Gambit (meaning)

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Gambit is a noun with a very precise literal meaning. It is a technical term from the game of chess, in which it denotes a special form of opening: one in which one player (commonly, but not exclusively, White) offers the sacrifice of a pawn or occasionally a more important piece, in order to achieve a positional or strategic advantage. A gambit may be accepted or declined by the opponent. Like most openings, gambits are widely studied, and lead to well-choreographed passages of play.

Chess-players are less likely than others to use the word in its more extended figurative senses of

    • 'an opening move designed to gain an advantage', which is more acceptable than
    • 'an opening'. This sense is common in such phrases as "a conversational gambit", when all it means is 'an opening', 'the first step in raising a subject', or something similar. This seems to many senior academics an unnecessary use of a word whose original precision of meaning should be preserved.
Etymological note: gambit comes from gambetto, a diminutive of the Italian gamba 'a leg', which came through the meaning 'a heel' to be used for 'a trip in wrestling', and more precisely in the phrase dare il gambetto 'to put a leg forward in order to trip someone'. So the chess expression has already gone some way from an origin in the more bodily sport of wrestling, where the sacrifices are of a less real sort
The earliest mention recorded in OED is by the first great writer of printed chess books, the famous Ruy Lopez, whose opening is still one of the standards, in Ruy Lopez (1561) Libro del juego del Axedres ['The Book of the Game of Chess'] ch. vii, cited OED. Lopez, who was, and spoke, Spanish used the form gambito, which for a time became usual in Italian, and gives us and the French our current words - although it was, during the 16th and 17th centuries, written gambet[t].
Don't ever confuse gambit with gamut.