Full name: Rodrigo “Ruy” López de Segura
Born: around 1530
Place of birth: Zafra, Spain
Born in the small town of Zafra, Rodrigo Lopez de Segura was a Catholic Bishop who took a special interest in the game of chess. He left his mark on the world by authoring the book Libro de la Invencion liberal y Arte del juego del Axedrez in 1561, which is considered the second definitive book on modern European chess. Only Pedro Damiano’s Questo libro e da imparare giocare a scachi et de li partiti is older and heavily inspired Lopez’s work.
Lopez’s book is thought to be the first foray into chess theory and strategy, and it served as a valuable instruction manual. The book also contained an account of the Ruy Lopez, also known as the Spanish Opening or Spanish Game, an immensely popular opening move perfected by Lopez. However, Lopez himself didn’t develop the maneuver, and it didn’t gain popularity until much later.
Lopez dominated the Spanish chess scene for over two decades and frequently sparred with Alfonso Ceron, another Spanish chess master. The Spanish King Felipe II was taken with their matches, and he invited Lopez to join his royal court as an advisor. Felipe II also presented Lopez with a golden rook necklace in honor of his chess-playing abilities and cultural contribution.
According to Alessandro Salvio, an Italian chess player, Lopez traveled to Italy in 1560 and 1573 to participate in chess tournaments, sweeping the competition both times.
In 1575, he played in what historians call the first international tournament, which was held in King Felipe II’s court. Lopez finished third in the tournament after losing to Leonardo de Cutra. Lopez’s Spanish rival Ceron also participated in the tournament, finishing fourth. Leonardo di Cutra ultimately took home the title of champion, besting Lopez twice on his way to victory.
The incomplete game logs from Lopez and di Cutra’s matches are some of Lopez’s only surviving records of play.
In addition to traditional chess, Lopez enjoyed blindfold chess, a variation of the game where the players face away from the board and call out their moves without seeing or touching the pieces.
To this day, his legacy endures in the form of the Ruy Lopez opening. It’s still among the most common opening strategies in chess.
Lopez’s first recorded games were in 1560 when Pope Pius IV called him to Rome on church business. Little is known about his early games and first exposure to chess, but it was during this time in Rome that he first encountered Leonardo di Bona.
In his book, Rodrigo Lopez details the Spanish Opening or Ruy Opening. Despite not being credited as the inventor of the move, his optimization of this strategy leads to it bearing his namesake.
It’s one of the most common opening moves in chess, and many beginner players study it to gain the necessary positional knowledge needed to compete against higher-level opponents. In fact, Grandmaster Lev Polugaevsky neglected to learn the Spanish Opening, and it led to his ultimate defeat at the hands of Viktor Korchnoi at the 1980 Candidates semi-final.
The Ruy Lopez is still an immensely popular opening in competitive chess, even employed by greats like Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand. It’s a highly-studied maneuver, however, and its popularity leads some players to shy away from employing it.
The main idea behind the Spanish Opening is for White to gain control of the center of the board. White achieves this by first moving a pawn (1.e4) to free their bishop and queen. Then, White’s bishop can block Black’s pawn in the center and put pressure on Black’s knight, giving them control of the center of the board.
The theory behind the Spanish Opening has been studied deeply, with some exploring the interaction as far as to move 30.
Despite its popularity today, the Ruy Lopez Opening didn’t gain traction until the 19th century. In Lopez’s day, players favored more aggressive openings like the King’s Gambit.
Like so many other visionaries, Rodrigo Lopez was before his time by optimizing the Spanish Opening.
There are only a few notable games of Lopez’s with surviving historical records. All of them are against Leonardo di Cutra.
Another game from di Cutra and Lopez’s series of battles in Italy ends in victory for Lopez. Again, he doesn’t employ his now-famous opening. This game was a quick and decisive victory where Lopez makes use of a trap to fork di Cutra’s bishop.
During the first unofficial international chess tournament in Spain in 1575, di Cutra claimed his revenge for his defeats in Italy. In this game, Lopez seemingly resigned early after making a mistake, and the record is incomplete.
This game was from Lopez and di Cutra’s second match in 1575 and another in which the record is incomplete. Di Cutra controlled the early game, and both players made solid opening moves. Lopez’s resignation is a little baffling in this instance, so it stands to reason that portions of the game log were lost.
I hope you enjoyed reading the Chess player profile of Ruy López de Segura. If you like learning more about the best Chess players in history, you might want to read more about Paul Morphy and Maurice Ashley.