In chess, a gambit represents the willingness to sacrifice a minor piece - usually a pawn to gain a greater overall advantage. Opening with the King's Gambit, advantageous outcomes are dubious. Depending on whether Black accepts or declines the gambit, there are perils for both sides but particularly for White. By offering the King's Gambit, White's king ends up weakened; it may even lose its chance to castle. Considering the risks involved, why would anyone offer such a gambit? Superprof takes a look at the King's Gambit, its background and the way things could play out, depending on whether the gambit is accepted or declined.
The King's Gambit: Historical Perspective
The King's Gambit is centuries-old. First written up in 1497, in the very first chess book, it is one of the oldest documented openings in the history of chess.
The King's Gambit represents the origins of chess arguably better than any other opening.
Consider the game's model: a war between two armies in which protecting the king is paramount. Even though this gambit could make castling more difficult if not outright unfeasible - which, in essence, negates protecting the king, you have to remember that the kings of centuries past did not shy away from battle. Historically, kings fought in wars alongside their generals and often on the front lines. Similarly, this gambit leads to games full of strategy, tactics and material sacrifices. For more than 300 years, the King's Gambit was a favourite opening of many chess players; it even featured in the 1851 Immortal Game between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. For all of its popularity and, some might say honour, many in the chess community were not enthused by it. One renowned 18th Century chess theorist claimed that, at best, such games could only end in a draw, never a decisive victory while Siegbert Tarrasch stated that that opening could only be considered a mistake. Tarrasch, one of the most famous chess players of his day, would see his name given to two traps commonly crafted in games featuring the Ruy Lopez opening. Tarrasch further wrote of the King's Gambit that it would be "almost madness to play the King's Gambit". Even the legendary chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer got in on the gambit-bashing, writing that the King's Gambit is a bust that will inevitably end in a loss by force. By the mid-20th Century, the King's Gambit had fallen out of favour. Even today, it seldom opens any Championship or tournament game despite high-profile players such as Nigel Short and Hikaru Nakamura continuing to use it. Even chess tutors and coaches discourage their pupils from trying it on for size. Nevertheless, as a staple of the Romantic era of chess, the King's Gambit merits exploration - even though it's not one of the top chess openings players prefer today.
The King's Gambit Accepted
The King's Gambit notation is: 1. e4 e5 2. f4
It's a rather bold move for White to offer up a sacrifice so early in the game; it is nevertheless a sacrifice that Black often accepts. They don't have to, of course. We cover all of the possibilities for play should Black decline the gambit in the next section. Once Black captures the f4 pawn, White may follow one of two strategies: the King's Knight's Gambit (Nf3) or the Bishop's Gambit (Bc4). Of the two, the first is the favourite because it prevents Black from making an advantageous queen move (Qh4) - which would put the king in check, and it develops the kingside knight. Black's response to Nf3 might be to move their g-file pawn up two squares to reinforce their f4 pawn. Conversely, they may opt to move their d-file pawn up one square, thus deploying the Fischer Defense. The Classical variation can lead to trouble for Black because White may move his knight to e5, spurring Black's pawns forward even though it's not a good idea to do so. Remember, we did say that Bobby Fischer was quite critical of the King's Gambit; hence, his alternate defence. It is imperfect because, even though it ensures access to e5, it does nothing to protect the f4 pawn. Protecting that pawn is crucial because White's potential next step in the Gambit is for their queenside bishop to attack that pawn. The Bishop variation is far riskier but yields White far greater advantages. Let's say that White pursues the Bishop Gambit, moving his kingside bishop to square c4. With White's king unprotected, it's practically an invitation for Black to put it in check with their queen (Qh4). Initially, this looks like a good deal for Black. Not only are they developing their most valuable piece but they are drawing first blood by putting their opponent's king in check - all within a few moves from the start of the game. Unfortunately, this doesn't work out so well for Black. Granted, White loses the ability to castle - meaning their king will remain in a less protected position. But they will have developed two pieces, the bishop on c4 and the knight to challenge the queen... while Black's queen will have to beat a hasty retreat, leaving all of Black's pieces undeveloped. Clearly, this gives White a huge advantage, unlike in the Scotch Game, where Black is overwhelmingly favoured.
The King's Gambit Declined
Any play that does not involve Black taking f4 is King's Gambit Declined.
If Black knows how costly the King's Gambit could be, they could decline the gambit and, instead, launch one of their own. White playing f4 fundamentally places their king in a weak position. A savvy Black player would exploit that weakness by advancing his d-file pawn (the Falkbeer Counter Gambit). This puts Black in a stronger position because both his queen and queenside bishop are now free to move to the kingside of the board and plague White's royal pair, which currently have no defences. By contrast, the Classical Defense, Black's other move to decline the gambit, calls for their kingside bishop to move to c5. The intent behind this seemingly arbitrary move is to prevent White's king from castling. This strategy is particularly clever because White will have to make several moves to defuse the threat, time that Black can use to shore up their attack strategy. Still, despite this counter-gambit and defence, Black remains at a disadvantage in the early game, much as with the French Defence.
Why You Should Play the King's Gambit
For now, let's overlook all of the bad press this gambit has gotten and explore its possibilities because there is incredible potential for learning in every aspect of such a game opener. The advantages for White are more obvious: you develop your pieces faster, control the board's centre and, perhaps, even castle. If your opponent is even slightly less experienced than you, you stand the chance of winning the match. If you're playing Black and lack in experience - or have not had any success in overcoming White's tactics, the King's Gambit is a great learning tool. Armed with renewed courage to face this gambit, if neither the Classical Defence nor the Falkbeer worked for you, try some of the other ways to counter:
- the Adelaide Countergambit: 2. ... Nc6 3. Nf3 f5
- the Fischer Defense: 3. Nf3 d6
- the Wagenbach Defense: 3. Nf3 h5
- the Nordwalde Variation: 2. ... Qf6
- the Keene Defence: 2. ... Qh4 3. g3 Qe7
- the Mafia Defence: 1. e4 e5 2. f4 c5
You might think that the Mafia Defence would figure prominently in the Sicilian Defence but their only commonality is that they both originated in Sicily.
Notable King's Gambit Games
It's almost unfair that this article was prefaced by listing all of the chess grandmasters who disavowed this gambit because quite a few of them continue to play it. These brilliancies - chess speak for an amazing game exhibiting poetic and deep strategy, ideas and original game plans are legend. The Spassky-Fischer game at Mar del Plata in 1960 is a prime case in point. Fischer decried the King's gambit before even facing Boris Spassky so, when he lost to the Russian grandmaster, he was incandescent with his loathing of that gambit. He left the match in tears and immediately set himself to creating his eponymous defence. 2015's Swedish Chess Champion Nils Grandelius defeated two-time Swedish Grandmaster Emmanuel Berg by opening with the King's Gambit. GM Berg was not so easily taken in, though, and the match ended up with GM Grandelius' king nearly untouchable while the Black king sat squarely in the middle of the board. Vasyl Ivanchuk is no stranger to the King's Gambit; no matter which side of the board he plays, he never fails to amaze... like the time he faced off against Sergey Karjakin. Throwing caution to the winds, Ivanchuk played 3. Bc4 and the game soon tumbled into a queen-less, prolonged middlegame. Unlike the more renowned and much-favoured Italian game, the King's Gambit has suffered from quite a bit of bad press but, offered by the right player, this gambit can be a challenge and a thing of awe, especially when properly followed up. As for beginner chess players, don't let your coaches tell you not to offer this gambit. If nothing else, you could learn - and help your fellow club members learn so much from it. And learning is always a good thing, right? Now, go beyond the Netflix series to learn all about the Queen's Gambit...
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