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I have observed that the King's Gambit is usually not played at international level. Is there any specific reason for this?

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  • „After the game my opponent [GM Nigel Short] said he wondered why the Evans is so little played at top level. I think it’s because it loses a pawn“. (Peter Heine Nielsen, NIC 8/2003) (chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1272477). I think this argument applies to the King's Gambit too.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 12:27

7 Answers 7

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One of the more common lines for the King's Gambit is accepting, followed by 3. Nf3. That is, 1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3. After this, black can follow with 3... d6, the so called Fischer defense. Fischer was extremely confident that this was a bad position for white. He wrote an entire article about this line, and famously said, "In my opinion the King's Gambit is busted. It loses by force." On top of this he added, "Of course White can always play differently, in which case he merely loses differently."

I am not sure about other lines, but likely top grandmasters have analyzed them, and come to similar conclusions that white's position is not a good one.

Remark: Interestingly Fischer himself played the gambit a few times with great success, but he opened 3. Bc4.

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  • 14
    I don't know why people always come up with this 40+ years old analysis/verdict. It's the magic of the name "Bobby Fischer", of course, but generally I wouldn't trust any analysis from the pre-rybka era. Due to computers, opening knowledge nowadays is on a completely different level compared to Fischer's time. That doesn't mean Fischer is wrong, only that his opinion alone is not sufficient to discard an opening line. Commented Apr 5, 2015 at 6:50
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David Bronstein, in his book "The Modern Chess Self-Tutor," gives an interesting explanation for not playing it. Don't forget, he's used it many times in GM practice, including memorable games against Tal and Petrosian (the latter was an exhibition game in which they explore more fully an idea from an Alekhine-Keres game).

His reasoning for 2. Nf3 being preferable to 2. f4 is that like 2. d4, 2. f4 fully declares White's intentions too early in the game. White is better off playing something like 2. Nf3, when Black still has no idea what sort of game White is aiming for. He doesn't think it's necessarily worse, just that playing it makes Black's choices easier. 2. Nf3 keeps White's options open.

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    There is nothing inherently bad about declaring ones intentions in a game like chess. The declaration of intention is an interpretation by the other player. It is about whether or not the opponent can do something about it. This early in the game, there are so many paths available, that one can safely discard such ideas as "hoping for the opponent not finding out what one wants to do". Remember also the principle of always considering the best opponent moves when thinking of a plan. Objectively knowing about "intentions" plays no role in chess. Commented Dec 6, 2017 at 18:15
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The King's Gambit is considered inferior because white is sacrificing king safety along with a pawn on move 2. Furthermore, although white would get an attack going along the f file in Morphy's day, now the correct defensive ideas are known for black and white has a harder time of it.

That said, the King's Gambit is a great weapon at the club level. In fact, Quality Chess will be releasing a book on the King's Gambit very soon.

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One item that is not a reason that the King's Gambit isn't played more at the international level is this specious article from Chessbase News: "Busting the King's Gambit, this time for sure." In the article, Vasik Rajlich, the author of Rybka, claims that all moves but 3.Be2 lead to a forced win for Black, while that move draws. However, though this was posted on April 2, 2012, rather than on April 1, the article was in fact one of Chessbase's annual April Fools' posts.

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Top players don't play sharp gambits such as this one much because they involve lots of forced lines. These lines are easy to calculate for an engine. The result is that you no longer play against your opponent - you're pitting your engine / memorization skills vs. theirs, and not your chess ability vs. theirs.

Source: Romantic chess in modern times

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Typically, White wants to play the King's gambit to play some crazy lines, full of sacrifices and double-edged play like the Kieseritzky Gambit:


    [FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]

    1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 g5 4. h4 g4 5. Ne5 Nf6


With a messy position on move 5 already ! And there are so many lines like that if Black is ready to accept the challenge. But that is a big IF. First, there is this defense advocated by Fischer everyone is mentioning that seems to be OK for black:


    [FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]

    1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 d6


This move d6 simply removes the e5-square for the Knight, and this alone makes White's attack harder to carry on.

But I think that, really, what can discourage White to play the King's gambit, especially at higher level, is that Black can simply opt for an early d7-d5 setup, that usually gives a full (and quite boring) equality:


    [FEN "rnbqkbnr/pppppppp/8/8/8/8/PPPPPPPP/RNBQKBNR w KQkq - 0 1"]

    1. e4 e5 2. f4 d5 3. exd5 exf4


And honestly, after these 3 move, it is hard to see how White can attack... Check my introduction on the King's gambit if you want to get an idea on how to play this nevertheless interesting opening.

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(I'm adding another answer because it's fundamentally different from the one I wrote above.)

GMs don't play the King's Gambit because it's inferior.

Eventually, Leela reached the safe harbour that is the dream of every King’s Gambit player: a worse but holdable ending!

Source (in the comments to games 19-20)

In other words, at GM level, your target when you play the King's Gambit is a worse but holdable ending. This is reflected by the opening eval that engines give - usually around -1 after 1. e4 e5 2. f4.

Since White has an advantage in the starting position & you should be playing to win, a worse but holdable endgame is not acceptable. By extension, GMs don't play the King's Gambit.

(At amateur level the dream of every King's Gambit player is a mating attack in the middlegame.)

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  • Sadler's comment about "dreaming about a worse but holdable ending" was clearly a joke. Like all good jokes, it has a bottom of truth (escaping to a draw is already not bad when you're a pawn down since move 2) but obviously no-one has that precise aim when they pick their opening for White.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 12:33
  • @Evargalo I actually asked Sadler about it in the TCEC chat, citing more or less what you said - that the dream of the King's Gambit player ought to be a powerful attack that results in checkmate, because why would anyone play the King's Gambit if the best you can hope for is a draw? He answered, "you obviously haven't played the King's Gambit at GM level", which went into this answer =)
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 14:05

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