GM Joel on the Riga
By GM Joel Benjamin   
January 6, 2008
Dear Joel,
After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4, why does White play 6.d4?  If Black plays 6…exd4 how does White achieve even play by being two pawns down?

Position after 6.d4

I would like to play this position but I do not understand White's position.

Mark W.

Dear Mark,

It’s true that White is two pawns down after 6…exd4, but they aren’t free!  As in many other e4 e5 openings, Black has to be careful about letting the center open wide while his king is still in the middle.  After 7.Re1 d5 (7…f5 8.Nxd4 leaves Black no satisfactory continuation) 8.Nxd4, White is threatening to exploit two pins, one with 9.Nxc6, the other with 9.f3.  The dual threats are enough to convince most players that 6…exd4 is not worth the trouble.

However the variation actually has a rich tradition.  I believe it is known as the Riga Variation, after its debut in a correspondence game from over one hundred years ago!

The Riga has a rich tradition and appeared in games of important historical figures.

While the Riga has made appearances throughout the decades, the theory has advanced surprisingly little.  The strategy of the “ancients” seems correct.  Only small refinements pop up from time to time.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 Nxe4 6.d4 exd4 7.Re1 d5 8.Nxd4 Bd6 9.Nxc6 Bxh2+ 10.Kh1

Position after 10.Kh1

10.Kxh2 Qh4+ 11.Kg1 Qxf2+ produces a quick perpetual check, and has been often used by players who are not inclined to fight.  10.Kf1 Qh4 gives Black a dangerous initiative.
10…Qh4 11.Rxe4+ dxe4 12.Qd8+ Qxd8 13.Nxd8+ Kxd8 14.Kxh2 Be6 15.Be3!
After 15.Nc3?! c5! the bishop on a4 is in danger.
15...f5 16.Nc3 Ke7 17.Bb3 Kf7
17...Bxb3 18.axb3 Ke6 should be preferred, according to Nisipeanu and Stoica.
The same duo recommends 18.Nd5 Rac8 19.c4! c6 20.Nf4 Rcd8 21.Re1! Rhe8 22.Nxe6 Kxe6 23.Bg5 Rd3 24.c5+ Kd7 25.Bc4 Rd4 26.b3 with some advantage for White.
The Romanians suggest 18...fxg4.
19.g5! Rad8 20.Ne2 Rd7?!

Position after 20...Rd7

Black should have traded on b3 first.
Now White has a large advantage
21…b5 22.Rc1 Rhd8 23.Nf4 Bxc4 24.Bxc4+ bxc4 25.Rxc4 Rb8 26.b3 Rb7 27.Ne2 Ke8 28.Nc3 Kd8 29.Kg2 Rb8 30.Bf4 Kc8 31.Na4 Rf7 32.Rc6 Rb5 33.Rxa6 Kd7 34.a3 1–0

So 6…exd4 is probably not as bad as most people think it is, but it is certainly not as good as you thought it was!  While I was happy to dig into the archives to answer your question, I think it is worth mentioning the array of sources available to answer basic opening questions like yours.  You could have found information on this opening from:

1.    reference books like ECO volume C, Modern Chess Openings or Nunn’s Chess Openings.
2.    books on the Ruy Lopez or Open Ruy Lopez Variation (5…Nxe4)
3.    database programs like ChessBase
4.    Internet databases (e.g.
5.    any search engine (you won’t get the history, but you will learn the tactical problems for Black in taking on d4)