The King's Gambit: A History

The King's Gambit: A History

| 37 | Opening Theory

With last week's column, we reached the end of my series on endgames, "Without the Lady." It has been an interesting journey through one of chess's most mysterious and underappreciated domains -- but the end has come.

I now begin a new column covering the historical development of various openings.

I have already written several articles, during my "Attack and Defense" phase, on this subject -- see "Attack and Defense in the Benoni," "Attack and Defense in the Dragon" and "Mar Del Plata."

This column will follow a similar pattern, showing the themes of various openings and the critical games played by grandmasters in them, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on history.

Knowing how an opening developed is not just a matter of curiosity, for historians - it is also very important for practical players. It is easy to open up Chessbase or some other database, or a contemporary book, and see the state of a particular opening today and how its practitioners play it today. But by doing only that, you will not develop a deep understanding of the opening or understand why modern grandmasters play it as they do.

So we begin, and what better opening to start with than the storied King's Gambit -- opening of antiquity and of modern-day romantics?

This is an opening which originated in the 16th century, and whose death has frequently been announced -- from Rudolf Spielman's mournful 1924 article "From the Deathbed of the King's Gambit," to Bobby Fischer's 1961 "A Bust to the King's Gambit," to the recent April 1, 2012 hoax claiming that computers had "solved" it to a forced win for Black.

I have often wondered why the King's Gambit was one of chess's "original" openings -- indeed, pitching the f2-pawn and exposing one's own king is not the first thought that comes to mind when looking at the position after 1.e4 e5.

It is understandable that the Italian Game and the Spanish have such an ancient heritage, but the King's Gambit? Who first thought of it and saw its hidden values?

After each side has placed one pawn in the center in logical fashion, gaining space and opening the way for development of the king's bishop, White suddenly used his one-move advantage in a symmetrical position to strike at the black central pawn.

The hope is to knock out the black e-pawn, allowing White to take over the center, rapidly develop the pieces, open the f-file, and perhaps attack f7.

There are some downsides to this move: primarily, that the f4-pawn is not defended, and that moving the f2-pawn exposes the white king.

The first example of a King's Gambit that I have found, played by Ruy Lopez in Rome, 1560, shows the advantages of the white side well.

The name Ruy Lopez is attached to the Spanish Opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5), but it appears that he was an early practitioner of the King's Gambit as well.

Did Ruy Lopez actually invent the King's Gambit? Or was it perhaps invented by some lord or lady in a castle, and passed on by word of mouth during those misty, early days of chess? This we will probably never know.

From the 16th until the late 19th century, the King's Gambit was very popular. Defensive technique -- in particular, the ability to return material in order to gain an advantage in position -- was not well developed.

Players like Gioacchino Greco, Alexander McDonnell, Lionell Kieseritsky, and -- especially -- Adolf Anderssen swashbuckled with the King's Gambit during those far-away times.

None less than the so-called "Immortal Game" began with the King's Gambit.

However, as with all things, chess began to change. In the late 19th century, Wilhelm Steinitz emerged as the first world champion. Chess began its journey towards becoming a science and a profession.

Steinitz himself was a swashbuckling gambiteer early on in his career, but after a revelation he became a dour defender, willing to grab a pawn and endure an attack. He emphasized the slow building up of a position. Under the influence of the so-called classical school of chess (especially associated with Siegbert Tarrasch), the popularity of the King's Gambit began to wane at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

The King's Gambit began to be seen as an unscientific opening. Games with 1.d4 d5 predominated. Nevertheless, Steinitz himself was a paradoxical player, and sometimes used the King's Gambit as White -- particularly with an unusual variation involving an early king walk:

During this era, there were a few holdouts for the romantic style -- especially the Russian player Mikhail Chigorin, who still used the King's Gambit (along with the Evans Gambit).

Chigorin himself had a great many battles with Steinitz, where the opposing views of chess were put into play. Chigorin's style itself is paradoxical in a way: while he can be seen as a rustic romantic, he was also ahead of his time, influencing the development of the dynamic, "Soviet"-style 40-50 years later.

Eventually, a few pioneers began to see that the King's Gambit as compatible with the modern principles of positional play. In particular, Akiba Rubinstein -- seen as a harmonious and very sound positional player, famous for his endgame skill -- was an exponent of the King's Gambit.

However, he did not see a dramatic attack (regardless of its objective value) in the ways that the older masters did. Instead, he used the King's Gambit as a way to gain a positional advantage. One of his most famous games was played in the King's Gambit:

Besides Rubinstein, however, there were few exponents of the King's Gambit between 1910 and 1940. Early in his career, Paul Keres used it,  especially in correspondence games, but later he preferred first other open games, and then closed games.

A rejuvenation of the King's Gambit occurred in the post-war years, particularly with David Bronstein. The imaginative Soviet player -- who tied a world championship match with Mikhail Botvinnik -- wrote the following in his excellent book, 200 Open Games:

"It is no secret that any talented player must in his soul be an artist, and what could be dearer to his heart and soul than the victory of the subtle forces of reason over crude material strength! Probably everyone has his own reason for liking the King's Gambit, but my love for it can be seen in precisely those terms."

Bronstein may have, in his heart, been trying to hark back to the early, romantic days of chess, but he was still a fierce competitor who depended on chess for his livelihood. He was not going to sacrifice his competitive results in order to play an opening to which he was only sentimentally attached -- nor would a chess artist knowingly play an opening he considered incorrect.

His use of the King's Gambit was backed up by his appreciation for its value in the chess of his day -- in particular, with the Soviet players' emphasis on concrete evaluations and dynamics.

After Bronstein, Boris Spassky sometimes used the King's Gambit at the top level, in particular, defeating Bobby Fischer, which occasioned the latter's famous "A Bust to the King's Gambit" article, advocating 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 d6.

Another famous Spassky King's Gambit was played against none other then Bronstein himself:

Today, at the top level, the King's Gambit is rarely seen. The top players who have used it since the 1990s are Nigel Short, Alexander Morozevich, and Judit Polgar. But even they only used it as an occasional surprise weapon.

For a while in the 90s, the Belorussian GM Alexei Fedorov was playing in many of the top tournaments, and played the King's Gambit almost constantly.

There were even some theoretical debates between him and other strong GMs, such as Viswanathan Anand, Alexei Shirov, and Vassily Ivanchuk -- but even he soon gave it up and has not played it since 2004 (when he played it against none other than Magnus Carlsen!)

However, this was probably a huge blow to his King's Gambit, in one of the critical lines:

After more than 400 years of King's Gambits, with the opening alternately denounced and lauded, the viewpoint most masters take is the following: it is borderline sound, but definitely risky.

There are a number of ways Black can get a good game, but many ways for him to go wrong; on the other hand, a single mistake by White can also mean disaster.

The opening is thus great for must-win games, such as the following game by Alexander Shimanov against Gata Kamsky from the recent World Cup (Shimanov had to win the game or be eliminated from the tournament).

In the past, I used to play the King's Gambit constantly. I quit it entirely right around the time when I started to actually depend on some prizes for my livelihood. During the time I did play it, however, my results were quite good -- I won nearly every game, although my opponents were not particularly strong players in most cases.

I would like to play the King's Gambit again, and sometimes I look at it. One time last year, I even played it in a tournament game. But I have two problems with it.

One is that I feel Black can equalize pretty easily by the so-called "Modern Defense" -- 1.e4 e5 2.f4 d5 3.exd5 exf4 4.Nf3 Nf6 -- and this move order avoids the Bxd5 option which Shimanov used in the above game.

And second, that I do not think the main line of the Accepted Gambit is...acceptable for White, as can be seen in the Ivanchuk game above, as well as the following game (which White actually won, although his position was hopeless):

I see the great practical benefit of the opening, especially for my style -- concrete play, with rich positions, avoiding symmetry, avoiding the Berlin endgame, etc.

There are a great many people against whom the King's Gambit would work very well. However, I cannot bring myself to play an opening that I do not trust.

Nevertheless, it lives on -- and I believe the place to look, in the accepted gambit, is in the line 3. Bc4 -- as Shimanov played against Kamsky.

As one grows up -- or as the world grows, as a whole -- one tends to put away the childhood toys and pick up new things.

But it doesn't do any harm to leave the old toy on the shelf, perhaps even polish every once in a while and take it out to remember its sentimental value.


More from GM BryanSmith
Magnus Carlsen And The Nimzo-Indian Defense

Magnus Carlsen And The Nimzo-Indian Defense

Vishy Anand And The Semi-Slav Defense

Vishy Anand And The Semi-Slav Defense