Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Review of "Mayhem in the Morra" and a Smith-Morra Update

IM Marc Esserman's brilliant Mayhem in the Morra (Quality Chess 2012 - also in hardcover) arrived in the mail this weekend and has not been out of my hands very much since.  Not only is it chock full of interesting ideas and original games in the Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3), but it is also a fun book to read!  In fact, I find it hard to remember the last opening book that was as entertaining to read as Mayhem in the Morra, which has an inspired and amusing style -- overflowing with personal anecdotes, quotes from James Bond and Austin Powers films, and incitements to romantic violence at the chessboard.  Esserman's Harvard education shows in the quality of his prose -- quite rare for a chess writer these days -- and combined with the spectacular games, it's like a one-two punch that leaves your head spinning and your brain giggling from shock and awe.

As its subtitle indicates ("Sicilian Refuted!  Morphy and the Romantics Run Wild!"), the book is essentially an argument for a romantic revival, using the Morra Gambit to demonstrate just how far you can carry the initiative from a gambit if you are brave enough to go "all in."  I did not need much convincing, as a life-long explorer of the Urusov Gambit, and I am sure I am not the only amateur who loves to find a fellow-traveller in gambit-land, especially a strong player willing to share his unpublished games and private analysis.  But even a gambit doubter will likely end up agreeing with Esserman's assessment that "White is fighting for the advantage in the Morra Gambit."  I have posted some notes on games and lines from the book that should help you to decide for yourself whether or not that is so.  

Ultimately, Mayhem in the Morra is a personal "labor of love" and a must-have for anyone who plays the Smith-Morra from either side.  Though the analysis often runs deep, the presentation is very straight-forward. 

Table of Contents

Foreword by Larry Christiansen 4
Foreword by Loek van Wely  5
Key to Symbols used 6
Preface by the Author 7
Introduction – The Much Maligned Morra 11
Morra Methodology 29
Morra Accepted
  Chapter 1 - Siberian Wilderness 31
  Chapter 2 - The Scheveningens I 57
  Chapter 3 - The Scheveningens II 77
  Chapter 4 - Into the Deep 97
  Chapter 5  - The King in the Windy City – the Chicago Defense 121
  Chapter 6 - Slaying the Dragon 139
  Chapter 7 - The Professional’s Choice – Nge7   155
  Chapter 8 - Early Bishop Out – Nge7 Reloaded? 183
  Chapter 9 - Taylor’s Temple of Doom 203
  Chapter 10 - Finegold’s Final Frontier 233
  Chapter 11 - Searching the Stars for a Refutation 245
Morra Declined  
  Chapter 12 - Potpourri 253  
  Chapter 13 - Crushing 3...d3 with the Morra-Maroczy: squeeze, squeeze, destroy! 271
  Chapter 14 - The Noxious 3...Nf6 283
Appendix – Supplemental Games 313
Endnotes 345
Works Cited 348
Game Index 350
Variation Index 353
Transpositions 359

Having heard Esserman lecture on the Morra, I knew a lot of what to expect from his book.  But there were still surprises, and I was glad to have all of his analysis laid out for me in detail.

The "Siberian Wilderness" of Chapter 1 shows "the trapper trapped" after 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Nxc3 Nc6 5. Nf3 e6 6. Bc4 Qc7 7. O-O Nf6 when, instead of walking into trouble with 8.Qe2? Ng4! 9.h3?? Nd4! and Black wins, White turns the tables with 8.Nb5! Qb8 9.e5! with a blistering initiative as illustrated by several games, including Milman - Ehlvest, NY Masters 2003.   

"The Scheveningens" I and II of Chapters 2 and 3 feature a d6 and e6 set-up for Black, as illustrated in the games Esserman - Bartell, USCL 2009 and Hague - Plaskett, BCF-ch 2004.  Chapter 2 includes the Classical Main Line, which Esserman treats with 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 e6 7.O-O Be7 8.Qe2 Nf6 9.Rd1 e5 10.Be3 and 11.Rac1, emphasizing development above all and concluding with at least a strong bind for the pawn.  

Chapter 4 goes "Into the Deep" with the line 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 e6 5.Nf3 a6 6.Bc4 b5 7.Bb3 Bb7 8.O-O b4 when White sacs with 9.Nd5! as shown in Esserman - Sarkar, Miami 2008 and another game analyzed in my notes.  

"The King in the Windy City" practically refutes the Chicago Defense and features the game Esserman - Martirosov, Harvard 2008, which is analyzed in my notes.  Though the lines are complicated, they all ultimately favor White.

"The Professional's Choice - Nge7" is handled well with the games Esserman - Shabalov, Foxwoods 2008; Esserman - Lian, USCL 2008; and Esserman - Van Wely, Orlando 2011 (among several others).  Meanwhile, in "Early Bishop Out - Nge7 Reloaded?" in Chapter 8, Esserman has to do some original analysis (discussed in my notes) to show that White holds the balance in the highly dynamic positions that follow 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Nxc3 Nc6 5. Nf3 e6 6. Bc4 Bb4 7. O-O Nge7 (see diagram).  

This may well be the critical position in all of the Smith-Morra.  GM Estafios Grivas, who recommends this line in NIC #88, thinks White can equalize with 8.Qe2; Esserman, however, chooses to explore instead the novel 8.Qc2!? which keeps more tension in the position and makes possible some interesting pressure along the b1-h7 diagonal. I am not sure that White does more than equalize here also, but Esserman's analysis suggests that the position contains some interesting long-term resources for the first player. 

"Taylor's Temple of Doom" in Chapter 9 explores some interesting White alternatives, including 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6 7.O-O Nf6 8.b4, with which Esserman beat me in a simul at our club (which, to my embarrassment, is among the games he annotates).  In the end, however, Esserman focuses on FM Ben Hague's 8.Bf4, which was recommended in the latest edition of Hannes Langrock's The Modern Morra Gambit and analyzed at length by Karsten Müller in Tim Harding's article "Has the Morra Gambit Been Revived?" at ChessCafe.  Esserman finds some additional resources here that make 8.Bf4 a very sharp weapon indeed, and you will start to wonder whether maybe Bf4 is as useful a move in most lines as Bc4.

"Finegold's Final Frontier" in Chapter 10 begins with the game Esserman - Finegold, ICC 2006, which I analyzed in "Smashing the Finegold Defense."  Esserman explores some alternatives to his Nd5 sacrifice, all of which look quite attractive for White and help to put the Finegold into question.

Finally, I am very impressed that Esserman also offers up his repertoire against the Smith-Morra Gambit Declined, which includes several original ideas worth exploring.  Quite a bonus, especially considering that very few books on the Morra cover the declined lines at all.

Mayhem in the Morra includes lots of new analysis, but what makes the book most interesting are Esserman's own games, many of which had remained unpublished or unknown, especially his numerous ICC blitz games using various handles (from Borba to wHySoSeRiOoOus).  The two diagrams below show interesting positions from two of his games, and you can find the "solutions" in my Notes on Marc Esserman's Mayhem in the Morra.

Esserman - Martirosov, Harvard 2008
White to play and win.
wHySoSeRiOoOus (Esserman) - Reti, ICC 2010
White to play and win.
Though you will sometimes see the Smith-Morra cropping up in blitz games between strong players -- as in the recent game Muzychuk - Gaprindashvili, Women's World Rapid Championship, Batumi, Georgia 2012 (which I annotate) -- there are not many players as strong as Esserman willing to use it against titled opponents.  The book reads practically like a who's-who of "Morra miniature" victims, and even the games where Esserman blunders painfully in winning positions are exciting to explore.

Muzychuk - Gaprindashvili, Batumi 2012
White to play and win.

As a collection of Morra games, the book also serves as a great tactics primer, with practically the same value as playing over a bunch of Mikhail Tal's games.  Surprisingly, only one game of Tal's featured the Smith-Morra. Esserman annotates it, of course.

Honestly, I think this book is a must-have for anyone who loves chess. 

Other articles on the Smith-Morra that have been posted on this blog include Smith-Morra Gambit Update, Smashing the Finegold Defense to the Smith-Morra, The Smith-Morra Gambit's Siren Call, and Smith-Morra Gambit Bibliography.  You might also check out the Smith-Morra Gambit Themed Simul at the Kenilworth Chess Club, three games from which feature in the book: against me (as mentioned), Ian Mangion, and Mark Kernighan.    Esserman is looking to do some more Smith-Morra themed simuls (see pictures of his recent one in Harvard Square) and I very much hope we can have him back at Kenilworth.  Stay tuned!

New Smith-Morra Links and Videos

B21 Smith-Morra Gambit [White]
A great games collection: White wins every game!

B21 Smith-Morra Gambit [Black]
A terrible game collection: Black wins every game!

The Morra (Smith) Gambit by Janos Flesch (PDF)


Laurent S said...

Wow ! Loek Van Wely has written a foreword ?! He is a good sport ! :-)

MNb said...

"Honestly, I think this book is a must-have for anyone who loves chess."
Perhaps, but when reading a chess book I strongly references like the ones to James Bond and Austin Power. After reading your review it's less likely I will buy the book.
Especially now you imply I won't be a chess lover if I don't.

MNb said...

strongly dislike

Anonymous said...

MNb -- I agree: you definitely will not enjoy this book if you start in such a grumpy mood... :-)

As for Loek van Wely: yes, I definitely admire him more for writing that foreword.

I'm not trying to say that the book is above criticism. People have noted some errors in or issues about the book at ChessPublishing forum, and I have joined the conversation there. But for those of us who like to play the Smith-Morra now and then, and who are out to have fun in chess, it is a great book.

Ben Hague said...

I'm not sure how to take being mentioned in a book review. Flattering, but I know how poor my openings are, so being thought of as some sort of authority gives me the shivers.
I don't think 8.Bf4 can really be described as my move anyway, I just played it online in the hope of the trap 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6 7.O-O Nf6 8.Bf4 Bg4 9.Qb3 e6 10.Ng5?! Na5 11.Qa4+ b5? 12.Bxb5+ axb5 13.Nxb5 and came unstuck when I tried 10.Ng5 in proper chess. I assume he's focusing more on 9.h3 which is much more sensible.

Anonymous said...

How do you feel on how he handles the siberian trap? Some great lines but seems if black knows what he is doing it turns to a forced draw.

Anonymous said...

You have obviously not read the book. Only really strong players understand that the morra is a very good opening, (like the kings gambit giving a pawn away played by spassky who never lost a game with it), the morra has been played by the best for example a few; Bobby, Morphy,Tal Nimzowitsch, Timman. Its because of weak chess players that think that giving a pawn is losing in chess is why its not played so often.