The Benko Gambit: A How to Play Guide for White & Black

Quick overview

  • The Benko Gambit is an opening arising after the move order 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5. Black sacrifices a pawn in order for a positional advantage and to play on an open queenside.
  • White can have trouble converting their material advantage, even after trading pieces. If they can thwart Black’s queenside attack, however, White has good chances.
  • The gambit may be fully accepted with 4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6 or partially accepted by not taking the a-pawn.

The Benko Gambit holds an interesting place in the world of gambits. While most gambits, such as the Smith-Morra Gambit or the Wing Gambit sacrifice material to develop quick attacking chances, the Benko Gambit sacrifices a pawn in order to generate long-term positional pressure on White’s queenside.

You could say this is a gambit for positionally-minded players. The position does not turn overly sharp after the sacrifice, players must accept the material disadvantage and slowly build an attack.

The Benko Gambit arises after the moves 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5. It is named after Hungarian-American Grandmaster Pal Benko (1928-2019).

Benko began to promote the idea of ​​the b5 pawn sacrifice in the 1960s and went on to publish a book entitled The Benko Gambit in 1974.

Benko was not the first to come up with this idea. The b5 sacrifice (followed by a6) had been used since the 1930s, though it generally arose from a King’s Indian Defense. It is thought that the now-standard move order was first played in the 1936 Olympiad in Munich.

The Benko Gambit is also known as the Volga Gambit. In many countries in Eastern Europe, this name predominates. In his 1974 book, Benko made a distinction between the Volga Gambit and the Benko Gambit, stating that the Volga Gambit was 3…b5 (occasionally followed by an early …e6), while the Benko Gambit was 3…b5 4.cxb5 a6 ( today considered the main line).

However today, they are interchangeable, and the opening is even sometimes referred to as the Volga-Benko gambit.

As mentioned, the Benko does not give Black immediate attacking opportunities. However, by sacrificing the pawn, Black will have two open files for his rooks on the queenside, something which White cannot ignore. White can even enter the endgame with the pawn advantage and find it hard to convert a win.

The Main Line- The Fully Accepted Variation

4.cxb5 a6 5.bxa6

This line is known as the Fully Accepted Variation.

From here you can already see that Black will be working with a wide-open queenside to launch an attack. This won’t come in the form of immediate tactics, but rather in long-term pressure working on the open files.

From here there are two main ways to respond. The most popular is 5…g6. Black plans to fianchetto their dark-square bishop to help put pressure on White’s queenside from long range.

Another idea is Black would like to avoid 5…Bxa6 6.g3 d6 7.Bg2 g6 8.b3.

Having played 5…g6, the bishop arrives at g7 a move earlier, making 6.g3 d6 7.Bg2 Bg7 8.b3 unplayable because of 8…Nfd7.

The second most popular option is 5…Bxa6. Black does not need to be in a rush to recapture this pawn. It is completely valid to do so, however, and Black already begins some sort of counterplay by having half-open files on the a and b-files.

Except for the foregoing line, 5…g6 almost always transposes to the 5…Bxa6 lines. 5…Bxa6 was the original Benko move-order, so we will treat it as the main line.

What does Black have here for the pawn? For one, they have a lead in development. The rook on a8 will not need to be developed, its position is ideal. Also, the two half-open files on the queenside give Black a great base to launch an attack.

The standard plan for Black here is to develop the bishop to g7, place their rooks on a8 and b8, the queen to either a5 or b6, and the knight can move into c4, or if White plays e4, to d3.

An exchange of pieces, normally a great way to consolidate a material advantage, does not necessarily help white.

White has two ways to play from here.

6.Nc3

6…g6 7.e4

White potentially gives up the right to castle as 7…Bxf1 is a threat. White however will be able to castle manually after this.

7…Bxf1 8.Kxf1 d6 9.g3 Bg7 10.Kg2 0-0 11.Nf3 Bd7

This is what is known as the King Walk Variation as White has had to “walk” their king to g2.

Black now wants to pay 12…Qb6 or 12…Qa5, then 13…Rfb8.

Despite the open queenside for Black, engines give White a significant advantage of +1.6.

6.g3-The Fianchetto Variation

This option is far less popular for White. It allows White to avoid exchanging bishops on f1.

6…d6 7.Bg2 g6

White can play 8.b3 (which is the reason why 5…g6 has overtaken 6…Bxa6 in popularity). This move neutralizes Black’s dangerous bishop on g7. After 8…Bg7 9.Bb2 0-0, White can develop their king’s knight to h2 as 10.Nf3 Bb7 makes the d-pawn vulnerable.

Let’s look at 8.Nc3. White’s second most popular reply.

8…Bg7 9.Nf3 Nbd7.

If 10. 0-0, Black plays …Nb6, preventing 11.Qc2, also making 11.Rb1 not such a good choice because of 11…Bc4, adding a third attacker to the d5 pawn.

Instead of castling, White should play 10.Rb1, as after …Nb6 White can calmly play 11.b3, preventing Bc4.

Take a look at this game where Magnus Carlsen defeated Loek Van Wely in the Fianchetto Variation. Magnus successfully coordinated his pieces on the queenside to break open White’s position.

Ways to decline the Benko Gambit

5.b6 is the most popular way to decline the Benko Gambit.

After …Qxb6 6.Nc3 d6 7.e4 g6, White can play 8.a4, and Black has to consider if they want to allow 9.a5, which would cramp their queenside (probably something Benko Gambit players don’t want).

Black could play 8…a5 themself, but this would give up the b5-square. The whole point of the Benko Gambit for Black is to have active and open queenside play, and this blunts that idea.

5.e3 is another option to decline the gambit. White wants to neutralize Black’s queenside initiative. Black can start a full-fledged attack on d5 with 5…axb5 6.Bxb5 Qa5+ 7.Nc3 Bb7.

Lastly, there is the move 5.f3. This is a sharp variation known as the Dlugy Variation.

White lets Black recapture the pawn in order to build a strong pawn center.

5…axb5 6.e4 Qa5+ 7.Bd2 b4 8.Na3!

Black cannot take the knight lest they lose their queen. White’s idea here is to jump into c4 with the knight.

Benko Gambit Traps

Like most openings, the Benko Gambit is not without its share of traps. Let’s look at the following trap by White.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.Nc3 axb5 6.e4 b4 7.Nxe4??

This last move was a fatal mistake by Black. After 8.Qe2 Black loses the knight. If they move the knight anywhere 9.Nc6#.

Let’s look at a second trap on the Black side.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5 4.cxb5 a6 5.Nc3 axb5 6.Nxb5 Ba6 7.e3??

It would appear at first glance that 7.e3 defends White’s knight. After …Bxb5 8.Bxb5 Qa5+White has no way to defend the hanging bishop.

Summary

The Benko Gambit occupies a strange place in the world of gambits. It is not often that positional play and gambits coincide, but that is just what the Benko Gambit does.

The gambit is very solid and has not been refuted. It is far from a trick opening.

If you are comfortable accepting a material shortage for activity and better development, then this could be a great gambit to add to your repertoire against 1.d4.

FAQs

Is Benko Gambit a good opening?

Yes, the Benko Gambit is considered a very sound opening to try to play for a positional advantage against 1.d4.

Should I play the Benko Gambit?

If you are a fan of positional chess and creating long-term pressure rather than sharp and immediate tactics, then the Benko Gambit could be a great gambit for you.

What is the Benko gambit in chess?

The Benko Gambit is an opening arising after the move order 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.d5 b5.

How do you play Benko Gambit?

The Benko Gambit is played by offering a pawn on the queenside, thereby allowing the queenside to be open which gives Black an opportunity to place their heavy pieces (rooks and queen) on the open files to launch an attack.

Leave a Comment