Today, I want to introduce you to the Benko Gambit, an interesting approach against 1.d4 that involves a positional pawn sacrifice.
What’s the Benko Gambit?
The Benko Gambit is a chess opening that occurs after the move order 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 b5.
This chess opening is named after the famous grandmaster Pal Benko, an American-Hungarian player who was most active in the 1960s.
Pal Benko made the Benko Gambit popular, particularly in English-speaking countries, but he didn’t invent it. That’s why this opening still has the older name Volga Gambit in eastern countries like Russia.
What are the key ideas of the Benko Gambit?
In the Benko Gambit, black sacrifices a pawn but gets active play for it.
For the pawn, black gets a better pawn structure – white has two pawn chains, while black only has one.
Black also gets access to the half-open a- and b-files. Black will use it’s rooks to put pressure on white’s pawns.
White doesn’t have any weaknesses to play against. White will try to stabilize its position. If he manages to do so, he’ll be a pawn up and have the advantage. White can win in the endgame by pushing the a- and b-pawns forward.
What’s the main line of the Benko Gambit?
There’s a lot of theory for the Benko out there, and covering all variations and the declined variations would be too much for one article.
I will focus on the mainline to give you an overview of the type of position you can expect if you play the Benko. If you like the type of positions you see, I recommend diving deeper by looking at this book.
In the main variation of the Benko, white accepts the pawn sacrifice: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 b5 4. cxb5, and black offers another pawn 4. … a6 5. bxa6.
Black doesn’t take back immediately here – Bxa6 used to be the old main line, but it gives black troubles in a specific variation, which we don’t need to get into in this article. Instead, black dodges problematic variations by playing 5. … g6.
Now the line continues with 6. Nc3 Bg7 7. e4.
There’s no rush with taking the a-pawn, as its attacked three times already, so black finishes the development first: 7. … 0-0 8. Nf3 Qa5 9.Bd2. And now black finally takes the pawn: 9. … Bxa6.
Black will eventually play moves like d6, Nd7 and Rb8.
White, on the other hand, will try to set up a solid defensive structure on the queenside and might advance in the center with e4-e5.
Is the Benko Gambit a good opening?
Modern theory doesn’t like the Benko Gambit. Computer engines in particular don’t favor giving away pawns and won’t have any trouble winning against the Benko.
However, I still think that the Benko Gambit is a good opening at a human level.
I do think that the Benko is a very instructive opening. While it’s not easy to play for black, because you have to be precise and know how to keep up the initiative, it teaches you how to convert a positional advantage.
If your positional play is lacking and you’d like to improve it, I recommend that you pick up the Benko.
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How does the Benko Gambit occur?
The Benko Gambit can be reached after 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 b5
Do Grandmasters play the Benko Gambit?
Grandmasters often use the Benko Gambit if they have to win as black. Grandmasters that played the Benko are Magnus Carlsen, Veselin Topalov or Viktor Bologan.