Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Smith-Morra Gambit Update

I have finally annotated the seven available games from IM Marc Esserman's 8-board Smith-Morra Gambit Thematic Simultaneous Exhibition at the Kenilworth Chess Club, which followed his lecture about the opening on April 15, 2010.  I was inspired to finally put these games together by some recent developments in the Smith-Morra since I wrote Smashing the Finegold Defense to the Smith-Morra, The Smith-Morra Gambit's Siren Call, and my Smith-Morra Gambit Bibliography.  These developments include IM Esserman's celebrated victory over a world-class GM with the opening at the 2011 U.S. Open; IM Lawrence Trent's useful ChessBase DVD on The Smith-Morra Gambit (2010); and the highly anticipated release of the Second Edition of IM Hannes Langrock's The Modern Morra Gambit (Russell Enterprises, December 28, 2011).  I conclude with some newer Smith-Morra videos you can find on YouTube.

Esserman's simul at the club was an impressive rout, with the dynamic IM going 8-0 against mostly 1800+ opposition, and doing it in under 90 minutes (with most games over in about an hour).  Soon after the simul, John Moldovan (The Chess Coroner) posted notes to his game along with some extensive notes on the opening in his article Smith-Morra Gambit (which includes a zipped pgn).  As Moldovan points out, most players prefer to "ruin White's party" by declining the gambit, typically with 3...Nf6 -- which also serves against the standard Alapin with 2.c3. I also see 3...d3 quite frequently in online play.  Most players are not prepared to accept the gambit, and many who do accept don't know what they are getting into.  Based on my review of Esserman's games, this seems to be as true among GMs and IMs as it is among amateurs.  

A case in point is Esserman's victory with the Smith-Morra over GM Loek van Wely, where the Dutch GM hardly seemed confident of his theory.  This game has been widely recognized in the chess press and in video commentaries:
As usual among those on the losing side of the Smith-Morra, GM van Wely didn't know what hit him and went down hard in 26 moves.  You can find several similarly speedy Smith-Morra victories by Esserman over strong opposition annotated online:
If stories of Esserman's "retirement" from chess are true, let's hope they last about as long as the retirement of GM and recent World-Cup challenger Sam Shankland.  Whether or not he decides to leave the game, however, we hope that he will first leave us with a book or video on the Smith-Morra, which his games have done so much to help revive.  Anything he writes on the line would be very well received and a great contribution to theory.  While we wait for Esserman to make a formal addition to Smith-Morra theory, however, there are two recent additions worth mentioning.

IM Lawrence Trent's DVD The Smith-Morra Gambit (available from ChessBase, USCF Sales, Chess Central, ChessCafe, and most other chess sellers) has been justly praised by reviewers, including Louis Lima and Marsh Towers.  I have enjoyed this DVD tremendously, especially the videos, which are very nicely presented and easy to absorb in one sitting.  Previously I have enjoyed watching Andrew Martin's Foxy Video on the Smith-Morra, though some of its suggestions -- including h4 against the Fianchetto Defense -- seem a bit dodgy, and the long video format can get a little tiring.  I find short videos watched on a computer much nicer to deal with, as I can move easily around among the video content and control the order in which I watch it.  I often watch videos while exercising or relaxing at the end of the day, when I might not be up for setting up a board or sitting through a long presentation.  

Besides the format, I also like Trent's recommendations, especially his interesting suggestion of 7.O-O Nf6 8.b4!? against the Taylor Defense, which is exactly what Esserman surprised me with in his simul. His coverage of the declined line with 3...d3 (which I see surprisingly often in online blitz play) is a tour de force and has helped me a lot in completely dominating players who wimp out in that way.  I also like his interesting suggestion against 3...g6 (seen with increasing frequency), which he suggests meeting in gambit fashion with 4.cxd4 d5 5.Nc3 dxe4 6.Bc4!?  His other suggestions (including Be3 and b4 against the Classical Main Line) often match those of Hannes Langrock's 2006 edition, but he adds some games, insights, or analyses of his own that make important additions to my understanding.  I was disappointed, though, not to find good coverage of a couple important lines, especially the e6, a6, and b5 set-up discussed by IM Richard Palliser in Fighting the Anti-Sicilians (2007) and the increasingly important Nc6, e6, and Bb4 line recommended by GM Efstratios Grivas in NIC Yearbook #88 (2008) and used recently with success for Black in Stopa - Kosteniuk, St. Louis 2011 -- though White failed to use Grivas's and Langrock's recommended 8.Qe2!

I am a strong believer in collecting everything I can find on the openings I study, precisely because most works these days offer only a narrow "repertoire," so you can only achieve general coverage if you buy them all.  I think the last books to offer general coverage of the Smith-Morra were Graham Burgess's Winning with the Smith-Morra Gambit (1994) and József Pálkövi's Morra Gambit (2000), both of which discuss multiple alternatives for White and Black.  This is why those two books are so prized by collectors today.  No one wants a narrow repertoire, not only because "you can't trust anyone more than yourself" to choose opening moves, but also because I don't want to follow a single repertoire in my play.  I like to have alternatives, even if they are just options I'd like to keep around to surprise particular opponents.  Like most recent work on the Smith-Morra, IM Trent's DVD offers only a single repertoire, but it is full of new or less mainstream ideas that add to my knowledge and help to expand my own repertoire of choices.  For this reason alone, I am glad to have it and definitely recommend it. 

Though it also offers a repertoire, this second edition of IM Hannes Langrock's ground breaking The Modern Morra Gambit is not so narrow as many repertoire books and its main recommendations are very well considered.  Admittedly, it does not offer the general coverage of some earlier works, but with analysis often delving deeply into critical lines (especially those Nd5 Knight sacs) there just is not room to do so.  Where the author feels strongly that there are only a few sound options, he confines his analysis to these, only spending a page or so to show "how NOT to play" a particular line.  

The new edition was released December 28, 2011, and one wonders why they did not delay it just a few more days to get a "2012" publication date, especially since they had already missed the Christmas buying season.  It is currently available from various sources, including USCF SalesBarnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million.  I assume it will eventually be more widely available if you are willing to wait.  To get the overview, you can read the table of contents and an excerpt at the Russell Enterprises website.  Langrock has made use of recent games and sources, including IM Palliser's Fighting the Anti-Sicilians and IM Trent's Smith-Morra Gambit DVD.  He also emphasizes that what sets this edition apart from the earlier work is his use of the most recent chess software, which helped him to delve more deeply into certain sacrificial lines.

The material is divided as follows:
  • Chapter 1 - The Qc7 System - 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 e6 6.Bc4 d6 7.O-O a6 8.Qe2 Nf6 (8...Be7 9.Rd1 Qc7 10.Bf4) 9.Rd1 Qc7 10.Bf4
  • Chapter 2 - The Bd7 System - 4...Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 e6 7.O-O Nf6 (7...Be7 8.Qe2 Bd7 9.Rd1 Qb8 10.Bf4) 8.Qe2 Be7 9.Rd1 Bd7 10.Bg5
  • Chapter 3 - An Early d6 and Nf6 - 4...Nc6 (4...d6 5.Bc4 Nf6 6.e5) 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.e5 (or 7.O-O)
  • Chapter 4 - The Classical Main Line - 4...Nc6 5.Nf3 e6 6.Bc4 d6 7.O-O Nf6 8.Qe2 Be7 9.Rd1 e5 10.Be3 O-O (10...Bg4 11.h3) 11.Rac1
  • Chapter 5 - The Nge7 System - 4...e6 5.Nf3 a6 6.Bc4 b5 (6...Ne7 7.Bg5) 7.Bb3 Ne7 8.Bg5 Bb7 9.O-O b4 10.Nd5
  • Chapter 6 - The Early Development of Black's Dark Square Bishop - 4...e6 5.Nf3 Nc6 (5...Bc5 6.Bc4 d6 7.O-O a6 8.a3) 6.Bc4 Bb4 (6...a6 7.O-O Qc7 8.Qe2 Bd6 9.Be3 Nge7 10.Rac1) 7.O-O Nge7 8.Qe2 O-O 9.Rd1
  • Chapter 7 - The Fianchetto Variation - 4...Nc6 5.Nf3 g6 6.Bc4 (6.h4?!) 6...d6!? (6...Bg7 7.e5!) 7.e5! (7.Bg5!?) 
  • Chapter 8 - The Siberian Variation - 4...Nc6 5.Nf3 e6 6.Bc4 Qc7 7.Qe2 (7.O-O Nf6 8.Nb5 Qb8 9.e5) 7...Nf6 8.e5 Ng4 (8...d5) 9.Bf4 f6 10.Nb5
  • Chapter 9 - The Chicago Defense - 4...e6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6 7.O-O b5 8.Bb3 Ra7?!
  • Chapter 10 - The Tartakower System 4...e6 5.Nf3 a6 6.Bc4 b5 7.Bb3 Bb7 8.O-O d6 9.Qe2 Nd7 10.Rd1 Ngf6 11.Bf4
  • Chapter 11 - The Taylor System - 4...Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6 7.Bf4
  • Chapter 12 - Sidelines - including Finegold's 4...e6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.O-O Be7 8.Qe2 O-O 9.e5 
  • Chapter 13 - Black Declines the Gambit with 3...d3
  • Chapter 14 - Black Declines the Gambit with 3...e5
  • Chapter 15 - The Delayed Morra Gambit - 2.Nf3 (Morra's move order) 
While Langrock has generally added newer games and deepened the analysis in some places (most notably in chapters 5 and 9), the biggest differences from the earlier edition occur in chapters 4, 10, and 11.  Against the Classical Main Line with 9...e5, Langrock used to advocate 11.b4 but now prefers Esserman's favorite move 11.Rac1 (development above all!) meeting 11...Be6 with 12.b4.  The chapters on the Tartakower and Taylor systems are new, as these lines used to be considered under "Sidelines."  The Tartakower System received some positive support from Palliser's book, so it is worth considering at length, especially since the Knight sac with 4...e6 5.Nf3 a6 6.Bc4 b5 7.Bb3 Bb7 8.O-O b4?! 9.Nd5! (as featured in Esserman - Sarkar) requires careful treatment, and the main line gets quite complicated after 8.O-O d6 9.Qe2 Nd7 10.Rd1 Ngf6 11.Bf4 Qb8 12.e5! (probably better than my 12. Rd2 Ngf6 13. Rad1 b4 14. Rxd6!! mentioned in Youthful Smith-Morras).  The biggest change in the new edition comes against the Taylor System, where Langrock has rejected the standard 4...Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6 7.Bg5 in favor of the lesser known 7.O-O Nf6 8.Bf4, which Palliser described as "quite sharp."  This line was analyzed at length by Karsten Müller in Has the Morra Gambit Been Revived? -- framed by Tim Harding's extended discussion of the first edition of Langrock's book--and has been played by English FM Ben Hague (though Langrock improves upon Hague - Wells, Sunningdale 2006, by substituting 9.h3! for Hague's 9.Qb3?!)

Overall, I think it was worthwhile for Langrock to come out with a new edition and I'm glad to have it.  Though some chapters are very close or identical to the original, there are a number of places where the analysis or specific recommendations have been strengthened in important ways.  Whether there are enough changes for owners of the 2006 edition to require an "upgrade" is a judgment call.  But I'd say we Smith-Morra gambiteers need any edge we can get, so why not?  

Among the more interesting sites on the Morra I have discovered of late is the Hungarian-language Morra Gambit blog "Morra-csel."  I should also mention some new videos that have come out since my bibliography, including a very nicely produced quartet for beginning players from ChessTV's "Opening School" series.  There are also some subscription-only services: David Vigorito, "The Morra Gambit in Action - Part One" (August 15, 2011, featuring Esserman - van Wely) and "The Morra Gambit in Action - Part Two" (August 16, 2011, featuring Esserman - Sarkar) at Chess Lectures.com and GM Larry Christensen, "Esserman Zings -- Thatsa Morra" (August 17, 2011, ICC / ChessFM) -- all subscription only. 

As always, I welcome additions and comments from readers.


Graham Stevens said...

Only yesterday I spotted a new (I think) book by Bangiev applying his Squares Strategy to the Morra Gambit. The site was De Beste Zet, based in Holland, but I think Schachversand have copies as well.


I don't know whether this will interest you, but bearing in mind your penchant for completeness...

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks! This looks great. I was looking at a PDF excerpt:


Michael Goeller said...

I ordered the Bangiev book from Amazon.de. I noticed that I had included it on my original Bibliography, so I don't know why I didn't follow through and track it down.

Graham Stevens said...

A little off topic, but I'd be interested in your thoughts on Bangiev's Method. I had a look at it a few years ago but didn't have the time or the energy to give it a fair crack of the whip. I see now that the range of materials available to German readers has expanded quite a bit (www.bangiev.de and www.bangiev-bibliothek.de).

Michael Goeller said...

Yeah, too bad they are not in English! I was influenced a bit by his ideas in a 1.e4 Repertoire CD he did a while back for ChessBase. Since then I have heard these ideas through Yaacov Norowitz's lectures -- especially on Color Complexes and The Stonewall:

Robert Pearson said...

Dear Michael,

Now this was a POST :). I am thinking of putting it in a "Best of" Carnival I'm doing. I know you have a tremendous amount of good material...if you have some other selections:

You and your readers are invited to submit items to the The Best Of! Chess Blogging Carnival. Deadline is January 27. Hit the link for more details, and please post a link on your blog or chess forum.

Best regards,

Robert Pearson

Obiwanmichou said...

I await Langrock 2nd edition a lot !
I've just send you some news but too long here so check your email ! ;)

May the force be with you !

Michel Barbaut

Michael Goeller said...

Michel Barbaut sent me some additional material, which may require an update. While searching for some of these items, I came across this excellent Morra-theme chess site from Hungary: Morra-csel

Obiwanmichou said...

I hope I could check all my internet source (since I've print all I f've found)and give them to you.
Morra-csel is now defunct for two years but has good stuff.
I remembered :http://bishopsbounty.blogspot.com/
but maybe you cited it before, as welle as : http://www.notichess.com.ar/index.htm
where I found the chessbase format cd on the SMG ... but I can't remembered now how I did this!

As always, May the force be with you !

Michel Barbaut

Michael Goeller said...

Amazon now has Langrock's second edition.

katar said...

Marc Esserman is authoring "Mayhem in the Morra" tentatively set for release later this year. link

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for sharing that information! Something nice to look forward to in the new year!

Michael Goeller said...

My most recent Smith Morra Update is posted with a review of Esserman's book at: