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.