Gambits

One of my favorite periods in chess history is the 19th century. This was a period in which gambits and wild tactical attacks were the order of the day. Players from this period would concoct breathtaking sacrifices and create unusual checkmates. Any student of chess would be remiss not to examine this period of chess history. Any beginner wishing to learn about early positional advantages must examine the gambit. While gambit openings are not played at the highest levels they are highly educational, especially for the beginner. We’ll start by defining some key terms needed to understand the basics of gambits.

By definition, a gambit is the sacrifice of a pawn in the opening game in order to acquire a positional advantage or gain the initiative. While you don’t get any material for your lost pawn you get something better if your gambit is successful, you get a positional advantage early on. By positional advantage, I mean a greater control of the board’s center. When employing a gambit against an opponent, your opponent must decide whether or not to take the pawn you’re offering. If they take the pawn, they accept the gambit. If they decide against taking the pawn, they decline the gambit. Therefore, gambits can be “accepted” or “declined.” If you become a connoisseur of gambits, you’re known as a gambiteer!

I introduce gambits to my students early on because it helps build a foundation for later positional thinking and planning. While playing gambits will in no way make you a master positional player, it will start you thinking outside of the mechanical box many beginning players find themselves in. Many novice players will memorize openings, not understanding the underlying mechanics of each move. They go through the motions and are suddenly in unfamiliar territory when their opponent plays something unexpected. Learning gambits helps students solidify their understanding of opening mechanics and positional thinking. I stick to the most straight forward gambits to start, such as the Evan’s Gambit, the King’s Gambit and the Danish Gambit (a favorite of my students). I hold back on the Queen’s Gambit and Benko Gambits until a student has a decent grasp of the first three gambits.

Let’s take a look at the Evan’s Gambit. This gambit was named after a Welsh sea captain William Davies Evans in the early 1800s. Set up a chess board and play through the moves. The game starts out with 1.e4…e5 2.Nf3…Nc6 3.Bc4…Bc5 4.b4. At this point I discuss the concept of tempo or time with my students. Since the opening phase of the game is a race to gain control of the board’s center before your opponent does, any time you waste will work against you. On move four, white attacks the Bishop on c5 with the b pawn. Black has to make a decision, capture the pawn or retreat the Bishop. If the Bishop moves away, declining the gambit, black loses time (a tempo) having to move the Bishop to safety. This loss of tempo (black would rather be developing additional pawns and pieces towards the center) allows white to further his or her control of the board’s center. Knowing that moving the Bishop a second time will allow white to gain further control of the center, beginner’s will often take the pawn. I’ve asked students why they took the pawn when playing black against the Evan’s gambit and they told me that they might as well get something for having to move the same piece twice in the opening. Let’s say black plays 4…Bxb4. White reveals the gambit’s true intention by playing 5.c3! The poor black Bishop has to move again. However, forcing the Bishop to move around isn’t the real reason for playing 5.c3. The pawn on c3 allows white to push his d pawn to d4, attacking black’s foothold in the center. Now let’s look at the Danish Gambit.

We see a variation of the Danish gambit first played in a famous correspondence game London-Edinburgh in 1824 (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.c3 Qe7 6.0-0 dxc3 7.Nxc3) The Danish gambit I teach starts out with 1.e4…e5 2.d4…exd4 3.c3…dxc3 4.Bc4…cxb2 5.Bxb2. White gives up two pawns but has a lethal pair of raking Bishops both aimed at the black Kingside. This gambit provides an excellent way to introduce the idea of central square control from a distance and early positional advantages. If you look at white’s two Bishops you’ll see that white trades two pawns for a superior position. This gambit also helps to reinforce the idea that getting greedy (as black does) can lead to trouble. After the key concepts are learned, we look at a number of variations of this gambit.

Using gambits in classroom lectures really helps reinforce opening principles. It teaches students the art of planning in the opening. If you’re offering the gambit to your opponent, you have to be prepared for both scenarios, the gambit being accepted or declined. This means having a plan “a” and a plan “b.” Often, beginners have only one plan which is often too rigid. Learning how to play gambits helps teach the concept of flexible planning. For the player on the receiving end of a gambit, a great deal can be learned about defense (as well as planning). Gambits are extremely enjoyable for young players and they help beginners learn the art of opening attacks. Here’s a short game in which Paul Morphy plays the King’s gambit. Morphy is playing without his Queenside Rook and Knight to make the game challenging. I would never wish to be on the receiving end of one of Morphy’s viscous attacks. Play through it and pay particular attention to the way in which white attacks and black defends.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).