I don’t consider the Smith-Morra (1.e4 c5 2.d4) completely unsound or without merit, but a Sicilian player should embrace the Morra, Alapin, or Bb5 lines. If you fear Anti-Sicilians, study more!
As a (sometimes) Najdorf player (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6), which worries me more: the Smith-Morra or 6.Bg5? It’s not even close!
The Grand Prix Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 and 3.f4) is another line that is supposed to intimidate Sicilian players. Um, no. Well, at least white doesn’t give away a center pawn in the GPA…
In my French Defense years, I loved nothing better than facing the Milner-Barry Gambit (1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Qb6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bd3)! Because of my study I knew what to do and scored better than I did against French main lines.
Players wanting to cut down their chess openings study time with white are better off playing the London System(1.d4 with an early Bf4) every game than borderline gambits against decent opposition.
One objection raised against my post is that I only used games from 1972 and before.
These were the games that helped me learn how to defend the Smith-Morra! Old games are unacceptable in a cutting-edge mainline, but that’s not what we’re dealing with here. I’m sure white has some wrinkles I’m not aware of, but I would expect to come up with something decent in a tournament game.
This is also a great reason to play online chess: keep sharp and have a look at various attempts! Take it seriously; I don’t play anything online I wouldn’t consider using in a classical game.
Could a specialist “catch” me? Maybe! It’s a chance I’m willing to take in order to score more by accepting the gambit instead of giving white an easier time.
I don’t face Grandmasters often in tournaments. Against the 1900-2200 crowd I’m comfortable trying to emulate the play of Viktor Kortschnoj, Larry Evans, and Henrique Mecking!
When it comes to chess openings, especially with the white pieces, don’t give in. Play a line capable of setting a variety of challenges for your opponent. It doesn’t have to be highly theoretical, but don’t give them the chance to rely on one pet line or one main setup.
Why has the popularity of the Ruy Lopez endured for more than a century? The resources for each player are seemingly endless! Most openings cannot match this level of richness, but it is something to keep in mind.
Faced with the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5), many white players avoid the Open Sicilian that comes about after 2.Nf3 and 3.d4. Instead, they choose an Anti-Sicilian like the Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3)
At club level, an unprepared black player can quickly find themselves in serious danger. White aims for a menacing setup like this:
Of course, black needs to survive long enough to face even this!
The Smith-Morra Gambit player hopes their adversary will fall into a nasty trap, and there are many. For example:
Or this one:
Many black players look to turn the tables on white with the so-called Siberian Trap:
To avoid accidents, many black players decline the gambit or give back the pawn immediately.
I’m not one of them. If I knew all my opponents would play the Smith-Morra, I would always answer 1.e4 with 1…c5. If the line is so great for white, why do top players not use it?
In the traps above, black has problems on e5 and b5, and uncoordinated pieces. Knowing what you’re up against makes it far easier to deal with!
There are many viable setups for black, but I defend the Smith-Morra with the line 2…cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6! Don’t rush that …Nf6 move.
Let’s see some examples.
Debut by Transposition
According to the MegaBase, Dutch master Lodewijk Prins first reached the position after 6…a6 against Savielly Tartawkower in 1950, but couldn’t recover after his pieces got tangled early on. The game started as an O’Kelly Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6).
Battle of Titans
Fischer and Kortschnoj drew in Buenos Aires 1960, also after transposing from an O’Kelly.
San Antonio 1972
The Tournament Announcement for San Antonio 1972. Source: Chess Life and Review, October 1972
The Church’s Fried Chicken International, held in San Antonio, Texas in 1972 remains one of the strongest events ever held in the United States. Lajos Portisch, former World Champion Tigran V. Petrosian, and future World Champion Anatoly Karpov tied for first place with 10.5 points out of 15.
American master Ken Smith (the “Smith” in “Smith-Morra”) tried the gambit several times, but without success against such chess heavyweights.
Let’s take a look at two of those games. Both were played in the second half of the tournament when black could have expected the Smith-Morra Gambit.
Round 9 vs. Evans
We saw this American legend play a model game before. He does again here:
Evans also played in Buenos Aires 1960, so he would have known the Fischer—Kortschnoj game above.
Round 13 vs. Mecking
The future World #3 emulated the Kortschnoj/Evans treatment and then collected material.
The bottom line on facing the Smith-Morra Gambit
If you play the Sicilian you should be happy to face the Smith-Morra, or any Anti-Sicilian for that matter. Playable though they may be, Anti-Sicilians are inferior to the Open Sicilian,
Don’t use the common excuse “white knows their pet line better than I will.” Study! Learn how to deal with the annoying sidelines your opponent can throw at you, and thank them for not challenging you in the most critical way.
I don’t have a perfect record against the Smith-Morra Gambit, but I score better than 50%. Anytime you can say that with one of your black openings, that is a big success.
Chess computer software is extremely popular, and has been for a long time. A chess engine can analyze your games and give you an idea of how well or poorly you played. With ratings topping the 3400 mark, these monsters are several hundred points stronger than any human chess player, dead or alive.
…for experienced players
Beware blindly following the output of a chess computer! An engine does not “understand” chess the same way a human does, and we cannot achieve the near-perfection in play that a computer can. When analyzing tactics the computer sees nearly everything, but what if you want to understand a position where pieces aren’t flying everywhere?
Here’s an example. You enter a game into ChessBase (or open one from a database). Then you open your favorite chess engine to analyze it, such as Fritz or Stockfish. How helpful might this be?
Let’s take the classic game Evans—Opsahl from the 1950 Dubrovnik Olympiad.
Evans-Opsahl, 1950, after 17 moves. I have opened Stockfish 11. How helpful is the engine, really?
The screenshot is not easy to see, so I’ll fill you in on some details. I turned on Stockfish 11 after black’s 17th move and let it analyze for awhile.
At 36 ply (half moves) or 18 full moves, it considers white’s best move to be 18.Rb2 for some strange reason, giving an evaluation of +/=0.68. This suggests white is slightly better. In a real game between humans, I totally disagree!
Situations like this usually arise from the Exchange Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5; other sequences of moves can reach this same position). After both players support their d-pawns, and castle, we get a Karlsbad pawn structure, like this:
Both sides hope to start a minority attack on the flank where they have less pawns! White plays on the queenside, and black on the kingside. The idea is to create weaknesses to attack later. White’s play is quicker and easier, but if black succeeds the reward is a dangerous assault on white’s king.
What the engine can’t tell you
Let’s take another look at the game position:
White is ready to play 18.b5! to break apart black’s queenside. Notice that white’s pieces are in position to pounce. Of course, the future five-time U.S. Champion did just that.
Black has not played in the most accurate manner, and his attack is nowhere near threatening enough to disturb white seriously. Things would look better for him if his knight was on a more threatening post.
But wait, there’s more…
I’d like to mention that if black had the move here, an interesting possibility would be to play 18…b5!? himself. That makes is much harder for white to break through, and black has only one weakness to defend, on c6, though it’s a very serious one. Slowing white’s queenside play would also give black time to organize counterplay against white’s kingside. Either that, or try to land the black knight on c4 where it shields the weak c6-pawn from white’s pieces:
After the computer suggestion 18.Rb2 the move 18…b5 gains even more punch, because if white now follows with 19.axb5 axb5:
White’s heavy pieces trip over each other and struggle to fight for the newly-opened a-file!
A chess engine can’t explain all of that to you. You have to either read a middle game textbook (such as Pachman’s Modern Chess Strategy), study well-annotated games from a database, or hire a coach. Well, you can also read this blog regularly!
Yeah, I know…
I could have left the engine on even longer, and maybe it would have chosen 18.b5 after all. It was the second-choice move with an evaluation of +/= 0.63. The point is, the computer couldn’t tell an inexperienced player the ideas behind any moves it suggests!
Evans was more than “slightly better” after 18.b5
The second player had to passively defend a weak structure for the rest of the game. In a practical game, this is a nightmare scenario. Opsahl finally succumbed after 81 moves.