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Damiano Defence

Damiano Defence
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Moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f6
ECO C40
Named after Pedro Damiano
Parent King's Knight Opening

The Damiano Defence is a chess opening beginning with the moves:

  1. e4 e5
  2. Nf3 f6?

The defence is one of the oldest chess openings, with games dating back to the 16th century.

The ECO code for the Damiano Defence is C40 (King's Knight Opening).

3.d4 and 3.Bc4

Black's 2...f6? is a weak move that exposes Black's king, weakens Black's kingside and takes away his knight's best square. The moves 3.d4 and 3.Bc4 are strong replies; I.A. Horowitz wrote (substituting algebraic notation for his descriptive notation), "Simple and potent is 3.Bc4 d6 4.d4 Nc6 5.c3, after which Black chokes to death."

3.Nxe5!

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Position after 8...h6. After 9.Bxb7!, 9...Bxb7?? falls into 10.Qf5#.

Most forceful, however, is the knight sacrifice 3.Nxe5! Taking the knight with 3...fxe5? exposes Black to a deadly attack after 4.Qh5+ Ke7 (4...g6 loses to 5.Qxe5+, forking king and rook) 5.Qxe5+ Kf7 6.Bc4+ d5! (6...Kg6?? 7.Qf5+ is devastating and leads to mate shortly after) 7.Bxd5+ Kg6 8.h4 (8.d4? Bd6!) h5 (for 8...h6, see diagram) 9.Bxb7! Bd6 (9...Bxb7 10.Qf5+ Kh6 11.d4+ g5 12.Qf7! mates quickly) 10.Qa5!, when Black's best is 10...Nc6 11.Bxc6 Rb8, and now White will be ahead by several pawns. Bruce Pandolfini notes that Black's opening is thus sometimes described as "the five pawns gambit". Alternatively, White can continue developing his pieces, remaining four pawns up. In either case, White has a clearly winning position.

Since taking the knight is fatal, after 3.Nxe5 Black should instead play 3...Qe7! (Other Black third moves, such as 3...d5, lead to 4. Qh5+! g6 5. Nxg6!) After 4.Nf3 (4.Qh5+? g6 5.Nxg6 Qxe4+ 6.Be2 Qxg6 leaves Black ahead a piece for a pawn) Qxe4+ 5.Be2, Black has regained the pawn but has lost time and weakened his kingside, and will lose more time when White chases the queen with Nc3, or 0-0, Re1, and a move by the bishop on e2. Nick de Firmian in Modern Chess Openings analyzes instead 4...d5 5.d3 dxe4 6.dxe4, when White had a small advantage in Schiffers-Chigorin, St. Petersburg 1897.

The fact that Black can only regain the pawn with 3...Qe7! shows that 2...f6? did not really defend the e-pawn at all. Indeed, even a relatively useless move like 2...a6?! is less risky than 2...f6?. After 2...a6?! 3.Nxe5, Black could still regain the pawn with 3...Qe7 4.d4 d6, without weakening his kingside or depriving the king knight of its best square.

History

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Position after 10.Ne5!, White wins Black's queen.

Ironically, the opening is named after the Portuguese master Pedro Damiano (1480-1544), who condemned it as weak. In 1847, Howard Staunton wrote of 2...f6, "This move occurs in the old work of Damiano, who gives some ingenious variations on it. Lopez, and later authors, have hence entitled it 'Damiano's Gambit'." Staunton's contemporary George Walker instead, more logically, reserved the term "Damiano Gambit" for the knight sacrifice played by White on the third move: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f6 3.Nxe5. Staunton referred to 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6, a highly respected move then and now, as "Damiano's defence to the K. Kt.'s opening".

The Damiano Defence is never seen today in top-level play. The greatest player to play the Damiano in serious master competition was Mikhail Chigorin. As noted above, he played the 3...Qe7 line in a game against Emmanuel Schiffers at Saint Petersburg 1897. Chigorin lost his queen on move 10 (see diagram), but Schiffers played so weakly that Chigorin later missed a brilliant forced mate and only escaped when Schiffers agreed to a draw in a winning position. Robert McGregor played the Damiano in a 1964 simultaneous exhibition against Bobby Fischer, essaying 3...Qe7 4.Nf3 d5 5.d3 dxe4 6.dxe4 Qxe4+ 7.Be2 Bf5, and drew, although Fischer did not play the best moves.

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