The King’s Gambit: The Ultimate Chess Opening Guide
What Is The King’s Gambit?
- A chess opening for White
- Characterized by the moves 1.e4 e5 2.f4
- An old opening from the romantic era of chess
- One of the spiciest, most aggressive openings and gambits in chess
- A surprise weapon for White to catch Black off-guard
- Played by chess giants like Hikura Nakamura, Nigel Short and Boris Spassky
“In my opinion, the King’s Gambit is busted. It loses by force.” – Bobby Fischer
The King’s Gambit (which arises after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.f4 – see the diagram on the right) is about the most fun you can have in chess: your pieces fly out, pawns rage forward, you sacrifice with wild abandon and announce mate on move 18. At least, this is what happened when the King’s Gambit was in full bloom during the romantic era of chess in the 18th and 19th century.
Some of the greatest and most famous chess games ever have been played in this opening, such as the “Immortal Game” between Anderssen and Kieseritky. Yet, the public view on the King’s Gambit has changed dramatically throughout time.
First of all, the King’s Gambit’s popularity decreased significantly when positional chess was on the rise at the end of the 19th century. The general defensive abilities of the players rose and Black players found ways to counter the King’s Gambit by giving back the extra pawn or refusing to accept the gambit in the first place.
In the first half of the 20th century, there were not too many chess players who regularly used the opening. Players like Savielly Tartakower or Rudolf Spielmann played this opening occasionally.
After World War II, however, the opening got some more attention thanks to David Bronstein and former World Champion Boris Spassky who played the opening from time to time.
After Boris Spassky beat Bobby Fischer with the King’s Gambit at Mar del Plata in 1960, FIscher analyzed the opening more deeply and, one year later in 1961, came up with an article called “A Bust to the King’s Gambit” in which he claimed to have refuted the gambit. He wrote: “In my opinion, the King’s Gambit is busted. It loses by force.” His suggestion for Black was 3…d6.
His article became widely popular and also had a tremendous impact on many chess players’ opinions on the gambit. Today, the King’s Gambit is only very rarely seen in games among world-class players.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen tried it a few times in blitz games; Hikura Nakamura successfully played it in a few tournament games every now and then and other top players occasionally go for it from time to time, usually in games with shorter time controls, or simuls.
However, the fact that an opening is not frequently played at the highest level does not necessarily mean that it’s not an excellent weapon in the hands of club players. Recently, there have been several attempts to restore the reputation of the King’s Gambit.
GM Simon Williams, for instance, made a two-part video series on this opening and GM John Shaw published a highly praised book on the King’s Gambit for the renowned publishing house Quality Chess.
- If you want to know how to study chess openings the right way, read this detailed and easy-to-scan guide on how to learn openings
If Spassky beat Fischer with it, if Morozevich crushed Anand, and if Nakamura outplayed Adams with the opening, it seems like it can’t be too bad! If this opening can occasionally take down even the greatest players in the world, you’re bound to find success at the chess club or in your tournaments against most players who haven’t spent the time to analyze it.
This free opening guide on the King’s Gambit provides you with all you need to know about this fascinating opening.
- Is the King’s Gambit an outdated opening of the past which can no longer be taken seriously today?
- Can you still play the opening in a time where strong chess engines and huge databases are the predominant sources for opening preparation?
- What are the overall advantages of playing the King’s Gambit?
- How can White launch an early attack in this opening? Which opening traps and typical tactical motifs should both sides be aware of?
- What are the best setups for Black with which he can defend against this opening?
All these questions will be addressed in this article.
The King’s Gambit – Basics and Key Concepts
“By what right does White, in an absolutely even position, such as after move one, when both sides have advanced 1. e4, sacrifice a pawn, whose recapture is quite uncertain, and open up his kingside to attack? And then follow up this policy by leaving the check of the black queen open? None whatever!” – Emanuel Lasker
The King’s Gambit is one of the spiciest, most aggressive openings and gambits in chess. It begins with the moves 1.e4 e5 2.f4 (see the diagram on the right).
First of all, it’s important to note that with the move 2.f4, White breaks with conventional wisdom on the main opening principles. Instead of developing his pieces, he moves a pawn which defends his own king. Playing the King’s Gambit is a risky and double-edged choice.
Yet, the move 2.f4 does not only have its downsides.
White, on the second move, challenges Black’s center and begins an attack on Black’s kingside. The main idea of the move 2.f4 is to eliminate Black’s central pawn on e5. Ideally, White would like to follow up by occupying the center with his pawns and regaining the pawn on f4.
Generally speaking, with the move 2.f4, White slightly weakens the position of his own king in order to get a pawn majority in the center, a lead in development and a quick initiative on the f-file.
Black can choose to accept or decline the gambit but the majority of Black players choose to accept the gambit and then try to counterattack White’s semi-exposed kingside.
If Black accepts the gambit, White has two main options.
He can either try to develop quickly with the moves Nf3, Bc4 and 0-0, rapidly piling up pressure against the weakest point in Black’s camp – the f7-square.
Alternatively, White can also go for a quick d2-d4, followed by recapturing the pawn on f4. If White gets this done without any resistance by Black, he clearly dominates the center and enjoys excellent squares for all his pieces. The following video is a great way to introduce yourself to this chess opening.
Why Play The King’s Gambit?
“All gambits are sound over the board.” – William Ewart Napier
Before we dive deep into any lines, it’s always a wise decision to take a look at the broader picture. Why play the King’s Gambit at all? What kind of playing style will suit the King’s Gambit?
There are several reasons to play the King’s Gambit:
- First of all, playing the King’s Gambit can be a vital alternative for all 1.e4 players who are tired of repeatedly entering the highly theoretical terrain of all the mainlines after 2.Nf3. The King’s Gambit will frustrate Black players used to trying their pet lines against White’s 1.e4-openings.
- Similarly, the King’s Gambit is a very surprising opening. Club players often have no repertoire against the King’s Gambit which gives you a huge advantage. The King’s Gambit is a very forcing and sharp opening. If Black does not know what he is doing, there is a good chance he will go down quickly in an early attack.
- The King’s Gambit is an opening that will sharpen your tactical eye. If you’re a materialistic or positional chess player, playing the King’s Gambit helps you to develop a more universal style – a key component if you want to become a very strong player. In the opening, you often sacrifice material and play with compensation. Moreover, the opening leads to sharp, open positions which helps you to get practice in these types of positions.
- Moreover, if you play the King’s Gambit regularly and you’re used to difficult positions, you’ll gather a lot of experience in these types of positions. In difficult positions, the player with more experience in this territory usually gets rewarded.
- The King’s Gambit not only helps you to steer away from mainstream theory – thanks to the theoretical developments over the last years, the King’s Gambit definitely carries a lot of theoretical bite in many lines. It is a common occurrence that club players try to develop naturally against the King’s Gambit and soon find themselves in a tactically lost position. They lose the game without even understanding why they lost.
- The King’s Gambit is a lot of fun. It allows you to become creative, to use your imagination and to enjoy wild positions with exotic combinations, where every single move can be decisive. The King’s Gambit also allows you to travel in time and get a feeling of how chess must have been 200 years ago.
- Defending is harder than attacking: In chess, attacking is easier than defending. When you’re attacking, you can mostly focus on your own ideas and plans. When you’re defending, you always have to react to your opponent’s moves and ideas. This is what makes defending a lot harder than attacking – you can’t really focus on your own ideas, but have to pay a lot more attention to your opponent’s intentions. It’s key to notice that the defensive skills of most club players are very weak. Therefore, it makes sense to play an attacking opening.
King’s Gambit – Typical Chess Tactics
“It doesn’t require much for misfortune to strike in the King’s Gambit – one incautious move and Black can be on the edge of the abyss.” – Anatoly Karpov
Active learning is the key to success in chess.
Before we go deeper into various lines, you have the opportunity to dive actively into the waters of the King’s Gambit and solve 4 puzzles that feature typical tactical motifs that frequently arise from this opening. Have a go! (You’ll find all the solutions at the end of the article.)
The King’s Gambit – An Aggressive Chess Opening For White
“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.” – David Bronstein
To start with, we take a look at the attacking potential of the King’s Gambit. In the database, you can find many games in the King’s Gambit that resulted in a quick win for White. Let’s take a look at some of these games:
Adolf Anderssen – Lionel Kieseritzky, 1851 (The Immortal Game)
An article on the King’s Gambit would be incomplete without the most famous chess game that has ever been played in the opening.
During the 19th century, right up until the 1880’s, the game developed into the shape of the modern chess game. This period is known as the romantic era of chess.
There are many famous chess games from the romantic era of chess but one stands out as being so great that all other brilliancies are named after it. We’re talking about the original Immortal Game, played in 1851 between Adolf “Attack, always attack!” Anderssen and top French player Lionel Kieseritzky. The opening was, of course, the King’s Gambit.
If you’re looking for some video analysis of the Immortal Game, you can watch the following video, where IM Valeri Lilov takes a closer look at the game:
Short, Nigel – Kasparov, Garry, London 1993
In 1993, Nigel Short beat Garry Kasparov in 15 moves with the King’s Gambit. In Kasparov’s defense, it needs to be said that the game was an exhibition game and he was forced to play an old line against the King’s Gambit. In any event, the game is a nice illustration of how quickly things can go wrong for Black.
Shirov, Alexei (2500) – Lapinski, Jerzy (2200), Daugavpils 1990
Finally, we take a look at another miniature played by a young Alexei Shirov in the 1990s. Shirov has always been known as an uncompromising attacking player who loves to go for sharp positions.
Theory Section: The King’s Gambit – How To Play With White
“Theory regards this opening as incorrect, but it is impossible to agree with this. Out of the five tournament games played by me with the King’s Gambit, I have won all five.” – David Bronstein
So far, we’ve seen three crushing wins in the King’s Gambit as an appetizer to integrate it into your repertoire of chess openings for White as a surprise weapon. In all these games, an early kingside attack – which is a recurring theme in this opening – decided the outcome of the game.
Now, we’re going to dive a bit deeper into the theory of the King’s Gambit. We’re going to look at the most important lines where Black accepts the gambit, and where Black declines the gambit.
Theory Section: King’s Gambit Accepted
If you take a closer look at a common chess database, you’ll quickly find out that the move 2…exf4 is by far the main move (with a 3:1 margin over the second most common move 2…d5). If you want to play the King’s Gambit, your focus should clearly be on this variation.
White has two main moves now – 3.Nf3 and 3.Bc4. One of the main differences is that the move 3.Bc4 allows Black to give a check on h4.
In this article, we’re mostly focused on the move 3.Nf3, the classical main move. However, we also give you some ideas on what can happen if you start with 3.Bc4. It’s always good to have more than one move to choose from as this allows you to vary within your openings.
Theory Section: King’s Gambit Declined
If Black does not want to accept the gambit, he has several ideas to decline it. Let’s take a look at the options, step-by-step:
Theory Section: The King’s Gambit – How To Play With Black
“Why are not more King’s Gambits played nowadays? Well, in the first place, if you offered the King’s Gambit to a master, eight times out of ten he would decline it, either with 2. … d5 or 2. … Bc5.” – Frank Marshall
The many examples above can easily lead to the impression that Black has a very hard time to counter the King’s Gambit. This is what often happens in practice as the King’s Gambit usually comes as a surprise to the Black player.
However, there are several interesting ways for Black to take the steam out of this opening. In the following section, we’ll give you an introduction to build up a repertoire on how to play against the King’s Gambit with Black.
If you don’t like the variation we suggested for Black, we have an additional system for Black which GM Eugene Perelshteyn explains in the following video. It’s based on an early …Nf6.
Opening Experts in the King’s Gambit
If you want to become an expert on your chess opening, it is a wise decision to regularly check the games of the world’s leading experts in the chess opening.
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 King’s Gambit, you have several opening experts to follow.
Nowadays, the biggest expert in the King’s Gambit is most probably Hikaru Nakamura, who plays it every now and then against the best players in the world.
Other strong players to follow are Nigel Short, Alexander Morozevich and Vassily Ivanchuk.
Also check out the games of GM Vadim Zvjaginsev, GM Alexei Fedorov and GM Alexei Shirov.
Finally, Boris Spassky and David Bronstein frequently used the King’s Gambit in the old days. Boris Spassky, for example, famously never lost a game with White in the King’s Gambit. It’s instructive to study their games, too.
Model Games In The King’s Gambit
Many great games have been played in the King’s Gambit and it’s definitely worth studying them.
In order to properly learn a new opening, it is not enough to take a close look at theoretical lines – you also need to study some classical model games.
Checking complete games has various advantages. Most importantly, you get a better overall understanding of the positions arising from your opening. The focus is on a general understanding of the resulting middlegame and endgame positions.
As the famous Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan once put it: “Study entire games. Your study can become disjointed if you just learn an opening set-up. Don’t just study the opening and early middlegame but instead play the entire game. Don’t just stop when your side has a good position.”
Let’s now take a look at some classical and recent games in which White showed how to play the King’s Gambit against decent opposition:
Nakamura, Hikaru – Adams, Michael: London 2011
The following game is a good example of the complexity of the King’s Gambit. Black gets a good position out of the opening, but the position remains very complicated. Finally, Nakamura kept the upper hand in the wild tactical complications.
Spassky, Boris – Fischer, Bobby: Mar del Plata 1960 and Morozevich, Alexander – Anand, Vishy: Moscow 1995
The following video deals with two classical lessons in the King’s Gambit.
IM Valeri Lilov will talk you through some of the ideas in this exciting opening by taking a look at the famous game between Spassky and Fischer from Mar del Plata 1960. IM Lilov also examines the very exciting game where Alexander Morozevich creatively used the opening to get a win over Vishy Anand in Moscow in 1995.
Conclusion – Master the King’s Gambit
The King’s Gambit is an interesting opening for club players, and you should consider giving it a try to expand your horizons. You can add it to your repertoire to play it from time to time. Very few club players will be properly prepared against the King’s Gambit.
It’s a chess opening from the romantic era of the game that many overlook nowadays. Although not seen regularly at the top level, there are several grandmasters who have added this opening to their repertoire and have found a lot of success with it.
These players include Hikaru Nakamura and Nigel Short. Boris Spassky used the King’s Gambit to record wins against the legend Bobby Fischer, Susan Polgar and even David Bronstein who was something of a King’s Gambit expert himself.
The King’s Gambit has been played for centuries. Although it has fallen out of fashion, it hasn’t been refuted.
If you’re a creative player who likes looking for wild sacrifices and combinations, in the same vein as the tactics master Mikhail Tal, this opening should suit you to a tee – the good thing about the King’s Gambit is that it is very unpredictable.
If your opponent is not familiar with how to defend against it, they can often find themselves in big trouble very early in the game. Most games are blown wide open and are full of exciting and dynamic lines.
If you want to start playing and mastering the King’s Gambit, we’ve got a fantastic offer for you.
In his course “Deep Dive: The King’s Gambit”, GM Lemos teaches you everything you need to know in order to play this opening with confidence.
This is your complete repertoire for White based on using the power of the early f-pawn advance.
Solutions To The Test Positions:
- Top Left Corner: White wins after 1.Nxg5! fxg5 2.Qh5+! Ke7 3.Qf7+ and the Black king will get mated.
- Bottom Left Corner: White’s best move is 1.Kf2! Black can’t capture the knight on e4 in view of 1…Qxe4? 2.Bb5+! c6 3.Re1 +-.
- Top Right Corner: White wins after 1.Nxg5! fxg5 2.Qh5+ Ke7 3.Qxg5+ Ke8 4.Qh5+ Ke7 5.Qe5+ and White wins the rook on h8.
- Bottom Right Corner: White wins two pawns after 1.Bxf7+! Kxf7 2.Nxe5+, followed by Nxg4.
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