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The Evans Gambit: Modern Play

The Evans Gambit: Modern Play

Apr 16, 2015, 12:00 AM 20 Opening Theory

Last week, we looked at the origins of the exciting Evans Gambit.

Today, let's find out how the opening has journeyed through history to modern day. 

While in keeping with his style, Wilhelm Steinitz's torturous defensive method against the Evans Gambit in some ways made the gambit look quite strong: in other words, the gambit is good and correct, so "normal" play by Black will not be sufficient.

But it was Steinitz's successor, Emanuel Lasker, who employed the defensive plan that practically relegated the Evans Gambit to the dustbin.

Lasker was less of a theoretician than earlier players. He did not form any real "school" of chess, and in general had a practical attitude towards the game.

He saw chess as a battle, and whatever helped a player to win the battle was the best way. Thus it was he who saw the value in this apparently simple development system in combating the Evans Gambit.

Evans via Wikipedia

White is invited to win back the pawn by 8.dxe5 dxe5 9.Qxd8+ Nxd8 10.Nxe5 -- but as a result, an endgame will be reached where the only player who can be better is Black, due to his superior pawn structure. While in this way Black does not cling to his extra pawn in an attempt to "refute" the gambit, such an outcome -- an early and slightly worse endgame -- is clearly not acceptable for White. Thus winning the pawn back in that way is basically precluded. Black gets to obtain a more reasonable development than either Steinitz's defensive setup or earlier methods such as the one in the Chigorin-Pollock or Anderssen-Dufresne games.

In fact, the defense named after Lasker was first played in one of the McDonnell-de Labourdonnais games from 1834, and a few times subsequently. But it became connected to Lasker's name due to the high profile of his 1897 game against Chigorin:

In essence, it looked like Lasker, casually and with his typical "common sense" attitude, refuted the gambit that had enchanted the chess world for more than half a century. There were certainly those who saw this as a pity, but in reality this is just how chess moves forward. The popularity of the Evans Gambit declined sharply in the first part of the 20th century, and by the middle-to-late 20th century had all but died. It was basically being used as an occasional weapon or "fun" choice or by a few isolated mavericks.

Well known is the 1963 game between Bobby Fischer and the retired Reuben Fine -- however, that was a casual game, taking place at Fine's house; while Fischer used the Evans Gambit frequently, he only did so in simultaneous exhibitions. Most likely he saw it as an enjoyable opening -- and perhaps practical for beating weaker players -- but not one which was reliable for a "real" game.

By the 1980s there were a couple of top players who used the Evans Gambit from time to time -- in particular, Jan Timman and John Nunn. But it was really quite a rare opening.

Then suddenly in 1995 -- in the last tournament game before their match -- Garry Kasparov employed it against Viswanathan Anand. Perhaps he wanted to strike a psychological blow. And strike he did:

Predictably, after this, the Evans Gambit experienced quite a revival. The top players turned their greater flexibility of thought and understanding of dynamics towards Lasker's defense, finding some promising ways for White to play. In particular, White could in a way avoid the Lasker defense by playing the immediate 6.d4, and meeting 6...d6 with 7.Qb3. This necessitated a somewhat awkward defense of the f7 pawn, allowing White to get the typical attacking possibilities. In truth, Paul Morphy had played this way in Alabama in 1855, but those games are easily forgotten.

To illustrate White's attacking chances, here is a beautiful game by Sweden's fierce attacking player, Jonny Hector:

At the same time, top players have hardly been frightened by the Evans Gambit, and the same minds which elucidated better attacking chances for White also improved Black's defensive chances. While the Lasker Defense was no longer held as a "refutation" of the opening, it became one among several good defensive methods. Although Anand lost the game against Kasparov, it seems that he knew what he was doing with his choice of 5...Be7 -- since this is nowadays regarded as the most solid line, giving Black  fairly easy equality. Like Lasker's idea, Black generally gives back the pawn to reach a sound position:

A more ambitious system was developed as well, involving a capture on d4 followed by ...Nge7. Black thus dodged the advance e4-e5, while preparing the central counter ...d7-d5. It is a modern-looking system, although -- like the others -- had been seen in a few 19th-century games.

Where does the Evans Gambit stand today? Is it a 21st-century opening?

I don't think so. I feel that the gambit remains firmly a 19th-century creature. And thus it has its own kind of charms. My feeling is that this is an opening that a strong player might get interested in, analyze for a while and play for some time, before giving up. Kasparov only played it in one other tournament game since the game with Anand.

The opening is certainly not refuted, although Black's 5...Be7 defense has a good reputation as an equalizer. A further problem for White is that if he wants to play the Evans Gambit he must also prepare a response to the Two Knights Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6, instead of 3...Bc5).

Ultimately, it is one of a variety of interesting ways for White, against 1...e5, to avoid both the theoretical quagmires in the principled variations of the Ruy Lopez as well as the rather dry and symmetrical positions that can occur in the Italian Game or "slow" variations of the Ruy Lopez. And it is certainly enjoyable, from time to time, to return to chess's romantic heritage.

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