The Cochrane Gambit

John Cochrane (1798-1878) was one of the most interesting figures in 19th century chess. Rod Edwards ranks him among the world’s top 15 players for half a century, from 1820 to 1870, yet he never played any formal competitive chess.

Cochrane was a scion of the Scottish nobility, a member of the family of the Earls of Dundonald. He joined the Royal Navy as a young man, but changed his career and became a barrister. In the early 1820s he played casual games against the leading French players of the time and wrote a book on the game. He then moved to India to further his legal career. He spent the years from 1841 to 1843 in London, where he proved himself superior to everyone except Howard Staunton. Back in Calcutta, he played many games against two local players, Moheschunder Bannerjee and Saumchurn Guttack, which were published in England, mostly by Staunton.

Cochrane is perhaps best remembered today for the Cochrane Gambit, which goes like this:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nf6
3. Nxe5 d6
4. Nxf7 Kxf7

There are 848 games with this on MegaBase2018, with White scoring a healthy 59%.

Cochrane and Bannerjee tested this over many games in the 1850s, with Cochrane invariably following up with the natural 5. Bc4+. Bannerjee tried three ways of getting out of check: Ke8, Be6 and d5.

One of their games continued:

5. Bc4+ Ke8 6. O-O c5 7. h3 Qc7 8. f4 Nc6 9. Nc3 a6 10. a4 Qe7 11. Nd5 Qd8 12. d4 cxd4 13. e5 Nxd5 14. Bxd5 dxe5 15. Bxc6+ bxc6 16. Qh5+ Kd7 17. fxe5 Kc7 18. Rf7+ Kb8 19. e6 Bd6 20. Bg5 Qb6 21. a5 Qc5

So far Black has defended well, but this is an oversight. The correct move was Qb4. Cochrane now has a pretty win: 22. Bf4 Qb4 23. c3 and Black will have to give up his queen to prevent Bxd6#.

22. b4

White misses his opportunity…

22.. Qe5

… but Black gives him a second chance. Instead, either Qc3 or Qd5 would have provided a sufficient defence.

23. Bf4 Qxe6

Losing at once. His only chance was Qxf4.

24. Qc5 Qxf7
25. Bxd6+ 1-0

Cochrane’s gambit led an underground existence for more than a century, until it was revived in the late 1970s, its most prominent regular practitioner being the Latvian IM Alvis Vitolinsh. 5. Bc4+ was now considered insufficient and instead attention turned to 5. d4, which was almost always played at this time.

By the late 1990s attention had switched to another 5th move for White: Nc3, which is preferred by today’s engines. It reached the big time when Topalov punted it against Kramnik in 1999, the game resulting in a thrilling draw.

Since then, though, the Cochrane Gambit’s only appearance in top level chess came in 2016, when Ivanchuk was unsuccessful in a blitz game against the Chinese GM Li Chao.

Objectively, the gambit is not quite sound. If you like this sort of thing it may well be worth a try in blitz games at lower levels. For the piece you get two pawns and some attacking chances against Black’s displaced king, which, if you’re not playing a well booked-up master strength player, might be considered reasonable compensation. Why not give it a go yourself, in commemoration of the life and chess career of John Cochrane?

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.