There is not a single true chessplayer in the world whose heart does not beat faster at the mere sound of the words “gambit games.” — Bronstein
Chess publishers capitalize on our wish to play “good chess”.
Carlsen plays “good chess”. Capablanca played “good chess”. You and I and our opponents cannot.
“Good chess” requires a master’s grasp of tactics and combination (the basis for positional play, said Reti). Students and club players are horrible at tactics.
Grandmaster games rarely turn on tactical oversights. All of ours do. Each game is won or lost because someone says: “Oops, I didn’t see that”. Club and scholastic games swing back and forth like table tennis. Oops, didn’t see that, now I’m lost. Whoa, he didn’t see that?! I’m winning! Oops, losing.
An openings book is an incomplete map to a middlegame forest. Get lost in the forest, and after the map gives out, you’re on your own. Players who’ve put in the endgame study—building a map from the midst of the forest to the destination at the other side—can emerge safely.
Publishers count on our desire to emulate master chess, leading us to believe that our results will improve if we play perfectly from the start. This is nuts, but it sells books.
My chess teacher advises “playing ‘bad chess’ well”.
There’s a huge difference between “playing good chess” and “playing bad chess well”. Masters are capable of doing the first. We are capable of learning the second.
Substitute the words “sound” or “correct” for “good”. When world champion Tal said “there are two types of sacrifices: correct ones, and mine”, he meant his legendary sacrificial play was “playing bad chess well” at the highest level.
My teacher instructs unsound and incorrect chess—usually losing a pawn or two early, on purpose—then exercising tactics to turn the tables.
Gambits begin, in principle — except for the Queen’s Gambit, and maybe the Benko — as “bad chess”.
For a pawn sacrifice in the opening to be justified, the sacrificer must gain three extra moves in development, deflect the enemy queen, prevent the enemy from castling, build a strong attack, or some combination of these.
Most gambits confer one or two extra moves in development, plus some mobility. From there, it’s up to the gambiteer to make it work. (A whimsical definition: “Gambit: A pawn sacrificed in the opening in exchange for excellent prospects of getting it back”.)
Successful gambit play depends on one’s ability to recognize tactical, combinative, and attacking chances. A master playing “good chess” must have an eye for tactics, combination, and attack.
While earning the master title, playing incorrect, unsound, “bad” gambits is best practice for sharpening one’s board vision.
The King’s Gambit is “bad”. Following 1. e4 e5, 2. f4 is kinda useless, contributing nothing to White’s development, adding less to White’s center control than 2. d4 or 2. Nf3, weakening the kingside, and not even making a true threat!
In one of the classic textbooks, The Game of Chess, Dr. Tarrasch called 1. e4 e5 2. f4 a “decisive mistake … it is almost madness to play the King’s Gambit”.
Maybe so, but I encourage you to cowboy up, and add the King’s Gambit (plus any other wild gambit you imagine) to your practice. In conjunction with the study of tactical puzzles, you can learn to play bad chess well.
The list of great masters — world champions and challengers — who played the King’s Gambit at the highest levels of competition includes Fischer (1963 US championship) Bronstein (1948 interzonal; 1945, 1947, and 1952 USSR championships), Spassky (1985 candidates tournament, 1960 USSR championship), Tchigorin (1892 world championship).
Capablanca, the most naturally-gifted player in history, played the King’s Gambit in informal games. He played unsound and incorrect chess to entertain the gallery, like this queen sacrifice.