Who's Afraid of the Smith-Morra Gambit?

  • GM Gserper
  • | Aug 25, 2013

I frequently hear the same question from many club players: "The Smith-Morra Gambit is such an exciting weapon against the Sicilian Defense, why don't grandmasters play it? Is there a refutation?" The question is simple, but the answer is not. 

First of all, let me reassure the numerous fans of this opening, there is no refutation of the Smith-Morra, or at least I don't know one. But from the other side, there are many very solid lines that force aficionados of this gambit to work really hard to prove that they have anything for the pawn. And even when White manages to recover the pawn, Black firmly grabs the initiative. The line frequently played by GM Boleslavsky in the 1960s is one of them. Just look how two experienced GMs made it look very easy for Black:

Of course the true enthusiasts of the opening will never give up their favorite toy. Here is how one of the world's biggest experts encounters the Boleslavsky variation:


Marc Esserman wrote a book on the Morra recently

Which brings back the question: why don't GMs generally play the Smith-Morra if there is no refutation? I cannot answer for all the GMs, but I can tell you why I would never play it myself.

Say my opponent plays the Sicilian and I have a choice to play the Fischer-Sozin Attack or the English Attack (if he plays the Najdorf or Scheveningan), or the Yugoslav Attack (if he plays the Dragon), or the Richter-Rauzer Attack if he plays the Classical system, or... Well, I guess you got the idea: there are many dangerous attacks in the Sicilian that don't require a sacrifice on move two and they are very difficult to defend against. From the other side, I can play a line where I sacrifice a pawn on move two and my opponent has a variety of very reliable systems against it. Hmmm, tough choice.

But if you think I am trying to discourage you from playing this opening, then you missed the point of the article. I am just answering the question why GMs generally don't play the Smith-Morra, not the question if it is good or bad. There are many games where White scored very beautiful wins against extremely strong opponents:

Look at the masterpiece produced by Marc Esserman, isn't it beautiful?

So, should you play the opening that might be impractical, difficult to play, but can bring a lot of joy when the stars align?  It is up to you to decide...



  • 2 months ago


    Excellent article, Gregory.  I expect to play face the Smith-Morra this weekend (in the Greater Boston Area, where everyone has studied Esserman's book thoroughly, it seems), and this was a helpful article, despite having read lots on opening already.

  • 4 months ago


    Thanks to the preparation given by the discussion here, I was able to play against the gambit and win.

  • 6 months ago


      In tournament practice, I've had more success against the Smith-Morra gambit than more conventional anti-Sicilian lines. I always accept the gambit. I have never gotten worse than a draw. I have defeated higher-rated players who used it against me. One line of defense that appeals to me runs: 1. e4   c5  2. d4   cd  3. c3   dc  4. Nxc3   Nc6  5. Nf3  e6  6. Bc4   a6   7. O-O  Nge7   8. Bg5   h6   9. Bh4    Qa5. Is there any way to refute Black's defense?

  • 3 years ago


    i find the title misleading.normally white ought to be afraid for choosing a rather second-rate opening.my understanding is that it appeals to players who want an early initiative,like piece play and maybe dislike defense.as a blitz opening choice it is perfect.at serious play however,if black does not mind defending for a while,he will almost certainly come out on top,either a pawn to the good in an equal position or with a big advantage with material being equal.with all due respect(im just an average player)the weaker the player the more formidable the morra gambit appears.sadly for the morra gambit lovers it has not discouraged people from playing the sicilian and it is therefore safe to assume that its capacity to cause fear is from minimal to non existent.in fact i would go as far as to say that most black players are very happy to see 3c3 on the board.

  • 3 years ago


    In the last puzzle, if after 17... Qxg518. Qe1+!! 

    Black counters by bringing back his queen to e5, i.e. 18... Qe5 instead of

    18 ...Kd8

    Then I think that black defends successfully and is quite alright, say
    if white exchanges queens, then black captures back with the knight and has time to get his king out of a possible rook pin

  • 3 years ago


    What to you think about Smith-Morra Gambit having very similar pawn structure with Sheveningen, but the white pawn on c2 ?

    How that would affect blacks minority attack with rook on C file if there is no c2 pawn to attack ?

    I know Morra for white doesn't usualy use f4 type attack, but is there a way to connect since structure is so much alike in pawn structure but plans seem to differ ?

  • 3 years ago



  • 3 years ago


    Grande aula!

  • 3 years ago


    Why not play just ...Nf6? Seems like a good compromise to not play ...d3 move but still throw white off his game. The c3 sicillian should be familiar to black.

  • 3 years ago


    bomengda sure, but the point is you have to know those "more solid" lines after dxc3 or you will have a dangerous game. After d3 you can just play on relying on general familiarity with sicilian type positions. Even against higher ranking players I have never crashed the opening after d3, I have some times come out maybe a little worse and then lost the middlegame, but never been overplayed just in the first 10 moves or such, even though I know no lines after d3.

  • 3 years ago


    Hello, what do you think of Edouard Goufelt book on the Morra ?

  • 3 years ago


    Well I'm not! ... I don't see the 'big deal' here.

    And that's the way I see it! ...

  • 3 years ago



  • 3 years ago

    FM Malachi1971

    3...d3 is not the right move unless you know white will play 4.Bxd3.  If you're going to move the pawn a third time, you should make sure you are up a pawn.  Chess 365's opening explorer (slightly) prefers 3...d3, but only if white fails to play 4.c4, a move known to Smith for at least 40 years, and played by, for example, Alex Lenderman.

  • 3 years ago


    TQ SIR...If i play French Defend is ok or not?...TQ SIR Again....

  • 3 years ago


    kidrook85 -  "d3 seems like a dubious move since you move the pawn for the third time. It will be rounded up in due course and white will be slightly better."

      3...d3 does indeed move that pawn three times, but with a purpose. It's not a wasted move. The alternative, 3...dxc also moves that same pawn three times, but plays right into the teeth of the Smith-Morra Gambit and is exactly what white wants you to do, providing white a distinctly superior position. If we leave that d-pawn on d4, then white will play 4.cxd and again have a distinctly superior position.

     When we go to http://www.365chess.com/ and use their opening explorer, we can see how 3...d3 de-fangs the Smith-Morra Gambit -

    1.e4 c5  2.d4  cxd4  3.c3  d3 -


     Black has a very strong position vs white by playing 3...d3, as opposed to playing into the Smith-Morra Gambit with 3...dxc.

      The idea behind 3...d3 is that it declines the gambit and forces white to have a jammed-up queenside as they will no longer be able to develop the queenside knight normally, not without tossing a tempo, (or more), away, as their c3 pawn is blocking their queenside knights normal development.

     After white plays 4.Bxd3, we then have the below position where we can see black's position is even stronger -


     After this, black merely needs to develop their pieces normally in the Sicilian Defense and the Smith-Morra Gambit has now vanished.  The Smith-Morra Gambit flies in the face of normal development and 3...d3 punishes white for this.  I happened to find this move in an over the board game which led to a victory for me and upon further research, I discovered that World Champion Boris Spassky also played 3...d3 against the Smith-Morra Gambit.  So with 3...d3 having the stamp of approval from a World Chess Champion, that's a very strong endorsement indeed. Smile

  • 3 years ago


    i Like it

  • 3 years ago


    I never play against the morra, for the simple reason that i don't play the sicilian!

  • 3 years ago


    I'm not afraid :)

  • 3 years ago


    d3 seems like a dubious move since you move the pawn for the third time. It will be rounded up in due course and white will be slightly better.

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