The Witkin Gambit

The Witkin Gambit

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When Arnie asked me for an online class I expected the usual routine. Check the common mistakes that he makes, have a close look at what can be improved, and eventually create a training program for him. I was not aware that this class will be unusual.

Instead, Arnie invited for the session his good friend Mike Katz and together we sank deep into the exploration of the Witkin Gambit.

You are probably wondering what is that new Gambit you might have never heard of. No need to google it, the name is still unofficial. Arnie invented the sharp reply against the Alekhine defence after the moves: 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nd5 3.f4!?

I must confess, I have never seen this opening before in my life. But I immediately liked the idea. What’s the pawn gambited for? For starters, White gains a few tempi while chasing the opponent’s knight. Do not forget that greediness is often punished in chess, moreover if you are playing with the black pieces, as you are already somewhat behind with the development. Secondly, White opening gains quick access against the enemy king, namely along the freshly opened f-file. Since the f7 (f2) pawn is by default the weakest defended point at the initial position and is only defended by the king this whole concept makes a lot of sense. We also should not forget that the white bishops are opened quickly and enter the battle at once. And, as always in the Alekhine, White preserves strong central superiority.

Enough chit-chat, now let’s check what might actually happen if Black is over-optimistic.

Arnie first learned to play chess when he was around seven and was in the top players in his school in South Africa at age 14. However, after high school, he didn’t play much chess at university. He returned to chess ten years later, at Johannesburg Chess Club one evening and this coincided with the beginning of the club championship. The return was a huge success as he won all his games in his division and qualified for the first division fairly quickly.

At this point, he had to face four South African champions and other very highly rated players. To quote him: “I quickly realized that I was way out of my depth when playing the very top players, but was at least equal, if not better than five below the top. I was also at a huge disadvantage because my knowledge of the book was limited.

In order to try to equalize I decided that I needed to get out of the book as soon as possible. This worked well with all the players, even the champions because they suddenly were confronted with new positions fairly early on. In order to get out of the book, I played unusual openings, such as the Budapest Counter-Gambit and the King’s Gambit.“

The King’s Gambit is so similar to Arnie’s invention, that I guess it was a no-brainer for him to sacrifice the f-pawn in other openings as well.

Arnie again: “The Witkin Gambit was inspirational. It was around 1973. Black played the Alekhine’s which I hadn’t seen often and I thought, ‘What the hell’ and played f4. He looked at this for about two minutes and then looked up at me. I smiled and he went back to look at the position again. He was totally thrown. He finally accepted the gambit and I won easily. After that I nearly always opened e4, just hoping that the opposition would play Nf6.”

This is the short history of the creation of a gambit. Let’s now explore one more fun line that was regularly played in many online blitz games by Arnie’s friend Mike:

Arnie’s story continues:

“I didn’t get many chances to play my gambit, but I showed it to Eddie Price, a former South African champion. Very sportingly he agreed to play the Alekhine’s in the Twins Johannesburg Open. He never played it at all. Therefore that is the only recorded game of the Witkin Gambit. Eddie said that it was one of the most interesting games he had ever played. He took a big gamble because it wouldn’t look good if a South African champion lost to a relatively lowly rated player. He said that he was terrified the whole game.

In the game, I sacrificed two pieces and then got into time trouble. I knew that I should have sacrificed a third, but moved impulsively when the clock was running down. My attack came to nothing and I lost on time. Kurt Dreyer, a former South African chess champion, was the chess correspondent for The Star newspaper. He wrote up the game and concluded that it was a perfectly playable gambit. However, there has never been any analysis before this by Dejan.

I played a lot on the Internet. When the gambit was accepted, I had a 90% success rate. When it was declined the success rate was around 75%. It was nearly always accepted, but on one occasion when it was declined I asked the opposition why he didn’t take the pawn. ‘What pawn?’ he said. I had to take him back to the position to show him. He was flabbergasted.

Mike took up the cudgels for the Witkin Gambit and played it whenever possible as well. He also had a 90% success rate, but he said that there were hardly any draws! Bear in mind that on the Internet we are playing fairly lowly ranked players in 2 mins plus 10 seconds games. Who knows what would happen with highly ranked players.”

Speaking of an acid test, it might indeed be the rejection of the gambit. On move three instead of the capture on f4 Black may choose to attack the center with 3...d7-d6, or to go for Sicilian-type of positions with 3...c7-c5. But this is definitely not a refutation of White’s play.

According to Wikipedia .org the word “gambit” comes from the Italian expression “dare il gambetto” (to put a leg forward in order to trip someone). But all the chess players know it as a:” brave attempt to take over the initiative as soon as possible and let the energy prevail the material.”

Jokes aside, in the times where the chess world is dominated by the opinion of computers and tries to even imitate their thinking and evaluations one needs the courage to sacrifice anything. True, Arnie Witkin invented his gambit in the pre-machine era, but nevertheless, his efforts deserve the highest praise.

According to Megabase, the first game played in the line was the following miniature:

However, Arnie keeps his old South-African newspaper, which dates prior to the game and which gives him all the rights to claim this opening for himself.


It is rare to find a perfectly sound innovation on move three, especially nowadays. There are a number of tight lines that would take many more games to analyze properly, but on the surface, I believe that, whether the gambit is accepted or declined, White probably enjoys an interesting, sharp, and fun play – especially if black has never seen the opening!

Chess will get tougher and tougher with time, but I strongly believe that there will be always a place for the beauty in it. Courage and conviction will survive, as well as the gambits.

Hopefully, the Witkin one will be one of these. I invite anyone to participate in the analysis of the fascinating lines of the gambit!

Arnie Witkin is the author of ‘It’s Not a Big Thing in Life.’ Strategies for Coping. Considerations for my Adult Grandchildren.