A romantic chess opening that gets few dates these days

Editor’s note: David R. Sands is off on assignment this week. The following is a reprint of a column that ran on Jan. 17, 2012.

The most romantic of chess openings doesn’t get many dates these days.

A favorite of 19th-century masters, including Paul Morphy and Johannes Zukertort, and a powerful — if occasional — weapon in the arsenal of gunslingers such as David Bronstein and Boris Spassky, the King’s Gambit is a rarity on the modern tournament circuit.

Though never refuted, the gambit opens up White to a dangerous attack, and a number of defensive ideas have been found for Black to return the sacrificed pawn and set up a reasonable defense.

Still, there are a few top players willing to run the risk, if only for the sake of ensuring a dynamic, unbalanced struggle. American GM Hikaru Nakamura used the King’s Gambit to defeat English GM Michael Adams in the final round of last month’s London Chess Classic, though only after Black missed at least one clear win.

Nakamura explained his opening choice with this less-than-ringing endorsement: “Essentially, I [couldn’t] win first place, but at the same time, the rating doesn’t matter, and I just wanted to have fun and play a good game.”

In a world of cautious Catalans and poky Petroffs, the King’s Gambit can guarantee an interesting outing. Chinese master Qiang Hou won a recent tournament in Hungary, but only after walking this tightrope on the Black side of a King’s Gambit offered up by Hungarian master Tibor Farkas.

Hou rejects Bobby Fischer’s famous “refutation” (3 … d6) in favor of the classical way for Black to handle the gambit and quickly turns the tables by targeting the White king after 10. Nd5 Rg4 11. c3!? (accepting the challenge, though White’s king now embarks on a long journey; there’s plenty of play in the alternative 11. Be2 Rxh4 12. 0-0 Ne7 13. Nf6+ Kf8 14. 0-0) Rxh4 12. Rxh4 Qxh4+ 13. Kd2 Kf8 14. Kc2 Bg4 15. Be2 Qf2 16. Kd3, and though White’s king’s perch looks precarious, he proves very hard for Black to get at.

But White may have gotten a little too brash with 17. Bf3 f5 18. exf5?!, when the more prudent 18. Kc2 Bxf3 19. Qxf3 20. gxf3 fxe5 21. fxe4 Re8 22. Kd3 again deprives Black of any obvious way to prosecute the attack. White flirts with disaster on 18 … Bxf5+ 19. Kc4 b5+! 20. Kxb5 Rb8+! 21. Ka4 (Kxc6?? is refuted by 21 … Qg7! 22. Nxc7 Rb6+ 23. Kd5 Qf7+ 24. Ne6+ Qxe6 mate) Bd7, though remarkably after 22. Ka3 Na5, White’s peripatetic king appears to have found another defensible spider hole.

Hou keeps pecking away, and finally his powerful bishops find a way to break through: 27. Ba3 axb4 28. cxb4? (once again exposing his king, but this time with far more drastic consequences) Be6+ 29. d5 (see diagram) e2! 30. Qxe2 (Qd3 Bf7 31. Bxe2 Bxd5+ 32. Kc2 Qxg2 33. Rf1+ Kg8 34. Kd1 Re8 leaves White facing a fierce onslaught) Bxd5+ 31. Kc2 Re8 (good enough, though 31 … Qg6+ 32. Qd3 Bb3+ 33. Kc3 Bg7+ was even more forcing) 32. Qd3 (Qf1 Bf7 33. Bd5 Qg6+ 3.4 Kb3 Re3+ 35. Ka2 Bf4! 36. Qxf4 Qc2+ wins) Qf2+ 33. Kb1 Re1+ 34. Bd1 Rxd1+, and White resigns as the Black bishops are unstoppable on 35. Qxd1 Be4+ 36. Qd3 Bxd3 mate.


That White still has his chances in the gambit can be seen in today’s second game, taken from a strong open tournament in the Dutch city of Leiden. Black gets into the spirit of the thing with the Falkbeer Counter Gambit (2 … d5), allowing Dutch master Dinard van der Laan to obtain the double-edged attacking game he sought. Black’s 7. d4 0-0?! (Be6 8. Bxd5 Bxd5 9. Bxf4 Nc6 looks safer) castles right into the open King’s Gambit f-file, and with 10. Nc3 Qd8 11. d5 Bg4 14. Ne4 Nd7 c4, White’s d-pawn exerts a pronounced cramp on the enemy position.

Van der Laan increases the pressure with 14. Nf2 Bd6 15. Bg5 Bf5 16. Nh4 Bg6 17. Ng4, launching a powerful exchange sacrifice after 17 … Qc7 (h5 18. Nxf6+ gxf6 29. Rxf6 Be7 20. Nxg6 Bxf6 21. Bxf6 Qxf6 22. Nxf8 Rxf8 23. Qxh5, with a definite advantage) 18. Rxf6! gxf6 (Bxh2+ 19. Nxh2 gxf6 20. Bxf6 Rfe8 21. Qf3 also is bad for Black) 19. Nh6+! much stronger than the lazy 19. Nxf6+? Kg7 20. Ng4 f5 21. Bh6+ Kh8 22. Bxf8 Rxf8 23. Nf2 Bxh2+ 24. Kh1 Bg3, when Black is still very much in the game.

The swarm of White minor pieces gives Black no rest for the remainder of the contest: 20. N4f5+ Bxf5 (Kh8?? 21. Bxf6 mate) 21. Nxf5+ Kg6 22. Bh6! Bxh2+ 23. Kh1 Bf4 (Kxf5? 24. Qh5+ Ke4 25. Re1+ Kd4 26. Qe2 and mate next) 24. d6 Qa5 (Bxd6 25. Qg4 is mate) 25. Bxf5 Kxf5 26. Qd3+ Ke6 (with the Black king flushed out, White needs only a rook and queen to deliver mates in lines such as 26 … Kxf4 27. Rf1+ Kg5 28. Qf5+ Kh6 29. Qxf6+ Kh5 30. Rf5+ Kg4 31. Qg5 mate) 27. d7 Rg8 28. b4! (one last little tactical flourish to conclude the struggle) cxb4 (Qxb4 29. Qe4+ Kxd7 30. Rd1+ Kc8 31. Qf5 mate) 29. Re1+, and Black resigns facing 29 … Qe5 30. Bxe5 fxe5 31. Qd5+, and mate is not very far off.


And a little late-breaking news to round things off: The always super-strong Tata Steel Masters Tournament kicked off over the weekend at the fabled Dutch chess town of Wijk aan Zee, with a field that includes world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway, world No. 2 GM Ding Liren of China and a host of rising teen GM stars. Through Tuesday’s Round 3 of the 13-round event, Carlsen and Ding are tied for first at 2-1 along with American GM Fabiano Caruana, Dutch star GM Anish Giri and young Uzbek GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov. We’ll have an update on the action next week.

(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)

Farkas-Hou, Caissa IM Tournament, Kecskemet, Hungary, November 2011

1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. h4 g4 5. Ne5 d6 6. Nxg4 Nh6 7. Nxh6 Bxh6 8. d4 Rg8 9. Nc3 Nc6 10. Nd5 Rg4 11. c3 Rxh4 12. Rxh4 Qxh4+ 13. Kd2 Kf8 14. Kc2 Bg4 15. Be2 Qf2 16. Kd3 Qg3+ 17. Bf3 f5 18. exf5 Bxf5+ 19. Kc4 b5+ 20. Kxb5 Rb8+ 21. Ka4 Bd7 22. Ka3 Na5 23. b4 Nc4+ 24. Kb3 Ne3 25. Nxe3 fxe3 26. a4 a5 27. Ba3 axb4 28. cxb4 Be6 29. d5 e2 30. Qxe2 Bxd5+ 31. Kc2 Re8 32. Qd3 Qf2+ 33. Kb1 Re1+ 34. Bd1 Rxd1+ White resigns.

Van der Laan-Kouwenhoven, 5th LCT Open, Leiden, Netherlands, July 2011

1. e4 e5 2. f4 d5 3. exd5 exf4 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. Bc4 Nxd5 6. 0-0 Be7 7. d4 0-0 8. Bxd5 Qxd5 9. Bxf4 c5 10. Nc3 Qd8 11. d5 Bg4 12. Ne4 Nd7 13. c4 Nf6 14. Nf2 Bd6 15. Bg5 Bf5 16. Nh4 Bg6 17. Ng4 Qc7 18. Rxf6 gxf6 19. Nh6+ Kg7 20. N4f5+ Bxf5 21. Nxf5+ Kg6 22. Bh6 Bxh2+ 23. Kh1 Bf4 24. d6 Qa5 25. Bxf4 Kxf5 26. Qd3+ Ke6 27. d7 Rg8 28. b4 cxb4 29. Re1+ Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]

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