Berlin Defense

The Berlin Defense is marked by the move 3…Nf6 by black in the Ruy Lopez opening, which starts with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5. It is often compared to the Berlin Wall, as it is an extremely solid defense that is notoriously difficult for White to break through. The opening was first studied in depth by German chess masters in the 19th century, particularly those from Berlin. However, only after Vladimir Kramnik successfully used the Berlin Defense as a strategic weapon to penetrate Garry Kasparov’s defenses and win the Classical World Chess Championship in 2000 did the opening gain widespread popularity at the highest levels of chess.

Berlin Defense

Winning percentages on both sides

Results Rate
Win for white 23%
Draw 61%
Win for black 16%

Out of 25,458 games played in the Berlin Defense, the win rate for white is only 23% and for black is only 16%. The high drawing rate (61%) in the database statistics shows us that the Berlin Defense indeed lives up to its reputation as a drawing weapon.

Main line of Berlin: 3. Bb5 Nf6

We reach the Berlin Defense from the Ruy Lopez, starting with the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5. The most common continuation here by black is 3…a6 (Morphy Defense), which forces white to make a decision between retreating the bishop or relinquishing bishop pairs. Black can also choose to enter Berlin Defense Territory by playing 3…Nf6:

Berlin Defense

In the main line of the Berlin Defense, white continues to finish up its development with 4.0-0, allowing black to take the central pawn on e4. After 4…Nxe4, white tries to open up the position quickly with the logical 5.d4, in order to make use of its lead in development; this is a typical plan in such positions, where one side still has a king in the center and is significantly behind in development. Therefore, Black needs to react with a tempo move like 5…Nd6.

Here we can notice an important nuance that reveals to us the difference between playing 3…a6 (the Morphy Defense) and 3…Nf6 (Berlin Defense): By not playing 3…a6, Black keeps the white bishop on b5 so it can attack with a tempo, which is crucial.

As we will see next, especially in the main line with Berlin Endgame, Berlin Defense is essentially all about such nuances. We can safely characterize the main battle of Berlin Defense as a clash of subtleties, resulting in a highly positional, slow game. This strategic nature often requires high-level precision in move order and placement of pieces and this is why we see this line played more often at the top level than among less experienced players.

Now that we have a clear insight into the spirit of this opening, let’s continue with concrete lines after 5…Nd6: White can capture the e5 pawn with 6.dxe5, relying on the follow-up tactic 6…Nxb5 7.a4, which traps the knight. However, this variation is not the right way for white to play for an advantage; in fact, on top-level chess, 6.dxe5 is considered a silent draw offer. After 7…Nbd4 8.Nxd4 Nxd4 9.Qxd4 d5 10.exd6 Qxd6 we reach the famous quick-draw position that appears every now and then on chess shows streaming elite-level tournaments.

At this position, players usually simply do a threefold repetition with 11. Qe4 Qd6 12.Qd4 Qd6 13.Qe4 Qe6 14. Qd4 Qd6 ½ – ½ and call it a day.

Therefore, to get a game as white, instead of 6.dxe5 white often captures the knight on c6 with 6.Bxc6. This main line quickly leads to a trade of queens after 6..dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8 Kxd8.

Now we have finally reached the main starting position of the so-called Berlin Endgame. White could try to keep the queens on the board with 8.Qe2 but after 8…Nd4 9.Nxd4 Qxd4 black is just doing fine. Having a queen and a bishop pair in a relatively open middlegame position offers black some chances to play for a win.

In the Berlin Endgame, there are three main moves to consider:

1) 9.Rd1, a move that was popular until the Kramnik-Kasparov Match in 2000 but is not so common nowadays. The game usually continues with 9…Ke8 10.Nc3 Ne7 rerouting the knight to g6 in order to attack e5.

11. h3 Ng6 12. b3 Be7 13. Bb2. The downside of 9.Rd1, and the main reason why it is not so preferred anymore, is that the d1-square is occupied by the f1-rook instead of the a1-rook. Now it is not clear how to develop a1-rook.

2) 9.h3 is the second most common move. The idea of this move is to prepare a pawn avalanche on the kingside right away, and it often transposes to lines with 9.Nc3.

3) 9.Nc3 is the main continuation, which is replied to with 9…Ke8. White now starts advancing kingside pawns with 10.h3 and black plays 10…h5, preparing to take on g4 and also activating the rook on the h-file. 11.Bf4 Be7 12.Rad1 Be6 13. Ng5 hits the bishop, and now we see another idea behind the h5 move: 13..Rh6

Let’s assess the position of each side in order to understand key concepts and main ideas in the Berlin Endgame:

Advantages (for white):

1) The kingside pawn majority is the main asset of white.

2) Therefore, white typically wants to trade all pieces and win the pawn endgame by creating a passed pawn on the kingside.

Disadvantages (for white):

1) The e5 pawn is over-advanced and can be a liability for white.

2) The e5 pawn is reducing the scope of the dark square bishop.

3) White has some weakness in the light-square complex (f5-e4-d5)

Advantages (for black):

1) Has a bishop pair

2) Has control over f5, which is the key square in this position.

Disadvantages (for black):

1) Bad pawn structure on the queenside. Doubled-pawns on c6-c7 make black’s pawn majority on the queenside insignificant. Therefore, exchanges usually favor white.

2) Black lost the right to castle in any direction, so the black king could get stuck in the center.
Connecting rooks is not an easy task.

Lines to avoid the Berlin Endgame

White has several other options to keep more pieces on the board and avoid entering the Berlin endgame. Especially when white needs to win on demand due to tournament situations, staying in the middlegame phase longer allows much more room to play for both sides.

4. 0-0 Nxe4 5. Re1

White can still castle kingside on the fourth move, 4.0-0 like in the main line; however, after 4…Nxe4 instead of 5.d4, which opens the d-file leading to queen trade, white can follow up with 5.Re1 trying to take control of the e-file. After 5..Nd6 6. Nxe5 (threatening Nxc6 discover check) Be7 7.Bf1 Nxe5 8.Rxe5 we reach a very balanced position with highly symmetrical pawn formation.

Line of avoiding the Berlin Endgame

While white can avoid the Berlin Endgame this way, considering the 81% drawing rate in this Berlin variation, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that this variation leads to an even more dry position than the endgame.

4.d3 (also known as Anti-Berlin)

Playing 4.d3 as white is the most popular choice for players who want to keep as many middlegame options as possible. Black typically continues to develop with 4…Bc5 and is not concerned about 5.Bxc6 dxc6 6.Nxe5?? because of 6…Qd4 leads to a loss of material for white.

Mistake of early capturing on e5

After 4…Bc5 white plays 5.c3 with the idea of pushing d4 in order to gain a central space advantage. A standard way to continue the game would be: 5…0-0 6. 0-0 d6 (protecting e5 now) 7. Nbd2 a6 8. Ba4 b5 9.Bc2 and we see another benefit of 5.c3: Now the bishop can go to c2 via a4 directly instead of retreating to b3 after being chased by a6-b5 by black, like in many variations in Ruy Lopez.

9…Bb6 and 10.Re1 are typical moves that prepare a standard knight maneuver to the f5 square via f1-g3 squares.

4.d3-lines avoid mass trades of pieces as much as possible; therefore, the game can get quite sharp and double-edged for both sides. For anyone who has hard a time imagining that a game in Berlin Defense can get very exciting, i’d strongly recommend playing through this model game between Levon Aronian and Vladimir Kramnik:

Another famous games on Berlin Defense

№1 – Kasparov vs. Kramnik, October 2000, London

№2 – Anand vs. Carlsen, November 2013, India


Berlin Defense offers stability and positional consolidation for Black. Due to its slow-paced nature, which requires a deep understanding of nuances in order to obtain any advantage with any color, the opening is not the most popular choice among amateurs. However, white is not forced to enter the Berlin endgame and can choose sidelines such as 4.d3 to preserve rich possibilities in the middlegame. Players at all levels are encouraged to try playing both sides of the Berlin Defense, as the opening can offer many valuable insights about how to effectively deal with strategic aspects of the game of chess.

Written by
Deniz Tasdelen, National Master
National Master with over 20 years of experience. He has participated in many prestigious tournaments, including the European and World Youth Chess Championships.
Ask Question


Is Berlin Defense good opening?

Yes, the Berlin Defense is considered a good opening, especially in terms of its solid structure and defensive capabilities. It’s a popular choice among players seeking a reliable response to the Ruy Lopez.

Is Berlin Defense playable?

Absolutely, the Berlin Defense is very playable. It’s known for leading to complex strategic battles and is favored by players who enjoy depth and positional play. It’s especially suitable for those who are comfortable with endgames, as many lines lead to early queen exchanges.

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