The Ultimate Elephant Gambit Opening Guide for Attacking Players

Quick overview

  • The Elephant Gambit is a rare opening arising after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d5
  • Black’s idea is to take White out of preparation and to undermine the center. If White plays inaccurately, Black can make things uncomfortable for White
  • White can easily refute the gambit though by capturing the pawn

Welcome to the world of the rare and offbeat Elephant Gambit (also known as the Englund Counterattack). This unsound opening arises after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d5.

While it may be unsound, perhaps even outright refuted, like any offbeat opening it has its place, especially in the world of bullet and blitz time controls. It has been used on occasion by top-level players, but it is risky.

That said, risky oftentimes means fun when it comes to openings. In this case, the Elephant Gambit is sharp, so one small misstep by your opponent could give Black the advantage.

2…d5 attempts to grab the full center. If White has never seen this before, it can be dizzying. Immediately they are faced with the choice of ignoring the gambit, taking the e-pawn with the knight, or taking the d-pawn with the e-pawn.

The origins of the name Elephant Gambit are unclear. According to some sources, the two pawns thrust in the center resemble the tusks of an elephant. Another theory suggests, that it is because of the power given to Black’s bishops, known as Elephants in Russian, after 1…e5 2…d5.

See the Ten Best Openings for Black.

How to play the Elephant Gambit

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Given that the Elephant Gambit is unsound, you are relying on your opponent playing inaccurately. It is not as bad as some other dubious gambits, such as the Jerome Gambit, but it is also far less sound than say the Smith-Morra Gambit.

Generally, the idea behind a gambit is to sacrifice material to get a lead in development which will allow you to launch a quick attack. However, after 2…d5 Black does not have any pieces developed. Black is in a position to develop their bishops rapidly though.

White should absolutely accept the gambit. The question is, which of the two free pawns should White take? Let’s look at both options.

3.Nxe5

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This is the inferior option for White. Though engines still give White a slight advantage.

From here for example, 3…d6 4.d4 dxe4 4.Bc4 Bxe5 6.Qh5 Qf6 7.dxe5

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Black has recovered the pawn, but White is better, as they have a space advantage with the pawn on e5, plus their development is better.

Note that after 3…Qe7, White has an advantage after 4.d4 f6 5.Nd3 dxe4 6.Nf4 Qf7 7.Nd2. This actually occurred in the following game in the 1941 USSR Championship

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boleslavsky elephant gambit 1941 ussr .

Boleslavsky and Lilienthal during the 1941 USSR championship.

The Wasp Variation

3.Nxe5 dxe4 4.Bc4 Qg5

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This is the starting point of the Wasp Variation. White has both their knight and bishop targeting the weak f7 square, but 4…Qg5 is a counter-attack by Black both on the knight and the undefended g2 square.

The engines give a clear advantage to White, but again, with these types of openings, accurate play is crucial.

If 5.Nxf7, White is now losing. 5…Qxg2 and if White takes the rook with 6.Nxh8 Qxh1 and if the King moves 7.Ke2, it is a forced mate in eight!

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So, if after 5…Qxg2 White should go 6.Rf1 Bg4, forcing the bishop Back to 7.Be2. Black will take 7…Bxe2 8.Qxe2, and at the end of it all, Black wins the undefended knight. 8…Kxf7.

3.exd5

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This is White’s most accurate move and the starting point for the mainline theory of the Elephant Gambit.

Black is also hoping for White to play this, as they have achieved their goal of undermining White’s central control by removing the e-pawn.

This may look scary from the White side, but there is nothing Black can do to get a better position here with accurate play from White.

Black can recapture the pawn with 3…Qxd5, but this is much worse for Black. After 4.Nc3 White must move the queen again, and White’s lead in development is far superior.

For example if, 3…Qxd5 4.Nc3 Qe6 5.Bb5+ c6 6.Ba4, Black is going to have a hard time developing their pieces. 6…Qg6 may look menacing as it threatens the g2 pawn, but here White can play 7.Bb3 anyway. If 7…Qxg2 8.Rg1 Qh3 9.Bxf7, and if the King recaptures with 9…Kxf7, then White now has a royal fork with 10.Ng5+

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So, for Black, there are two main moves. 3…e4 and 3…Be6.

3…Bd6

This line may be easily refuted by White with 4.d4, and Black has two ways to respond, either 4…exd4, which is the top engine move but has not been played in any games, or 4…e4.

After, 4…exd4 5.Qxd4 Nf6 6.Bg5 0-0 7.Bxf6 Qxf6 8.Qxf6, Black will have to recapture with their g-pawn and damage their kingside pawn structure, leaving them with doubled pawns on the f-file.

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After 4…e4 5.Ne5. If 5…Bxe5 6.dxe5, White is much better with two central pawns on the fifth rank. As such, Black will play 5…Nf6, and here is the key moment.

6.Bb5+ and Black cannot block with the c-pawn as Whtie has a pawn on d5. Black’s best move is to block with 6…Bd7. White should play 7.Nxd7 Nbxd7 (7…Nfxd7 would underdevelop a piece) 8.c4, strengthening central control, preparing to castle and develop the other knight to c3.

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Let’s look at a game where Black instead blocked with 6…Nbd7

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After 6…Nbd7 White played 7.Bg5, which was not a bad move, per se (and seemingly natural at that), but it was very risky.

After 9…gxf6, while true that Black’s kingside structure is now open and there are doubled pawns on the f-file, Black was able to use this as a strength, not a weakness, and double down on the open g-file. White’s fortunes began to change after 11.0-0, castling into Black’s plan.

An example of the sharpness of the Elephant Gambit. Accurate play is a must!

3…e4- The Paulsen Countergambit

This is the more popular line by Black, directly attacking the knight. If White has never seen this line before, they may be a bit confused about what to do.

Black is of course trying to drive the knight away, but this is not necessary to do, as White can play 4.Qe2, pinning the pawn to the king.

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From here Black has a couple of options. 4…Qxd5 5.Nc3 wins a pawn for White.

4…Qe7 breaks the pin, but now Black has difficulty in recovering the pawn. After 5.Nd4 Nf6 6.Nc3, White remains a pawn up, with little compensation for Black.

Thus, 4…Nf6 is the most popular response for Black. White can respond with 5.d3 or 5.Nc3, both reasonable moves.

5.Nc3 has the advantage of developing another piece, but it does allow a pin with 5…Bb4.

5.d3 threatens to win another pawn, and Black’s best response is 5…Qxd5, White can follow up with 6.Nbd2. This again avoids the pin of 6…Bb4 as White can play 7.c3.

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Material is still equal after 6.Nbd2, but Black does not have a good way to defend the pawn on e4.

Summary

The Elephant Gambit can be a fun opening if you are looking for a surprise in your opening repertoire. One can say that its main advantage is that it nearly always takes White out of their prep, as it is such a rare opening.

That said, it is a shaky opening that probably deserves to live on the fringes of opening theory. With just a little knowledge, White easily refutes Black’s attempt at undermining the center.

FAQs

Is the Elephant Gambit good?

No. The Elephant Gambit is considered an unsound opening that is easily refuted.

How do you beat the Elephant Gambit?

The best way to counter the Elephant Gambit is by accepting it, the best way being 3.exd5. Black has no way to prove an advantage after this.

What is the Elephant Gambit in chess?

The Elephant gambit is a rare opening that arises after the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d5.

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