The Latvian is one of the most aggressive sound openings out there, but it is underused and largely unknown. If you’ve ever considered it before – you may have run it past an engine. They give it roughly a +1 after 3.Nxe5 (my engine lands on 1.17, meaning that it thinks White is even more than a pawn up, for nothing).
This alone may put you off reading any further – and if it does please do stop now. This opening is not for the faint-hearted. 2…f5 is basically an unmistakable statement that you intend to sack a lot of pieces for checkmate. If its stats you want, I’ve played this in Bristol league and tournament games about once a season for the last 4 years and I’ve won all 4 games – admittedly three against slightly lower rated opponents but one of them against a top coach.
It’s not played at the top level but there are a few masters and even world champions who dabble – even the great Bobby Fischer lost to it. Okay so Fischer was 11 at the time – but this game does show important attacking themes. Black benefits from the f-file being open quickly, and the bishop on d6 (staring at h2) is very typical for Latvian attacks. Because Black played f5 so early, White had no chance to calmly claim or block the centre, which means those nice diagonals are open for bishops.
Let’s see how the bishops can quickly triumph if White is greedy:
Aside: What’s a pawn worth?
Is an extra pawn going to win you the game? For Grandmasters maybe yes. It also may be the case in simple positions – one open file, obvious squares to contest, the player a pawn up can comfortably force trades and win with a pawn breakthrough. Again, simple positions. But if you are a long way off an endgame, forget about the material. It’s never just about the material, and in the Latvian gambit material is pretty much out the window.
Back to move 2 – why f5?
First of all we must see the method behind the madness of f5. You should have a reason for every move you make, and it turns out f5 has many.
With e4 and Nf3 White is saying: “I’m going to castle kingside as soon as possible, distract you with defending e5, and have a comfortable life”
So what do we say in return? “Don’t get too comfy. Take my e-pawn, by all means; I’ll take yours. Or take my f-pawn and I’ll attack your only developed piece (with pawn e4 to e5). Castle kingside if you like, but I’ll quickly get a rook on the open f-file”
More strategically – you are opening the f-file for your own rook and threaten quick development by castling kingside. White can’t just let you do this, they must find something else to call an advantage.
After 2…f5!? we have several continuations. I’m not going to go into huge detail – I want to make you aware of the types of positions you get, and if you like what you see you can learn more about it on thechesswebsite.com, buy the book by Tony Kosten, or get a board out and try it yourself.
The main thing I want to tell you is that the engines have this one wrong. Well not totally wrong, but despite the evaluations a human playing White will have some major difficulty against the Latvian – unless of course they know it in great depth, which I would suggest is unlikely.
More to the point – the natural 3.Nxe5 is nothing to be scared of. The move to be mildly concerned about is 3.d4. But I will recommend a solid way to play in that case. Most of the time players will not play 3.d4 – and I’m talking about everyone below say 1900.
Why is this not played a lot?
There are some very simple answers here. It is sharp, a little bit wacky, difficult to play for both sides, and computers don’t think much of it. But the main reason I think is more psychological: Amateur players shy away from openings where they could lose quickly. Maybe it is fear of embarrassment, maybe it is the sunk cost of travelling to a venue to play a game of chess. But I’m here to convince you that is exactly the reason why you should consider these sorts of openings; because your opponent will have those same tendencies, and often will choose the safer (worse) option.
Let’s get down to some moves; so Black has two pawns en-prise – but the problem for White is they only have one move, not two. Either capture is okay for Black:
3…e4 4.Qe2 Qe7 5.Nd4 Nc6
and if they take our knight we take with the d-pawn, so that we recapture the f-pawn eventually and the other bishop settles on d6. They may try to hang on to the pawn but it’s not worth it.
6. Qh5+ Kd8
and you can easily attack that pawn with d5, Qf6, Ne7 etc. G4 will lead to interesting games but Black should be better with the big centre and chances to make White’s queen look foolish.
An alternative – for the real gambiteers, which I play on occasion – is 3…Nc6! 4.Qh5+ g6 5.Nxg6 Nf6! 6.Qh4 Rg8 7.Nxf8 Rg4! The engine still doesn’t love it but just look at the position below. Is White going to be loving life if they haven’t seen this before? We have rook takes e4 check coming (how many openings can say that?) with some awkward defence in store for White.
Incidentally, Paul Keres dealt with 5.Nxc6 beautifully in this miniature.
After the main line 3..Qf6 we have 4. d4 d6 5.Nc4 and we recapture the pawn with fxe4; White stops us playing d5 with Nc3, but here’s one key move you’ll have to get comfortable with: Qg6. It seems strange to move the queen again, but we are okay – the knight comes to f6, we renew the threat of d5, and we can develop with Bd6, Bf5 or Bg4, castle and if needed tuck the queen back again with Qf7 and we are sitting pretty.
So after 6..Qg6 it is the start of the ‘main line proper’ – which is way too much to go into now, but Tony Kosten covers pretty much all the possible 7th moves for White:
Instead of capturing, White can of course ignore both pawns and develop:
fxe4! 4.Nxe5 and either d5 or Qg5. Again things are going to get messy here. D5 is the most natural – but we do have to be comfortable with this line: 5. Qh5+ g6 6. Nxg6 Nf6! 7. Qe5+ Be7 8. Nxh8 dxc4 – and we are an exchange down but the knight is looking trapped – if White isn’t active then we can even walk the king over and take it.
I don’t actually see Bc4 very often – but I’ll give a line that tempts White even more: 4..Nf6! Let these two games from Joseph Blackburne sway you. It’s the same opponent, who first tries to land a knight on f7, and then tries with the bishop – and gets pretty well crushed both times!
As I say, Bc4 is not too common. Among players who are unfamiliar with the Latvian, I believe the most common response will be:
And this is just a different game. White tries to ignore the gambit and decides to save the light-squared bishop for defence. As Black we just continue with normal moves (Nf6, d6, Be7, 0-0) and plan on meeting exf5 with Bxf5.
The real test for you is when White decides to fight fire with fire, and opens up an attack on your e-pawn, with:
It’s a fairly decent move for White – but you’ll be okay if you memorise a few things:
- Take the pawn that you threatened: 3..fxe4.
- If they play Nxe5 and Bg5 then you’ll have to hold tight with Nf6 and Be7
- Play either d5 or if you can’t then play d6 and kick the knight.
- Remember the Latvian bishop – Bd6. For example in this game from Keres he plays d5 in response to Bc4, and his own bishop lands on d6. You don’t mind the knight staying on e5 – but you may have to get creative like Keres’ Kf8 and Kg7 to avoid tricks.
So – if you’ve read this far you hopefully view this opening as being worth a shot. With a bit of study, this is an awesome surprise weapon in your arsenal against 1.e4 and is a lot of fun to play.
Round 5 of a congress against the tournament leader who is half a point ahead of you? My advice is f5, Bd6, sack a rook and win the tournament in a blaze of glory.
I’ll leave you with none other than Boris Spassky employing the main line with great effect:
Mike is co-editor of The Bristol Chess Times and is a regular league and tournament player