The Bishop's Gambit: pre-1900

Jun 24, 2013, 12:43 PM |

The Bishop's Gambit
1.e4 e5  2.f4 exf4 3.Bc4

     All openings tend to get bogged down by an overabundance of theory very quickly.   The Bishop's Gambit is no exception.  Looking into the history of the gambit, I found that the pre-1900 players and analysts were confounded and at odds with each other about it's intrinsic value.   Even more interesting is that the gambit seemed to play out only to be revitalized sometime around the turn of the 20th century, then play out again around the 1940s only to be revitalized to a degree during the Fischer era.   While this opening has always been a sort of side road in the King's Gambit, it winds its way around many of the ready defenses most common in the King's Knight's Gambit (1.e4 e5  2.f4 exf4  3.Nf3) and meanders into territories quite possibly unexplored by one's opponent.

     The most noticable feature of this opening is that it opens White to an early check from Black's Queen.

     This short presentation is designed to be a sort of macroscopic, developmental  look at the King's Bishop's Gambit from an historic vantage point.  It's not designed to be a suggestive nor a theoretical treatise.
     Like the King's Gambit itself, it's meant to be fun.

How the 19th century players viewed the King's Bishop's Gambit 

     While less players today consider this early Queen foray the optimal way for Black to respond even though it ruins White's chances to castle, up until around 1900, this was considered by the majority as Black's best response.  Although the evaluation of the opening wasn't universal, some theorists felt the Bishop's Gambit itself was too risky for White and probably losing with best play, as opposed to the King's Knight Gambit which was considered more solid, yet other felt the opening was just fine.

  In 1813 William Lewis wrote about the gambit's solidness:
             his move of the Bishop (3.Bc4) has usually been considered much
          inferior to playing out K. Kt. chiefly because it allows the Black to
          check the king and compel him to move; this game has, however,
          of late years, been more studied and played, and the move of the bishop 

          is now thought quite as safe as playing K. Kt. to B. third square.

     In 1832 Geo. Walker, in his New Treatise on Chess," was still proclaiming that the Bishops Gambit wasn't as shaky as previously held:
             This opening was, formerly, thought hazardous for the first player;
          but is now generally considered as a safe game; indeed, it is my own
          opinion, that, let the second player try what defence he may, White
          must, at least, recover the Gambit Pawn. I recommend you to study
          this Gambit carefully, and to play it frequently: next to the Muzio, the
          Bishop's Gambit is one of the most brilliant and interesting of games.

     In 1860 Howard Staunton is still echoing those same sentiments:
     from "Chess Praxis" 
               In the whole range of openings there is perhaps none which
          has received more attention of late years than the King's Bishop's
          Gambit. The result has been that the opinions of the Chess world
          have undergone a complete revolution on the subject, and that,
          instead of being regarded as a brilliant but hazardous debut,
          the legitimate result of which is a lost game for the first player,
          the Bishop's Gambit now takes rank as a perfectly sound and safe
          opening, in which, with the very best play, the defence cannot
          do more than draw the game.
               Those who wish to see what extreme minuteness Chess analysis
          admits of, may consult the elaborate series of articles by the
          accomplished and indefatigable analyst Mr. Von Jaenisch, in the
          "Chess Player's Chronicle" for the years 1850-3, whilst these
          themselves are merely supplementary to the copious examination
          of the opening in the same writers "Analyse Nouvelle."

     In "Games Played in the London international Chess Tournament, 1883," James Wade tells us how neglected this opening had become:
          The Bishop's Gambit is rarely ventured in Tournaments or great games,
          being an Opening of a dangerous and decisive character. Out of 283 games
          in the Vienna Tournament of last year there was only one example of it.

     Then in 1887  Rev. C. E. Ranken wrote in the "Chess Player's Chronicle" about the gambit's overwhelming decisiveness:

          ...we find that the attack exclusively in the Bishop's gambit has been
          of late improved, so that the defence, as above already said, stands
          on weaker feet. If, likewise, a declaration in Brownson'a Chess Journal,
          "The Bishop's gambit may be considered theoretically invincible," must
          be designated even now as exaggerated, it remains, however, very
          certain that our skill in the opening affords, at the present standpoint
          of theory, far more pleasantness and chances of winning to the first
          player than to his opponent.

     But we find James Mason in 1894 claiming in his "The Principles of Chess in Theory and Practice" that the opening is great but neglected:
               The other great branch of the King's Gambit is the King's Bishop's
          Gamibit, an opening now very seldom used. Though almost entirely
          out of fashion, it is perhaps the most solid and enduring of all King's
          Gambit attacks; so that its temporarily successful revival in some
          important contest might go far to make it popular as in former days,
          when it was a prime favourite in the Chess world. By playing out his
          Bishop on the third move, and not the Knight, the first player precludes
          the defence 3... P—KKt4 (3...g5); because if his adversary plays
          that move, then 4 P—KR4 (h4) follows, and the reply 4... P—Kt 5, (g4)
          so powerful in the Knight's Gambit, would be worse than futile.
          Nevertheless, experience—reinforcing theory—has declared against the
          Bishop's Gambit, and until this experience is reversed, neglect will most
          probably be its portion.

     A year later Emanuel Lasker tried to seal the gambit's fate by declaring it totally unsound. He published a series of 12 lectures he had given to London chess players in the Spring of 1895 in his book, "Common Sense in Chess." In lecture No.5 he claimed:
               Gentlemen: According to the request you made to me last Monday,
          we shall consider today the King's Bishop's gambit, which, as you all
          know, is constituted by these moves:- 1.e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Bc4.
               If I remind you of Rule III ("Bring your Kts out before developing
          the Bishops, especially the QB"), you will admit that the development
          of the B is not in accordance with our fundamental principles. 
          Actually the move of the KKt to B3 (Nf3) would be far stronger,
          as it leads to a fairly even game, while the KB gambit should be
          lost to the first player.
          ... We must therefore come to the conclusion that the KB gambit
          is unsound.  I will not pretend that there is any right and wrong in
          Chess from an ethical standpoint, but by what right should White,
          in an absolutely even position, such as after move 1, when both sides
          have advanced P-K4, sacrifice a Pawn, whose recpture is quite
          uncertain, and open up his K side to attack?  And then follow up this
          policy by leaving the check of the Black Queen open? 
             None whatsoever! 
             The idea of the gambit, if it has any justification, can only be to
          allure Black into the too violent and hasty pursuit of attack.  If,
          therefore, we can obtain by sound and consistant play the superiority
          of position, common sense triumphs over trickery, and rightly so.

          George H. D. Gossip, in his 1907 "Complete Chess-Guide," apparently doesn't think much of Lasker's assessment and praises the gambit's possibilities:
             This move constitutes the Bishop's Gambit—the strongest of all the
          Gambits on the King's side. As is justly observed by Staunton, "there
          is no opening upon which analysts have lavished so much labour as
          upon the King's Bishop's Gambit, but as in the commentaries upon
          some great classic, the business of one annotator is to destroy the
          toil of his predecessor, so in Chess openings every analyst endeavours
          to upset the conclusions arrived at before him." Jaenisch says, "It is an
          imperishable monument of human wisdom; for it has required centuries
          to its erection, and to the completion of it in its actual state; while
          who can foresee how many new forms of attack and defence may yet
          thereto be added by generations to come?"
             It was the favourite opening of the great MacDonnell, the talented
          opponent of the invincible Frenchman, Labourdonnais, and was greatly
          in vogue three centuries ago in Italy and Spain, being only considered
          inferior to the King's Knight's Gambit by Ponziani and the Italian writers
          of the sixteenth century, on account of the mode of Castling then
          practised, which differs toto caelo from our modern method. It was
          also favoured by the immortal Philidor. 

     So, we can see that the 19th century had a schizophrenic relationship with the King's Bishop's Gambit and uncertainty was the norm.  Even today there is a lot of ambivalence about this opening.  Only one book, at least in recent times, even delves into the complexities of the Bishop's Gambit, a self-published, well received, tome called the "Fascinating King's Gambit" by Thomas Johansson.

The Birth of the King's Bishop Gambit

     Ruy Lopez de Segura gave a token glance at the Bishop's Gambit in 1561

     The Bishop's Gambit is among the earliest and mention by Giulio Cesare Polerio in his manuscripts written between 1572-1594.
    Polerio was a follower of Giovanni Leonardo and accompanied him to Spain where Leonard defeated Ruy Lopez.

     The following fragment is the earliest recorded King's Bishop Gambit from an actual game:

     Going into the 17th century, the Bishop's Gambit was explored by Greco. Later 18th century Italian theorists such as Lolli, Ponziani and Del Rio would ignore the Bishop's Gambit since their preferred method of castling, Free Castling, would render it useless, but Greco, also an Italian, was well traveled and used the caslting method of other countries, the one we use today, dubbed "arrocco alla calabrista" in Greco's honor (Greco's sobriquet was "il Calabrese.")  Philidor would later adopt the Bishop's Gambit alla Greco. According to Prof. Louis Hoffmann in his "The Games of Greco" (1900), Greco's Bishop's Gamits rely too heavily on Black's weak play.  But even as examples of how not to defend against the Bishop's Gambit, Greco's games are worthwhile and show the popularity of the opnening in the early 1600's. 

     Below are all of Greco's Bishop Gambits.










     We are fortunate to have the following 5 Bishop's Gambits played in Paris 1680 courtesy of Caze's MS.  Something about the participants can be found HERE.






     Philidor, hardly a Romanticist, experimented with the Bishop's Gambit and seemed to approach it a bit positionally as this exceptional game (for it's time, 1790) seems to indicate-



The Bishop's Gambit as played by the 19th Century Masters

     William Lewis, protegee of Jacob Surratt, chess author and one-time director of the Turk in England, published a book called Letter on Chess in 1844 under the pseudonym "U. Ewell" (pronounced U. U-ell or double-U L  or W.L. ).  The book is a compendium of supposedly brilliant game played through that time.  One of the Bishop's Gambit was played by Lewis himself.  While both White and Black play cleverly, White seems to make some suspect moves that succeed and Black some second rate defenses.  Overall, however, it's an altogether enjoyable game to play through -

     Alexander M'Donnell, mentioned above by several writers as being an asute Bishop's Gambiteer, failed to prove it in his 1834 match with Labourdonnais, losing all 5 games he played with that opening, and some, like the following, rather quickly -

     In London, 1851, Anderssen played the most famous Bishop's Gambit of all, his Immortal Game against Lionel Kieseritsky. It's so famous, I won't put it here, but the link is in the name.

     In 1853 Alexander Petroff, the great Russian player, had a series of games with Alexander Hoffmann in Warsaw of which several were Bishop's Gambits.  Below is one of those games:



     Morphy, oddly enough, almost never introduced the Bishop's Gambit but had an almost impeccible record playing against it.  Below is a loss (one of Morphy's two losses against this opening) to Arnous de Riviere in 1863:

     Other than a consultation game, here is the only recorded game with Paul Morphy (10 or 11 years old playing his father Alonzo) introducing the King's Bishop Gambit . -

      Finally, we'll wrap up the overview with Emanuel Lasker who would pronounce the unsoundness of the Bishop's Gambit and proclaimed it a dead loss for White - something he failed to prove OTB against the man dubbed the "New Morphy" in 1896.