The Stafford Gambit. Where to begin? Equally loved, despised, and feared.
The Stafford Gambit is one of those openings with a cult of following. In recent years that may be fueled by the relentless efforts of International Master and Twitch and YouTube star Eric Rosen, who plays it faithfully against any opposition during his streams and over-the-board tournaments. Maybe because of him, the Stafford is much more popular nowadays than ten years ago.
However, the Stafford has a long history of causing headaches to 1.e4 players. The idea that Black can take the liberty of sacrificing a center pawn in move three and scorch White right in the opening is too much for some.
Introduction to the Stafford Gambit
After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nc6 Black rejects standard Petroff territory (3…d6) to enter the Stafford Gambit.
The Stafford’s idea is to open lines and create threats as soon as possible at the cost of a pawn. Accepting the gambit is the critical try and the most common as refusing it gives White’s advantage away.
In the case of 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Qe2 Qe7 Black has no problems and is the one with slightly better development.
Note that 4.d4 is good enough for a clear advantage, but it’s been played only a handful of times and by lower-rated players. After 4…Nxe5 5.dxe5 Nxe4 6.Qe2 Nc5 7.Be3 White makes developing difficult for Black due to the e-file x-ray on the Black King. White will follow with 8.Nc3 and 9.0-0-0, cementing their space advantage.
Accepting a gambit is the way to refute it
Or so goes the saying. After 4.Nxc6 dxc6 is not strategically desirable for Black(usually, one would like their pawns to capture towards the center to increase central presence) but here it is dynamically justified, as it opens lines for the Queen and the light-squared Bishop. Potentially, if Black castles queenside, the Rooks would be happy to have both central files open.
For the time being, the e4 pawn is attacked.
5.e5 is a way of defending it, but it’s not popular (although not bad at all) on account of 5…Ne4 6.d3? Bc5! winning, as one of the Stafford’s stem games went in 1950.
The threat …Bxf2 can’t be met satisfactorily and 7.dxe4, still 7…Bxf2+ on account of the lose d1-Queen. 8.Ke2 Bg4 is curtains. In case of 7.Be3 Bxe3 8.fxe3 Qh4+ 9.Ke2 Qf2# is checkmate, while 9.g3 Nxg3 wins material.
Instead, White would be healthy after 6.d4, although caution is still required. In case of 6…Qh4 threatening mate on f2, 7.Qf3 is mandatory when 7…Ng5 8.Qg3 Qe4+ 9.Qe3 takes the steam out of Black’s position. They were counting on the natural but reckless 7.g3? that runs into 7…Nxg3 8.fxg3 Qe4+ winning the h1-Rook.
But the mainline is 5.d3 which can be considered the main Stafford tabiya (position of theoretical debate). It’s both the most played move and the best scoring for White, so it’s Black hardest test. 5.f3 is a good move, but after 5…h5 White has to play some unnatural moves like 6.g3 which is what Stafford players want.
Ideas for Black and White in the Stafford
Since Black is the one proposing the ideas, White’s ideas are mainly directed at neutralizing Black’s. If they achieve them, their extra pawn assures them a clearly better position.
Black’s main threats are against the f2 pawn, White’s weakest point in the opening (only the King defends it). So Black will play 5…Bc5, preparing 6…Ng4 to hit f2 with two pieces. Note that …Ng4 is only possible because 4…dxc6 opened the action of the c8 Bishop.
In many variations, the c5-Bishop is Black’s MVP as the pin on f2 creates tactical problems on g3 and h2. Note that …Ng4 reinforces these ideas as the Knight controls h2 too, opens the way for the Queen and likely the h-file.
White’s main ways of dealing with the Knight jump are 6.Be2 and 6.h3.
However, one of Black’s points in the Stafford is that 6.Bg5 outright loses to 6…Nxe4!! For example, 7.Bxd8 Bxf2+ 8.Ke2 Bg4# is a beautiful checkmate that has happened over 7,000 times on lichess (!), and IM Rosen credits it for making him fall in love with the Stafford.
Of course, 7.dxe4 loses the Queen to 7…Bxf2+. Another line runs 7.Qe2 Qxg5 8.Qxe4+ Kd8! Bringing the rook to e8. If 9.Be2 Qc1 10.Bd1 Re8 wins the Queen anyway.
6.Nc3? is another natural move that fails to address 6…Ng4, after which Black cashes through on f2. White can avoid losing material with 7.Be3 Nxe3 8.fxe3 Bxe3 but Black leveled the number of pawns and the dark-squared Bishop is a monster.
Coming back to the mainline, 6.Be2 is the main move, dodging the jump to g4 and preparing to castle. 6.h3 accomplishes the same but can often transpose after 6…h5. Moreover, Black has the extra option of 6…Bxf2+ 7.Kxf2 Nxe4 when 8.Kf3 is the only move that punishes Black dare devilish play if that doesn’t mean Black is out of resources to create fireworks. Here’s a video of the Stafford Champion, IM Rosen, playing this very same line.
After 6.Be2, it would seem that if White gets their King out of the center, Black has nothing to play for, but here’s where the Stafford gets really creative. 6…h5! Insisting on 7…Ng4!
The mainline (or the mad line?)
Here the naive 7.0-0 is the second most played and exactly what Black is hoping for. 7…Ng4 threatens …Qh4 hitting h2 and f2 (7…Qd6 is equally dangerous). 8.h3 Qd6! mating on h2. Now 9.g3 loses to 9…Qxg3+ making use of the pin, so most players crumble with some capture on g4, which leads to a devastating attack where Black scores 90% of the points.
White can survive with 9.e5, breaking Black’s coordination. The point is that Black can’t keep the attack on h2 since 9…Qxe5 10.Bxg4 hxg4 11.Re1 now wins the Queen.
So Black is forced to 9…Nxe5, after which material balance is restored and the position is roughly equal. However, Black still has plenty of chances for a kingside attack so the Stafford player feels comfortable in the ensuing middlegame.
7.h3 is another common way to stop …Ng4, but Black has 7…Qd4 again hitting f2 (7…Qd6 is a devious attempt to transpose to the previous line, after 8.0-0 Ng4! But White can interpose 8.c3 as we will see later).
Now 8.0-0 is the most natural and the engine top move, indicating close to a +3 advantage (meaning that all other things being equal, White’s advantage is similar to being a piece up. But in chess all other things are never equal). Note that 8.Be3? would be a mistake due to 8…Qxb2
It tells you all you need to know about the position after 8.0-0, that Black scores two out of every three points from here on. White sometimes avoids what’s coming with 8.Rf1 but then 8…Qd6 and Black simply claims that the White King is stranded in the center is enough compensation for the pawn.
The last trick
8…Ng4, 8…Qe5, and 8…Qd6 all are a form of attack over h2. These moves can transpose sometimes, so, for the sake of sanity, let us focus on the first one, as it’s the most played and the most correct.
Now 9.hxg4 is the best move but only advisable if White really knows what they’re doing. 9…hxg3 10.g3 anticipating the Queen attack on h2, either from e5 or d6, and preparing Kg2-Rh1. After neutralizing the threats along the h file, White would be winning due to their extra piece. Note that 10.Bxg4? Qe5! wins again due to the c5-Bishop pinning f2, so that 11.g3 Qxg3# is mate.
However, Black still has some bullets in the chamber. After 10.g3 Qe5 11.Kg2 (forced as 11…Qxg3# and 11…Qh5-h1# were threatened) the engine recommends 11…Rh3 to sacrifice on g3 but 12.Bf4 Qh5 13.Rh1 is hopeless for Black.
Instead, a more practical try is 11…Bxf2!? Which forces White to realize that 12.Kxf2 Rh2+ 13.Ke1 Qg3+ 14.Kd2 escapes. About half of the times White goes 12.Rxf2, a seemingly safer move, but losing on the spot to 12…Qh5 as now they can’t contest the h-file battery with the intended Rf1-h1
Simpler for White is 7.c3 -instead of 7.h3- intending to shut down the c5-Bishop with d3-d4, but lower-rated players (the bulk of players using and fighting the Stafford) rarely do so.
Nevertheless, Black can still throw some punches. For example: after 7…Ng4 8.d4 Qh4 9.g3 Qf6 10.f3 h4 11.fxg4 hxg3 12.Rf1?! gxh2 and the engine starts to feel unsure about the position and Black fares better from a practical point of view.
In fact, very recently, a popular Chessable author and booked theoretician lost a tie-break game against the Stafford. Sethuraman, S.P – Van Foreest, L was a roller coaster but after 40 moves, Sethu had the game under control and seemed on his way to victory when he fell for a simple mating tactic. That’s one of the biggest testaments to the Stafford’s trickery there can be.
While the Stafford Gambit is an unsound line, the above shows its potential for attacking chances and fun for Black. Knowing that White is better never helped anyone navigate the complications, nor avoid all the trickery.
It’s an especially effective line at low time controls (rapid and blitz), and at a level below 2000 FIDE, Black has every chance of succeeding if they know the main ideas and are keen on attacking chess. Keep in mind that even if White survives the opening, the Stafford carries enough venom to deliver a middlegame knock-out, as the Grandmaster game above shows.
If you are interested in learning more about the Stafford Gambit, IM Eric Rosen’s videos are the best source of information.
Meanwhile, Lifetime Repertoires: Gajewski’s 1. e4 – Part 1 is an excellent course to learn how to take the sting out of the Stafford.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is the Stafford Gambit good?
From an objective point of view, the Stafford Gambit is a dubious line. Black sacrifices a center pawn on move 3 for open lines and some development advantage but with best play, White should emerge with a large advantage from the opening. However, the Stafford is certainly venomous and tricky to face in a real game. That’s why it’s a practical weapon and can perfectly deliver good results for Black. Especially at lower rating levels or against unprepared opponents. However, Grandmasters use it from time to time for its element of surprise.
- Why is it called Stafford Gambit?
It’s named after Joseph Stafford, an American chess player who in 1950 played the gambit and won a correspondence game in six moves: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 Nc6 4.Nxc6 dxc6 5.e5 Ne4 6.d3 Bc5, Black is winning and White resigned. Curiously, the first Stafford game in the Mega Database is by Howard Staunton (one of the strongest masters of the 19th century) in a simul in 1857, which he lost.
- What happens if the Stafford Gambit is declined?
When White declines the Stafford it’s usually an acknowledgment of its scariness. Refusing the gambit is a way to stay clear from a crazy game, but it also gives away any hope for an opening advantage. Recently, woman #1 Hou Yifan, declined Daniil Dubov’s Stafford, during the Asian Goldmoney Rapid 2021. The game transposed into a Petroff opening which Black won in the end.
- What is there to do in the Stafford Gambit?
White has to be careful not to fall for any of the Stafford traps and not to lose their extra pawn, or they’d have no compensation for Black’s development lead. Black ought to create threats as soon as possible and capitalize on the explosiveness of their position.
- How to beat Stafford Gambit?
The Stafford can be beaten if White holds on to the pawn and manages to parry Black’s threats. This is what happens in the theoretical mainlines, although that seldom happens in real games as the Stafford is usually unexpected. Usually, once their King is safe, White is objectively better, if the position can still be tricky in practice.
- How to play the Stafford Gambit?
The above is an extensive guide on how to play the Stafford for both sides.
The Art of Attack in Chess
If you want to learn about other gambits check out: