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The Brief Autobiography of a Gambiteer
By Gary Good

In recent months since my joining the wonderful repartee on John Knudsen's TCCMB (The Correspondence Chess Message Board), I've been asked by many participants about my preference (it could be fairly called a "love affair") for gambit play in the chess openings. I would first refer the reader to my recent article A Tribute to our Two American Deans of Chess Walter G. Muir & George Koltanowski (March 16, 2000) on this Campbell Report site at the ON THE SQUARE columns, where I reveal my path to CC play and early chess experience in general. Let me briefly say here that, although learning to play at a tender age, I did not seriously study the game until my late teens, and when this occurred I devoured large doses of writers like I.A. Horowitz, Irving Chernev, Fred Reinfeld and the many excellent writers at the old Chess Review magazine.

These writers were all great educators of the game, and all had what I might call a "classical" approach to teaching the game. The well-known classical opening themes of :

  1. Early pawn control of the center,
  2. Rapid development of the pieces,
  3. Early castling,

and others were stressed often and heavily in all publications. The so-called "hypermoderns", Richard Reti (1.Nf3), the Pirc and Modern defenses, etc. were certainly not treated with disdain, but it was made abundantly clear that this opening philosophy was at odds with classical ideals. As a natural result the teaching methods often used were to refer the student to the early classical masters, especially to the games of Paul Morphy.

Now when a young impressionable mind is exposed to the allure of the Evans Gambit in the hands of Paul Morphy in the mid-19th century, it can be quite an intoxicating experience! Indeed it was for this young chessmind, and a method I used in teaching high school students, when I too was chess club advisor and team coach during my years as a High School mathematics teacher (1962-92).

This constituted my early exposure to gambit play, but late in the decade of the 60's, Chess Review was absorbed by the US Chess Federation, and, of course, it was natural for me to follow, after which I became a life member of USCF. At approximately this same time Ken Smith in Texas began his new monthly publication Chess Digest in 1968. Ken was a great exponent of gambit play and did much to rekindle interest in opening gambits, especially his beloved Smith-Morra Gambit vs the Sicilian Defense and to a lesser extent the Goring Gambit. These two gambits are, of course, natural "twins", both involving the white opening plan of e4--d4--c3, deflecting and eliminating the black center pawn in exchange for the white d-pawn. In return for the pawn white achieves all the classical goals of opening play very quickly, and the ancient battle of "time vs material" begins. Following Smith's writing in Chess Digest and various monographs, there was a literal explosion of interest in the Smith-Morra.

My interest turned to playing the Goring Gambit at this time, especially after the publication of David Levy's small pamphlet in 1970 "The Goring Gambit", followed by D. Smit's monograph in Holland 1973, and Ken Smith's booklet in 1976. This opening had been given new life in the 1950s by several British GMs, the most notable being Jonathan Penrose, who played it in high level GM tournaments over the next 2 decades. To repeat what I said in discussions on TCCMB, I had earlier been a successful player of the Evans Gambit--1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 etc, but was not satisfied with my results when black played 3.....Nf6, the 2 Knights Defense. Here the "classical" moves 4.d4 exd4 5.0-0 or 5.e5 seemed to free black's game by opening the position too early, giving him active and adequate counterplay.

Now white has only two main choices if he wishes to retain the "Italian sequence" 1.e4 2.Nf3 3.Bc4 (White can try some "transpose trickery" with 4.0-0 or 4.Nc3, but black can brush these off and continue with his original threat 4....Nxe4 etc.). First he can play like "turtles and snails" with the pianissimo 4.d3. This was the unanimous choice of my freshmen high school chess club players, after they had been destroyed on various earlier occasions by some older adroit aggressive member, who demonstrated the finer attacking points of 3....Nf6! I used to kid them a bit, and comment; "Well, I see you're using the "3-S" Opening again", our nickname for "safe, solid and SLOW". A fine choice for terrified freshmen and A. Karpov, but not to my taste.

The second logical and rational choice (I dare say that the adjectives "illogical and "irrational" could just as easily apply here!) is 4.Ng5!? This move has a storied and controversial past, probably originating with the two great German masters, Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch and the World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz nearly a century ago (Steinitz was a native Bohemian). These two giants held diametrically opposing views of this move, with Tarrasch going so far as to say, "4.Ng5 is a Patzer's move!". I can just imagine the the champ's reply to that comment, "Doc, you're a Putz!" Tarrasch--you Patzer! Steinitz--you Putz! Patzer---Putz, etc, etc, and on into the night. Sort of reminds me of the movie "Grumpy Old Men".

But, seriously, very few chess moves evoke such emotional responses as this. Through the 20th century the controversy raged, with Tchigorin picking up the "Patzer" thread against Steinitz, until this very day no less an authority than the former World CC Champ Hans Berliner fans the flames by calling 4.Ng5 "dead", well technically "on its deathbed". But of course on the other side one can name some well-recognized practitioners also, among them R. J. Fischer. The final irony of ironies, however, is the fact that Paul Morphy himself, the maestro of the Evans Gambit, played 4.Ng5 on several occasions!!?

Personally I would not go so far as to say that 4.Ng5 is unplayable, but for me it breaks too far with the "classical" opening goals--Rapid development of the pieces--Never move a developed piece twice in the opening. Now I will confess to playing 4.Ng5 in "skittles" vs my freshman chess club members, in the hope that after 4....d5 5.exd5, an inexperienced black player will play 5.....Nxd5?, after which we always introduced them to "Fried-Liver" with 6.Nxf7 etc. But usually one traumatic experience like that was enough to force them to learn the finer points of the 2 Knights Defense, and that ended our "hazing" fun.

So then, what is white to play if he wishes to hold to the "classical" 1.e4 ? Should he join the masses and that 16th century priest who pushed the bishop an extra square to b5? If so, he resigns himself to the "turtle mentality" and also risks becoming the "hunted" if black wants to play a counter-gambit like the Marshall. I decided to go off-beat in an attempt to remain "purely" true to the classical opening themes. This is the main feature which attracts me most about the Goring Gambit. White gains early pawn control of the center with the e-pawn, and has rapid and easy development of the pieces, gaining a large advantage in time. But, of course, this all comes at the cost of a pawn or two, and if black is allowed to simplify to an ending, he will surely reap the rewards of his defensive efforts. White must necessarily then adopt an "attack" mentality. He must always be looking for ways to increase pressure upon black, with a view towards a decisive middlegame attack..

In my TCCMB discussions on gambit play, I had a reader ask, "But don't you ever peer into the abyss?" Yes, indeed--a good point, and a good reply might be, "Those who live by the sword shall also die by the sword!" However, I also had a reader respond with, "Nothing is so aggravating than to defend a slightly inferior position for 70 moves in a turtle mentality, only to lose in the end. I would give up ANYTHING ANYTIME to avoid that!" IF you are of the latter opinion and are not afraid to chance the "risk-reward" equation, then gambit play may be for you. I can attest to the fact that the wins are exhilarating, the draws seem to be few and far between, and the losses are zeros on the crosstable, as they always had been.

To conclude this philosophical foray, I'd like to quote a favorite writer and master of the "Romantic Age of Chess", Rudolf Spielmann, who wrote the following in his book, The Art of Sacrifice in Chess:

The beauty of a game of chess is usually appraised, and with good reason, according to the sacrifices that it contains. Sacrifice--a hallowed, heroic concept! Advancing in a chivalrous mood, the individual immolates himself for a noble idea. Such sacrifice evokes our homage and admiration, even where the idea as such does not meet with our full approval. In chess, which we like to view as a counterpart of life, a sacrifice arouses similar feelings in us. On principle we incline to rate a sacrifical game more highly than a positional game. Instinctively we place the moral value above the scientific. We honor Capablanca, but our hearts beat higher when Morphy's name is mentioned. The magic of the sacrifice grips us and we care nothing for the accompanying circumstances--whether Morphy's opponents were weaker than Capablanca's, how Morphy would fare today, how Capablanca would have played in those far-off days. The glowing power of the sacrifice is irresistible; enthusiasm for sacrifice lies in man's nature.

And so it is with gambit play, the initial sacrifices of the game. Opening gambits in chess like the Goring Gambit are really an invitation to "making Romantic Art", rather than the technnical-scientific production of victories. Of course, I've long ago been told that I'm the chessic Don Quixote, romantic knight-errant, the eternal idealist in quest for the beauty in the game instead of the result. And all the while the Sancho Panzas of the chessworld, those realists who call themselves "Power-Players" are grinding everything down to rook and pawn endings, collecting all those half points. Now please don't misunderstand, I enjoy winning as much as the next guy, I simply wish to incorporate more enjoyment en-route to victory.

Der Meister des Gambit Eroffnungen, der Geezer Gambiteer.
( The master of the gambit openings, Gary Good)

Gary Good can be reached at: good2gary1@ihs2000.com

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