All Openings Are Sound

Truth is merely our irrefutable error. –Friedrich Nietzsche

Here’s a Secret You Can Use

Below grandmaster level, all openings are sound. Even at grandmaster level, top players occasionally beat other top players with the Evans Gambit, Bishop’s Opening, Four Knights Game, Benko Gambit, and Sicilian Dragon. The first three openings on this list were consigned to the dustbin of history by theoreticians in the early 1900s, if not before. The Benko and Dragon, while perennially popular at club level, are considered dicey by theoreticians. And yet, grandmasters trot out all these openings, and many more like them or worse, from time to time.

Strong players can score surprisingly well against other strong players (not to mention against weaker players) with theoretically dubious openings, perhaps in large part because these openings are not commonly seen at high levels and few people know how to play against them. Boris Spassky once beat Bobby Fischer with the King’s Gambit, another relic. English grandmaster Tony Miles once beat Anatoly Karpov, while Karpov was world champion, by answering Karpov’s 1 e4 with the bizarre 1…a6?

The lesson for you and me is that we can play all these openings against our opponents. We can also play Bird’s Opening (1 f4), the Spike (1 g4), the Grob (1 b4), the Dunst Opening (1 Na3), the Max Lange Attack, Alekhine’s Defense, the Pirc Defense, the Schliemann Defense, the Dutch Defense, and so on.

The Hanke Gambit Versus Alekhine’s Defense

Every gambit in the world is sound, or close enough, at club level: the Danish Gambit, the Smith-Morra Gambit, the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit, of course the King’s Gambit, and practically every other gambit that has a name and some that don’t.

Let me give you a ludicrous example of the last-mentioned category. Years ago in a team match between my club and another club, I opened with 1 e4 on board 1. My opponent answered 1…Nf6, Alekhine’s Defense.

I narrowed my eyes and pondered my options. I had never liked facing Alekhine’s Defense, and didn’t know any lines for White, although my USCF rating was over 1800 at the time. I considered 2 e5, 2 Nc3, and even the abject 2 d3.

Then the novel idea 2 d4??! entered my head, seizing control of more center squares. Having the two center pawns side by side looked pretty in my mind’s eye. With little or no thought I banged it out, only to see my opponent respond with the rather obvious 2….Nxe4 winning a pawn.

Chagrined by the loss of a pawn as White on move two, but determined to make the best of a bad situation, I played 3 Nc3, on analogy with the Boden-Kieseritsky Gambit in the Bishop’s Opening (1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Nf6 3 Nf3!? Nxe4 4 Nc3). After 3…Nxc3 4 bxc3 I was objectively lost, but I followed up with Nf3, Bd3, 0-0, and eventually got a winning kingside attack.

If we are going to name this gambit after the first person who admits that he played it in a serious game, then I must claim pride of place. In his November 1999 Chess Cafe column Opening Lanes, Gary Lane unofficially blessed my claim by calling this line the “Hanke Gambit.” On the strength of my deposition I expect that future opening works will agree.

The Hanke Gambit Versus the French Defense

Here is another example from my own play, slightly less crude. I have always found the French Defense annoying, because I am generally not interested in, or very good at, openings that require patient maneuvering: life is too short, and I like to get on with things.

One day when facing the French, after 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4 I extemporized and came up with 4 a3!? Bxc3+ 5 bxc3 dxe4 6 f3!? Neither I nor my opponent knew whether this move was any good—I think we both suspected it wasn’t—but at least I had achieved the kind of unclear tactical position I liked, and my opponent was thrown totally off his game into uncharted swirling waters where he had to think for himself. On this occasion he sank rather than swam.

I used this variation three more times in tournaments, scoring +2=2 overall (beating two 1900s, drawing two 2100s), with an overall 2200+ performance rating. Later I discovered that this line actually had a name: the Winckelmann-Reimer Gambit. It has been written about in various sources, and is now discussed on various web pages. But I published one of my games with this opening in the magazine Chess Horizons, before any other published source that I am aware of. Therefore this opening is rightfully called the “Hanke Gambit Versus the French Defense.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Life among the grandmaster elite may be gray and disciplined, but amateur chess is a riotous colorful phantasmagorical world. Chess at the amateur level is not so much about truth, as whether you can successfully impose your hallucinatory vision on your opponent.

Tim Hanke