Marshall Gambit – Playing Against the Ruy Lopez

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Table of Contents

Are you looking for a fighting defense to play against the Ruy Lopez? Then read on to learn more about the Marshall Gambit including:

  • the ideas behind the Marshall Gambit.
       
  • What to do if White Accepts the Gambit.
       
  • How to play against the Anti-Marshall.

The Dynamic Marshall Gambit

Although it is widely accepted that the move 8…d5 got played before 1918, this is the year when Frank Marshall brought it into the spotlight. He chose to play it against none other than Jose Raul Capablanca. 

Since then, the Marshall Gambit has proven its effectiveness to such a degree that there are Anti-Marshall lines within the Ruy Lopez opening theory.

Spassky brought the Marshall Gambit back into the spotlight during his 1965 match against Tal. People noticed Spassky didn’t lose a single game in which he played the Marshall Gambit.

More recently, some of the world’s strongest chess players have played the Marshall Gambit, including Vladimir Kramnik, Vishy Anand, Levon Aronian, and Peter Svidler, amongst others.

You have every reason to feel confident that the Marshall Gambit will serve you well in your games if it can hold its ground at the highest level.

Jan’s Gustaffson’s 1. e4 e5 Lifetime Repertoire is based on the Marshall

The Ideas Behind The Marshall Gambit

One of the main ideas behind the Marshall Gambit is to prevent White from achieving the central superiority he often attains in the Ruy Lopez Closed variation. This central control leaves Black cramped and makes it easy for your opponent to play in a safe, straightforward manner.

In the Marshall Gambit, instead of the usual 7…d6 in the Closed Ruy Lopez, Black plays 7…0-0. You are ready to meet 8.c3 with the central counter-strike 8…d5.

The defining move of the Ruy Lopez Marshall Gambit is 8...d5. White can win the e-pawn after 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5
The defining move of the Ruy Lopez Marshall Gambit is 8…d5

Remember, in the opening, it is best to develop your pieces first. Pawn moves should either help you gain control of the center or allow the development of your pieces.

8.c3 does not help White develop his pieces, and with the pawn on d2, the bishop and knight have no way to develop. 8…d5 is the perfect move to take advantage of White’s slow play.

The …d5 advance not only claims territory in the center, but it also frees up the c8-bishop. Yes, it does so at the expense of a pawn, but in return, Black gets dynamic compensation in the form of easy development and active piece play.

If White accepts the pawn with Nxe5, their rook will be on e5 after …Nxe5 Rxe5, which allows Black to play …Bd6 developing with tempo-the rook must move again.

Black will often attack on the kingside with moves like …Bd6, …Qh4, ….f5-f4 and/or …h5-h4. The bishop and queen attack on h2 often provokes the weakening pawn advance g3.

There is more to the Marshall Gambit than merely a kingside attack. The black knight on d5 is such a powerful piece White will often exchange a bishop for the knight.

This exchange gives Black the bishop pair advantage. The bishop pair advantage often enables Black to hold the endgame even if a pawn down.

Marshall Gambit Accepted: White Accepts the Challenge

The true test of any gambit is if it holds up after being accepted. You can play the Marshall Gambit confidently, knowing that the pawn sacrifice is entirely sound.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 c6

In the Ruy Lopez Marshall Gambit, one of Black's strongest pieces is the d5-kinght. Supporting this piece with ...c6 is crucial to keeping compensation for the pawn.
Black supports his central knight with …c6

Black defends the knight and keeps it well-centralized. The knight on d5 is one of Black’s strongest pieces in the Marshall Gambit. 

12.d4 Bd6 13.Re1 Qh4

The black queen on h4 combines well with the bishop on d to put pressure on h2.
Black’s queen and bishop combine well to apply pressure on the h2-pawn.

The queen and bishop attacking h2 together is a common attacking motif in the Marshall Gambit for Black. Although the attack on h2 is easily blocked, it forces a weakening pawn advance in front of the king.

14.g3 Qh3 15.Be3 Bg4 16.Qd3 Rae8

Black plays 16...Rae8 because the rook on f8 will support the f5 advance.
Black plays 16…Rae8 because the rook on f8 will support the f5 advance.

Black keeps the rook on f8 because the f5-f4 advance is a typical attacking strategy in the Marshall Gambit.

17.Nd2 Re6 18.a4 bxa4

When you gambit a pawn on move eight, it hardly makes much sense to ease back on move eighteen. The Marshall Gambit requires vigorous play from start to finish, and worrying about pawn structure or losing pawns is not in the spirit of the opening.

Capturing on a4 may appear a strange decision at first sight, but a crucial element of playing with the initiative is time. By capturing on a4, Black deflects either the bishop or the rook.

You also keep the option to switch play to the queenside with …Rb8.

The Marshall Gambit: White Declines the Gambit

Many of the top players today prefer not to give Black any chance of acquiring the initiative. The theory of the Marshall Gambit Accepted is quite extensive, which makes it natural to seek an alternative approach.

One of the best ways for White to decline the Marshall Gambit is with the move 8.h3.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.h3

White often plays 8.c3 in the Ruy Lopez, but playing 8.h3 keeps the c3-square available for the knight and stops Black from playing the Marshall Gambit.
The Anti-Marshall with 8.h3

White prevents Black from playing the Marshall Gambit with this move for two reasons:

  1. The knight has access to c3 which means White does not have to give up the light-squared bishop in exchange for the mighty knight on d5.
       
  2. In the Marshall, Gambit Accepted when Black plays …Qh4 with a bishop on d6 they gain a tempo by threatening checkmate on h2. The h3 pawn advance stops the checkmate threat.

Black can use his control of the center to generate play on both sides of the board. A logical way to proceed is by placing the bishop on the long diagonal and clamping down on the d4-square.

8…Bb7 9.d3 d6 10.a3 Na5 11.Ba2 c5

White prevented the Marshall Gambit and keeps his bishop aimed at the black king.
White prevented the Marshall Gambit and keeps his bishop aimed at the black king.

Both sides have played sensible, natural moves. White has kept the light-squared bishop on the a2-g8 diagonal where it takes aim at the black king, and Black has increased his control of the center with …c5.

Conclusion

The Marshall Gambit is a fighting response by Black against the Ruy Lopez. Instead of sitting back and allowing White to dictate things, you let White know that they are in for a fight as early as move eight.

Attacking is a lot more fun than defending, and the Marshall Gambit certainly offers lots of opportunities for Black to attack White. Spend a little time getting to know the tactical possibilities in this opening, and you will discover there is lots to like about the Marshall Gambit.

The fact that White has turned to Anti-Marshall variations should give you even more confidence in the Marshall Gambit. Always keep in mind that one of the greatest attacking players of all time, Mikhail Tal, could not win a single game against Boris Spassky when he played the Marshall Gambit.

If you want to learn about other gambits check out:

The Smith-Morra Gambit

The Tennison Gambit

The Evans Gambit

The Danish Gambit

The Jerome Gambit

The Latvian Gambit

The Halloween Gambit

The Elephant Gambit

The Urusov Gambit

The Benko Gambit

The Wing Gambit

Nakhmanson Gambit

Orthoschnapp Gambit

The Benko Gambit

The The Icelandic Gambit

The Belgrade Gambit

Learn about a different gambit here!

Marshall Gambit Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Marshall Attack good in chess?

Yes, the Marshall Attack is a sound way of playing against the Ruy Lopez that attacking players will find very enjoyable.

What is the Marshall Gambit in chess?

The Marshall Gambit is a way for Black to play against the Ruy Lopez that involves sacrificing the e5-pawn with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.c3 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5

Who invented the Marshall Attack?

Although most people believe others played 8…d5 earlier, Frank Marshall played the move against Capablanca in New York in 1918. Despite not being the first, it is the most well-known Marshall Attack game and is the reason why this opening got named after Frank Marshall.

How do you counter the Marshall Attack?

A great way to counter the Marshall Attack is with one of the Anti-Marshall lines. Nowadays, 8.h3 is very popular, along with 8.a4 attacking the b5-pawn.

How do you defend Ruy Lopez?

The Marshall Attack remains one of the best ways to defend against the Ruy Lopez. However, if you prefer a more positional approach the Ruy Lopez Breyer variation (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Nb8) is a good way to defend against the Ruy Lopez.

What is the best anti-Ruy Lopez?

The Marshall Attack is the best anti-Ruy Lopez for players who enjoy attacking. Positional players might prefer the Deferred Steinitz Defense.

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