The Icelandic Gambit: An Opening Guide for White & Black

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icelandic gambit
Table of Contents

Quick overview:

  • The Icelandic Gambit is a rare opening arising from the Scandinavian Defense after the moves 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6 3.c4 e6. Black seeks rapid development and the initiative when playing this gambit.
  • White usually accepts the gambit, with 4.dxe6 Bxe6 5.Nf3 considered to be the most challenging line. In other lines, White will usually have to deal with a backward d-pawn which may become a target for Black.
  • White can decline the gambit and head into an Exchange French with 4.d4.

Introduction to the Icelandic Gambit

The Icelandic Gambit is a rare opening arising from the Scandinavian Defense after the moves 1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6 3.c4 e6 whereby Black sacrifices a pawn for rapid development.

The opening can get quite sharp, and engines give less than a one pawn advantage to White, so it is not refuted or really a bad opening at all. It is probably slightly less sound than solid gambits such as the Belgrade Gambit or the Smith-Morra Gambit, but certainly playable. The surprise element of this gambit is high.

The gambit gets its name from Icelandic masters who were looking for an alternative to the more common 3…c6.

The gambit is also known as the Palme Gambit or the Icelandic-Palme Gambit, after Rudolf Palme (1910-2005), who was the first player to introduce the gambit into master play.

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The Fiery Icelandic Gambit

Main ideas of the Icelandic Gambit

When White plays 3.c4, white is, temporarily at least, attempting to hold onto the extra pawn, which limits the activity of their light-squared bishop.

Black by playing 3…e6 is going for rapid development. The Icelandic Gambit is very sharp and a small misstep by either side can swing valuation wildly.

A similar opening is when Black plays 3…c6, but this often transposes into the Panov Attack of the Caro-Kann after 4.d4

If White accepts with 4.dxe6, Black obviously wants to recapture with the bishop, as taking with the pawn would leave Black with an awkward pawn structure, a weakened kingside, and does nothing for development.

Main lines of the Icelandic Gambit

4.dxe6 Bxe6 5.d4

White chooses to grab central space. Being up a pawn, engines hardly give an advantage to White as Black is much better developed.

5…Bb4+ 6.Bd3 Qe7 7.Bxb4 Qxb4 8.Qd2

Black is doing fine here despite the material difference. At this point they can choose from 8…Qe7 and 8…Nc6. Again, Black has better development.

4.dxe6 Bxe6 5.Be2

As is common when White plays 3.c4, they often leave their d-pawn backward. White is not too concerned about this here.

White knows that Black is going for a development advantage, so White tries to develop solidly on their own to not be left behind.

Black can now stake a claim on the key d4 square with 5…c5 or continue developing pieces with 5…Nc6.

A sample line might go, 5…Nc6 6.Nf3 7.Bc5 7-0-0 0-0.

White has caught up in development, but the backward d-pawn will surely be a target for Black.

Take a look at the following game where Black was able to put pressure on the backward d-pawn and infiltrate White’s position.

4.dxe6 Bxe6 5.Nf3

This is considered the most challenging line. If Black plays 5…Nc6, White has 6.d4 and if 6…Bb4+ 7.Nc3 Ne4 8.Bd2, and White takes care of guarding d2 and d4 with the knight on f3.

Black can go for 5…c5 or 5…Qe7, but both moves lead to a quick queen exchange. Black will have good activity as compensation for the pawn, but White will not have a hard time giving Black a good game.

Ways to decline the Icelandic Gambit

White has two principal ways to decline the gambit: 4.d4 and 4.Nc3

4.d4

After 4…exd5, this moves the game into the territory of the French Defense Exchange Variation. In such positions, the isolated queen pawn becomes central to the strategy for each side.

Generally, there are equal chances for both sides.

4.Nc3

Not a bad move, but it does give White’s advantage away. A game may go 4…exd5 5.d4 Bb4 6.Bd3 0-0 7.Ne2 dxc4 8.Bxc4, and Black has an ever-so-slight advantage according to engines, though play should be relatively equal.

White’s main concern here is most likely to be the isolated queen pawn, which may become a target.

Summary

The Icelandic Gambit is a fun and relatively risk-free gambit for Black in the Scandinavian Defense. Lines can get very sharp in this gambit and Black often takes the initiative early on with a lead in development, giving them compensation for the pawn.

White may decline, but it is probably in their best interest to accept the gambit. The most challenging line White can play is 4.dxe6 Bxe6 5.Nf3 to guard against the weak d-pawn experienced in other lines.

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The Fiery Icelandic Gambit

Check out other gambits here:

The Benko Gambit

The Wing Gambit

Nakhmanson Gambit

Orthoschnapp Gambit

The Muzio Gambit

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