Checkmate: 'The Queen’s Gambit' and nine more of the most famous chess moves in history
As the Netflix show 'The Queen’s Gambit' wins a new generation of chess fans, we look at more famous plays in the ultimate game of strategy
Two players, 32 pieces, 64 squares.
The game of chess, thought to be derived from the Indian game of chaturanga – a precursor to the Persian chatrang which would spread through the Muslim world following the Islamic conquest of Persia – and dating back beyond the seventh century, has enthralled players for millennia.
The strategic thrill of the game has been given the Netflix treatment in the streaming platform’s new seven-parter, The Queen’s Gambit.
Based on American author Walter Tevis’s 1983 book, the hit show follows Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, 24), an orphaned chess prodigy living in 1960s Kentucky, as she blows through the male competition of the time to face down Grandmasters in the USSR on the world’s stage, while battling her inner demons in private.
With the title of the book based on one of the oldest and most famous documented moves in chess, we look at 10 of the most celebrated strategic plays in the game.
1. The Queen’s Gambit
The moves: d4, d5, c4
The Queen’s Gambit is one of the oldest known openings in chess. Mentioned in the 1490 Latin text, the Gottingen manuscript, it has been a main move in many Grandmaster’s opening strategies, and was played in 32 out of 34 games in the 1927 World Championship match between Jose Raul Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine.
It is also known as the “Aleppo Gambit” in honour of Aleppo-born Philipp Stamma who wrote an early definitive book of chess, Essai sur le jeu des echecs (The Noble Game of Chess) in 1793.
2. English Opening
The move: c4
This flank opening gets its name from English player, Howard Staunton, who played it against Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant during their 1843 match, which caused a huge upset when the Englishman beat the French chess master.
Only in the 20th century did the move really catch on. Considered a solid opening, it has been used by World Champions Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer, among others.
3. The Four Knights Game
The moves: e4, e5, Nf3, Nc6, Nc3, Nf6
Utilising the “develop knights before bishops” strategy, the move is part of the “open game” – a play that opens with e4 and e5.
Having been popular before the First World War, the move came back into favour in the 1990s, moving the knights into positional play.
4. Albin Counter Gambit
The moves: d4, d5, c4, e5
This opening move takes its name from Romanian chess player, Adolf Albin, after he used it against German World Chess Champion, Emanuel Lasker in 1893.
The strategic move is an uncommon defence to the Queen’s Gambit, and although it was named for Albin, it was actually first played 12 years previously in 1881 by Italian master, Mattia Cavallotti.
5. Scotch Game
The moves: e4, e5, Nf3, Nc6, d4
The Scotch Game got its name from a correspondence match in 1824, whereby letters were sent between London and Edinburgh containing the moves.
However, the move actually predates that match, and was first mentioned in 1750 by Modenese Master, Domenico Ercole del Rio in his book, Sopra il giuoco degli Scacchi, Osservazioni pratiche d’anonimo Autore Modenese (On the game of Chess, practical Observations by an anonymous Modenese author).
The move has been employed by many Grandmasters – including Kasparov – to counter another famous move: the Ruy Lopez.
6. Ruy Lopez
The moves: e4, e5, Nf3, Nc6, Bb5
One of the most popular openings in chess was named for 16th-century Spanish priest Ruy Lopez de Segura.
Appearing in his 1561 book, Libro del Ajedrez (Book of Chess), like the Queen’s Gambit, it is a move that had previously appeared in the famous Gottingen manuscript.
The play, whereby White’s third move attacks the knight, and which has been used by almost every top player during their career, is also known as “The Spanish Torture” due to the difficulty for Black in achieving equality.
7. King’s Indian Defence
The moves: d4, Nf6, c4, g6
This opener is known as a “hypermodern” move, which comes from the school of chess which developed post-First World War to challenge the chess ideas of central European masters.
Here, Black deliberately allows White control of the centre with their pawns. The move owes both its recent decline in popularity and subsequent resurgence to Russian Grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik, who devised moves against it to defeat Kasparov in the ’90s – causing many players to abandon it – before going on to use it to successful effect on the Black side in 2012.
8. Scandinavian Defence
The moves: e4, d5
Also known as the “Centre Counter Defence”, this is another old opening, having been mentioned in the poem Scachs d’amor (Chess of Love) back in 1475.
In the verse, written by Valencian poets, Francesc de Castellvi and Narcis Vinyoles, they imagine a game in which Mars and Venus play a game of chess using rules devised by Mercury, and is the first documented game played with the modern rules of chess.
In more modern times, it was Danish Grandmaster, Bent Larsen’s use of it against World Champion Anatoly Karpov in Montreal in 1979, which saw a resurgence in popularity.
9. The King’s Gambit
The moves: e4, e5, f4
A popular opening for over 300 years, the move has become more divisive in recent times and has largely fallen out of favour in the professional game.
In his famous 1961 article A Bust to the King's Gambit, US Grandmaster and chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer wrote: “In my opinion the King's Gambit is busted. It loses by force”.
However, the move earned its place in chess history after it was used in a match dubbed “The Immortal Game” which took place in London in 1851. German chess master, Adolf Anderssen defeated the Baltic German player, Lionel Kieseritzky, by sacrificing both rooks, a bishop and his queen to checkmate Kieseritzky with just three minor pieces.
10. Giuoco Piano
The moves: e4, e5, Nf3, Nc6, Bc4, Bc5
In Italian, this opening move translates as “Quiet Game” and it has also been called the Italian Game.
Played as far back as the 16th century, it has, in more modern times, been overlooked in favour of the Ruy Lopez. An evolution of the move is the Giuoco Pianissimo – “Very Quiet Game” – a slower and more strategic opener.
Updated: November 1, 2020 05:14 PM