Friday, 9 May 2014

Extensive updates on the Morra Gambit Accepted

The Morra (or Smith-Morra) Gambit against the Sicilian Defence runs 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3, though it is also sometimes reached via 2.Nf3 and then 3.d4 cxd4 4.c3, or 2.d4 cxd4 3.Nf3 and then 4.c3.

At my Gambiteers' Guild site I have finally completed an extensive coverage of Black's various defences in the accepted lines of the gambit.  Each of the main lines contains discussion of a high-level practical example (indeed, each game has players rated no lower than 2295 Elo) and (and references to other examples in the notes) as well as analysis of alternatives for both sides.

It has proved to be a large undertaking, highlighting the issue that the Morra is not a good way of trying to avoid the heavy theory associated with various lines of the Open Sicilian (with Nf3, d4 and Nxd4).  However, most club players should be able to get by with a working knowledge of the key ideas for White against Black's various defences, and if you know what you're doing you can pull off some fine attacking wins.  As far as I'm aware, Black has at least a few defences that are sufficient to keep the game level with accurate play, but no refutations, and some of Black's more popular defences, such as the Classical Main Line with ...d6, ...e6 and ...e5, actually give White good chances of a theoretical edge, such as in this position, from G.Compagnone,G-R.Pietrocola, ICCF email 2011:

A key factor behind the recent revival of the gambit is the realisation that although in the lines with ...d6 and ...e6 with the black queen left on d8, White's best approach is a slow build-up starting with Qe2 and Rd1, against many of Black's other defences, White is advised to go for a more "gung-ho" approach, and should not be afraid to sacrifice further material in order to break through to Black's king, particularly the Nc3-d5 sacrifices.  In some lines the Qe2, Rd1 approaches simply leave White a pawn down for not much.

Here are a few attractive piece sacrifices, which, to my knowledge, are not only 100% sound, but also represent best play for White in the following positions:

1) The Chicago Defence, 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 e6 5.Nf3 a6 6.Bc4 Nc6 7.0-0 d6 8.Qe2 b5 9.Bb3 Ra7 10.Rd1 Rd7 11.Be3 Nf6

12.Nxb5! (G.Souleidis-B.Kohlweyer, Germany 2000)

2) The early ...Nge7 defence:  1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 e6 6.Bc4 a6 7.0-0 Nge7 8.Bg5 f6 9.Be3 Ng6 10.Bb3 b5

11.Nd5! (M.Esserman-L.Van Wely, Orlando 2011)

3) The early attempt to undermine White's e4-pawn by playing ...b7-b5-b4:  1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 e6 5.Nf3 a6 6.Bc4 b5 7.Bb3 Bb7 8.0-0 b4

9.Nd5! (M.Esserman-J.Sarkar, Miami 2008)

Of course you have to take care when going all-out for glory like this - for instance, the Nd5 sacrifice tends not to be particularly sound when Black is only one move away from castling kingside (though even here, there are exceptions where White then gets a crushing kingside attack).

Black does have various ways of declining the gambit, including 3...Nf6, 3...d5 and 3...d3, and I intend to update my coverage of the gambit by discussing examples of these as well, as they are all frequently encountered in practice.


  1. Only today I have found some time to compare your research with my own notes. Here's an idea for you; the relevant game is Muzychuk-Gaprindashvili.
    7...Nf6 / 10...Ne5 11.Bxe5 (11.Bb5+ Bd7 looks a bit tame to me; 11.Bb3 may transpose to the M-G game) dxe5 12.Rac1 Qa5 13.Bb5+ Bd7 (declining this way is annoying indeed) 14.Bxd7+ Nxd7 15.Ng5!? Nf6 16.Qc4 Be7 (or Bc5) 17.Nxe6!? and this sac seems correct.

    I think 7...Nf6 / 10...Be7 (or vice versa) worth more attention. This is what I met. Black just develops in a healthy way a la the Scheveningen and there are no forcing lines.
    11.Rac1 Qb8 is a bit tricky, but 12.e5 looks good. So 11.Rac1 O-O indeed: 12.Bb3 (12.Bd3 e5 13.Nd5 is worth investigating) Qb8 and there is a lot more to say about that Compagnone-Janous game. At the end of your line for instance both 16...Nf4 and 16...Nf6 (as played by Janous) are possible and after the latter White may try 17.Ng4.

  2. I think the lines with ...Bc5 are missing. If we apply your ELO 2295+ standard White's results are disastrous. Another defence I couldn't find is ...Bd6.

  3. You might consider grouping Souleydis-Kohlweyer (Chicago Defence; note that 6...b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.O-O Nc6 9.Qe2 Ra7 just transposes), Esserman-Sarkar and Nordfjoerd-Bokar to provide a clearer overview. For instance you (and perhaps Esserman too) missed that Black can avoid the 10.e5 recommendation by playing ...b5 a bit earlier: For instance if Black chooses the Weitzer-Lorentz move order (Chicago Defence) and deviates with 8...Nf6 9.Qe2 Be7 10.Rd1 we directly get the Nordfjoerd-Bokar game, not to mention that Black can postpone either ...Nf6 or ...Be7 a bit by playing ...Nbd7 first.
    The same applies to lines with ...Bb7. The big problem of special recommendations like 8...d6 9.Ng5 in the Esserman-Sarkar game and 10.e5 in the Nordfjoerd-Bokar game is that Black simply can change move order.

  4. I thought I might have missed out one or two continuations as there was a lot to cover- Esserman does mention ...Bc5 lines, but neglects the approaches with ...Bd6. I plan to update my coverage within the next couple of days. Your suggestion of grouping the games with the early ...b5 makes sense.

    Some points while looking over the lines you mention: in the case of Weitzer-Lorentz, 8...Nf6, I think 9.Bf4 intending 10.Rc1 appears to be a good alternative to 9.Qe2, but indeed, Black avoids not only the 10.e5 possibility (Esserman) but also Langrock's recommendation of 9.e5.

    Unfortunately, having had a second look at the line that you refer to implicitly in your last paragraph, we may well have uncovered a theoretical problem. Black plays 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 e6 5.Nf3 a6 6.Bc4 b5 7.Bb3 Bb7 and after Esserman's recommendation 8.0-0, instead of 8...d6 9.Ng5!, or 8...b4 9.Nd5!, plays 8...Nc6!, with the idea of ...Na5 encouraging the exchange of White's light-squared bishop. In the line that I gave, 9.e5, rather than 9...Nge7, Black should play 9...Na5, intending 10.Bc2 Rc8 with the threat ...Nc4. I therefore took a closer look at 8.Qe2, finding decent compensation for White following 8...d6 9.Bf4, but 8...Nc6 is again a problem, if 9.Bf4 Na5, also 9.Nd5 doesn't work because of 9...Na5. I will need to examine this more closely, but it's the first variation that I've come across where White appears to be struggling to get full compensation for the pawn.

    1. This line 8.O-O Nc6 9.Qe2 Na5 illustrates why I have given up the Morra Gambit. White has to be prepared for everything, while Black nicely can figure out some new defence again and again. I don't have much doubt that something will be found, but the amount of work needed to cover everything is simply too much.
      Anyhow White has some compensation after 10.Bc2 Rc8 11.Bf4 Nf6 12.h3 Be7 13.Rfd1 Nc4 14.Bd3 O-O 15.Rac1 but it's not much fun.

  5. I've followed your suggestion about the grouping of the Chicago Defence together with the other lines with an early ...b5. I also included some discussion of the 6...Bc5 line (under the game with ...Nge7) which I think definitely deserved inclusion as I think Esserman's recommendation against it (7.0-0 Nge7 8.e5) is flawed. I was unable to find any lines for Black with ...Bd6 (since the early ...Qc7 tends to be met by a quick Nb5 or e5).

    I also revised some of my comments in the introduction section as I am less convinced that White definitely has full compensation in all lines than I was when I first wrote the article.