- Opening traps are moves that attempt to trick your opponent into a sense of safety but have an underlying threat. They can be highly effective if employed correctly or if your opponent is unaware of them.
- Some traps rely on dubious strategies and if your opponent does not fall for them can leave you worse off. However, there are traps that even if your opponent does not fall for them will still leave you with a good position.
- It is important to study traps in the openings you play to be aware of them. Additionally, employing the principle of prophylaxis, or asking what your opponent’s intentions are and trying to stop them, will help you stop traps in their tracks.
Some of these tricks arise from unsound openings, meant to distract you and put a quick win past you. These are easy to refute once you have been burned by them.
Others, however, are complex setups from well-established and sound openings, it is important to be on the watch out for them.
In this article, we look at traps in common openings beginners should be aware of and how to avoid them by using prophylaxis.
The Scotch Gambit is a powerful attacking gambit arising from the Scotch Game.
The gambit arises after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4
Here White decides to develop their kingside and let Black have the pawn. If Black tries to hold onto the pawn with 4….Bc5 white will play 5.c3, and things can get messy if Black is not careful.
5…dxc3 6.Bxf7 Kxf7, now Black’s kingside is destroyed. 7.Qd5+ Ke8 8.Qa5+ (to further weaken Black’s kingside) …g6 9.Qxc5 and Black will have an enormously tough time keeping their king safe.
This can be a tough move order to see until you have faced it. Mainline Scotch theory says that Black will have at least equal chances if they develop calmly with 4…Nf6.
The London System is an opening often chosen by beginners due to it being a system and therefore not having a lot of opening theory to memorize. The same move order is played against basically anything Black plays.
That said, it is not without its traps. Let’s look at one from the following game.
Black should have avoided taking the c5 pawn as the Greek Gift would not have worked.
The Petrov Defense, also known as the Russian Game, has a reputation for being dry and symmetrical. This may be true if mainline book moves are played, but beginners need to be aware of some nasty traps.
Here is one of them called the Marshall Trap:
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 Starting with the Petrov.
3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5. d4 d5 6.Bd3 Bd6 7.0-0 0-0 8.c4 Bg4 9.cxd5 f5 10.Re1?
White has just given their advantage away with this last move! 10.Nc3 would have been the correct move.
10…Bxh2 Another Greek Gift! 11.Nxf2 Now the queen and bishop are forked.
12.Qe2 Nxd3 13. Qxd3 Bxf3 14. Qxf3 Qh4+
Now Black wins the Rook on e1!
1.e4 d4 2.Nf3
This is how the Tennison Gambit starts out. It’s an odd-looking move in which White relies on Black’s ignorance. The gambit is unsound and having it happen to you once should be enough to learn from it.
The ridiculously named “Intercontinental Ballistic Missle Variation” is the biggest trap in the gambit.
3.Ng5 Nf6 4.d3 exd3 5.Bxd3 h6
Black has made their fatal error here. Can you find the sacrifice by White to win?
6.Nxf7 Kxf7 7.Bg6+ 8.Kxg6
Black has lost their queen due to distraction and discovered checks by White!.
In this trap, after 4.d3 Black should play 4…Bg4 and it is Black who is actually winning. It is a cheap trick by White that is easily refuted.
The following trap is a common trap beginners fall for in the Ruy Lopez opening. The trap is known as the Fishing Pole Trap.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Ng4
Here Black plays an odd move setting the trap. They are hoping for 5.h3
If White takes here they are losing. If your opponent is offering a free piece, it is a good idea to ask yourself if they have hung it out of mistake or if the offer is too good to be true.
6.hxg4 hxg4 7.Ne1
And Black has opened the h-file and now has mate in four.
7…Qh4 8.f4 g3 9.Qh5 Rxh5. 10.a3 Qh1#
The following trap arises from the Italian Game, concretely the Giuoco Piano.
It arises out of the following position.
1…d6 2.d4 Bb6 3.dxe5 Nxe5 4.Nxe5 dxe5 5.Bxe7+
This is a common theme. If Black captures with the king they lose their queen as the king no longer defends the queen.
Here’s another Giuoco Piano trap which is quite common. This one is from an actual game played back in 1620.
A very rudimentary trap to watch out for in the Caro-Kann Defense results after the Tal Variation.
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4
If Black goes into automatic mode and plays 4…e6 (which is usually played at some point) White can win Black’s light-squared bishop.
White now can say goodbye to the bishop. 5…Be4 is met by 6.Be3 Bg6 and 7.h5 and Black loses the piece.
Being known as a tactical and attacking weapon, the Sicilian Defense has a wide variety of traps in nearly all its variations and subvariations.
Take a look at the following one in the Wing Gambit in which Black can punish White for poor play and win their rook.
1.e4 c5 2.b4 cxb4 3.a3 d5 4.exd5 Qxd5 5.axb4??
Now White’s rook is hanging as the queen has 5…Qe5+ and White cannot protect the rook on a1.
The correct move for White on move 5 would have been Nf3 to prevent the queen from going to e5.
The Smith-Morra Gambit is a tactical player’s dream, so it is only natural it comes with its own traps. White often sacrifices more than just the initial pawn in this opening sometimes even a piece.
Take a look at the following game in which White masterfully forked the king and queen. If Black captures with the d-pawn, White’s queen captures Black’s queen!
Here is another trap in the Morra. As in other openings, the sacrifice of the bishop on f7 is thematic as the king is the only defender of the queen. Look out for this in your games as it happens in multiple openings.
1.Bxf7 Kxf7 2.Qxd8
Black’s error was taking on e5 allowing this sacrifice to take place. Instead, Black should have played Nc6.
If you have a piece on the fifth rank that is undefended, this can often be exploited by your opponent by bringing their queen out giving check which then can capture your piece.
Here is an example in the following game:
Traps can come in all shapes and sizes. While this article is by no means an exhaustive list of traps, many of them feature common themes, and by studying them and the games they appear in, you will be less susceptible to them.
Additionally, you can try to employ these traps in your own games. Some of them rely on dubious strategies, while others, even if your opponents do not fall for them, will still give you a good position.
Remember to avoid traps to employ prophylaxis and always ask what your opponent is trying to do with each move. The better your opponent is, the tougher it will be to use these traps against them.
It is hard to single out the best opening trap in chess. That said, traps that leave you with a solid position even if your opponent does not fall for them are very solid.
The best way to stop opening traps is to always ask yourself what your opponent is trying to do and employ prophylaxis. Another good way to stop opening traps is to study the traps that are common in the openings you play so you are prepared for them.
There are several traps that could qualify as the deadliest. Any trap that threatens checkmate or leaves you in a losing position (e.g., losing a significant amount of material) could be considered to be among the deadliest.