The Benko Gambit (also known as the Volga Gambit) is one of the most attractive chess openings for Black against 1.d4. Why? Because it’s a special kind of gambit which most club players rated below 2100 are unable to deal with.
In the Benko Gambit, Black does not sacrifice a pawn for tactical counter-chances and a lead in development but for positional reasons.
Black sacrifices a pawn very early in the opening to obtain active piece play and long-lasting positional compensation in the form of the half-open a- and b-files.
From a practical point of view, White’s position is extremely difficult to play. For the White player, it requires a huge amount of deep opening preparation and positional understanding to prove anything against the Benko Gambit.
The Benko Gambit starts with the moves 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 b5!? (see the diagram on the right).
This opening has been played by Super-Grandmasters such as Carlsen, Kasparov, Anand, Topalov, Ivanchuk, Bologan, Adams and Shirov, and is very dangerous to play against.
The Benko Gambit is one of these openings that does not get the attention it deserves, mainly because engines favor White with his extra pawn.
However, diving deeper into the opening, even the strongest engines can’t show a clear way for White to get an advantage.
- Not comfortable about playing with the Black pieces? Check out this must-read guide on chess openings for Black
For this reason, this opening guide on the Benko Gambit provides you with all you need to know about this fascinating opening. What kind of compensation does Black have for a positional gambit? Can White slow down Black’s counterplay? Or will White be run over on the queenside? And what are the main lines and the latest theoretical developments for both sides? All these questions will be addressed in this article.
To start with, let’s go for a little journey through time and take a look at this inspirational game:
Taimanov, Mark – Bronstein, David, Zürich 1953
This game was played in the famous Zurich 1953 chess tournament. The tournament was a Candidates Tournament for the 1954 World Chess Championship.
The tournament featured 15 of the world’s best chess players at the time and was finally won by Vasily Smyslov, who deserved the right to play a match for the chess crown against the reigning World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik.
Today, the tournament is also famous for the two tournament books written by David Bronstein and Miguel Najdorf. The books are considered to be the best tournament books ever written and are still a must-read for every aspiring player with a classical chess education.
The Benko Gambit: Basics and Key Concepts
The Benko Gambit (also known as the Volga Gambit) starts with moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5!? The opening got its name in honor of the Hungarian-American Grandmaster Pal Benko, who contributed a lot to the theoretical development of the Benko Gambit in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1974, he finally published the book The Benko Gambit in which he provided many new ideas and suggestions for Black.
Yet, the Benko Gambit has stood the test of time and is still widely employed in the 21st century by Grandmasters and club players alike.
If White accepts the pawn sacrifice, the game continues with the moves 4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 g6 6.Nc3 Bxa6 (see the diagram on the right).
This is the starting position of the Benko Gambit, where White has the choice between two big main lines – the Fianchetto Variation with 7.g3 and the Artificial Castling Variation with 7.e4.
However, before continuing to any concrete variation, let’s evaluate the position at hand. What’s Black’s exact compensation for the sacrificed pawn?
- Long-term queenside pressure on the half-open a- and b-file
- Quick development for all his pieces
- A strong fianchettoed bishop on the h8-a1 diagonal.
- A compact pawn structure without any weaknesses (h7-g6-f7-e7-d6-c5)
Black has a wide range of positional ideas in the Benko Gambit to choose from:
- The Knight Maneuver: Maneuvering the f6-knight via e8 and c7 to b5 is a key idea for Black to exchange one of White’s most important defenders on the queenside – the knight on c3.
- Controlling the e5-square: Sometimes, Black can transfer one of his knights to the active e5-square. With knights on d7 and f6, he usually plays …Ng4, threatening to bring both knights to e5. Once White exchanges his f3-knight against one of Black’s knights, the other Black knight occupies the e5-square.
- The c4-push: Sometimes, Black can advance his c-pawn from c5 to c4. The idea of this move is to create strong outposts for one of Black’s knights. Some key knight maneuvers after …c4 are …Nd7-c5-d3 or …Ne5-d3. When White has his b-pawn already on b3, Black can also play …c4 to attack White’s queenside pawns. As a rule of thumb, you can remember that playing …c5-c4 is usually good when White can’t answer this move with b3-b4.
- Maneuvering the Light-Squared Bishop: Black often does not have a good square for his light-squared bishop. In the Artificial Castling Variation, the bishop will be exchanged very early. In the Fianchetto Variation where White does not play e2-e4 so early, Black can often regroup this bishop from a6 to c8 to f5, occupying another diagonal and creating more weaknesses in White’s position.
- Central Pawn Levers: Another idea for Black is to go for pawn levers in the center. Typical pawn levers are …e6 (to undermine the d5-pawn) or …f5 (to undermine the e4-pawn).
- Exchanging Queens: As we’ve seen in the model game between Taimanov and Bronstein, exchanging queens often benefits Black in the Benko Gambit. When the Benko Gambit was beginning to develop as a serious opening against 1. d4 for the Black player, many strong players simply could not believe that trading the queens while down a pawn could help Black. However, with active piece-play, Black has very good chances of winning in the endgame even though he is down material. One key idea behind the queen exchange is that it often severely weakens White’s light-squares.
Theory Section: The Benko Gambit Accepted
The Benko Gambit Accepted (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5!? 4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6) is the critical line and principal test for Black’s setup.
As mentioned before, White has the choice between two main lines – the Fianchetto Variation with 7.g3 and the Artificial Castling Variation with 7.e4. We take a look at both of them.
Benko Gambit: Fianchetto Variation with 7.g3
Benko Gambit: Artificial Castling Variation
The Benko Gambit Declined
White may decline Black’s pawn sacrifice on the 4th or 5th move. For instance, after 3…b5 4.cxb5 (simply 4.Nf3 is also possible) a6 White can avoid Gambit lines by playing 5.b6!? (see the position on the right). This kind of reaction is called The Benko Gambit Declined.
In this case, we often get some hybrid structures of the Benoni System that you can see in the diagram on the left. Obviously, Black is going to take the b6-pawn on the next move. The a1-a8 vertical is already closed, but Black still pressures on the b-file and a1-h8 diagonal.
He is also looking for a Ne8-c7 maneuvering idea that may be continued with …f7-f5 or …e7-e6 strikes, or simply with the transfer of the knight on the b5-square (later possibly on d4, too). Nowadays the declined Benko Gambit is absolutely a playable line for Black, with a lot of dynamic possibilities and practical chances.
Best Games In The Benko Gambit (in 2017 and 2018)
Although the engines don’t like the Benko Gambit, the opening is still played by some of the world’s best players with Black. There are also some new theoretical developments and ideas for Black which was currently tested.
One fashionable idea, for example, is to delay capturing the pawn on a6 and to play …Bg7 first. Later, Black can take the pawn on a6 also with the knight.
Let’s now take a look at two recent games in which Black (the Super-GMs Vladimir Kramnik and Sam Shankland) showed how to play the Benko and win:
Harika, Dronavalli (2528) – Kramnik, Vladimir (2803): Isle of Man Open 2017
Li, Chao (2732) – Shankland, Sam (2702): China vs World Team 2018
Opening Experts in the Benko Gambit:
If you want to become an expert in your chess opening, it is a wise decision to regularly check the games of the world’s leading experts.
You can watch their approaches against different opening setups and become familiar with the latest trends, fashionable move orders or opening novelties.
If you choose to play the Benko Gambit, you have several opening experts to follow.
You can check the games of the famous commentator GM Alejandro Ramirez, GM Sam Shankland, GM Viktor Bologan, GM Milos Perunovic, and GM Daniil Dubov.
Conclusion – Master The Benko Gambit
The Benko Gambit is one of the best openings for club players, and you should consider giving it a try to expand your horizons. Black sacrifices a pawn very early to generate long-term counterplay. He builds up a large amount of pressure on the queenside in this opening, forcing White to be very careful in the way that he responds.
It’s key to notice that this his gambit is very unique as Black is not really trying to gain immediate tactical counterplay in the center, but rather wants to play for static pressure on the queenside via the open a- and b-file.
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