Who invented the Danish gambit?

Who invented the Danish gambit?

This is an interesting example of often made mistakes in chess history research. The unwillingness or inability to find or read the original sources and blindly repeating faulty research.

But let us first answer the question. According to both German and Danish sources the inventor was the Danish player Vilhelm Henrik Dreier (1798-1865). He was born in Copenhagen, studied law and graduated in 1820. He worked as a lawyer and later became a judge, but had to resign in 1843 due to a mental illness. The last 18 years of his life was spent in an asylum in Slesvig (or Schleswig). (Birka: Dansk Biografisk Lexikon (1890), vol. 4, pp. 336-337)

Vilhelm Henrik Dreier
Vilhelm Henrik Dreier


In 1867, Von der Lasa addressed a controversy about the naming of the gambit. The Swedes claimed the gambit for themselves but von der Lasa sided with the Danes and pointed to Dreier. (Schachzeitung, July 1867 p. 203)

And in 1873, S. A. Sørensen elaborated on this: “Dreier was a very eccentric but also clever player. He especially cultivated the gambits – and the wilder, the better. He loved the Cunningham gambit [1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 Be7 4. Bc4 Bh4+ 5. g3 fxg3 6. 0-0 fxg2+ 7. Kh1, Ed.]. Chess theory owes him a new opening, 1. e4 e5 2. d4 exd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Bc4 cxb2 etc., a pawn sacrifice similar to the Cunningham gambit, but on the queenside instead of the kingside. For many years this was called Dreier’s gambit, or even more popular, Justice gambit, because of Dreier’s occupation as a judge.” (Dagens Nyheder, 9/2 1873)

Søren Anton Sørensen
S. A. Sørensen

This is also confirmed by Hartvig Nielsen (1965) in his deeply researched work on Copenhagen chess, Skak i tusind år pp. 43-44.

The grandson

The only English-language source pointing to Dreier I have found is obscure, but interesting. In november 1903 Jacques Mieses visited the Manhattan Chess Club and played an exhibition game against Julius Finn. Mieses played the Danish gambit and won brilliantly. The next day Herman Helms wrote: “The play of Mieses created a decided sensation among the members of the club who watched the game. One of the spectators was Carl Dreier, a grandson of the player of that name, who originated the Danish gambit and played it against the famous Baron von der Lasa.” (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 6/11 1903)

Carl Dreier (1852-1911) was indeed Vilhelm Henrik Dreier’s grandson. Carl’s father was Frederik Henrik Hennings Dreier, Vilhelm’s oldest son. Carl Dreier emigrated to the United States when he was just 17 years old and made a career as a banker and stockbroker. (Henrik Cavling: Fra Amerika (1892) pp. 114-116)

Carl Dreier
Carl Dreier

Let’s look at Carl Dreier’s claim that his grandfather played the Danish gambit against von der Lasa. Around the turn of the year 1846-47 von der Lasa stayed in Copenhagen for three days. He met the local players, Blankensteiner, Holm, and Dreier, and played altogether 14 games against them. No games were published but in his report of the visit, von der Lasa writes that he played 5 games against Blankensteiner and 4 against Holm. That leaves 5 games, which von der Lasa doesn’t account for. (Schachzeitung, March 1847 pp. 86-88)

So it is possible that Dreier had the opportunity to play his gambit against the famous German, but von der Lasa would probably have mentioned such a novel opening idea in his report.

Bad information

However, English-language literature point to another Danish player. This is based on a single line by the historian H. J. R. Murray in the British Chess Magazine, 1899 p. 54: “the so-called Danish Gambit was played by a Danish Justice Blankensteiner, in Jutland, in the 1830s (…)”. This information is based on a bad translation of the 1867 von der Lasa piece mentioned above. Blankensteiner was von der Lasa’s source and had nothing to do with inventing or analyzing the opening.

But this single line of misinformation has been repeated for more than a century by many writers and few questioned this.

An incomplete list:

1951: I. A. Horowitz in The Chess Review p. 14. He quotes Murray without mentioning Blankensteiner, however.

1984: David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld in The Oxford Companion to Chess p. 85. They give no source, but are clearly quoting Murray.

1992: W. John Lutes in Danish Gambit p. 6. Gives Hooper and Whyld as his source.

1999: Nick de Firmian in Modern Chess Openings 14 p. 137. He quotes Lutes. Repeated in MCO 15 from 2008.

2015: John Watson and Eric Schiller in Taming Wild Openings p. 121 (e-book). They also quote Lutes.

The exception are the two German writers Karsten Müller and Martin Voigt in Danish Dynamite (2003) p. 81. Under the headline “Remarks on the History of the Danish Gambit” they translate part of von der Lasa’s piece, giving Blankensteiner his correct role as a source. But they strangely omit the part where Dreier is mentioned.

Another chess historian, Tim Harding, chooses to sidestep all this in his recent book, Steinitz in London (2020) p. 104. Here he instead quotes Löwenthal who points to the Swedish player Lindehn. Harding calls him the probable inventor pointing to 2 games from 1858 and claims that the gambit “was pioneered by Swedish players.” I don’t know which Swedish players besides Lindehn he is referring to and also as mentioned above both von der Lasa and S. A. Sørensen categorically point to Dreier, who was active in Copenhagen chess circles until the mid-1840s which predates Lindehn’s games from 1858. [Just noticed that Harding corrected his mistake a few weeks before I published this.]

Even if Lindehn didn’t invent the Danish gambit he was very important in the development of the opening. On his journeys through Europe he used it to defeat strong players such as Steinitz and Kolisch. I will return to Lindehn in much greater detail in a later blogpost.

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