Is the Blumenfeld Gambit refuted? A potential killer line under the microscope

Wouldn’t it be great to accompany a chess master to a tournament and get all access? Before his games you could watch him prepare for his opponents. After the games he would analyze them for you, hint at mistakes, explain ideas and discuss how his preparation worked and what psychological battles were fought besides the battle on the 64 squares.

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Kostya (l.) shows how he dealt with the Blumenfeld. He was surprised to hear that Eric’s friend GM Andrey Kvon put his final GM norm on the line by playing the Blumenfeld against 2.700 opposition twice. Both of Kvon’s games, especially the one against Ivan Sokolov (for which he was properly prepared) can be found in the survey below.

IM Kostya Kavutskiy and IM Eric Rosen offer an all access pass like this on their Youtube channels. During their current European chess tour the two Americans publish a video after each of their games. If you don’t watch these already: do so! Youtube chess doesn’t get more instructive than this.

In the first round of the Benasque open in Spain Kostya had to deal with the Blumenfeld gambit. „The Blumenfeld is basically refuted at this point,“ he said, and Eric didn’t disagree.

blumenfeld3.png
It took the white players 50 years to figure out that 7.dxe6 doesn’t lead anywhere. Once they started playing 7.0-0 and 7.Nc3 the Blumenfeld was in trouble.

Wait, what? Refuted?

Since this was news to us, we checked. And we did find a new line (from 2014 actually) that just by the results may be a Blumenfeld killer indeed. So we looked into it more thoroughly, and in the end we had produced a file that, with some annotations added, should be worth being published as an opening survey.

We put all the lines below into a Lichess study for you to replay them or copy and drill them with an opening trainer.

„Refuted“ is a harsh judgement. But 100 years after its invention the Blumenfeld is experiencing trouble. See for yourself:

Blumenfeld Gambit: The Counter Gambit 5.e4

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 e6 3. c4 c5 4. d5

At this point Black can still transpose into a Benoni. Usually he does that via 4…exd5.

4… b5

Blumenfeld1.jpg

Now it’s a Blumenfeld proper, named after Lithuanian-Russian chessmaster Benjamin Blumenfeld who (according to the megabase) has never employed his gambit in tournament play himself. But he showed the idea to give a pawn for central control to his chess buddy Alexander Alekhine who tried it in 1922 against Siegbert Tarrasch for the first time – and crushed the German number two thanks to Blumenfeld’s invention.

Immediately the Blumenfeld became popular – and successful. In its eight first games in notable tournaments Black scored 6.5/8. Then Austrian chessmaster Ernst Grünfeld (yes, that Grünfeld) declined the gambit successfully with 5.Bg5 which quickly became the main move and was believed to be White’s best reply for a long time.

These days 5.Bg5 can be characterized as the calmer, more positional approach to fight the Blumenfeld. Play usually leads to a Benoni structure in which Black isn’t neccessarily doing poorly. The more direct alternative 5.dxe6 and 6.cxb5 tries to refute the gambit by accepting it.

5. e4

Blumenfeld2.jpg

This is not a new move at all. Akiba Rubinstein played 5.e4 in 1922, a funny idea: White declines the gambit by offering a gambit himself. Black has no choice but to take the pawn, otherwise White gets a free center.

5… Nxe4

(5… bxc4?! 6. Nc3 and White will pick up the c4 pawn sooner or later.)

6. Bd3

Blumenfeld3.jpg

Even this has already been played in the 1960s, but it took the white players 50 years to figure out the correct follow-up.

6… Nf6

Only move basically. Everything else makes less sense.

(6… Qa5+ 7. Nfd2N hasn’t been played yet, but is probably more precise than 5.Nbd2. If the Ne4 retreats, White can move the Nb1 to its natural c3 square. If it doesn’t and exchanges itself on d2 the white lead in development is close to overwhelming already.)

(6… Nd6 7. cxb5 a6 8. b6! Bb7 9. Nc3 Be7 10. O-O has been seen three times already. In each of these games Black tried to free himself via 10…exd5?, but that’s a losing move already. (10… O-O needs to be played, but White is much better. Black can never take on d5 under favourable circumstances, and since he can’t do that the Nb8 doesn’t get out. We suggest trying to unwind the black pieces against an engine in order to get an idea of all the tactical shots in play.) 11. Bf4 +- and White has more threats than Black can handle. 11… O-O 12. Nxd5 Bxd5 13. Bxh7+ Kxh7 14. Qxd5 with a double attack on d6 and a8.)

7. O-O

Blumenfeld4.jpg

Only this (or 7.Nc3) is the new approach that has the Blumenfeld players on their toes since 2014. White keeps the pawn on d5 under all circumstances for now, and if he can’t anymore, he will often sacrifice it or go d5-d6. Pressure on the central files (especially if Black plays …exd5) and the threat d5-d6, hindering the development of the Bf8 followed by castling, put a tough task in front of Black. White has compensation for the pawn, that’s for sure. Does he have more than that? Maybe. Everything I investigated looked pleasant for White. White’s play is easier at least, while handling the black pieces will require engine preparation.

(7. Nc3 bxc4 8. Bxc4 Ba6 9. Bxa6 Nxa6 10. O-O transposes into what we look at below.)

(7. dxe6 is what they used to play until 2014, but this doesn’t cause Black any headache. Both 7…dxe6 and 7…fxe6 are fine.)

Black can follow two different paths now. Either he goes for quick castling and leaves the central/queenside formation as it is, or he tries to undermine the d5 pawn immediately via …bxc4 and …Ba6.

7… Be7

(7… bxc4 8. Bxc4 Ba6 is given as a neutralizer by Spanish grandmaster Ivan Salgado. I’m not convinced the self proclaimed „Gambit Killer“ is right. Especially the game Beradze-Paravyan (see below) looks like future white players may want to follow it. 9. Bxa6 (9. b3!?) 9… Nxa6 10. Nc3 Qc8 so the the Bf8 can find shelter on d8. (10… Be7? 11. d6) 11. Bg5 (11. d6!? more or less forces 11…g6 which looks quite ugly at first glance.) 11… Be7 12. dxe6 At this point it may be it’s better to refrain from the tempting yet committal d6 advance and go pawn hunting instead.

Blumenfeld5

(12. Rc1 O-O 13. d6 Is this a potential weakness or a thorn in Black’s flesh? 13… Ld8 (diagram) Judging by coordination, space, activity White certainly has compensation for the pawn. On the other hand Black is stable, can hope for good central knight posts and potential counterplay along the b file and against d6. I’m not sure how to evaluate this. In Sokolov,I (2626)-Kvon,A (2500), Helsingor 2017, 0-1 (65), White couldn’t prove anything beyond compensation.)

Blumenfeld6

12… fxe6 (12… dxe6?! 13. Qa4+) 13. Ne5 There’s no good way for Black to keep his extra pawn, so he better finishes his development while White goes grabbing. 13… O-O 14. Nxd7 Rd8 15. Nxf6+ gxf6 16. Bd2 Nb4 17. Qg4+ Kh8 18. Rad1 (diagram) and White had a nice structural plus to work with in Beradze,I (2466)-Paravyan,D (2531), Batumi 2017, 0-1 (32).)

(7… Bb7?! Challenging d5 is the wrong approach. 8. Nc3 Be7 9. Nxb5 exd5 10. cxd5 d6 (10… Nxd5?? 11. Be4) (10… Bxd5 11. Bf4 d6 12. Nh4 is very nice for White. The machine likes 12. Ng5 even more, the idea being 12…h6 13. Nh7!) 11. Nh4 O-O 12. Nf5 was pleasant for White in Vitiugov,N (2724)-Kvon,A (2500), Helsingor 2017, draw (44).)

8. Nc3

Blumenfeld7.jpg

8… O-O

(8…b4?! Closing the queenside while driving the enemy’s forces towards the kingside only helps White.)

(8… a6!? The opening experts at chesspublishing.com give German IM Frank Zeller’s idea as promising for Black and describe Svane’s play as uninspired. I don’t get it. While 8…a6!? deserves attention for sure, I like how Svane handled the affair. 9. Re1 O-O 10. cxb5 axb5 11. Bxb5 Qb6 12. Bf4 Bb7 13. d6 Bd8 14. Ne5 and White was happy in Svane,R (2506)-Zeller,F (2445), Germany 2014.)

9. Nxb5

(9. d6?! Bxd6 10. Bxh7+ Nxh7 11. Qxd6 bxc4 has been played, but isn’t anything.)

Blumenfeld8

(9. cxb5 Would already be a novelty. 9…a6! (9… Bb7 10. Bc4 and White is better) (9… exd5? 10. Nxd5 Nxd5 11. Bxh7+ Kxh7 12. Qxd5 is a motif Black needs to take out of the position if he ever wants to put White’s d5 pawn to the test. That’s what 9…a6! is designed for.) 10. Bf4 d6 11. dxe6 fxe6 12. Re1 (diagram) is a doubleedged position that requires much more analysis than I did. White has development and activity, Black has a central pawn mass that can win him the game once it becomes fully mobile. But for now it isn’t. Both 12…axb5 and 12…d5 seem playable with a complicated position. In the short term White has targets to play against, but once his play fizzles out things can turn against him quickly.)

9… d6

Blumenfeld9.jpg

10. dxe6 Bxe6

(10… fxe6? 11. Bf4 and there’s trouble on d6.)

11. Bf4 Nc6 12. Re1 

Blumenfeld10.jpg

Black has an unpleasant choice. He can continue to play with a permanent weakness on d6, or he can prepare and go …d5, but after cxd5 his c-pawn becomes a target. White enjoys a moderate, but stable advantage.

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