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Defending Against Gambits

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Oct 18, 2012
  • | 15524 views
  • | 26 comments

The game begins, and within a few moves your opponent pitches a pawn. It’s not considered the most correct gambit, and might even fall into the category of “cheesy”. But by taking the pawn, you are playing “his” game. You have a pawn, but you have to defend, for a while. Your dreams of a crushing attack concluded with sparkling sacrifices have to be delayed while you consolidate your position. You worry that you won’t be able to contain events and your scrappy opponent will land a decisive blow. What do you do?

Defending against an opening gambit is not a simple matter. You have to play solidly, but at the same time avoid playing too passively and allowing long-term compensation. You have to feel the right moment to return the pawn or go onto the counterattack. The extra pawn can skew your positional ‘barometer’. It confuses your sense of who stands better, and how big of an advantage is enough.

There are thousands of different opening gambits – from the subtle pawn sacrifice introduced by a top grandmaster on move 18 to the brutal Englund Gambit, introduced as early as move one. There are gambits for development, for positional gains, to weaken the opponent’s position, to institute a blockade, to gain control of the center. But today we are going to focus on a typical kind of gambit that an amateur player might meet - where one side sacrifices a pawn very early for open lines and one or two tempi of development. We will look at the Blackmar-Diemer gambit; but the concepts are applicable to many other such gambits - the Englund gambit (1.d4 e5), the Goring/Danish gambit (1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3), the Evans Gambit, and the Smith-Morra gambit. The last two are a class above the previous ones, and deserve the utmost respect. Of course there are many others.

Let’s say your opponent begins with the moves 1.d4 d5 2.e4.

What do you do? If you normally play the French or Caro-Kann against 1.e4, you can “chicken out” by playing 2…e6 or 2…c6. Then you are back to your familiar opening. Of course, you don’t get an extra pawn and – objectively speaking – an advantage as black as early as move two. You also don’t prevent your opponent from later offering another gambit or making another unsound sacrifice.

So the first step is to actually take the pawn. It is the principled thing to do, and by not taking the pawn you are already defeated psychologically in some way. Now, it is a good idea to have some idea about a good continuation after taking the pawn. The Blackmar-Diemer gambit isn’t good, but it still requires some respect. So – while you certainly shouldn’t spend too much of your life preparing a response to an opening you rarely see – it would be a good idea to search in an opening database or in books to see how good players respond to it. There are several good systems, just pick the one that you like.

Black can play 1.d4 d5 2.e4 dxe4 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.f3 exf3 5.Nxf3 Bf5, which is probably the most popular. Here is an example:

Also quite enough for Black to claim an advantage is 5…Bg4 6.h3 Bxf3, followed by playing like in the “Fort Knox” line of the French (…e6, …c6, …Nbd7, ….Be7, etc) except with an extra pawn.

A surprisingly strong system is just basic development with 5…e6, 6…Be7, and 7…0-0. Black blocks in the light squared bishop temporarily, but avoids allowing White to gain time by attacking it. This system is probably neglected because it looks a little passive. True, if Black sits around then White will build up his standard kingside attack – which is the reason he plays the Blackmar-Diemer. So the crucial break for Black is …c5, which he can do quite early, as in the following game:

White pretty much threw everything he had at Black in this game. Did Fedorchuk face any real troubles? Sure, he had to calculate a few variations, but that can happen when playing chess.

One of the keys to successfully playing against these kinds of gambits is to know what kind of attack is really dangerous to you and what is just your opponent's suicidal final flailing. Notice that in the above game, after Fedorchuk defeated the attack, there was no long endgame exploitation of the extra pawn. This is because the missing pawn induced White to make even more sacrifices. When the smoke cleared Fedorchuk was actually up three pawns. So, allowing your opponent to attack a bit can work out well for you. 

So what is the key to playing against these kind of borderline-sound gambits? There is no magic bullet, and you can find examples of even quite strong players going down to weaker players in the Cheesy Gambits. The main thing is research. Just as in other openings, you need to study a little bit - it's that simple. When you have some idea what to do, a reasonable scheme in mind, you have much more confidence, and you can avoid falling into your opponent's typical plans. One of the reasons that some higher-rated players have lost to these gambits occasionally is that they simply paid them no attention whatsoever. 

Besides having done some basic research, it is important to understand the psychological pitfalls of playing against a gambit. The extra pawn makes it hard to objectively evaluate the position. In a normal position, the side who has the initiative is usually preferred. But in these gambits, the gambiteer always has some kind of initiative early on - the question is whether it is enough. This makes evaluation more difficult.

The number one error is probably cowardice. Your opponent sacrificed a pawn - he gets a temporary "high" from that. Nevertheless, that doesn't necessarily make him brave - he was simply reckless enough to play something that other people invented and which does not have a good reputation. So it is important that you do not fear ghosts. Trying at all costs to avoid even the hint of an attack is one sure way to face a real attack a little later.

Comments


  • 24 months ago

    plywoodkid

    One must study and practice the art of defense for him to stave off these gambits. 

  • 2 years ago

    BrilliantONe

    Miller-Vescovi went into the complicated Stader Variation of the Gunderam Defense to the BDG. White made a mistake early on with 8 Bb5? Correct is 8 Nxe4! Nxe4 9 Qf3! with a complicated position.

  • 2 years ago

    gmtravis

    the morra gambit is great. IM mark esserman crushes GrandMasters with it all the time

  • 2 years ago

    burraganesh

    @Skeptikill

    In not accepting the gambit pawn(probably out of fear) we may reach terrible positions and most often in takign the gambit pawn we may get overconfident thinking we are pawn up.A gambit has so much spice to it.By the way the Sicilian Poisoned pawn can be termed as a gambit I guess because in taking the b-pawn the other player may gain so much tempo on the Queen chasing it all around the corner and sometimes trapping it.

    Even the Marshall variation in Ruy Lopez where Black gains a menacing attack on White king canbe called a gambit?

    For me even Alekhine defence is a  sort of Gambit because although a pawn is not sacrificed a lot of tempo is wasted by White (Atleast it's the way I think) in maintaining Pawn center which most often doesn't succeed.

  • 2 years ago

    Skeptikill

    @burraganesh 

    sure no problem dude.

    I have seen this twice before. 

    Just because you were crushed in a game does not mean that it is a crushing gambit. Gambits are used to throw your opponent off guard and put them in unknown territory where they have much higher chances of making bad moves. Its simply a case of you using the wrong ideas, gameplans and systems in your train of thought. 

    Hell I was in a tournament a few years back with 4/5 (On board 3 of my section) and my opponent obliterated me in the Blackmar Diemar gambit. I used a fine system for the first few moves but in the phase from opening-middlegame i made some serious errors and let him put me in a difficult position which was hard to hold and eventually i lost. 

    I would feel in a similar situation i would hold my own better now since i have dealt with it before.


    Edit: I think its fair to say with gambits that much more accurate play is needed to avoid serious weaknesses

  • 2 years ago

    burraganesh

    Hi Skeptikill, thanks for your say on QG.

    But there's a gambit that I have seen long back in one of my games(Me White) 1.f4..e5,2.fxe5..d6,3exd6..Bxd6

    I was crushed in that game !

  • 2 years ago

    BugsBunny43

    great article

  • 2 years ago

    Ricardoruben

    Very nice, thanks for posting! :)

  • 2 years ago

    KingLeopold

    I play the BDG all the time. Its a great opening to learn how to take advantage of the inititive, deveoping your piece play and working on your mate patterns. Though I  don't know what my percentage my win, loss, draw ratio is, I have a lot of fun games win or lose. And according to GM William Lombardy, there is no bad openings below master level

  • 2 years ago

    Jpatrick

    Another great example of a 2300 player playing the Blackmar-Diemer gambit vs a strong GM is Schuman vs Gurevich, Illinois, 1993.   Gurevich crushed the guy in an embarrassing miniature.

  • 2 years ago

    Skeptikill

    @burraganesh 

     

    The queens gambit is not really considered a gambit as the pawn can be won back by force with Qa4+.

     

    The queens gambit is such a complex and positional game opening which is why it is played at such a high level. 

     

    @d18hday

    While most masters do not commonly play gambits consistently they often use them to surprise their opponents. There are a few masters that are quite famous for using them sometimes. I have seen the budapest gambit used at high level a few times and the smith morra also. 

     

    I cannot think of the name of the super GM but there is one that is notably known for using them. I have seen his games on here many times but it wont come to me.

     

    Just looked hiim up and found him. GM Shabalov has some great gambit games! he is an exciting player to watch

  • 2 years ago

    RISChessclub

    this is really a helpful article as it points out many good aspects of a gambit that can be used when you are playing against it. Keep up with the good article! Laughing

  • 2 years ago

    Redwolf98

    That was a good article, but if you could gambit your queen for a more positive advantage (such as sacrificing you queen so to get the other queen AND a solid defence) should you do it? I am a HORRIBLE chess player, but i've seen this happening sometimes, should you take the bait when that happens? should you do that when pausible?

  • 2 years ago

    d18thday

    I love this tip. I've come to love playing gambits a little lot at my level, I rate averagely 1390. You said something about this gambit not been good, by that I'm sure you mean particularly at GM level. I may then ask, what gambits are worth playing at any level, that won't leave you in any slightly disadvantageous position without a good enough compensation?

  • 2 years ago

    srb16

    An interesting topic, but I'm not sure I understand the feeling behind the article.

    For instance if you are a 'caro Kann' player, would it not be to your advantage to transpose to 'your' opening plans.

    You sound quite negative about the gambit, but chess isn't a solved game and a gambit like this is simply asking questions of the opponent. I assume as with most openings a stronger opponent will do well, a weaker one will struggle. To me the most important factor is fun. I'm never going to be a very strong player, let alone a master, however openings like this are never less than fun, which is surely what most of us seek? I understand that GMs, etc won't play this but for us mere mortals it offers tactical and exciting play for both sides from the get go. What more could an amateur player want :)

  • 2 years ago

    Elubas

    Thanks for the article. I've known of the gambit for years but never actually prepared a defense against it, although I would often contemplate fianchettoing my bishop on g7. However, I am very intrigued by the system you presented where black, slightly unintuitively, blocks in his bishop but avoids losing time on this piece and plans to later put it on b7. His position seems really solid, like a rubinstein with an extra pawn as you said, and it seems that as long as black calculates accurately at a few key moments, he'll be doing great. In fact, in a lot of openings I play I have been starting to keep my bishop on c1/c8 for a while, as even if it is temporarily blocked in, it is often a good defensive piece, doesn't get in the way, and can easily open up in the long term. I also like the point you made that a lot of times the one who accepted the gambit often wins not just in endgames, but also by showing the opponent's attack to be too reckless and as a result eventually taking over the initiative himself.

  • 2 years ago

    Consul89

    @ Ajaxke...White is not doing great in the blackmar-diemer Gambit. Out of 1700 games from Megadatabase black  has a 40% win, white has 43% and there is a draw percentage of 17%. Considering that one is playing black a 40% winning plus a 17% in draws makes the gambit a somewhat weak opening if one is being objective..... it is a dangerous gambit like most can be. BUT white is not doing great by a long shot. After white gives away the pawn if black plays correctly, white is fighting for a draw not a win. And if you are playing  for the draw as white, then what are you going to play for when you are black.
  • 2 years ago

    unusualkid

    I never play the Blackbur-Diamer Gambit as White because 1. I don't study it 2. It is a little cheesy for White

  • 2 years ago

    burraganesh

    Hi Bryan, "Do not fear Ghosts", great words.

    But I have a question, whether you consider 1.d4d5 2.c4 which goes by name Queen's gambit, as a real gambit. If it is a gambit then how come majority of players from all levels play it?

  • 2 years ago

    AnthonyCG

    Alekhine made a point of not accepting opening gambits if he didn't have to.

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