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  • GM Avetik Grigoryan GM Avetik Grigoryan

Latvian Gambit | The Refutation

How do you beat the Latvian Gambit? Discover a powerful new continuation for White that gives them a big advantage without memorizing long lines.

Openings | 14 min read
Latvian Gambit | The Refutation

The Latvian Gambit – a dangerous weapon for Black, or one of the worst chess openings ever? 

In the last few centuries, this question was fiercely debated by the chess community. 

Today, the debate still continues, but only at lower levels where the Latvian Gambit remains tricky for White to refute without prior game preparation. 

In this article, I’ll share the ideas, logic, downsides, and White’s choices when facing the Latvian Gambit.

Best of all, I’ll show you a very simple way to get a big advantage for White, where you don’t need to remember any long variations. 

Funnily enough, when I was researching the Latvian Gambit, I didn’t find any other video or article that refutes it in the same way I’m about to teach you.

But before we get there, let’s start with some history.

The history of the Latvian Gambit  

The Latvian Gambit is one of the oldest chess openings. 

According to my database, it was first deployed in 1572, in the game Polerio-Leonardo, where after just 11 moves, the following crazy position occurred on the board:

Latvian Gambit | The refutation

Then in the 17th century, during the romantic era of chess when the main strategy to win the game was to sacrifice everything and checkmate the opponent’s King, Gioachino Greco started to play this very aggressive gambit for Black.  

Later many masters started to analyze and play it too. 

The Greco Counter-Gambit or the Latvian Gambit? 

The opening was originally named after Gioachino Greco and became known as the Greco Counter-Gambit, due to his contributions to the early opening theory.

Gioachino Greco

The name the Latvian Gambit is a tribute to the Latvian players, who analyzed it and added to the theoretical knowledge behind it in the early 20th century. That’s why you may see some chess players and writers refer to it as either the Greco Counter-Gambit or the Latvian Gambit.

The Ideas of the Latvian Gambit   

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 Black tries to achieve the 2 following things:

Position after 2...f5

1. If Black successfully, without material losses, manages to swap the f5 pawn with the e4 pawn, they might play d5 and get a strong center. 

2. If Black successfully, without material losses, manages to develop their kingside pieces, then after castling, their Rook on f8 will be very active as it won’t be limited by the f7 pawn.

Active rook on f-file

Sounds interesting, right?

Now, let’s see what the downsides and risks are behind the move 2...f5

The Downsides

The main ideas of The Latvian Gambit, are essentially the same ideas and philosophy of the most romantic opening in chess – the King’s Gambit. 

Similarities between Latvian Gambit and Kings Gambit - 1.e4 e5 2.f4

King’s gambit 

With playing 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5, Black actually plays a reversed King’s Gambit, minus a tempo, as White’s Knight is on f3, which of course makes this gambit, very-very dubious.  

Here are the main downsides of the Latvian Gambit:

  1. Compared to the King’s gambit, where after 1.e4 e5 2.f4 White sacrifices the f4 pawn, now Black’s two pawns, e5 and f5 are not defended. 
  2. The move 2...f5 weakens Black’s King, and as we’ll see, this is of critical importance. 
  3. Being a tempo down, Black goes for an open fight, which logically-speaking, shouldn’t work. 

Downsides of Latvian Gambit

In this position, White has a lot of options they could respond with.

One-by-one, I’ll acquaint you with them, before showing you the easiest and most practical way to gain a big advantage as White.

If you’re eager to know the refutation or don’t care about the interesting theory of The Latvian Gambit, you can skip ahead to the section "3.Ne5," though I don’t recommend doing so as you’ll miss out on a lot of useful background knowledge.  

White’s choices 

White has 5 logical moves to try to refute Black’s Latvian Gambit. 

3.ef5 

3.Ne5 

3.Bc4 

3.Nc3

3.d4 

I recommend that you play 3.Ne5, but first, it will be useful for you to learn what happens with White’s other options.

Let’s start with 3.ef5 

3.ef5

3.ef5 is a good move, which gives White some advantage. 

Black should play 3...e4 and this presents White with another choice. 

Position after 1.e4

The old variation here is 4.Ne5 (threatening the killer 5.Qh5 check) Nf6 5.Be2 (still trying to give this killing check on h5) Be7 6.Bh5 Kf8 7.Nf7 Qe8 with complications.  

Another logical move is 4.Qe2

White pins the pawn and attacks it. Then after 4...d5 or 4...Nf6, White’s going to play 5.d3!

However after 4.Qe2 Black plays 4...Qe7 5.Nd4 Nc6! 6.Nc6 dc6! preparing to take on f5 and castle queenside. The position is very unclear even after 7.Qh5 Kd8!  

Black’s King is in the center, but their pieces are coming to the game very fast, starting with 8...Nf6 with a tempo. 

Position after 7...Kd8!

After 3...e4, White has a very interesting move 4.Ng1!?

The Knight goes back, threatening the same 5.Qh5 killer check and 5.d3, exchanging Black’s central pawn. 

But the strongest move after 3...e4 is 4.Nd4! 

White has the same idea – 5.Qh5 and 5.d3 

White's ideas 5.Qh5 and 5.d3

When I was doing research for this article, I found that many fans of the Latvian Gambit recommended the move 4...Qf6!? after 4.Nd4.  

Black attacks the Knight, and after 5.Qh5 they’re ready to play 5...g6, as after 6.fg6 hg6 Black’s Queen defends the Rook. 

The downside of move 4...Qf6 is that it weakens the c7 pawn – something which Scotch players should recognize immediately!

After 5.Nb5! Na6 6.N1c3 c6 (if 6...Qf5 then just 7.d3 with big advantage) 7.Ne4 Qe5 8.Nbc3 d5 Black wins a piece. 

d5 winning a piece

During my research, I found that most writers don’t go further than here. 

Therefore, I decided to briefly check with the engine if we can sacrifice a piece and get strong compensation, as Black’s position still appears dangerous.  

My suspicions were right. 

After I asked my favorite chess engine Stockfish 12 to help me, it immediately showed the variation 9.d4 Qe7 10.Ba6 ba6 11. Bg5 Nf6 12. Bf6 gf6 13.Qh5 Kd8.

After 13...Kd8

And now my cold-blooded friend offered 14.0-0-0 de4 15.d5! with a +5 advantage for White 🙂

15.d5!

According to Stockfish, Black’s King can’t escape from the center without severe material losses. 

At first, this is the variation I wanted to recommend for White in our course

However, after 4.Nd4 Black has many other moves they could choose. White does gain an advantage from every variation, but it requires remembering a lot of variations. 

That’s why, instead of 3.ef5, I settled on 3.Ne5 – which as you’ll soon see is a far simpler alternative to memorizing.

3.Bc4 

This is a very logical move, trying to refute Black’s dubious 2...f5 move.
White develops a piece, prepares to castle, and tries to exploit Black’s f7 weakness. 

Position after 3.Bc4

After 3...fe4 4.Ne5 Black has options. 

4...Qg5 is the old move, with the idea that after 5.Nf7 Qg2 6.Rf1 d5!! 7.Bd5 Bg4 8.f3 Be7! White has problems. 

8.f3 Be7

However, after 4...Qg5 White has the move 5.d4!.  

After 5...Qg2 6.Qh5 g6 7.Bf7 Kd8 8.Bg6 Qh1 9.Ke2 a crazy position arises:

Position after 9.Ke2

It’s so messy, that even the engine is getting confused.

At first, it thinks that Black wins after 9...c6 and then it sees the move 10.Nc3! and changes its mind.  

Then it thinks that 9...Qc1 gives Black a draw.
But after 10.Nf7 Ke8 (10...Ke7?? 11.Qe5#) 11.Nh8 hg6 12.Qg6 Kd8 13.Nf7 Ke7 it finds a very strong move 14.Nc3!! 

Position after 14.Nc3!!

White sacrifices the a1 rook.

Black can’t accept the sacrifice, as they’ll get a beautifully checkmated after 15.Nd5 Ke8 16.Nd6 Kd8 17.Qe8# 

17.Qe8 mates!

Yeah, it might be cool to play such a romantic game in the 21st century. 

After 14.Nc3!! Black should play Qc2, but even so, after 15.Ke1, White’s winning, despite being two pieces down! 

Position after 15.Ke1!

If Black stops Nd5 with 15...c6 then White has a very strong move 16.Nd6!! 

This would be good, and we would dig deeper if Black hadn’t a better option after 4.Bc4 fe4 5.Ne5.

Position after 5.Ne5

Instead of the old 4...Qg5 move, Black has a better option – 4...d5!, the so-called Scendenborg variation. Black ignores the Qh5 threat and tries to get the initiative while sacrificing their kingside. 

After 5.Qh5 g6 6.Ng6 hg6! (6...Nf6 is also interesting: 7.Qe5 Be7 8.Ne7 Qe7 9.Qe7 Ke7 and Black has some compensation) 7.Qh8 Kf7!! 

Position after 7...Kf7

White’s an exchange and a pawn up. However, Black has a strong center and is so ahead in development (the c4 bishop hangs, and also Black is going to win many tempos attacking White’s Queen, starting with Bg7 next), that it gives Black super-compensation and some romantic play. 

A more practical option for White is 7.Qg6 Kd7 8.Bd5 

Position after 8.Bd5

But still after 8...Nf6 or 8...Qf6 the position is unclear. 

3.Nc3

At first glance this move looks less ambitious, however, it’s actually very interesting.
White’s idea is after 3...fe4 4.Ne5 (threatening the killer check on h5) Nf6 to play 5.Ng4! 

Latvian Gambit | The refutation

White removes the defender of the e4 pawn and the h5 square.
For example after 5...Ng4 6.Qg4 d5 7.Qh5! wins the game.  

After 3.Nc3 Black’s best move is 3...Nf6 with the idea that after 4.Ne5, instead of taking on e4, to include the intermediate move 4...d6 first.  

After 3...Nf6, if White plays 4.Bc4, then after 4...fe4 5.Ne5 d5 6.Nd5 Nd5 7.Qh5 g6! 8.Ng6 hg6 9.Qg6 Kd7 10.Bd5 

…White is going to win the 4th pawn for a piece. But after 10...Qe7, the position remains unclear because of the activity of Black’s pieces. The Rook on h8 came into the game without making a single move, and the queenside pieces will join the game too. 

Most probably the best option after 3.Nc3 Nf6 is 4.ef5. While digging deeper I found that White still has an advantage. But once again, there is a better and simpler way for White. 

3.d4

This is called the reversed Falkbeer Counter-Gambit with an extra tempo for White. However, Black can play 3...fe4 and now White’s Knight on f3 hangs. After 4.Ne5 Nf6 White can still try to fight for a slight advantage, but after 2...f5, such a dubious move, it would be not ambitious. 

Finally, after looking at so many other options, I’ll show you the best way to play for White. 

3.Ne5!

We accept the pawn sacrifice and threaten the killer check on h5, as well as to take the 2nd pawn on f5, and to play 4.Bc4 – exploiting Black’s weakness on f7. 

Black has no time for moves like 3...d6 or 3...fe4 because of 4.Qh5

If 3...Nf6 White can try to finish the game faster after 4.Bc4 or slower after 4.ef5 winning the 2nd pawn.

The main move is 3...Qf6.
There is also 3...Nc6 option, the so-called Fraser Variation, which some authors recommended in their articles.

Position after 3...Nc6

This is a kind of Stafford Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Ne5 Nc6), but instead of the f6 Knight, Black has a pawn on f5, which of course, can’t be good for Black.

4.Qh5 just wins the game. 

After 4...g6 5.Ng6 Nf6 6.Qh4 (6.Qh3 wins as well) Black has two options: 

6...Rg8 or 6...hg6

Both of them lose, with the full variations in our course.

But if you don’t want to remember any variations, after 3...Nc6 you can just play 4.Nc6 dc6 and now after all the logical moves, White’s a pawn up. 

You can play whatever you like: 5.d3, 5.Nc3. 5.Qf3, 5.d4 (after 5...fe4 6.Qh5 kills)

After 3...Nc6, 4.d4 also gives White a big advantage.

Side note: I’m sorry, but I really can’t understand any author who recommends 3...Nc6?!

Let’s go to Black’s main option 3...Qf6

Position after 3...Qf6 

With 3...Qf6, Black develops the Queen with a tempo and covers the problematic Qh5 threat, as the Queen on f6 supports the g6 move.

Here I recommend 4.d4, but 4.Nc4 is also a great option. 

After 4.Nc4 fe4 5.Nc3 Black has a bunch of moves but everywhere White is better. 

After 4.d4 Black’s only move is 4...d6, otherwise if 4...fe4, we play 5.Bc4!, exploiting the f7 weakness, and that Black’s Queen is on f6, as there is no d5 move! 

Position after 5.Bc4

So, after 4.d4 Black’s only move is 4...d6 – attacking our Knight first, and after we retreat the Knight, Black will take on e4.

After 4...d6

Now, according to the theory, the main move is 5.Nc4, which is a very logical one, as, after 5.Nd3 or 5.Nf3, Black would take the e4 pawn attacking our Knight.

After 5.Nc4 fe4 6.Nc3 Black plays 6...Qg6!. They defend the e4 pawn, prepare Nf6, and don’t allow White to develop their kingside with Be2. Now you see how great the Queen is on g6.

6...Qg6!

However, still, Black played the opening not following the openings’ main principles – to develop the minor pieces first, not to play with the same piece more than once, and not to develop the Queen early in the game.

According to theory, here 7.f3! gives White a big advantage. 

This variation is shown in most of the good articles and good videos on YouTube. 

After 7...ef3 8.Qf3 White has a big advantage in development.

However, after 7.f3 Black has a strong move 7...Nc6!

After 8.fe4 Be7! Black gets some compensation. 

Position after 8...Be7!

With precise moves, White still gets an advantage after 7...Nc6!?, but I have a much more practical recommendation for you.

5.Nd3!

Position after 5.Nd3

In the database, you can see that 5.Nc4 was played almost 1000 times, while 5.Nd3 just 12! 

The move also looks strange. Why lose a tempo after 5...fe4? 

Well, the thing is that after 5...fe4 6.Nf4 the Knight stays on f4 extremely well!

After 6.Nf4

Let’s see why. 

1. Black’s Queen on f6 is misplaced, not allowing the g8 Knight to stay on f6. The best square for the queen would be g6, as we have seen already but now White’s f4 Knight doesn’t allow Black Qg6 – the main idea in these positions! 

2. In the variation with 5.Nc4, White couldn’t develop their bishop to c4 - the dream square, because the knight has occupied it.
When the knight is on f4, White’s light-squared bishop appreciates that.

3. The e4 pawn is very weak, which White’s going to attack next with 7.Nc3 

Now, after 6.Nf4, Black has two logical moves: 6...c6, trying to play d5 next or 6...Qf7 with Nf6

6...c6

After 6...c6 we need to do just one thing - not allow Black to play d5 🙂
7.c4 with 8.Nc3 gives a big advantage, but 7.d5 is even stronger! 

After 7.d5!

Black’s e4 pawn is far from Black’s army and is going to be attacked with White’s next move – 8.Nc3.
Also, Black’s Queen is very misplaced as it prevents the move Nf6.
White has a big advantage.

6...Qf7 

After 6...Qf7 7.Nc3 Nf6 8.Be2 d5 (Black defends their weakness on e4 and wants to play Bd6 with 0-0) 9.0-0 Bd6 White has a killer move – 10.f3! 

Position after 10.f3!

We can clearly see the downside of the 6...Qf7 move, and why Black would love to have their Queen on g6, which we didn’t allow with the move 6.Nf4! 

After 10...ef3 (10...0-0 11.fe4 de4 12.Nfd5! with big advantage) 11.Bf3 c6 there are different ways to get a big advantage.

The easiest one is 12.Re1 Be7 13.Qe2

After 13.Qe2

And Black’s King is stacked in the center.

The story of 5.Nd3

How did I find the move 5.Nd3, which is almost a novelty?

Well...I didn’t! One of our ChessMood students, Nicolo Pasini, a strong chess player and a great analyst, showed me it 🙂 

And it’s not the first time that he comes with strong improvements to the theory. You might remember the Pasini variation, which we recommend playing against the Modern Pirc

Why do I recommend this option among all others? 

As we have seen in the first part of the article, there are other options that give White an advantage. But there are four reasons, why I recommend this variation against Latvian Gambit:

  1. Objectively, it’s very strong. If you’re interested in what the engine thinks, it shows it as +2 for White!
  2. Gambit players like to sacrifice and take the initiative. Here we took the initiative away from them so they hate us, which is good in chess. 
  3. Gambit players like to surprise their opponents. Now with 5.Nd3, we surprise them so they’ll hate us even more!
  4. There is almost nothing to remember in the way I recommend to play against Latvian Gambit. Everything is very simple and logical.  

After 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f5 3.Ne5 Qf6 is the only move.

After 4.d4 d6 is the only move again.

And after 5.Nd3! we don’t just get a big advantage, but a practical advantage too, surprising our opponent, taking the initiative, and making them hate us 🙂

For clarity, please don’t misunderstand the "hating concept" by making your opponents hate you by behaving badly during the game. The only acceptable and smart way to do so is with strong and practical moves on the chessboard.  

Truly, I’m sorry

Dear Latvian Gambit fans,

I officially apologize for writing this article and showing the refutations of your favorite gambit. 

But keep the mood. Most probably, when you play this gambit at lower levels, very few people will know all the things that I showed you in this article.

White has a wide choice in the Latvian Gambit, and during the game, it’s not going to be easy to understand what to do. Also, they can quite easily forget the variations they had in their files. Once, that happened to me…

Once in the USA

When I was in the USA, I was invited to play a few games, with some chess lovers from Chicago.

Avetik with chess lovers in Chicago

In the very first game, I lost against the guy on the left of the photo.
I didn’t know that Daniel is a strong chess player, has a Black belt in karate, and is also a very nice dude 🙂

Did you guess the opening? He played the Latvian Gambit.

I screwed up in the opening, couldn’t remember my analysis, and then lost.

Back then, I didn’t know the easy way with 5.Nd3! which Nicolo showed me a month after this incident 🙂

Will I ever forget it now?

No way! There is almost nothing to remember 🙂

Conclusion

As promised, one-by-one, I’m going to show you the best refutations of all these nasty ‘Abra-Cadabra’ gambits, so that when you play 1.e4, you don’t fall for them.

This time we covered the Latvian Gambit.

For much more analysis after 5.Nd3, and to learn how to continue growing your advantage, you should watch our course on the Latvian Gambit.

As a reminder, if you’re a PRO Member, you have unlimited access to all the courses, including this one.

Also, to see the variations in this article more vividly, you can check out the Latvian Gambit Lesson on our YouTube channel.

P.S. Feel free to share your thoughts in our forum, and tell me, how do you feel now that you know how to play against the Latvian Gambit!

Originally published Jan 19, 2021

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