Benko Gambit

The Benko Gambit is a Queen pawn opening with Nf6 where Black gambits a pawn. The Benko is regarded as one of the strongest openings for Black, even though it offers a gambit pawn. It is an unusual gambit because rather than get good dynamic activity with early development aiming for a kingside attack, Black actually gets a pressure that is quite slow and long-lasting, even into the endgame. The type of pressure is also unusual: it’s against the White queenside pawns rather than the White King. The Benko is a kind of “positional attacking gambit” and it regarded as extremely sound. Many White players seek to avoid it (e.g. 2.Nf3) or play the Benko Gambit Declined.

Diagram: Benko Gambit Main Position

There are many lines White can play in the Benko. Basically, White can either accept the pawn, or can decline the Benko in a number of ways. But one of the problems with the Benko is that White can avoid it completely by playing a “2.Nf3” and “3.c4” move order, rather than “2.c4”, forcing black into another Indian Defence, Benoni, or a Blumenfeld Gambit.

Benko Gambit Accepted

Benko Gambit Accepted: The main line of the Benko has Black offering a free pawn to White (b5) and then offering a second pawn to solidify the gambit loss (a6). If White accepts the second pawn exchange with bxa6, then Black plays Bxa6 and the light square bishop exerts some pressure down the diagonal. The main position of the Benko Gambit Accepted starts after Bxa6.

Diagram: Benko Gambit Accepted

Benko Gambit Half-Accepted

Benko Half-Accepted: White can accept the first pawn (c4xb5) but decline the second pawn exchange (avoiding b5xa6), because it develops Black’s bishop so well. There are various alternative fifth moves for White instead of bxa6. The possible fifth moves for White include:

  • 5.e3
  • 5.Nc3

These moves are really “fully accepted” forms of the gambit, in the sense that White has already taken the free “b5” pawn. But they are not the main ways that White keeps the pawn, and are less common lines. See: Benko Half-Declined.

Avoiding the Benko

Avoiding the Benko Completely: in addition to declining it, or half-declining it, White can seek to avoid the Benko completely by delaying the “c4” advance at the 2nd move, such as by playing “2.Nf3” instead of “2.c4”.

Diagram: White Avoiding the Benko with 2.Nf3

How does Black keep the Benko dream alive after White plays Nf3? If we assume that White will play c4 on the next move, what move should Black play to get to a Benko variation with an extra Nf3 move?

  • 2..c5. Very similar to “1.d4 c5” (Old Benoni) early c5 line, which is an unusual type of Benoni line, not a Benko. White can play “3.d5” and this will probably get to a Benoni where White totally avoids c4, or delays c4 (which is an “Old Benoni” and is considered slightly better for White than a regular Benoni). Black can follow up with “b5” to give a queenside phalanx of black pawns at c5 and b5, following up with moves such as Qb6 (or Qa5) and Bb7.
  • 2..g6. Probably heading more to a Benoni or a King’s Indian (including an East Indian Defence), rather than a Benko.
  • 2..d6. This probably gives up the Benko dream, and maybe not a Benoni either, because after the moves “3.c4 c5”, White may choose “dxc5” (instead of “d5”) which looks attractive with a pawn on “d6” (and there’s also a Queen exchange possibly). So the “d6” choice starts to look like an anti-Reti line where Black plays d6 and Bg4 (against Nf3), or perhaps a King’s Indian or Old Indian.
  • 2..e6. Again it’s maybe a Benoni, or another Indian Defence (Nimzo-Indian, Bogo-Indian or Queen’s Indian). Black’s try for a Benko-like gambit is actually the “Blumenfeld Gambit”, after “3.c4 c5, 4.d5 b5!?), although the Blumenfeld is usually reached by the Benoni move order: “1.d4 Nf6, 2.c4 e6, 3.Nf3 c5, 4. d5 b5!?” whereas we have arrived here via a delayed-c4 line: “1.d4 Nf6, 2.Nf3 e6, 3.c4 c5, 4.d5 b5”.

Diagram: Blumenfeld Gambit against Early Nf3

So it seems that White can successfully avoid playing against a Benko via “2.Nf3” instead of “2.c4”. Black can choose a Benoni, Blumenfeld Gambit, or another Indian Defence like a King’s Indian Defence.

Other Anti-Benko Systems

White can also avoid the Benko with other setups than 2.Nf3. Other second White moves include:

  • 2.g3. Playing g3 and Bg2 is a type of Catalan System.
  • 2.Nc3. White can try Nc3 without c4, but this is probably not as good for White as the Nc3 Attack or the “Bg5 Attack” when Black has played d5. However, White is threatening to play “e4” so Black may be forced to play “d5” anyway.
  • 2.e3. A quite passive setup unlikely to harm Black.

For more about White options to avoid the main Benko lines, see: Anti-Benko Systems.

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