Monday, May 8, 2017

The Berlin Wall

Author: Grant Oen, CCCSA Assistant Director

Fans of modern chess have undoubtedly heard of the Berlin Defense in the Ruy Lopez.  Following today's super-tournaments, commentators and fans alike dread games that start with the infamous Berlin endgame.  Top players assert that it is a way for Black to avoid the theoretical entanglements and risks associated with the proper Ruy Lopez or an ambitious Sicilian Defense to earn a draw with Black.

I claim that the Berlin is an extremely solid option for amateur players, filled with imbalances, dynamism, and winning chances despite an early queen trade.

Magnus Carlsen excited by another Berlin Defense


“The Berlin Wall” was thrust into prominence in the Kasparov-Kramnik World Championship match in 2000.  Kramnik had surprised Kasparov with the Berlin in game 1 of the match, earning an easy draw with Black.  In a World Championship match, it is of paramount importance to try to equalize and “hold a draw” with the Black pieces, and then take your chances to win when you have White.

Kramnik vs Kasparov World Championship Match, London 2000

Kasparov, the most principled of World Champions, stuck to testing Kramnik in the Berlin endgame in games 1, 3, 5, 13, to no avail - four draws with White.  Meanwhile, Kramnik was able to win two games when he had White to pull the huge upset match victory.  Here is game 1 from that match – strong players may be able to understand the subtle positional maneuvers that Black uses to neutralize White’s slight initiative (…h6-h5 to restrict White’s g2-g4 pawn majority, …c6-c5 to control the dark squares in light of a poor dark squared bishop, …Kd8-c8-b7 to connect the rooks, and …Ne7-f5 to blockade White’s 4 vs 3 Kingside majority).

Kasparov’s failure to prove anything against the Berlin in four White games at the World Championship level, despite having a Russian team of trainers working day and night on his openings, propelled the Berlin Defense to the forefront of elite chess.

Kasparov, the most dangerous player in history when given the initiative and strong opening preparation with white, was completely neutralized by Kramnik, who became World Champion after this match.  Many Grandmasters have since made a living out of drawing games with black in the Berlin and then winning games with White, and as such, it has become the most common response at the elite level against 1.e4.

What is so special about the Berlin?  It occurs after the following moves:

Unlike other options for Black, like the Sicilian Najdorf, Grunfeld, Queen’s Gambit Declined, the Berlin does not feature a lot of sharp theory, as it relies mainly on a long struggle with certain distinct positional ideas for both sides.  The cost of an inaccurate move or plan in the Berlin is very small compared to, for example, the King’s Indian Defense or English attack in the Najdorf.

Although it has not been “proven” to be a draw even at the GM level, the Berlin has been a reliable, low-maintenance option against 1.e4 that offers little risk of losing.  With the exception of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Boris Gelfand, both Sicilian fanatics, every other top player uses the Berlin as a mainstay of their Black repertoire.

Kramnik has played the Berlin religiously since 2000, scoring one win against Grischuk (see below), 21 draws, and three losses against Karjakin, So, and Kasparov (but not during the World Championship) – a very strong statistic for Black at the 2800 level.  An interesting anecdote was that before Kasparov-Kramnik, one of the only Grandmasters to play the Berlin on a consistent basis was the late American GM Arthur Bisguier.

The late Arthur Bisguier was the first major proponent of the Berlin

Besides the World Championship match between Kasparov and Kramnik in 2000, the Berlin Defense or one of the sidelines against the Berlin was featured in the Carlsen-Anand match in 2013, Carlsen-Anand rematch in 2014, and Carlsen-Karjakin match in 2016.

Berlin Imbalances

The reason that I do not find the Berlin boring is that there is an asymmetrical pawn structure and many other imbalances – the opening is dynamically equal, but not without winning chances for both sides, especially at the amateur level.  Of course, books can be written about the positional imbalances and common maneuvers in the Berlin – I can recommend John Cox’s “The Berlin Wall” (Quality Chess 2008) and Igor Lysyj & Roman Ovetchkin’s “The Berlin Defence” (Chess Stars 2012).  Both texts are quite worth the purchase, and are still relevant, as the cutting-edge theory of the Berlin is minimal.  Meanwhile, let’s briefly compare some of the imbalances for White and Black in the Berlin:

King Position/Safety

White’s king is castled kingside.  Of course, this makes it near impossible for the white monarch to be in any danger.  Black’s king is in the center and cannot castle.  On d8 or e8, the king is clumsy and in the way of Black's development.  It will be vulnerable to an eventual Rd1+, putting the rook on the only open file.

Then again, considering the “queenless middlegame” that arises on move 8, kings can be quite strong in the center, so there are advantages and disadvantages for both king positions.  The black king can attack the overextended e5-pawn via a frontal attack, although much more often it moves to e8 and remains there, or goes to the kingside via …Bc8-d7 and …Kd8-c8-b7(-c6).

Minor Pieces

Black retains the bishop pair, as White captured the Nc6 on move 6 with his precious Ruy Lopez bishop in order to damage Black’s structure.  Some common themes for White include Nf3-g5 and e5-e6, further crippling the structure.  Black sometimes plays …Bf8-b4 and captures a white’s Nc3 in order to create an opposite color bishop position.  Another common idea for Black is to trade knights via …Bf8-e7 and …Nf5-h4 when the knight gets kicked out of f5 via White’s eventual …g2-g4.


White’s rooks usually find easier paths to activity than their Black counterparts.  White can put their rooks on d1 and e1 quite easily, while Black will take some time to get his a8-rook to d8. Meanwhile, the rook on h8 often struggles to get anywhere if Black plays …Kd8-e8, since Black cannot castle kingside.  This rook can find activity via …h7-h5 and …Rh8-h6 if White’s dark squared bishop is blocked or traded from controlling h6.

Pawn Structure

The advantages/disadvantages of the pawn structure for both sides should be very apparent to players of any level.  White has a 4 vs 3 kingside pawn majority, while Black suffers from a “crippled” 4 vs 3 majority on the queenside.  Black’s doubled c-pawns mean that he cannot organically create a passed pawn on that side of the board, which means that Black should almost never enter a king and pawn endgame.  There is one example of White “assuming” that he will win any king and pawn endgame in the Berlin.  The game comes from a very important tournament, the 2013 FIDE Candidates (in which Carlsen won, and qualified to play Vishy Anand).

It is not all that easy for White early on, however.  White’s pawn on e5 would much rather be in its own territory on e4 where is would not be overextended.  Also, knowledgeable Black players are aware not to make too many trades in the Berlin, so the simple plan of trading down to a very simplified endgame and push the kingside majority is often met with tough resistance.  Black’s king in the center can be well-placed to meet any premature e-pawn marches, and Black very often plays the multi-faceted move …h7-h5 to stop White’s g2-g4, in addition to increasing the future of the h8 rook.

A common arrangement of Black’s pawns on the queenside is a7, b6, c7, c5, to control the central dark squares, since his dark squared bishop occasionally never leaves from f8 or e7, where it exerts little pressure on the center.

Personal Experience

I personally added the Berlin Wall to my opening repertoire around 2013, when I was a Class B player.  I have since complemented it with various Sicilians – it is nice to have a few options against 1.e4 that I can depend on in certain circumstances.  I have used it to achieve very solid results, holding many draws against masters and winning plenty of games against experts and class players.  Unfortunately, my highest rated opponent who I decided to reply 1.e4 with 1…e5 with was IM Ron Burnett, who won a very nice one-sided game in a Berlin sideline at the 2015 Southeastern FIDE Championship here in Charlotte.

Here are a couple of my more memorable victories in the Berlin endgame.

I hope that you have learned some new concepts in the Berlin opening.  Next time you observe a Berlin endgame at the top level, I’m sure you will be more understanding of why the Black player chose the Berlin, and be more enthusiastic about following the game, as you may be more knowledgeable of the interesting nuances in the position.