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Chess 101: What Is the Queen’s Gambit? Learn About the Chess Opening and How to Perform Black’s Responses to the Queen’s Gambit In a Step-by-Step Guide

Written by MasterClass

Jun 4, 2019 • 5 min read

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Approaching chess openings can be an intimidating part of learning the game. There are hundreds of possible openings and hundreds of well-studied variations based on those openings. Among these thousands of possibilities, the Queen’s Gambit is one of the oldest and best-known openings, one used to great effect by many grandmasters from the nineteenth century until today. It’s also a great opening for beginners.


What Is the Queen’s Gambit?

The Queen’s Gambit consists of three moves:

  1. White moves the queen’s pawn two spaces forward.
  2. Black responds by moving her own queen pawn two spaces forward.
  3. Finally, white replies by bringing her queenside bishop’s pawn forward two spaces.

Using standard chess notation, this is written as:

1.d4 d5

Why Is it Called the Queen’s Gambit?

Like all gambits, it begins with an offer to sacrifice material. In this case, white offers a wing pawn in exchange for better control of the center. It’s called the Queen’s Gambit because it begins with the queen’s pawn (as opposed to the King’s Gambit, which starts with 1.e4).

Many chess aficionados will tell you that the Queen’s Gambit isn’t considered a “true gambit,” because black usually can’t hold the pawn it takes, making it more of a trade with a slight delay. That said, some of the responses to the Queen’s Gambit do offer opportunities for true gambits on both sides.

Why Is the Queen’s Gambit an Effective Opening?

In the early stages of the game, control of the center is vital, and the Queen’s Gambit gives an aggressive white player the opportunity to exchange a wing-pawn for control of the center.

If you’re the kind of player who likes to constantly put pressure on your opponent, then the Queen’s Gambit is an excellent opening to learn. Played correctly, it can force black to spend the early part of the game responding to your threats rather than developing her own.

Black’s Responses to the Queen’s Gambit (Step-by-Step Guide)

If you’re playing black, you have a number of ways to respond to white. These are divided into two broad categories: The Queen’s Gambit Accepted (or QGA, in which black takes the white c-pawn with 2.c4 dxc4) and the Queen’s Gambit Declined (or QGD, in which she doesn’t).

There are several major variations on each of these responses, including the popular and effective Slav Defense, which may be considered a variation of the QGD, but is popular enough that it’s often considered separately.

1. Queen’s Gambit Accepted. Until the late nineteenth century, black’s response to the Queen’s Gambit was usually to protect the c-pawn. It took the World Champions Wilhelm Steinetz and later Alexander Alekhine introduced modern ideas that showed how the QGA could give black a shot at controlling the center.

Following standard notation, the QGA can be written as:

1. d4 d5
2. c4 dxc4

From there, most mainline (or orthodox) versions of the QGA go something like this:

3. Nf3 Nf6
4. e3 e6
5. Bxc4 c5
6. 0-0 a6

For white, the mainline has a number of clear advantages: It retakes the black pawn, protects her king, and develops a bishop. However, it also offers black some advantages as well. The bishop on c4 is potentially vulnerable to the black b-pawn if she can advance it to b5, which can put white in an uncomfortable position.

2.Queen’s Gambit Declined. While there are some good reasons for black to accept the Queen’s Gambit, it’s more common to decline. The mainline version of QGD has black respond with 2.c4 e6, though there are other ways to bring about this same situation.

The main feature of … e6 is that it frees up black’s kingside (dark-squared) bishop at the cost of obstructing her queenside (light-squared) bishop. The key here is that by refusing to play … dxc4, black refuses to give up the center to white unless she can gain some advantage by it.

Following standard notation, QGD can be written as:

1. d4 d5
2. c4 e6

From there, white typically responds with 3. Nc3, which black can respond to a number of different ways, though the most common variation will involve responding with her own knight, thus:

3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bg5 Be7
5. Nf3

Following the mainline GQD gives black several strong options. She can castle on the kingside and threaten white’s dark-squared bishop by moving a pawn to h6 or withdrawing the knight on f6 to d7. She also still threatens the center, but also has the option of finally taking the white’s d-pawn.

3. Slav Defense. The Slav Defense, so called because it’s been used with great success by a number of Russian masters in the first half of the 20th century, is technically a variation of the QGD. That said, it’s nearly as extensive and well-studied an opening as the main line of the QGD, so it often gets studied separately. (As a testament to the complexity of chess openings, there’s also a complex hybrid of the Slav and the QGD, called the Semi-Slav.)

You might remember that one of the main ideas of the QGD is to develop black’s dark-squared (kingside) bishop at the expense of her light-squared (queenside) bishop, usually by blocking it with a pawn on e6. The Slav Defense aims to free up black’s light-squared bishop while also giving black a more solid pawn structure than many variations of the QGD.

The main line of the Slav Defense goes like this:

1. d4 d5
2. c4 c6

Because black kept her pawn on e7, her light-squared bishop now has a free lane for development. At this point, white typically responds as in the mainline QGD, bringing her knight to c3, which black will respond to by bringing her own knight to f6. Thus, after three moves the only difference between the Slav Defense and the QGD declined is the position of the second black pawn, but that difference opens up many different possibilities. The typical progression goes:

3. Nf3 Nf6
4. Nc6 dxc4

At this point, white will usually move her a-pawn to a4 in order to prevent black from moving her b-pawn to b5 (which you’ll remember from the QGA can put white in an uncomfortable position). Black is also free now to develop her light-squared bishop to f5, after which she can move her e-pawn to e6, creating a strong pawn structure that can contest the center without trapping a bishop.

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