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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Meeting the Smith-Morra

Ken Smith
     Cincinnati, Ohio has a long history of being a hot spot of chess activity in the state starting back in 1850 when Johann Loewenthal established a cigar divan for chess players in town and the city's reputation continues to this day. As a teenager I played in a couple of tournaments there at the old YMCA where you could get a room for $3.00 a night and eat hamburgers at the Walgreen Drug Store's lunch counter down the street. 
     Back when this game was played the Smith-Morra Gambit was all the rage thanks to Ken Smith. The gambit is named after Pierre Morra (1900–1969) from France and Ken Smith (1930–1999) from Dallas, Texas. Morra published a booklet and several articles on the gambit around 1950 and Smith wrote nine books and forty-nine articles about it. He was a strong believer in gambits for club players and even played them himself. For that he gets a lot of credit. 
     In the Church's Fried Chicken International in San Antonio in 1972 he played the Smith-Morra against Donald Byrne, Larry Evans, and Henrique Mecking, but lost all three games. Smith, rated in the 2300s, would probably have lost to those three no matter what he played simply because they were better players. 
     The Smith-Morra Gambit is an exciting variation against the Sicilian, but GMs rarely play it. GM Greg Serper wrote that there are many very solid lines that force white to work really hard to prove that he has anything for the P and even when white recovers it, black has the initiative. So, while it has no refutation, he would never play it. Jeremy Silman wrote that he has little to no respect for the Smith-Morra. He admitted that it IS dangerous against an unprepared opponent, but someone that's armed with the best lines for Black can expect equality at the worst, and in many cases an advantage. Larry Evans, a friend and collaborator of Smith's, also agreed the gambit was no good. Serper, Silman and Evans all agree with me (that's a joke!) that the gambit is not particularly dangerous. In this game I did not know any theory at all and had absolutely no idea what to do so just played solid moves, trying to set up a solid formation; it worked as white ended up with nothing to show for his Pawn.
     The idea is that white sacrifices a Pawn to develop quickly and create attacking chances. White's plan is pretty straightforward: place a B on c4 to attack the f7-square and controlling both the c-and d-files with his Rs. 
     There was a hiccup on move 8 when both of us missed a very sharp tactical move and along the way there were a lot of tactics that would have lead to complications, but they never saw the light of day. Was it because we thought the moves that introduced the complications were too dangerous and were afraid to play them, or did we not see them? The game was played a long time ago so I can't say for sure, but my guess is that we never saw them.   Both of us seemed to be operating on various vague positional concepts.  For example among others, me on pressure on the c3 square and him on a possible attack on the f-file.
     When my opponent offered a draw at move 30 I accepted. Stockfish evaluates the final position as about a Pawn and a half in my favor, so why did I accept the draw? An original note says, "no clear idea how to continue." What that means is I just plain didn't know what to do, so took the draw. Based on Shootouts the winning plan was rather lengthy, but it consisted of using the advance of the a-Pawn as a diversion, trading pieces and using the K to infiltrate white's K-side Ps. 


  1. In this game I did not know any theory at all and had absolutely no idea what to do... Exactly the same as white player!

  2. It's probably out of date but a free pdf booklet on the S-M is available here: