Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Modern Morra Gambit: A Dynamic Weapon Against the Sicilian by Hannes Langrock

As a correspondence player, I’m not a big fan of opening books and in bygone years when I played in tournaments, I was never a big fan of gambits.  But starting back in the 1970’s when US Senior Master Ken Smith started publishing his books he advocated playing nothing but gambits until you were 1800 or better.  His recommended White openings were King’s Gambit Vienna Gambit, Blackmar Gambit, Scotch Gambit, Evans Gambit and, of course, the Smith-Mora Gambit.  Naturally, he had books for all of them.  These days, I see a lot of players advocating playing the Smith-Morra as part of the idea that tactics, tactics and more tactics is the only way for players below master to play chess.

From my tournament days when I played the Sicilian I met it a few times and was never all that impressed with it, but I can see how it could be appealing for White and dangerous for Black.  The reality is that if you check your database, the results aren't very impressive.  My db has +1897  -2629  =1116.  In other words White only score about 44%; not too good.  But wait!  Most players aren’t masters and so, how did the gambit do where both players were rated under 2000?  Honestly, I expected to see results strongly favoring White, but that wasn’t the case!  In games where both players were rated under 2000, White scored only 47%.  In the open Sicilian, he scored 51%.  Makes me think the blurbs that say you can play this gambit and win more games is a stretch.

Nevertheless it’s still quite popular and I suppose especially so at lower levels where the art of defense isn’t very high. Still, some pretty highly rated players have used it; guys like GM Alex Lenderman and GM Karsten Mueller, so I can’t say it has no merit.  In this book IM Hannes Langrock has done a lot of research to update his previously published analysis and he has played this gambit successfully against both grandmasters and international masters…again, a recommendation despite what the theoreticians and databases say.

GM Alex Yermolinsky considers a lot of these gambits recommended to lower rate dplayers a joke where players sacrifice a pawn then spend the rest of the game trying to prove they have something for it and eventually end up resigning.  IM Jeremy Silman wrote, “White gives up a pawn for some development and tricks, but it seemed to me that Black's solid position, combined with a working knowledge of one of Black's many good anti-Mora setups, would always leave White trying to find a way to equalize.”  At the same time though Silman had to admit that, “perhaps, just perhaps, this gambit could offer the amateur a good deal of fun and, if Black passed the theoretical test and survived the opening, then White could still bail out and find equality somewhere or other.”

But then Silman went on to say, “A fine fantasy, but I soon came to my senses! The fact is, the gambit is indeed quite tricky, and it promises the chess swashbuckler lots of fun and many sparkling victories (and, of course, some miserable defeats, but that's true of anything you play against the Sicilian).”  As Langrock admits, Black can equalize in many lines and his admission is refreshing because in so many of these books the authors have been known to embellish the truth and avoid giving refutations to prove their claims.

The author starts off by discussing the practical and psychological aspects, but I wonder just how important ‘psychological aspects’ are for class players?!  In the final analysis, I guess it doesn’t matter what anybody says; if players love gambits, they are going to play the Smith-Morra. 

In his book, Chess for Tigers, the late Simon Webb observed, “even bunnies have sharp teeth, so you should play solidly against them rather than try to blow them out of the water.”  Then there is Petrosian’s Rule: Petrosian was mentor to the young and talented GM Karen Gregorian who returned from a tournament and showed Petrosian a game in which he had played some risky opening moves and lost.  When asked by Petrosian why he had played such terrible moves, Gregorian said it was because he had to win in order to qualify.  Petrosian’s comment:  “It's much easier to play for a win from an equal position than from a bad position!"

Anyway, for those who might want to play this opening, this book looks like a good choice.

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