Around 1825, on a steamboat traveling between Wales and Ireland, captain Evans, a strong Chess amateur, was playing a game against one of the best players of his time, Alexander MacDonnell. The game started as an Italian game until William Davies Evans played a strange move that is today his legacy to the game of Chess: the Evans Gambit.
Here is this historical game.
Tribute to William Davies Evans for playing the game of his life against such a strong opponent !
It was common in the romantic era of Chess to see many unsound gambits, but what is remarkable with the Evans gambit is that it is actually good ! Kasparov revived it to win in 25 moves against Anand and it is still used episodically at top level nowadays, when Black does not chooses to play the Two Knights Defense.
Typical Ideas In The Evans Gambit
Before going into each line in depth, we are going to see the main ideas of the Evans gambit. Remarkably, most of them were already present in this first game from William Davies Evans.
The modern version of the Evans Gambit still occurs in the Giuoco Piano, but the move b2-b4 is played one move earlier.
Those are the main ideas of the Evans gambit. We are now going to see how to articulate those ideas together with a sound development. But first, as with any gambit you make, your opponent is not forced to accept it. So what happens if Black declines the gambit ?
The Evans Gambit Declined
This chapter is about what happens when Black does not capture on b4.
So, despite the temporarily unprotected b4-pawn, Black cannot take any advantage of it and must secure his Bishop !
Now either Black tries to exchange the Knights on d5, or Black hides the Bishop on a7. Both are possible and slightly inferior for Black.
Black exchanges on d5
This is achieved by moving the Knight to f6 immediately.
We end up with a position that is slightly more comfortable for White in most lines, but this is definitely playable for Black. The pawns on e5 and e4 are often hanging, which makes room for tactical opportunities !
Note that some players, including Carlsen, have ignored the attack on b6 and played 7… d7-d6 letting White capture on b6 (it was against Grischuk, and, no, Carlsen did not win that Blitz game).
Black hides the Bishop on a7
The second possibility is a bit more solid for Black: just consolidate everything and let White get a space advantage.
This line seems more difficult to play for Black than the previous one with 6… Nf6. Moreover, there are less tricks and tactical traps to try to confuse White.
But enough with the correct-but-slightly-inferior gambit refusal. What we all want to see is what happens in the most common case, right ? Now let’s have a look at what happens when Black accepts the gambit !
The Evans Gambit Accepted
Declining the gambit is playable, but not great. So if Black really wants to fight for equality, or even a small advantage, there is no workaround: Black has to accept the fight and take the pawn !
Black captures on b4 with the Knight
But first, we have to wonder how to take the b4-pawn.
The move 5… Qf6 is not only a double attack, but a triple threat actually ! Thus 4… Nxb4 is a bit more than a weird move, it is also a tactical trap set to White.
To be completely fair, someone playing the Evans gambit with White will probably not fall into this, and you can expect the game to follow the line with a quick c3-d4.
Black Plays Bxb4-c5
This is what is played most of the time and considered as the main line of the Evans Gambit.
The final position is a solid small advantage for White. You could argue that this advantage is not that big, but in practice, White is in the driver’s seat.
Why did we transpose into the 4… Nxb4 line ? If you think about it, on one hand, Black played Nc6xb4 – c6, and on the other hand it was Bc5xb4 – c5. In both cases a back and forth movement done either by the Knight or the Bishop, leading to the same result !
So, what to say about 5… Bc5 ? Probably a sound move, yet not very active and giving White exactly what he wanted from the opening: Black will have to fight to maintain an equal game, not exactly a dream position.
Black Plays 5… Ba5
Thus Black often tries other approaches on the fifth move, and we are going to start with the most popular one.
Now you might think that White wants to get rid of the pin before pushing d2-d4.
So castling for White is playable but this is certainly not the most testing option White can choose.
Both options are possible for Black, and I will detail them in the following sections.
Black Captures on d4: 6… exd4
This is the sharpest line, and Black must be prepared before entering it, as the battle will be fierce ! We will check three lines, but there are much more of course.
So taking on c3 is greedy for Black, and they usually prefer a boilerplate developing move.
White is not forced to castle immediately though.
Here you got a few examples of positions arising after Black captures on d4: quite tense, with some pressure for White, but globally manageable by Black. The other option is 6… d6. It sometimes transposes into the exd4 variations, but it is mostly a different line, with specific ideas.
Black defends his e5-pawn: 6… d6
As we have seen, the position after 6… exd4 soon becomes dangerous for Black, and White has several ways to create threats. Black has another option: by avoiding this capture on d4, he hopes to keep the position closed so he can castle and finish developing his pieces.
Those lines show one more time how dangerous the Evans gambit can be. There was only one good move for Black here: Qd7 !
Did I mention that the Evans gambit is landmine for Black already ? This last example again shows why: a typical move 9… Nf6 you could perfectly play without thinking about it that proves to be a fatal mistake !
Enough with the main line 5… Ba5, you have seen enough variations already and you know most of the main ideas. The next line is probably safer for Black, but promises a little less maybe.
Black Plays 5… Be7
5… Be7 is the move favored by Emanuel Lasker and played by Anand against Kasparov. This is not surprising: Anand was probably surprised, and 5… Be7 is supposed to lead to less critical lines than 5… Ba5.
Of course nothing is over now, and when you look at the games starting from this position, only one third of them end up in a draw, which means that there is plenty of play left. However, White might feel that he has left his initiative behind.
Those lines should be enough to convince you that 5… Be7 is not the end of Black’s problems either and that White can still come up with ideas to create something in the position. To sum up, it is clear that 5… Ba5 and 5… Be7 are the two main moves to deal with the Evans gambit.
Finally, I propose you a last idea with Black: a move that looks terrible but is not so bad after all, and that will for sure surprise White !
Black Plays 5… Bd6
And I know what you are already saying: you don’t move your Bishop in front of the d-pawn in the opening, this is bad, etc. Well, we live in the era of computer Chess, and many times, a move that was against all opening principles has been proven to be just good.
Here though, we should not overstate the strength of 5… Bd6: it is weaker than 5… Ba5 or 5… Be7, but certainly stronger than any other move, including 5… Bc5. So let’s see together how to play it.
So even there, Black had to navigate in a position full of traps to be able to emerge out of the opening with an advantage: this f2-f4 idea is not so easy to see !
This concludes our overview of the 5… Bd6 line: a really good line that gives Black a solid position, if he does not fall into one of those numerous traps of the Evans gambit !
Conclusion on the Evans Gambit
This is it about the Evans Gambit. We have reviewed the main lines together and should have some arguments if you encounter it in one of your games. It is a surprisingly sound gambit, that gives opportunity to set traps immediately, but even when Black plays the right moves, there is a long term initiative that remains and is enough to justify this gambit.
So, what now ? You can check other lines of the Italian game if you want to stick to the same system, or you can also start studying completely different openings after 1. e4 e5 like the Scotch game or Philidor defense.