still hold fort with the Bishop pair which can be a huge advantage for Black. Black can also take advantage of the isolated White pawn on e5. This imbalance situation now leaves the game to the better player’s fate.


The Berlin defense ranks as the second most popular variation of the Ruy Lopez Opening.

White Wins 33.1%
Black Wins 22.4%
Draws 44.5%

White’s idea is to reinforce his outpost on e5 by playing d4, f4, and c3 with a strong central wedge. Strategically, the e5 square is a great central square for the Knight, allowing a prospective Bb5 for White and multiple aggressive developing opportunities.


The Mortimer Trap, named after James Mortimer.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 Nf6
4. d3 Ne7
5. Nxe5 c6
6. Nc4 Ng6
7. Ba4 b5

Berlin Defense Traps

This trap is laid to reroute the Knight to g6. Here, White’s capture of the e5 pawn as c6 attacks the Bishop on b5 and also threatens Qa5. White responds by playing Nc4, threatening a smothered mate on d6 (Nd6#). Hence, the best move for Black here is – Ng6, allowing Black to fork the White Bishop and White Knight by playing b5 after White plays Ba4 on the next move

Books to Refer to

Grandmaster Games


1. What is the reason for the popularity of the Berlin Defense among the best players in the world?

The Berlin Defense became sort of a trend among professional players thanks to its heavy structural approach. It gives Black a solid foundation, and the positions in the endgames in the Berlin Defense, are very often drawing ones. It garnered wide publicity as a result of adoption of it by Vladimir Kramnik in the 2000 World Chess Championship match against Garry Kasparov.


2. Why have their been so many Draws in games where the Berlin Defense was played?

Following the Berlin Defense players can establish positions with less material that are hard to convert into a win. Despite the sound defensive resource that the Berlin Defense provides for Black, it can be criticized for producing slow games which are not decisive.


3. How does the Berlin Defense impact the overall opening strategy in the Ruy Lopez?

The Berlin Defense as a great variant of the Ruy Lopez for Black cannot be overlooked. However, an in-depth study into the theory of the Ruy Lopez Opening and the Berlin Defense is a must if one decides to venture into this line.

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Grand Master Marian Petrov

This article is technically edited and reviewed by Grand Master Marian Petrov.

Winners of the Scholastic Chess Tournament Charlotte, NC

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