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A gambit is the deliberate sacrificing of (usually) a pawn in return for an advantage in position and development. In the naming of openings a counter-gambit is the term for a gambit played by Black.

The idea of the gambit is to gain a lead in development while an opponent spends time/moves capturing the gambit pawn and trying to hold on to the pawn advantage. It is thus a means of applying pressure and forcing the opponent onto the defensive. Such pressure (or tempo) is of vital importance in the game, for aggressive (but not reckless) chess achieves the best results.

An opponent may of course accept or decline (ie. refuse to take) the gambit. The Queen's Gambit for example is usually declined by Black while others (eg. The Scotch, King's and Evans) are often accepted. And in one variation of the Vienna Gambit, the eventual sacrifice is not a pawn but a piece - the queen in fact!

Basics Terms.1 - Fianchetto Terms.3 - Tempo