see Chess Openings
I admit to playing Bird's Opening (1. f4) back in college, when I was too young to know better; I still have a soft spot for it in my heart. But the popular From Gambit (1. ...e5) was what quickly turned me off of this opening system. Undoubtedly, it is a good gambit--black gains much activity against a weakened white kingside. But the literature offers few ways to decline, aside from transposing into the King's Gambit with 2 e4.

This is sensible, of course; though the King's Gambit does not bask in the glory it once did, it is neither refuted nor unsound. But I would argue that it is perhaps the wrong way to decline. First, of course, it is a gambit, and as such may not be suited to everyone’s style of play. Second, should black choose to defend the gambit pawn via the customary ...g5, we are left with a tactical situation similar to the one recently rejected (1. f4 e5 2. fxe5 d6 3. exd6 Bxd6 4. Nf3 g5 5. g3 g4 being the standard approach in the Lasker Variation of the From Gambit; cf. the main line of the Kieseritzky Gambit in the KG).

So I asked myself, why not simply decline the From's Gambit in another way? Well, my early investigations were not particularly encouraging:

  • 2. g3? loses at least a pawn as 2. ...exf4 3. gxf4?? Qh4++
  • 2. e3 exf4 3. exf4 is probably sound, though drawish given the early opening of the e-file; yet black has the initiative and a position with no weaknesses.
  • 2. d3 shows promise: after 2. ...exf4 3. Bxf4 d5 (not 3. ...Qh4+ 4. g3, regaining the initiative and promising strong Q-side pressure) 4. Nf3 Nf6, white has a good grip on the center, but the e-pawn may be a long-term liability: backward at present, an advance to e4 may result in isolation.
  • 2. d4 exd4 (2. ...exf4 3. Bxf4 gives white a chance to establish himself in the center) 3. Qxd4 is possible; but this seems to offer black few problems, and the backward e-pawn again becomes a liability.
  • 2. Nc3 exf4 3. Nf3 (3. d4? Qh4+) g5 and we are back to the Kieseritzky problem.

But there IS an alternative--a good one--that I stumbled onto on my own. At first I thought I had really done something worthy; but as it always turns out with these things, a much better player had long since beaten me to the punch. This player is IM Keith Hayward, who has achieved spectacular results with a simple approach: 1. f4 e5 2. fxe5 d6 3. Nf3 dxe5 4. Nc3, the Hayward Variation.

(I should note quickly that 4. Nxe5 can easily transpose back into the main line of the From after 4. ...Bd6, though 5. Nd3 is an interesting possibility.)

The master record with this position (aside from Hayward's games) is scanty. I have located 17 games with this position, with a promising record of 9+ 4- 4=. The highest-rated game is Danielsen (2526) – Hardarson (2315), Reykjavik 2001 (1-0), a slugging match where white makes little use of the f-file, choosing instead to castle long. Of special note are two games by IM Wolfgang Stamer, who has won two correspondence games using the Hayward approach; in both cases, the f-file is put to admirable use. Several of the games transpose Nc3 and Nf3 with no impact on future play.

Of special note is the fact that this position can, with little effort, transpose into various lines of the King's Gambit Declined (or occasionally the Vienna Game). For example:

  • 1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. d3 Bc5 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. f4 d6 6. Nf3 a6 7. fxe5 dxe5, Spielmann-Yates, Moscow, 1925 (draw)
  • 1. e4 e5 2. f4 Bc5 3. Nf3 d6 4. Nc3 Nf6 5. Bc4 Nc6 6. fxe5 dxe5 Gurevich-Kamsky, U.S. Championships, 1991 (draw)
  • 1. e4 e5 2.Nc3 Bc5 3.f4 d6 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bc4 Nc6 6.d3 Bg4 7.fxe5 dxe5 Dupre-Anderssen, The Hague, 1875 (1-0, against Anderssen!)

In short, it is possible (indeed quite likely if you try) to transpose from the From Gambit into an arguably superior opening system than the King's Gambit Accepted (I know I may get many comments about this, but most of the literature holds that declining the King's Gambit is a bad deal for black).

Of course, this transpositional approach is not white's only option. I’ve let the Crafty chess engine chew on the position after 4. Nc3, and its "best play" line (at a depth of 16 plies) runs as follows: 4. ... Bd6 5. d4 exd4 6. Qxd4 Nf6 7. Ne4 Nc6 8. Nxd6+ cxd6 9. Qh4 Qb6 10. e3 Be6 11. Bd3 O-O-O 12. O-O with the positional score marginally in white’s favor. This is a fairly tense, yet wide-open, tactical position. A more defensive line with 5. e3 is also possible.

A concern, of course, is whether black captures with 3. ...dxe5. It may be in black's best interest to forego the pawn for the time being and put the pressure on via an immediate ...g5, as in the Lasker Variation, or perhaps through a presumptive pin with 3. ...Bg4. To this end, I suspect that jiggling the move order with 3. Nc3 instead of 3. Nf3 would incline black toward the immediate capture of the e5 pawn.

Of course, there remains the issue of whether the From Gambit is the best line of attack against the Bird's. At the Grandmaster and even Master level, it is clear that it is not the "killer" line many make it out to be. It is a tactical struggle, no doubt, but a fairly clear-cut one. I have 570 examples of the From Gambit from master play in my personal chess database, and white's record is 233 wins, 73 draws, and 264 losses--fairly even, with only a small edge to black. Indeed, at high levels of play it is more customary to meet Bird's Opening with 1. ...d5 or even 1. ...c5.

Bird's Opening is certainly not for the timid, and probably not for the beginner either; but the From Gambit is no reason to shy away from this storied opening system, so favored by Tartakower and Nimzovitch. Play on!

Is this the way Rook returns from two and a half years of E2 oblivion? Apparently. Seems appropriate somehow.