Despite an early debut in 1896, the Budapest Gambit received attention from leading players only after a win as Black by Grandmaster Milan Vidmar over Akiba Rubinstein in 1918. It enjoyed a rise in popularity in the early 1920s but nowadays is rarely played at the top level. It experiences a lower percentage of draws than other main lines, but also a lower overall performance for Black.
Chess Traps | Budapest Gambit
The Budapest Gambit (or Budapest Defence) is a chess opening that begins with the moves:
1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 e5
Despite an early debut in 1896, the Budapest Gambit received attention from leading players only after a win as Black by Grandmaster Milan Vidmar over Akiba Rubinstein in 1918. It enjoyed a rise in popularity in the early 1920s, but nowadays is rarely played at the top level. It experiences a lower percentage of draws than other main lines, but also a lower overall performance for Black.
After 3.dxe5 Black can try the Fajarowicz variation 3...Ne4 which concentrates on the rapid development of pieces, but the most common move is 3...Ng4 with three main possibilities for White. The Adler variation 4.Nf3 sees White seeking a spatial advantage in the centre with his pieces, notably the important d5-square. The Alekhine variation 4.e4 gives White an important spatial advantage and a strong pawn centre. The Rubinstein variation 4.Bf4 leads to an important choice for White, after 4...Nc6 5.Nf3 Bb4+, between 6.Nbd2 and 6.Nc3. The reply 6.Nbd2 brings a positional game in which White enjoys the bishop pair and tries to break through on the queenside, while 6.Nc3 keeps the material advantage of a pawn at the cost of a weakening of the white pawn structure. Black usually looks to have an aggressive game (many lines can shock opponents that do not know the theory) or cripple White's pawn structure.
The Budapest Gambit contains several specific strategic themes. After 3.dxe5 Ng4, there is a battle over White's extra pawn on e5, which Black typically attacks with ...Nc6 and (after ...Bc5 or ...Bb4+) ...Qe7, while White often defends it with Bf4, Nf3, and sometimes Qd5. In the 4.Nf3 variation the game can evolve either with Black attacking White's kingside with manoeuvres of rook lifts, or with White attacking Black's kingside with the push f2–f4, in which case Black reacts in the centre against the e3-pawn. In numerous variations the move c4–c5 allows White to gain space and to open prospects for his light-square bishop. For Black, the check Bf8–b4+ often allows rapid development.
In a Chess Notes feature article, Edward Winter showed that the origins of this opening are not yet entirely elucidated. The first known game with the Budapest Gambit is Adler–Maróczy (played in Budapest in 1896). This game already featured some key aspects of the gambit, such as active play for the black pieces, and White making the typical mistake of moving the queen too early. As the player of the white pieces was not a strong player, the new opening went unnoticed apart from the local experts who had witnessed the game. The Hungarians István Abonyi, Zsigmond Barász and Gyula Breyer further developed the opening. Breyer played it in 1916 against the Dutch surgeon Johannes Esser in a small tournament in Budapest. The Austrian player Josef Emil Krejcik played it against Helmer in Vienna in 1917. Carl Schlechter published an optimistic analysis of the gambit in the Deutsche Schachzeitung.
Tartakower, a practitioner of the Budapest Gambit
The first use of the opening against a world-class player was at Berlin in April 1918, a double round-robin tournament with four players: Akiba Rubinstein, Carl Schlechter, Jacques Mieses and Milan Vidmar. Vidmar had to play Black in the first round against Rubinstein, then ranked the fourth best player in the world with a very positional style. At a loss for what to play, he sought advice from his friend Abonyi, who showed him the Budapest Gambit and the main ideas the Hungarian players had found. Vidmar followed Abonyi's advice and beat Rubinstein convincingly in just 24 moves. This victory so heartened Vidmar that he went on to win the tournament, while Rubinstein was so demoralised by this defeat that he lost another game against Mieses and drew a third one against Schlechter in the same opening.
After this tournament, the gambit finally began to be taken seriously. Top players like Savielly Tartakower and Siegbert Tarrasch started to play it. Schlechter published in 1918 the monograph Die budapester Verteidigung des Damengambits, which can be considered the first book on this opening. The gambit reached its peak of popularity (around five Budapest Gambits for every thousand games played) around 1920, so much so that many White players adopted the move-order 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 to avoid it.
The leading exponents of 1.d4 started to look for reliable antidotes. Alexander Alekhine showed how White could get a strong attack with 4.e4 in his games against Ilya Rabinovich (Baden-Baden 1925) and Adolf Seitz (Hastings 1925–26). But a few weeks later a theme tournament on the Budapest Gambit was held, in Budapest, and the result was 14½–21½ in Black's favour. Another tournament in Semmering the same year saw Alekhine losing to Karl Gilg in his pet line with White against the gambit, so that the e4-line had a mixed reputation. Meanwhile, more positional plans were also developed for White. Rubinstein showed how White could get a small positional advantage with 4.Bf4 Nc6 5.Nf3 Bb4+ 6.Nbd2, an assessment still valid today. The possibility 6.Nc3 was also considered attractive, as structural weaknesses were not valued as much as a material advantage of one pawn in those days. By the end of the 1920s, despite the invention of the highly original Fajarowicz variation 3...Ne4 in 1928, the Budapest Gambit was considered theoretically dubious.
This assessment was left unchanged for decades, as few players at the highest level used the Budapest Gambit and information about games from lesser players could not easily be found. During that time, various responses were developed against the 4.Bf4 line; these included 4...g5, invented by István Abonyi, further developed by the masters Bakonyi and Dolfi Drimer. The master Kaposztas showed that even when White succeeded in his positional plan, it only meant for Black a worse endgame with drawish tendencies.[notes 1] Two pawn sacrifices were also introduced in the variation with 6.Nbd2 (still in the 4.Bf4 line), based on pawn pushes d7–d6 or f7–f6 and a quick attack against b2.
The Budapest Gambit saw a short-lived revival in 1984–85 when Chess Informant included three games (as many as in the previous fifteen years), all played at a high level of competition, and all won by Black. But White players found reinforcements and even invented a line with 4.e3 and 5.Nh3. In the 21st century, despite Shakhriyar Mamedyarov's successful efforts to rehabilitate the line 4.Bf4 g5, the Budapest Gambit almost never appears at the highest level. Its most recent appearance was when Richárd Rapport defeated Boris Gelfand with Black using the opening in round 2 of the 2014 Tata Steel Chess competition.
In the database of the website ChessGames.com, the Budapest Gambit scores 28.9% Black wins, 44.1% White wins and 27.1% draws. The percentage of draws is especially low compared to mainstream alternatives such as 2...e6 (43.7% draws) or 2...g6 (37% draws). This opening gives more chance to win for both opponents, although the percentage of Black wins is still lower than the alternative 2...c5. In the main line 3.dxe5 Ng4 4.Bf4 the percentage of Black wins already falls to 21.1%, lower than the main lines after 2...e6 or 2...g6.
The Budapest Gambit has never been widely used as Black by the top-ten chessplayers. Richard Réti used it five times in the period 1919–26 when he was among the ten best players in the world but he scored only 1½ points. Savielly Tartakower used it four times in 1928 when he was the eighth-best player in the world, including thrice in one tournament (Bad Kissingen 1928) but he scored only ½ point against world-class opposition: Bogoljubov then ranked number four in the world, Capablanca ranked number two, and Rubinstein ranked number seven. Rudolf Spielmann used it thrice in 1922–23 when he was about number 9–12 in the world, with a win against Euwe but defeats against Yates and Sämisch. Nigel Short played the gambit twice in the years 1992–93 when he was number 7–11, scoring only ½ points against Karpov (then ranked number two) and Ivanchuk (then ranked number three). Recently, Mamedyarov used it twice in 2004 (scoring 1½ with a win against Van Wely) when he was not already among the top-players, and six times in 2008 when he was about number 6–14; he scored five points with wins against former world champion Kramnik (then ranked number three), and grandmasters Tkachiev and Eljanov, but all six games took place in rapid or blitz events.
Nicolas Giffard summarises the modern assessment of the Budapest Gambit:
It is an old opening, seldom used by champions without having fallen in disgrace. While White has several methods to get a small advantage, this defence is strategically sound. Black gets a good pawn structure and possibilities of attack on the kingside. His problems generally come from the white pressure on the d-column and a lack of space to manoeuvre his pieces.
Boris Avrukh writes, "The Budapest Gambit is almost a respectable opening; I doubt there is a refutation. Even in the lines where White manages to keep an extra pawn, Black always has a lot of play for it."
Strategic and tactical themes
White builds up an imposing pawn centre
White has a strong pawn centre.
In the Alekhine variation White does not try to defend his e5-pawn and keep his material advantage, but instead he concentrates on building an imposing pawn centre. This brings him good prospects of a space advantage that may serve as a basis for a future attack on the kingside. However, the extended pawn centre has its drawbacks, as Lalic explains: "White must invest some valuable tempi in protecting his pawn structure, which allows Black to seize the best squares for his minor pieces with excellent prospects for counterplay against the white centre."
Hence in this variation Black lets White build his pawn centre only to undermine it later, a playing philosophy espoused in the teachings of the hypermodern school. The strategic themes are similar to the ones that can be found in other openings like the Four Pawns Attack, the Alekhine Defence or the Grünfeld Defence.
The "Budapest rook" is a manoeuvre, introduced by the IM Dolfi Drimer in 1968, with which Black develops the a8 rook aggressively along the sixth rank using the moves a7–a5 and the rook lift Ra8–a6–h6. For example, this can happen in the Adler variation after the move sequence 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e5 3.dxe5 Ng4 4.Nf3 Bc5 5.e3 Nc6 6.Be2 Ngxe5 7.Nxe5 Nxe5 8.a3 a5 9.0-0 0-0 10.Nc3 Ra6 11.b3 Rh6.
The rook is then used to support a piece attack against White's castled king. Black can easily get several pieces around the white king, notably a rook to h6, a queen to h4 and a knight on g4. The queen's arrival on the h4-square is facilitated by the absence of a white knight on the f3-square (that would otherwise cover the h4-square) and of a black knight on the f6-square (that would block the way for the black queen). If White tries to defend with h2–h3, this may allow the Bc8 to be sacrificed at h3 in order to open the h-file.
The Bc5 may not seem particularly useful in this attack, but by eyeing e3 it makes it difficult for White to play f4 to chase away the black knight; furthermore, the attack on e3 is sometimes intensified with major pieces doubling on the e-file. Besides, the Bc5 can sometimes be recycled to the b8–h2 diagonal via Bc5–a7–b8, to apply still more pressure on h2. It can also stay on the a7–g1 diagonal to put pressure on f2, if White pushes e3–e4 at some stage.
The "Budapest rook" was an invigorating innovation of the 1980s, and gave the gambit new life. However, inconveniences arise from delaying d7–d6 in order to allow the lift: the light-square bishop has to wait a long time to develop, and any attack on the Bc5 is potentially annoying for Black (since it means either closing the sixth rank with ...d6/...b6, abandoning the active a7–g1 diagonal, or blocking the rook when deployed to a7). This, in addition to the risk of awkwardness in the king side (a knight on f5 will fork the Rh6 and the Qh4) and the single-mindedness of Black's plan (with nothing to fall back on if the direct attack is repelled), has made some revisit the old lines, where it is instead the king's rook that is developed to h6. The queen's rook can then be retained on the queenside, and will be well-placed if the b-file opens as a result of Black's Bc5 being exchanged and recaptured with a b6 pawn.