How To Win With The Halloween Gambit
Are you afraid to play this gambit?

How To Win With The Halloween Gambit

| 79 | Opening Theory

The Halloween Gambit is surely the spookiest way to start a chess game. If you're a conservative chess player who doesn't like to give away pieces, it may indeed be "2 spooky 👻4 u."

Could this early knight sacrifice be a legitimate opening? No, probably not. But maybe.

Don't take my word for it. Let's see how the world's number-four player, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, plays this scary gambit:

"I found my new opening," said MVL after the game. "In blitz it’s sort of a decent weapon."

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Photo: Maria Emelianova /
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Photo: Maria Emelianova /

The doubters out there may chalk up this win to the so-called "throwaway" competition playing Black...

Game report
The official game report.

...But this couldn't be further from the truth.

We know this thanks to a superhuman computer engine losing to the supernatural gambit in the Computer Chess Championship. Both of the beastly machines in this game are rated over 3000, with the machine-learning engine Winter coming out on top in this autumn-themed gambit.

Don't be too scared for Rubi, though. It struck back in the next game with a revenge-win using the other side of the gambit. Check out its spooktacular bishop sacrifice on f7 to go two pieces down early:

How can two ridiculously strong computers beat each other, each from the white side of this gambit? The only answer is that the Halloween Gambit is a powerful and uncanny attack, especially in blitz chess.

So how do you win with the Halloween Gambit? The gist of it seems to be, like most encounters in chess and life, to just wait for your opponent to make a mistake. Otherwise how could the power of fright alone overwhelm the material advantage of a knight for a pawn?

With the clock ticking down and two powerful center pawns chasing their knights to the back rank, many players panic when facing this gambit. I know it's hard to believe, but even I don't usually get checkmated by a pawn in 18 moves.

spooky ghost
This ghost is nowhere near as spooky as the Halloween Gambit.

What's the history behind the Halloween Gambit? The opening was known by club players in the 1800s, but got its scary name relatively recently, in the late 1990s.

Steffen Jakob, a German chess player and computer programmer, became interested in the opening in 1996 and made a computer engine clone of Crafty devoted to playing the gambit. Jakob named the opening the Halloween Attack

"Many players are shocked, the way they would be frightened by a Halloween mask, when they are mentally prepared for a boring Four Knights, and then they are faced with Nxe5," Jakob told the journalist Tim Krabbe in 2000.

The Halloween Gambit is so good in speed chess that even the author of "Pete's Pathetic Chess" can use it to win—as long as the opponent isn't in the world's top four.

So how do you defend against this spine-chilling opening? It helps if you don't have a spine. Just look how calmly Stockfish, the GOAT computer engine, deals with the Halloween Gambit.

It does not even break a sweat swatting down the knight sacrifice, largely because it also lacks sweat glands.

In delivering checkmate, Stockfish used its king's knight to strike the final blow—the same king's knight that White sacrifices in the Halloween Gambit. Spooky! It's as if to say, "See? This knight is useful."

You can watch the world's top chess engines play this gambit in the Computer Chess Championship Halloween Gambit bonus, live now through Nov. 1. 

Or even better, try out the Halloween Gambit in your own games...if you dare! 🎃

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