The King’s Gambit begins with the moves 1 e4 e5 2 f4 and is the start of the mainline. The King’s Gambit is part of the mythology of chess. For more than a hundred years this opening has represented a lost golden age, a nobler past of swashbucking sacrifice and gung-ho attack, when few players were unsporting enough to defend correctly.
The Golden Age Of The King’s Gambit
Golden ages have a tendency to evaporate on scrutiny, and the romanticized heyday of the King’s Gambit is no exception. But the unromantic fact that the opening’s successes were very often due to bad technique is of historical interest. The disappearance of the King’s Gambit mirrors that of the bad technique and poor positional understanding that allowed it to flourish.
The mid-nineteenth century brought a dawning awareness that some gambit lines were probably unsound, more likely to lead to a forced loss than a forced win. Players then began to seek positional rather than tactical benefits from an opening. By the time of the first official World Championship match between Steinitz and Zuckertort in 1886 the King’s Gambit was already in eclipse.
The six World Championship matches played between 1886 and 1896 featured only a single King’s Gambit. The twentieth century saw its reputation sink even lower. Spielmann’s article “From the Sickbed of the King’s Gambit” was followed by Capablanca’s very disdainful comments in his 1935 book A Primer of Chess.
Bobby Fischer’s famous article from the 1960s “A Bust to the King’s Gambit” should have put the opening to rest. Yet the opening has refused to die, and some of the greatest players of the 20th and 21st century have found occasion to use it—Alekhine, Keres, Magnus, Tal, Fischer and Spassky (who has scored truly brilliant victories with it).
At the end of the 20th century the King’s Gambit is still far from its golden age, but with regular use from English grandmaster Joe Gallagher and Nigel Short’s score of 2-1 in the 1997 Madrid super tournament. It is clear the opening is alive and well.
Mainline of the King’s Gambit Opening
With 2 f4 White stakes a pawn for a dominating center and attacking chances against f7, utilizing the open file. White may have problems with his own king safety, though. Black has four ways to react to 2 f4:
- accept and hold the pawn
- accept and return the pawn
- decline the pawn
- offer a countergambit
In this article, I will be organizing all the mainlines of the King’s Gambit Opening into single columns using a table.
Columns 1-24 deal with 2…exf4. The first six columns cover 3…g5, supporting the f4 pawn and taking kingside territory. These columns include the Kieseritzky, Philidor, Hanstein and Muzio lines, of which the Kieseritzky Gambit sees more use today.
Black’s less usual third moves are the subject of columns 7-12. They include 3…d6 (the Becker Defense), 3…Ne7 and 3…Nf6. The first two of these are particularly reasonable choices. Black returns the pawn immediately with 3 d5 4 exd5 (columns 13-16). With 3…Be7 (columns 17-18) Black prepares to deliver check on h4.
Moves other than 3 Nf3 are covered in columns 19-24, including the King’s Bishop Gambit, 3 Bc4 (columns 19-20) In these lines White allows …Qh4+, but the check is double-edge since the black queen may lose time retreating.
Black refuses the pawn and gambits one himself with the vigorous 2 . . . d5, the Falkbeer Counter Gambit, (columns 25-30) see above diagram. The reasoning is to quickly develop and highlight the weakening of White’s kingside from 2 f4. Both 3…e4 and Nimzovich’s 3…c6 are investigated.
This countergambit is often chosen for reasons of style or psychology rather than simply its objective merits. Great attacking players, such as Paul Morphy, love to be on the offensive in a wide open position. Other players reason that since White seeks the attack by his gambit, this countergambit that forces him (her) to defend will have unsettling effects.
The King’s Gambit Declined is covered in columns 31-36. The usual move to decline the gambit is 2…Bc5, see above diagram (columns 31-35), as White would lose immediately after 3 dxe5? Qh4+
Declining the gambit avoids wild tactics and complications, but gives White more chances for the advantage than the gambit accepted lines.
Tables showing mainline of the King’s Gambit opening
Mainline#1 (1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 g5)
Mainline#2 (1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3)
Mainline#3 (1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3)
Mainline#4 (1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4)
Mainline#5 Falkbeer Counter Gambit
(1 e4 e5 2 f4 d5)
Mainline#6 King’s Gambit Declined
(1 e4 e5 2 f4)