The Latvian Gambit, or Greco Counter-Gambit as it is sometimes known, is an attempt to play a reverse King’s Gambit.
- The Latvian Gambit is thought to be the worst chess opening, and it is not difficult to see why many feel this way.
- There are tricks and tactics in the Latvian Gambit which might catch an unwary player by surprise. As long as you are not playing the opening on auto-pilot, there is little to no danger for white.
- Wilhelm Steinitz said, “A sacrifice is best refuted by accepting it.” In the case of the Latvian Gambit, this advice works best. After 3.Nxe5 Qf6, either 4.d4 or 4.Nc4 are playable for white.
- When you play the Latvian Gambit, you can feel better about “the worst chess opening” by reminding yourself that Bobby Fischer and Jose Raul Capablanca have lost to the gambit. After all, a faint hope is better than no hope.
Ideas and Strategies in the Latvian Gambit
Yes, Bobby Fischer indeed lost a game to the Latvian Gambit, but he was only twelve years old at the time. Although we should not reject an opening after we lose a game in it, neither should we play an opening simply because it was once successful against a chess legend.
The history of the Latvian Gambit extends from the 17th century until the 21st century, with the Latvian Gambit making an appearance at the 2018 Batumi Olympiad.
The Latvian Gambit begins 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5!?
Playing the King’s Gambit with black fails for two fundamental reasons:
- The knight is already on f3 when black offers the f-pawn, giving white the opportunity to play 3.Nxe5. The only pawn black can capture in the King’s Gambit is the f4-pawn.
- Black starts the game a tempo behind white, which gives white the time he needs to accept the gambit. Yes, black might gain a tempo, but then he is on equal footing in terms of time but a pawn down.
Another issue facing black is the early development of the queen after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5?! 3.Nxe5 Qf6. This move is Black’s most frequent response to 3.Nxe5, yet it brings the queen out early and blocks the most natural developing square for the f8-knight.
The primary strategy behind the Latvian Gambit is very reminiscent of the ideas within the King’s Gambit. Black is hoping that white will capture on f5 and concede the center.
Long Live the King's Gambit
After 3.exf5, when black plays …d5, this establishes a nice pawn center and allows …Bxf5. There is no need to rush into playing …d5 since white can hardly prevent this move.
Developing with 3…Nc6 might tempt white into playing 4.Bc4 when 4…d5 gains a tempo by attacking the bishop on c4. The attack on the bishop also prevents white from defending his f5-pawn with g4.
Rapid piece play, castling long, and making use of the semi-open f-file are all avenues of attack for black to use. The open nature of the position makes the bishops, in particular, very dangerous.
Minah Oh demonstrated the dangerous attacking possibilities that black can generate in her game against Szu-Min Chiang at the 2012 Istanbul Women’s Olympiad.
Latvian Gambit With 3.Nxe5
White agrees to lose time and capture a central pawn instead of exchanging a central pawn for a side pawn with exf5.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5!? 3.Nxe5
After 3…Qf6, white must decide between 4.d4, the classical approach, or 4.Nc4, the Leonhardt Variation.
3…Qf6 4.d4 d6 5.Nc4 fxe4 6.Nc3 Qg6 7.f3 exf3 8.Qxf3
In this position, white has a lead in development, a space advantage, and is only two moves away from castling compared to three moves needed for black to castle. White can develop his bishop to d3 with tempo and then castle, which means black will need four moves before getting castled.
4.d4 is a perfectly good line for white, but since the knight on e5 will get attacked with d6 it makes sense to move it to c4 earlier.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nxe5 Qf6 4.Nc4
4…fxe4 5.Nc3 Qf7 6.Ne3 c6 7.d3 exd3 8.Bxd3 d5 9.0-0 Bd6 10.Re1
Thanks to simple development and centralization, white has a comfortable position, and it is black that is under pressure. Vujanovic only needed another eight moves to defeat his higher-ranked opponent.
Latvian Gambit With 3.d4
Instead of capturing on e5, white can choose to strike back in the center with d4. This variation is likely to transpose to the Nxe5 variation after 3…fxe4, except with black developing the knight to f6.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5!? 3.d4
Now it is up to black to decide which pawn, if any, to capture. As mentioned earlier, if black captures on e4 with 3…fxe4, then white plays 4.Nxe5
3…fxe4 4.Nxe5 Nf6 5.Bc4 d5 6.Bb3 Be6 7.0-0 Nbd7 8.c4 Bd6 9.cxd5 Bxd5 10.Bxd5
One of the challenges black faces in this line is allowing white to create a passed e-pawn. When …f5 and …d5 are played, there is no pawn to challenge White’s e-pawn once it advances to the fifth rank.
Han Janssen made good use of his advanced e-pawn to tie black down.
Black Captures the d-pawn
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5!? 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4
4…Qe7 5.Nc3 fxe4 6.Nd5 Qe5 7.Bc4 Bc5 8.c3 e3 9.0-0 Ne7 10.Nxe7 Bxe7 11.Bxe3
White has a lead in development, the open e-file, and a bishop on c4 that prevents black from castling. On the other hand, black has not developed a single queenside piece, and the black queen is in the open file with the king.
In light of this, it is hardly surprising black did not last until move 20.
White Accepts the Gambit With 3.exf5
3.exf5 plays into Black’s hands which is why Nxe5 is the preferred third move. However, even playing the less optimal move works well for white.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5!? 3.exf5
One of the key strategies for white is Be2-Bh5+, taking advantage of having the pawn on f5 to force the black king to move.
3…e4 4.Ne5 Nf6 5.Be2 Be7 6.d3 Nc6 7.Bh5+ Kf8 8.d4 d6 9.Nxc6 bxc6 10.Be2 Bxf5 11.0-0
In return for forfeiting castling rights, black has a lead in development. White will gain some of the time back while black works on activating the h8-rook.
The Latvian Gambit With 3.Bc4
Whenever you face an opening like the Latvian Gambit, an excellent developing move like Bc4 is almost always a good choice. The Latvian Gambit is no exception to this rule.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5!? 3.Bc4
3…fxe4 4.Nxe5 d5 5.Qh5+ g6 6.Nxg6 hxg6 7.Qxg6+ Kd7 8.Bxd5 Nf6 9.Nc3 Qe7
White has three pawns for the knight, but the black king is out in the open. The exposed black king and a lead in development gives white adequate compensation.
It is not for nothing that some regard the Latvian Gambit as “the worst opening in chess.” White gets lots of attacking opportunities and can look forward to a quick win in almost every variation of the Latvian Gambit.
However, if you are looking for a challenge, you can follow in the footsteps of the Latvian players who tried valiantly to make the Latvian Gambit a playable opening. Nowadays, you have access to strong chess engines, and there is plenty of scope for finding novelties.
Taking on the challenge of making the Latvian Gambit playable for black will teach you a lot about chess, unbalanced positions, and thinking outside the box.
Accept you might do nothing except learn to stay away from the Latvian Gambit and make peace with that before investing your energy in an in-depth study of this opening.
If you decide the Latvian Gambit isn’t working, keep in mind that you have many chess openings to choose from that are statistically better – including 1…a6.
If you want to learn about other gambits, check out:
Latvian Gambit Frequently Asked Questions
Why is it called Latvian Gambit?
The Latvian Gambit is named after several Latvian players who did a lot to make the gambit playable in the 20th century. The opening is also known as the Greco Counter-Gambit in homage to the Italian chess player Gioachino Greco who analyzed it back in the 17th century.
How good is Latvian Gambit?
The Latvian Gambit is more tricky than it is good, despite claiming Bobby Fischer and Jose Raul Capablanca. If white plays 3.Bc4 or 3.Nc3, the winning percentage drops to 33 and 38 percent, respectively. In all other lines, white has a winning percentage above 50 percent.
How do you win with the Latvian gambit?
You win with the Latvian Gambit by being better prepared for the tactics and hopefully a better tactical player than your opponent. When playing the Latvian Gambit, you hope your opponent will miss a trick or fall into a trap.
How to play the Latvian gambit?
The Latvian Gambit starts with the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5?!.
How to counter the Latvian gambit?
The most promising line for white is to accept the gambit with 3.Nxe5 and meet 3…Qf6 with d4. On average white wins two games out of every three if he accepts the gambit with 3.Nxe5.
What is the Latvian gambit?
The Latvian Gambit is essentially a reverse King’s Gambit. Unfortunately, Black is playing the King’s Gambit a tempo down, which shows in the poor results of this chess opening.