Terribly sorry if you opened this article thinking you would get to read a dissertation on the Netflix series. We're talking about chess; specifically, one of the oldest and most beloved openings of chess games throughout the centuries. Or, at least, the recorded history of chess. Some argue that the Queen's Gambit is not truly a gambit as it does not permit Black to retain White's sacrificed pawn without putting themselves at a disadvantage. Conversely, others maintain that labelling it a gambit is proper because the play amounts to a temporary loss to gain an advantage. In other words, the very definition of a gambit in chess. Clearly, we have a lot to sort through to get to the bottom of the un-gambit/gambit; it's best we get started right away.
Why Is It Called The Queen's Gambit?
When the chess-curious ponder this question, their focus is usually on the 'gambit' portion of the phrase, as we've pointed out in this article's introduction. Fewer speculate on the queen; specifically, why is the most valuable piece on the chessboard invoked? The King's Gambit name is pretty easy to explain; we only need to think about the game's origins. It was meant to replicate two armies, facing off across the battlefield and ready to fight to the death for the honour and glory of the king. It may have something to do with the king's pawn making the first move, too. By contrast, queens seldom ventured into battle and, should any battle be at hand, queens were hardly the primary concern. Thus, thinking about the Queen's Gambit being so-named because the queen's pawn is the first to move makes far more sense than it being named after any female sovereign such as Queen Boudica. Besides, although chess is a millennia-old pastime, the gambit doesn't date as far back as Queen Boudica's reign, at least as far as we know. The Queen's Gambit is a mirror of the King's Gambit. Instead of everything playing out kingside, all the initial action is queenside. That's the most likely reason it's called the Queen's Gambit. Now, as for the Netflix series title, that's another story altogether. It seemed like Beth Harmon's go-to opening response was the Sicilian Defence - although she did open with the Queen's Gambit sometimes. The title was probably meant as a play on words and concepts, as in Beth was the queen of chess and her life story was a series of sacrifices which she had to struggle through to maintain any advantage she might have gained from them.
Queen's Gambit Backstory
The Queen's Gambit is recorded in the earliest known book about modern chess, the Göttingen manuscript. This 33-page tome, written in Latin, dates back to 1490. Granted, it contains only Queen's Gambit Accepted, but that could simply mean that the gambit's extensive theory hadn't yet been developed. The Queen's Gambit is sometimes called the Aleppo Gambit in honour of Phillip Stamma, a native of that city who later moved to France. He was a chess master who, in 1737, penned a book titled The Noble Game of Chess wherein he validated and promoted the Queen's Gambit. He also gave the chess world algebraic notation so the least we could do for his contributions to chess is to occasionally call this gambit Aleppo. For all of the praise heaped on this gambit, it didn't become fashionable to open with it until over a century after Phillip Stamma expounded on its wonders. After the Vienna Chess Tournament in 1873, the Queen's Gambit gained more acceptance; soon, it became chess players' favourite opening. The dawn of the 20th Century saw great leaps in establishing and understanding chess theory; through that understanding came a greater appreciation for positional play. During the Roaring 20s, this gambit became yet more famous, opening 32 out of 34 chess games played during the World Championship games in 1927. And then, everything came crashing down: the economy, world peace and stability. War encroached and nobody thought about chess games. By the time tournaments resumed, players had fallen out of love with symmetrical openings, the Queen's Gambit included. This gambit never regained the esteem or popularity it enjoyed prior to the Second World War but it is still often played today... making it one of the oldest chess openings still commonly in play. And, speaking of old... Did you know that the Ruy Lopez opening was mentioned in the same book as the Queen's Gambit? Except it wasn't called the Ruy Lopez at the time the Göttingen manuscript was published because the priest/chess enthusiast that opening is named after hadn't been born yet.
How to Open with the Queen's Gambit
As mentioned above, the Queen's Gambit is a mirror image of its less-often played King's counterpart:
1. d4 d5 2. c4
By advancing the c-file pawn, White provokes a possible trade: its c-file pawn for one closer to the board's centre; Black's d-file pawn. If Black does capture the c4 pawn (2. c4 dxc4), Black is considered to have accepted the gambit. Let's see how that could play out.
Queen's Gambit Accepted
In accepting the gambit, Black is free to develop other pieces instead of struggling to maintain a foothold (a pawnhold?) on the centre. Of course, Black has many optional moves; however, all of them fall into the QGD (Queen's Gambit Declined) category. We'll cover the many ways to decline the Queen's Gambit in just a mo. What happens when Black accepts the gambit?
The notation is: 1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4
White will strive to take control of the board's centre and manage their attacks on Black's positions from there. To strengthen their centre position, White will generally move their kingside knight to f3. Black responds with a mirror move, with their kingside knight taking up residence on square f6. After another mirror move-pair - 3. e3 e6, White's kingside bishop recaptures the gambit's initial pawn. The whole sequence looks like this:
1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 e6 5 Nxd4
It's a rather elegant sequence. Moving the e-file pawn affords just enough space for the bishop to recapture White's lost pawn and, with the knight out of the way, White castles on their sixth move. Meanwhile, Black is still developing its pawn structure. QGA might be the antithesis of the Scotch Game that permits Black to easily keep its footing.
Queen's Gambit Declined
As mentioned above, any move besides dxc4 falls under the 'declined' header. The primary way to decline the gambit is for Black to advance their e-file pawn - 2. ... e6. However, there are other ways the gambit could be declined; let's explore a few of them.
- the Slav Defence (2. ... c6) is a solid, possibly tactical response, especially if Black plays both c6 and e6 - in either order. If so, it becomes the Semi-Slav Defence.
- the Baltic Defence (2. ... Bf5) is a questionable move but, executed by a skilled player, could play well
- the Marshall Defence (2. ... Nf6) equally risky, this response was pioneered by American chess player Frank Marshall. He too eventually abandoned it as too fraught.
- the Albin Countergambit (2. ... e5): this response generally doesn't see much play in high-level games; even club tournament players prefer not to invoke it
- the Chigorin Defence (2. ... Nc6) gives Black a tenable position by discouraging typical positional moves
Clearly, unlike playing the Italian Game, should Black decline the gambit, they have many options to explore. The ones listed here are atypical; usually Black will play either the Tarrasch Defence or the Orthodox Defence. We've covered the Tarrasch Defences as those most often invoked in response to the top chess openings. The Orthodox Defence represents the standard 2. ... e6 response.
Variations of Responses
If everyone from grandmasters and World Chess Champions to chess players in local clubs only followed the notation from already-played games, chess would be more of a test of memory than strategy. Thus, it stands to reason that responses may vary at any stage of any game. For instance, if Black accepts the Queen's Gambit, White's fourth move may advance their queen to a4 (4. Qa4) instead of advancing the e-file pawn. This is known as the Mannheim Variation but it is not often played because Black can too easily regain their footing. Or, White may advance their queenside knight to C3, creating the Two Knights variation. This variation has its advantages. For one, White is assured a strong hold on the centre, but it has its pitfalls, too, namely that White will not be able to reclaim the pawn they lost early in the game. The Two Knights variation sets up an enormously complex game. Particularly for games that open with the Queen's Gambit, players have so many possible responses to choose from - some that would only show their advantage a few moves later while others' benefits are immediately visible. How you respond to the Queen's Gambit depends on your level of playing and how risk-averse you are. You may learn from a chess master (or a Superprof chess tutor) the best responses to suit your playing style - yes, that matters, too! - and how best to deploy your strategies. And that's true whether you're responding to the Queen's Gambit or the French Defence...
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