Gambit Play in Chess

"I'd rather have a pawn than a finger."
    - Reuben Fine (1914 - 1993)

What is a gambit?

The meaning of the word gambit arises from the Spanish word gambito which means "to trip up." It was first used by the famous Spanish priest and chess player Ruy López de Segura in his book Libro del Ajedrez in 1861. Webster 1913 says it best with the succinct "(Chess Playing) A mode of opening the game, in which a pawn is sacrificed to gain an attacking position."

This isn't wholly accurate, however, as some gambits give up two pawns or even a minor piece for tempo or development advantages (see Advantages below)--if you're brave enough to play them. The material sacrificed, like any sacrifice in chess, is intended to bring about real or imagined superiority, albeit very early in the game in this case.

Gambits are nothing new, either. The earliest recorded chess game in my database was played in 1560 by Ruy López and Giovanni da Cutro Leonardo, and was, in fact, a gambit1. In digging about I was only able to find one complete recorded game older than this, and it was also a gambit2, though in name only. In fact, two of the most famous games of chess ever played, the Immortal Game3 and the Evergreen Game4, were both gambits.

Why play a gambit?

If the above mention of the great games of the past isn't enough to sway you, there's the simple fact that gambit games are, typically, very exciting. Why play a slow shuffle behind locked pawns when you can blitzkrieg across the board breathing fire and doom at the enemy king? While any win may make you happy, a stormy tactical victory charged with adrenaline can exhilarate.

Another fine reason to play a gambit is that many of them are very obscure, although sometimes for good reason. Whether the gambit is sound or not, however, there's a certain amount of entertainment--not to mention psychological advantage--in pulling your opponent out of book (their memorized opening moves) and making them burn a lot of clock time during the early stages of the opening.

How to play a gambit

Playing gambits (or any kind of attacking chess, really) regularly and with success often requires forgetting or modifying some of the core axioms of chess.

  • Material

    The first thing to forget is anything you might have learned about point values of pieces and pawns. Your chess pieces are not there to merely shuffle about and exchange while you tally points like a bookkeeper. On the contrary, they are there to attack and checkmate the enemy king. Concepts like being a pawn down or even a piece down lose their meaning if you're spending those pieces and pawns to good effect to deliver checkmate on your opponent.

  • Tactics

    Tactics are essential in these kinds of games. A keen understanding of at least elementary tactical ideas is required, as many of your advantages in most gambits arise from the tactical possibilities of an open game where you have a lead in development and/or tempo.

  • Study

    If you are comfortable with tactics, you don't really have to spend a lot of time studying gambit openings either. They don't usually have a lot of published analysis anyway, so learning the key ideas from a handful of games and then applying tactical know-how is really at the core of gambit play.

    That said, you do need to understand why your gambit of choice works and what the intentions are by sacrificing material. If you don't understand the position and how to transition it into an early or middlegame attack, you're likely to just give away material in exchange for a lost game.

  • Endgames

    You aren't likely to see a lot of endgames if you consistently play gambits, and you don't want to. Endgames are typically where material losses turn into game losses. If you're to play gambits, you need to attack quickly and decisively. Do not trade pieces needlessly or you'll suddenly find yourself a pawn or more down in the endgame and wish you hadn't.

  • Declines

    A declined gambit is one in which the offered sacrificial pawn(s) or piece is not taken. Unfortunately this often leads to very uncomfortable positions, so you need to be aware of the sorts of problems that arise when your favorite gambit is declined. Declines can range from mildly annoying to a total refutation of your gambit.

  • Advantages

    To succeed with gambit play, you must focus on the advantages you have gained in exchange for your material disadvantage. These advantages typically fall into three categories:

    1. Tempo

      Tempo is most easily defined as gaining moves while you're opponent wastes them. For instance, if you advance a knight which threatens a bishop and the bishop retreats to its starting square, you have gained, in essence, a free move.

      The very act of capturing your offered pawn or piece causes your opponent to spend valuable time in grabbing it, while you do more useful things like developing pieces.

    2. Development

      Development advantages consist of moving your pieces into play before your opponent does the same. This is often tied to having tempo gains, but not always. If you have all of your pieces in play, rooks connected, and king castled, but your opponent has not yet castled and several of their pieces remain on their starting squares, you have a distinct advantage in development.

    3. Space

      Space is simply how much area on the board your pieces have to move around in. Often in gambits you end up with open lines in the center, which give you tremendous amounts of space in which to develop your pieces and mount your attack.

What sorts of gambits are there?

There are gambits that someone or another has tried in almost every line imaginable. Here follows a short list of some gambits and their associated lines (when applicable) that have been noded here by myself and others.

In Closing

Gambits are a fine way to spice up your chess game. They'll keep your opponents on their toes, and when used correctly will bring you tremendous satisfaction at the times in which you convert a material loss into a won game. They also require a certain attacking mentality, strong heart, and decent tactical foundation to be deployed well.

1 Lopez de Segura, R - Leonardo, G C30
Rome, 1560

1.e4 e5 2.f4 d6 3.Bc4 c6 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.fxe5 dxe5 6.Bxf7+ Kxf7 7.Nxe5+ Ke8 8.Qxg4 Nf6 9.Qe6+ Qe7 10.Qc8+ Qd8 11.Qxd8+ Kxd8 12.Nf7+ 1-0

2 Castellvi, Francisco de - Vinoles, Narcisco B01
Barcelona, 1475

1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qd8 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.Nf3 Bg4 6.h3 Bxf3 7.Qxf3 e6 8.Qxb7 Nbd7 9.Nb5 Rc8 10.Nxa7 Nb6 11.Nxc8 Nxc8 12.d4 Nd6 13.Bb5+ Nxb5 14.Qxb5+ Nd7 15.d5 exd5 16.Be3 Bd6 17.Rd1 Qf6 18.Rxd5 Qg6 19.Bf4 Bxf4 20.Qxd7+ Kf8 21.Qd8# 1-0

3Anderssen, A - Kieseritzky, L C33
London 'Immortal game', 1851

1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Bc4 Qh4+ 4.Kf1 b5 5.Bxb5 Nf6 6.Nf3 Qh6 7.d3 Nh5 8.Nh4 Qg5 9.Nf5 c6 10.g4 Nf6 11.Rg1 cxb5 12.h4 Qg6 13.h5 Qg5 14.Qf3 Ng8 15.Bxf4 Qf6 16.Nc3 Bc5 17.Nd5 Qxb2 18.Bd6 Bxg1 19.e5 Qxa1+ 20.Ke2 Na6 21.Nxg7+ Kd8 22.Qf6+ Nxf6 23.Be7# 1-0

4Anderssen, A - Dufresne, J C52
Berlin 'Evergreen', 1852

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Ba5 6.d4 exd4 7.0-0 d3 8.Qb3 Qf6 9.e5 Qg6 10.Re1 Nge7 11.Ba3 b5 12.Qxb5 Rb8 13.Qa4 Bb6 14.Nbd2 Bb7 15.Ne4 Qf5 16.Bxd3 Qh5 17.Nf6+ gxf6 18.exf6 Rg8 19.Rad1 Qxf3 20.Rxe7+ Nxe7 21.Qxd7+ Kxd7 22.Bf5+ Ke8 23.Bd7+ Kf8 24.Bxe7# 1-0

Chessbase 8.0 used to cull game scores

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