The Smith–Morra Gambit
I have a soft corner for gambits, but had never considered playing the Smith–Morra Gambit (the Morra Gambit in Europe). Many famous players like Spassky, Bronstein, Short, etc., have played the King’s Gambit many times, but I cannot think of a single top player who has adopted the Smith-Morra Gambit, even briefly (Fischer played it once against Korchnoi; the game was drawn). There is a historical legacy associated with the King’s Gambit, in the form of classic attacking games from the Romantic Era of chess, that is absent in the case of the Smith–Morra (1.e4 c5 2. d4 cd4 3.c3!?).
In the December 2011 issue (#8) of New in Chess, Nigel Short wrote: "A belief in the existence of Santa Claus is more rational than imagining White has adequate compensation after the unwarranted 3. c3. Marc Esserman, author of Mayhem in the Morra, has this rejoinder: "And this coming from a man who essays the King’s Gambit." Earlier this year, Short faced the Smith–Morra in the Bangkok Open in his game against the US FM John Langreck. He won a beautiful miniature. (White should have played 8. 0-0 in that game, not 8. Qe2. (The queen is misplaced on e2 in the …Ng6 system.) And he had this to say on Twitter after the game: "I abandoned the Morra Gambit — which I had the grave misfortune to be inflicted upon me by my coach — after losing to Karpov in a clock simul in 1977. I never comprehended what crime Black was supposed to have committed to justify White gratuitously tossing away a valuable pawn." Yes, the Smith-Morra has commanded very little respect from chess pros. It appears very rarely if at all in top-flight chess. It is this that must have turned me away from the opening. In December 2016, I met a college mate, Srinivasan Ramiah, whom I used to beat regularly in college. We played many blitz games, and I was surprised when he played the Smith-Morra against my Sicilian. I accepted the gambit a couple of times and lost in short order, after which I declined the gambit by transposing to the Alapin (with 3…Nf6 4. e5 Nd5). He lives in New York, has a Russian GM as his coach, is now a USCF master – and plays nothing but the Smith–Morra against the Sicilian in tournaments there. That experience led me to take the opening seriously, and when the Neelakantan Memorial AICCF Smith-Morra Thematic was announced, I immediately threw my hat in the ring. I won a nice game against Anil Anand, which is the first game of mine that I present. So captivated was I by the gambit that I next played it in an ICCF tournament. That is the second game of mine that I offer.
Strangely enough, I have another college-related Smith–Morra connection: a US-based college mate’s son, Karthik Padmanabhan, who
recently became a USCF master, also plays the Smith–Morra. The US link with the gambit is present in the name of the opening: Ken Smith (left, with the hat, in the picture below) was an American player who played the gambit many times and also wrote 9 books and 49 articles about it.
Pierre Morra (right in the picture above) was a little-known French CCIM who analyzed the gambit in the 1950s. It is a historical puzzle that the Smith–Morra gambit did not become popular in the Romantic Era, despite the fact that the first known game with the opening, played by Lionel Kieseritzsky in 1846, was a brilliant attacking win for White. Perhaps the reason is that the King’s Gambit clearly targets the black king (skeptics would say it targets the white king!); matters are not so clear with the Smith–Morra, which is at heart a positional gambit, as CCGM Stephan Busemann has told me more than once. In fact, the opening was hardly played until the 1950s. Two Yugoslav grandmasters from that period who were regular exponents were Alexander Matulovic and Borislav Ivkov. In fact, in Yugoslavia, the opening used to be called the Matulovic Gambit.
Old-timers would recall the book on the Smith-Morra by the Hungarian GM Janos Flesch, published in 1981. Then came a book by Graham Burgess in 1994, and another by Jozsef Palkovi in 2000.
The two main recent books on the gambit are Mayhem in the Morra (2012; MM in my game notes) by Marc Esserman and The Modern Morra Gambit (2nd edition, 2011; MMG in my game notes) by IM Hannes Langrock (presumably no relation of Langreck above!). Both give excellent coverage. Esserman is the foremost practitioner and theoretician of the gambit, and his book is entertaining without sacrificing depth. MMG has a foreword by the famous endgame expert, GM Karsten Muller, in which he advocates the Morra Gambit and says that "he does not understand why so few players choose the Morra Gambit." Langrock was a student of Karsten Muller for many years, and it looks as though the teacher took an active interest in his student’s book.
Before closing, I must mention a few current players who are loyal adherents of the gambit. There is the Croatian FM Mladen Zelic, "who has been playing nothing but the Morra Gambit against the Sicilian for almost 20 years" (from Introduction of MMG). There is also the American IM Marc Esserman (the author of MM), who plays it often. In correspondence chess, several top players have adopted the gambit, among them CCGM Stephan Busemann of Germany (though I think he no longer plays it today) and CCGM Sakae Ohtake of Japan. (Stephan presented the Langrock book to me on his visit to India last year.)
In fact, many of the games in MMG are correspondence games. Last but not least, our own Neelakantan was a lover of the gambit. Hopefully, more correspondence players will come forward in future to unlock more secrets of this interesting, dynamic approach to combating the Sicilian.
- The Modern Morra Gambit by Hannes Langrock (2 ed.), Russell Enterprises, 2011.
- Mayhem in the Morra by Marc Esserman, Quality Chess, 2012.
- AICCF Bulletin February 2012. Note: I found the graphic of Ken Smith and Pierre Morra that appears in my article on a webpage authored by Michael Goeller. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce the graphic here. Please note that the above webpage features a bibliography on the Smith–Morra that is a comprehensive compendium of source material on the opening. It is a wonderful resource.