The Smith-Morra Gambit: A History, Part 2

The Smith-Morra Gambit: A History, Part 2

| 15 | Opening Theory

Last week, we examined the origins of the Smith-Morra Gambit. 

As the Smith-Morra began to encounter strong players, a variety of different responses developed. In the early days, declining the gambit was actually quite popular.

In fact, in the one game where Bobby Fischer encountered the gambit, he preferred to decline it; however, this was a very early game:

Nevertheless, I would guess -- knowing Fischer's approach to chess -- that had he encountered the gambit as a mature player he would have accepted it.

I can add that Fischer actually played the gambit as White once, against Viktor Korchnoi -- who is famous for his defensive mastery. However, he played it in the move order 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6 3.d4 cxd4 4.c3!?

It should seem that the gambit would be more desirable after the ...a6 move, but actually the game soon transposed into one of Black's most reliable defenses (which we saw in the above game by Mecking); ultimately it was drawn.

The earliest defenses in the accepted gambit followed very natural, "classical" principles -- Black tended to adopt Scheveningen-style positions with ...d6, ...e6, ...Nf6, ...Nc6, ...Be7 and 0-0.

In many cases, looking at the way people play openings in modern chess, one can wonder if the distant straying from the elemental "base" of chess thought is really rational.

Some modern players will meet the Smith-Morra with setups involving an early ...a6, ...b5, ...d6, ...e6, and ...Ra7-d7 -- is this really necessary? And this provides many of the slashing victories for White.

The intuition of the first masters who encountered the Smith-Morra was sound: Black developed his pieces and castled, while creating a "little center." The main difficulties that developed were related to the pressure on the d-file. Black had to find an answer to the threat of an e4-e5 thrust, and the black queen had difficulty finding a safe spot.

Some players hit on the idea of making the seemingly ugly advance ...e6-e5. While this left the black d-pawn backwards and opened the diagonal for the Bc4 and the d5 square, it also stabilized the central position, gained Black some ground, and opened the Bc8.

The d6-pawn might be weak and devalued, but it was an extra pawn after all!

Illustrating this strategy is a game by Alexander Kotov:

Black's advantage might not have been so great, but nobody should complain about any advantage with the black pieces!

Related to this "classical system" was the system with the early ...a6 combined with classical development. You can find an example of this above, in the Smith-Mecking game.

By delaying ...e6 Black keeps the flexibility to play ...e5 in one move while also keeping the danger of ...Bg4 hanging over White. This is one of Black's most highly regarded defensive setups today.

Another early defensive system involved the fianchetto of Black's king bishop. This was also a logical system, but it didn't gain a lot of popularity. Although Black was able to put his king in a safe location, with the bishop on g7 it was hard to shake off White's permanent pressure along the central files.

Perhaps not content with the classical development, players of the black pieces began to look for alternatives in a hope to more conclusively refute the gambit.

While in the classical variation Black was unlikely to lose quickly, White maintained long-term compensation -- and meanwhile this was the precise variation where exponents of the gambit were most likely to put in their work.

A different way of playing involved various ways of avoiding the ...d6/...e6/...Nf6 setup -- in particular by developing the knight by ...Ne7-g6 instead. By avoiding placing the knight on f6, Black avoids having to play ...e5 and indeed can later use the e5-square as a pivot point to propose exchanges.

With these advantages come some downsides -- in particular, White gains the possibility of Bg5, which typically induces the ...f6 move. Additionally, Black's slower and more "twisted" development gives White chances for that hoped-for slashing victory.

While this system is often adopted by strong players, it is also quite dangerous. In fact, this line was responsible for one of the Smith-Morra's largest upsets:

Besides the systems with ...Nge7, there is another famous system in which Black avoids an early ...d6. This is known as the Siberian Defense, and it is centered on the so-called the Siberian Trap.

Supposedly, this trap first occurred in the game Alekseev-Schipkov, Krasnodar 1983.

Schipkov, from Novosibirsk, appears to be the originator of this line of play -- hence the name "Siberian Variation." He was also fortunate enough to catch another opponent in the trap four years later, in the game Koloebet-Schipkov, Khabarovsk 1987.

One should, naturally, not play the Siberian Variation with the hope of catching the opponent in a trap -- that would be a dishonest and empty approach to chess. However, Black has ideas beyond simply the ...Nd4 trap. Like the ...Nge7 approach, Black hopes to keep the e5 square under control without having to devalue his extra pawn by playing ...e5. If allowed ...Ng4, the threat of ...Nd4 is a real nuisance, which can cause White to lose time.

The downside of Black's approach is that the early development of the queen, coupled with the omission of ...a6, allows White the chance to play Nb5. With a subsequent Nd6+ (forcing the trade of Black's dark-squared bishop), White gets quite dangerous attacking chances:

Who, among top players, has played the Smith-Morra Gambit? The truth is not a lot of grandmasters have much respect for it.

Quite a few strong players have tried it out a few times (especially in rapid), but not many have made a habit out of it. GM Michael Adams has played it a few times, but only once that I know of in a classical time control.

GM Alex Lenderman has played it, but mostly stopped when he became a GM. In the last couple of years, perhaps surprisingly, the well-known theoretician GM Emanuel Berg has played it many times.

Probably the Smith-Morra's biggest exponent today is IM Marc Esserman, whose name is closely associated with the gambit. Esserman authored the book Mayhem in the Morra, as well as the what can probably be considered the "Morra Gambit Immortal":

Esserman played quite a few other sharp attacking games in the Morra Gambit, and is considered one of the world's top experts of Morra Gambit theory.

All in all, the Smith-Morra Gambit provides an interesting view of the concept of attack and defense.

After all, the Open Sicilian variations Black is aiming for (and which the Morra Gambit avoids) for the most part give White no less attacking chances than the gambit itself. In the Dragon or the Najdorf, White may have a fierce attack, but Black also looks for his own counterattack, often aimed at the white king itself.

In the Smith-Morra, on the other hand, Black must generally put off his attacking dreams until the endgame (until some time after he queens a pawn, perhaps...) while first defending carefully and consolidating.

Rather than a struggle between attack and counterattack, it is a struggle between attack and material. And this can negatively affect chess's less materialistic souls.


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