Sicilian Defense: Smith-Morra Gambit

1.e4 c5 2.d4

The Smith-Morra Gambit (also known as the Morra Gambit) is one of the ways for White to respond to the Sicilian Defense. This gambit line can lead to open, sharp games that are very dangerous for the unprepared player. Although the Smith-Morra is less common among grandmasters, it can still be an effective weapon for club-level players. 

Starting Position

The Smith-Morra Gambit is one of White's responses to the Sicilian Defense. It starts after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3

The Smith-Morra Gambit line of the Sicilian Defense in chess.
The starting position of the Smith-Morra Gambit.

White attacks Black's d4-pawn, offering a gambit. If Black accepts the sacrifice, White's position opens up, making it easier for them to develop their pieces to active squares, from where they'll attack mainly the weak f7-square and the center. Accepting the gambit also gives White an extra tempo (after they recapture with 4.Nxc3) and better control of the center, thanks to the d4-pawn. Finally, the pawn sacrifice allows White to quickly gain control of the open c-file, which is usually one of the sources of counterplay for Black in the Sicilian Defense. 


  • It's a good fit for tactical players who like sharp positions.
  • It sidesteps a lot of the Sicilian Defense theory.
  • It can catch your opponent off guard.


  • Black can gain a slight advantage if they know theory.
  • Black can force a transposition to quieter lines.
  • It's not a good fit for positional players.

Main Variations Of The Smith-Morra Gambit

When entering the Smith-Morra Gambit, Black can accept or decline the pawn sacrifice. Below you can learn more about the main variations Black can use to face this opening.

Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted, Scheveningen Formation

Accepting the gambit is Black's most critical way of playing, and among masters, it usually yields better results for the prepared Black player. The main line when accepting the gambit is the Scheveningen Formation, which occurs after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 e6.

Black is a pawn up, but White has a clear development lead, with three developed pieces against Black's lonely knight. Black maintains a compact and flexible pawn structure in the center and will usually try to castle as fast as possible. White will try to bring their pieces to active squares, delay Black's castling, and use their piece activity to start a devastating attack. 

Smith-Morra Accepted, Paulsen Formation

Another popular way of accepting the gambit is with the Paulsen Formation, which happens with the moves 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 e6 6.Bc4 a6

Black plays 6...a6 to prevent White from playing the annoying 7.Nb5, when White would be better. From there, Black usually either expands on the queenside with a quick 7...b5 or develops the kingside knight with 7...Nge7. In many cases, Black delays castling or maintains their king in the center for the rest of the game.

Smith-Morra Gambit Declined, Push Variation

If Black wants to avoid a tactical game, they can decline the gambit with the Push Variation, which starts with 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 d3

The idea behind pushing the d-pawn is to avoid taking on c3 (allowing White to gain a tempo by recapturing with the knight). This move also prevents White from playing 4.cxd4, which would give them a strong center. White can either capture Black's d3-pawn with the bishop or push their pawn to c4, going for a Maroczy Bind pawn structure.

Smith-Morra Gambit Declined With The Alapin Sicilian

Another way for Black to decline the gambit is to transpose into the Alapin Sicilian. The first way to achieve this is by transposing into the main line with 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 Nf6.

Black's other option is to go for a line resembling the Barmen Defense of the Alapin Sicilian, where Black develops their dark-squared bishop with a fianchetto. This line starts with the moves 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 g6.

History Of The Smith-Morra Gambit

The Smith-Morra Gambit is named after Pierre Morra and Ken Smith, who helped popularize the opening. Morra was the first to publish a booklet and a few articles analyzing the opening around 1950. Smith later published, over 30 years, nine books and 49 articles on the gambit. 

Nowadays, one of the opening's biggest proponents is IM Marc Esserman. He wrote a book on the subject called Mayhem In The Morra and won a famous game using the opening against the super GM Loek van Wely

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