The Smith-Morra Gambit opening for White & Black

Quick Summary

  • The Smith-Morra Gambit is a gambit in the Sicilian Defense arising from the moves (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3).
  • The opening values ​​rapid development and tactics over positional considerations.
  • Black may choose to accept the gambit and keep the pawn but must be careful as White will launch a quick attack with superior development.
  • Black may also decline the gambit and move into an Alapin Sicilian.

The Smith-Morra Gambit (often simply referred to as the Morra) is one of the most exciting and fun replies to the Sicilian Defense. It arises after 1.e4 c5 2.d4.

In the main line Black accepts with 2…cxd4 (played in 77% of games), and White follows up with 3.c3.

This pawn offering, like in all gambits, seeks rapid development and quick attacking chances. Far from refuted, it is an aggressive opening that takes a daring attitude to play it.

Pressure must be maintained, and it is suited to players who know how to keep the initiative. Passive players best steer away from this opening. If the initiative is lost, Black will soon be much better off. Every tempo is key in the Morra.

Black can choose to accept the Morra with 3…dxc3, and White will usually not recover the pawn, or they can decline with a move like 3…Nf6, which transposes into an Alapin Variation.

The Smith-Morra gambit gets its name from two players, Pierre Morra (1900-69) from France, and American player Ken Smith, who played with the Dallas Chess Club.

The opening is not popular at the Grandmaster level, but it definitely has its devotees at the club level. It can be a very fun weapon in blitz and bullet time controls and is even playable in classical time controls for those who are daring enough.

It should be noted that it is not in the spirit of the opening to play 3.Qxd4, as 3…Nc6 awards Black a tempo on the queen, and White must retreat the queen.

The Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted

1.e4 c4 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3

4.Nxc3 is the only real move here to play the Morra. 4.bxc3 gives White a lousy pawn structure and takes away the queenside knight’s most natural developing square. The whole point of offering a pawn is to develop quickly, and 4.bxc3 makes development more difficult.

Let’s compare evaluations, after 4.Nxc3 black only has a slight advantage between -0.2 and -0.3, despite being a whole pawn up, while after 4.bxc3, the advantage to Black is at -2.1!

After 4.Nxc3, the development advantage is clear. The only piece Black had developed was the pawn, and it has been traded. Yes, Black may be up a pawn, but they have no pieces developed. Everything is on its starting position. Converting the material advantage can prove quite tricky for Black.

The pawn on e4 for White controls both the f5 and d5 squares.

From here, Black has 3 main moves, 4…e6, d6 and Nc6.

4…e6 (or 4…d6)

From here White should continue to develop by playing 5.Nf3. 5…Nc6 is Black’s most logical move as Black needs to develop and this move puts some control on the crucial d4 square.

If 5…d6 (or 5…e6), we have a Scheveningen-looking structure but with White a pawn down. White is looking pretty good here with three pieces developed with Black having none. White has opportunities to put rooks and the queen on the open c-file and semi-open d-file.

6…Be7 Black needs to develop fast and try to get castled as quick as possible.

7. 0-0 Nf6 8.Qe2 This last move prepares the move e5, to which Black needs to respond with 8…Nc6. 9.Rd1, aligning with Black’s queen, pinning the d-pawn and the e5 threat is renewed. If Black continues developing with 90-0, 10.e5, the knight must retreat to e8, and Black looks very cramped.

After 11.exd6 Bxd6, White’s development advantage is more than evident. Plus the bishop is pinned to the queen on the d-file.

4…Nc6 however is the main move. 5.Nf3 e6, blunting the bishop (which is usually always developed to c4 in the Morra) 6.Bc4, and the most common and best move, which may not seem intuitive to many, is 6…a6.

The reason for 6…a6 is to stop the knight from moving into b5, from which it would like to spring to d5, giving a rather uncomfortable check, or c7. This is all highly theoretical and many players on the Black side may miss this quiet yet crucial move.

4…e5 may look like a natural move by staking a claim in the center, but it is a mistake. If Black plays this move, White should play something like 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bc4 to place maximum pressure on the weak f7 square. Without the c-pawn being there, ideas such as Qb3 are very popular, putting pressure on the f7 square and hitting the g7 square. White has lots of initiative. 4…e5 also weakens the d5 square massively.

If you are curious about the Sicilian Defense, check out our post on Choosing the Right Variation for You.

A Smith-Morra Gambit Trap

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 d6 5.Bc4 Nf6

One reason the Smith-Morra Gambit works is because many players on the Black side play the opening as if it were an open Siclian. This is what Black has done in this position. Without careful play here, Black can fall into a nasty trap.

6.e5 This move gains plenty of space in the center. If you are a Sicilian player, pause and ask yourself what move you would play here.

The correct move is to retreat the knight to d7. That is an uncomfortable looking position though. Black’s development does not look great.

6…dxe5 is a serious blunder! Can you picture what White’s idea here is?

7.Bxe7 Kxe7 and Black wins the queen with 8.Qxd8.

This is why it is important to know Smith-Morra lines and not go into autopilot.

The Smith-Morra Gambit Declined

Black nearly always accepts the first pawn on d4. When we talk about declining the Morra, we mean not accepting the second pawn. There are a few ways to do this.

3…Nf6

This is the most popular way to decline the gambit. The position is completely equal, and of course, Black does not have the extra pawn, but White is denied the space advantage they are looking for. 4.e5 Nd5 is the main line. White’s main replies are to continue development with 5.Nf3 or 5.cxd4. This is now a transposition into a Sicilian Alapin. If Black chooses to play this, they should be comfortable against the Alapin.

3…g6 can be played to fianchetto the dark-square bishop. This allows White to establish the ideal pawn center with 4.cxd4. Black’s main response is 4…d5, forcing White to either advance or take. If they take, they are left with an isolated queen pawn. A slight advantage in this position is given to White (+0.8).

3…d3 is known as the Push Variation. It is playable, but this push does not do much and White will be able to play c4, creating a Maroczy Bind and having a solid clamp on the d4 square.

Model Game

This game was played between Marc Esserman, today’s foremost Smith-Morra expert and author of Mayhem in the Morra and Loek Van Wely.

Summary

The Smith-Morra Gambit is one of the most exciting gambits you can add to your repertoire against the Sicilian. Lovers of nuanced tactical positions will find much to adore in the Morra.

To delve deeper into the richness that is the Morra, check out The Swashbuckling Smith-Morra Gambit course from Chessable.

The Morra is tricky for Sicilian players, but if you choose to accept it and know how to deal with it properly, you can take solace in having a material advantage and not worry about White’s pressure. If you choose to deny it, then you should be comfortable playing against the Alapin Sicilian.

Check out our Mop Up the Morra course to make sure you’re prepared against it.

FAQs

Is the Smith-Morra Gambit sound?

Yes, the Smith-Morra Gambit is considered a sound opening. Engines give a small advantage to Black (-0.2) for the pawn, but this can prove difficult to convert into a real advantage.

Is the Smith-Morra Gambit good?

The Smith-Morra Gambit is considered a very good opening for attacking-minded players. It offers quick development, open files, and many chances for attack for those who know how to keep the initiative.

How to play the Smith-Morra Gambit?

The Smith-Morra Gambit is played via 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3, whereby White offers a

How do you counter Smith-Morra Gambit?

One of the best ways to counter the Smith-Morra Gambit is to not accept the gambit with a move like 3…g6 or 3…Nc6.

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