There was a time, not so long ago, when chess was played in a daring and romantic way. During the 19th Century, Gambits were King and swashbuckling sacrifices were the order of the day! One opening, the King’s Gambit, was commonly played and led to some of the most exciting chess games of this period. I teach it to my students because many good lessons can be found within this opening. So let’s travel back in time, to a world in which chess players didn’t depend on computers to aid them in their positional decision making. This was a era when a game of chess was truly a battle of two minds, a form of mental Kung Fu if you will!
For those of you who are new to the game, let me start by defining a gambit. When employing a gambit, one player (usually white) will offer a pawn (or even two) during the opening in exchange for a positional advantage. This means that the player giving up the pawn will not get material back. Instead, our Gambiteer (as gambit players are called) will gain an advantage in position, such as the ability to get all of his or her minor pieces into the game quickly due to a lack of pawns blocking in those pieces. An advantage in position during the game’s opening gives the player with the advantage greater opportunities such as the ability to launch a strong attack or gain greater control of the board. More opportunities for one player means fewer opportunities for the other player. Greater opportunities lead to winning games!
The King’s Gambit starts with the moves 1. e4…e5 followed by 2. f4. White’s second move is the gambit. Why would White simply offer up the f pawn, one of the three pawns that form a wall in front of the King when castling short (King-side Castling)? Well, if black plays 2…exf4, then white has two pawns on central files, the d and e file, while black has only has one pawn on a central file, the d pawn. White therefore has a two to one pawn majority in the center. This would give white an advantage when it comes to controlling the center during the opening. However, if white plays 3. d4, Black would provide a nasty response in the form of 3…Qh4+, a check that has some weight to it because of the black pawn on f4! This consequence of an early d pawn push helps to teach students to build up a position slowly and carefully!
Beginners who are taught to gain control of the board’s center quickly during the opening, often prematurely push the white d pawn to d4, thinking that two pawns on central squares are better than one pawn on a central square. Combine this with the discovered attack by the c1 Bishop on the black pawn on f4 and you can see why the novice player might opt for this often disastrous move. The correct move for beginners is 3.Nf3. Moving the Knight to f3 stops the black Queen from checking on h4, keeps her from loitering on g5 and puts pressure on d4 and e5. Once the white Knight is placed on f3, the Black pawn on f4 is locked in place and a later pawn push can be made, d2-d4. The immediate lesson here is that you have to build up a position carefully, considering your opponent’s best response. Black has been known to play 3…g5, using the g pawn to protect the f4 pawn. Already, black’s King-side pawn structure is messy. Here, further development by white is in order, such as 4.Bc4. Black might counter with 4…g4, attacking the Knight on f3. At this point, I’ll ask my students to suggest two possible moves. One move that is suggested more often than not is 5.Ne5 which moves the Knight out of danger and allows it to attack the black g4 pawn. It seems reasonable, the Knight going from being attacked by a pawn to attacking that very same pawn. When I suggest castling, many students will cry out in horror that I’m about to give up my well placed Knight! The problem with 5.Ne5 is 5…Qh4+, which checks the white King. Let’s not forget that the black Queen has a few useful pawns to aid her in this attack! Beginners have the bad habit of not considering what their opponent’s best response is to the move they’re about to make. This example of black’s Queen check on h4 (after 5.Ne5) helps reinforce the idea of considering how your opponent might respond to your potential move. To help teach this idea regarding your opponent’s best response, only after they understand the basic moves of the King’s Gambit, I have them switch sides back and forth during this opening. So, after move two for black, 2…exf4, the student playing the white pieces trades places with the student playing the black pieces. They continue to do so throughout the next ten moves.
This brings us to another key point of the lesson, giving up material in exchange for a strong attack. To the beginner, it appears as if castling King-side loses the Knight on f3 because they’re not looking ahead. They see a minor piece about to be captured by a lowly pawn. Beginners tend only to see only a single move ahead. By this, I mean that they see the g4 pawn attacking the Knight and, if the Knight doesn’t move, it will be captured. They’re not seeing that if (after white castles) the black pawn on g4 takes the Knight (5…gxf3), the white Queen can capture that pawn and suddenly, the Bishop on c4, the Rook on f1 and the Queen on f3 are all aimed at Black’s weak f7 square. Of course, there is still a black pawn on f4 standing in the way of checkmate but that little pawn is undefended! This is a very clear example of giving up material in exchange for attacking chances. White has a strong potential attack with only a pawn standing in the way of checkmate.
Of course, in the above example, it’s black to move, so the black Queen can move to f6 to stop the potential checkmate. However, black is on the defensive and has to play carefully to avoid checkmate. There are a few moves that black can make to stop white’s mating attempt, so I’ll ask my students to find them.
I have young students who interpret my enthusiasm for this swashbuckling opening as a guaranteed way to win the game as white. This means that they think playing black against the King’s Gambit means a painful loss. We have to remember that these are very young players who are new to the game and see things in a very black and white manner (pun intended). To cure them of this way of thinking, the first full King’s Gambit game I show is one in which Boris Spassky, as black, pummels his opponent who plays the gambit against him. I show them this game, which I’ve posted below, to warn them of the dangers of thinking a specific opening is a sure thing. It helps to demonstrate the folly of not using sound principles, such as building up a position before launching an attack. It also goes to show that employing a gambit doesn’t guarantee success. Of course, playing a gambit against the likes of Boris Spassky, a tactical genius, may not be the brightest of ideas. Enjoy!