The Evans Gambit: A History

The Evans Gambit: A History

| 32 | Opening Theory

This week we turn our attention to one of the most swashbuckling of openings: the Evans Gambit.

Unlike some other openings whose first use was surrounded by mystery and uncertainty, the origins of the Evans Gambit seem fairly clear.

In 1826 or 1827 the Welsh sea captain and inventor William Davies Evans was on shore leave in London.

Evans via wikipedia

There he played against one of the world's leading players at the time, Alexander McDonnell. The concept of the Evans Gambit was introduced, although the actual move order in that first game was 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.0-0 d6 5.b4

While this game introduced the concept of b2-b4, deflecting the black bishop into attack and allowing White to gain a tempo for the conquest of the center, it was not exactly the Evans Gambit as we know it, since b2-b4 was delayed by one move. It appears that it was also Captain Evans who first played the Evans Gambit proper, again against McDonnell:

In those days, obviously, there were no chess databases. There was also no Sahovski Informator and very few books on chess. But, in the small world of chess at the time, opening ideas were infectious. Thus Captain Evans transmitted his gambit to McDonnell. McDonnell then began to use it against Charles de Labourdonnais in there 1834 match, as well Labourdonnais using it against McDonnell.

Thus the epic "Match of the 19th Century" between McDonnell and de Labourdonnais featured many Evans Gambits. The opening received a great deal of testing so early in its history, as well as a lot of promotion, since, predictably, White won most of the games:

Nevertheless, the opening did suffer some losses:

Chess was developing rapidly in those days, going from a parlor game with a handful of relatively serious -- but amateur -- players to becoming something more than just a game, with tournaments, publications, and so on. And of course, in the middle of the 19th century the Evans Gambit was extremely popular. All of the best players of the day used it: Howard Staunton, Jean Dufresne, John Cochrane, Adolf Anderssen, and Paul Morphy.

Morphy via wikipedia

The famous "Evergreen Game" was an Evans Gambit:

Morphy, who took chess a great leap forward as far as adherence to positional principles, used the Evans Gambit many times, marrying the sharp, "speculative" gambit play with healthy, positional play:

The first world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, started out as a romantic, attacking player, typical of the day. Thus, in his early years you can find many times when he used the Evans Gambit as White.

However, at some point -- perhaps in the late 1860s -- Steinitz had a peculiar personal revolution. He began to develop theories about a scientific basis of chess: in particular, that one should not force the game by attacking until there was a logical basis, an advantage, from which to base the attack.

His play, similarly, changed. From his earlier wild, attacking play, it evolved to a rather twisted defensive style, where he was generally happy to grab a pawn and "suffer for his principles." Steinitz began to base his wins on seemingly obscure long-term positional advantages, and to that end he was willing to submit to seemingly powerful attacks in the short-term.

Steinitz via wikipedia

Thus, after the 1860s he only played the Evans Gambit as White a handful of times -- mostly in simultaneous exhibitions and consultation games. But he was very happy to take on the gambit with the black pieces.

This opening featured heavily in Steinitz's great rivalry with the Russian player Mikhail Chigorin.

Chigorin had an interesting place in chess history -- his style was simultaneously a throwback to the pre-Steinitz days of wild, gambit play, while also a precursor of the future "Soviet" dynamic style of play. Thus you can find him using the Evans and King's Gambits as well as futuristic openings like an early version of the King's Indian.

Chigorin added some new ideas to the Evans Gambit. In particular, he tended not to rate the bishops as highly as did some other masters, and one of his ideas involved allowing the trade of the c4-bishop, playing subsequently on his spatial advantage and strong center -- as in this brilliant example of sustained attack from 1889:

Thus the world championship matches between Steinitz and Chigorin -- in addition to some tournament games between them and their cable match -- were in many ways a referendum on the value of the Evans Gambit as well as attacking versus defensive chess in general.

Out of the many possible defensive systems that had been developed by that time, Steinitz chose a rather torturous one in most of their games, combining the move ...Qf6 with ...Nge7 (or, in some cases, ...Nh6), often responding to White's attack Bg5 with the awkward-looking ...Qd6, and frequently retreating the c6-knight to d8 after the move d4-d5.

In most cases, you can say that the opening went in Chigorin's favor. In some ways, you can say that Steinitz handicapped himself by his twisted defensive setup, to which he consistently and rather dogmatically adhered. But Chigorin, in turn, handicapped himself by making frequent severe blunders or simply getting carried away by his fiery nature. Witness the following game, which I annotated in a 2012 article about their rivalry:

Of course, there were many brilliant victories by Chigorin as well:

Check back next week to see how the Evans Gambit developed into a modern opening.

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