The Smith-Morra Gambit is a popular, aggressive response to the Sicilian. The game begins with the following moves: 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3
Black has the option to win a pawn by accepting the gambit, but white will have a space advantage and a slight lead in development. Later on, white can generate pressure with their rooks along the semi-open c-and-d files. This long-term positional pressure, combined with the possibility for a swift attack if black goes wrong, are the hallmarks of the Smith-Morra Gambit!
Let’s take a look at how the game can continue. Black has two major options – to accept or decline the gambit.
Black can play 3…dxc3 to win a pawn, and now after 4. Nxc3 Nc6 5. Nf3, black has to work out how they want to develop the rest of their pieces.
5…d6 is a popular choice, and now white usually develops their light bishop actively with 6. Bc4
Black has to take great caution here, due to white’s lead in development and space advantage. 6…Nf6?! looks like a perfectly natural developing move, but it encourages white to blow the center open with 7. e5!
After 7…dxe5 8. Qxd8+ Nxd8, black’s up two pawns and even got to exchange queens, but white’s attack is still very strong. 9. Nb5 can be played, and it’s not easy for black to defend against all of white’s threats. White has scored well here.
Because of this line, black should avoid playing …Nf6 too early. 6…e6 is more prudent, blunting white’s strong bishop and controlling more central squares.
Now after 7. 0-0 Be7 8. Qe2 Nf6 9. Rd1, we reach the following position:
The position is typical for a Smith-Morra Gambit – black has an extra pawn and compact position, whereas white has more active pieces and is beginning to generate some pressure down the d-file. By placing the rook on d1, white renews the threat of e4-e5.
9…e5 is black’s most popular reply, and play may continue 10. h3 (preventing …Ng4 when Be3 is played) 10…0-0 11. Be3 Be6 (not fearing doubled pawns, trying to exchange away white’s strong bishop!) 12. Bxe6 fxe6 13. Rac1
White has finished development and is ready to implement ideas such as b2-b4-b5, increasing their pressure.
Sometimes, black tries to bring their kingside knight to g6, avoiding e4-e5 ideas altogether.
One line goes 3…dxc3 4. Nxc3 Nc6 5. Nf3 e6 6. Bc4 a6 (preventing Nb5 later on, and also thinking about an eventual expansion with …b5) 7. 0-0 Nge7 8. Bg5
Black is going for their ideal set-up. This Bg5 move is popular to try to force black to commit to a pawn move on the kingside before finishing up their kingside development.
Fortunately for black, 8…f6 is possible, and isn’t as weakening as it looks! It helps that the knight no longer needs this square for its development. After 9. Be3 b5 10. Bb3 Ng6, black is ready to conclude their development with a couple of natural bishop moves, and the onus will be on white to prove they have enough compensation for the sacrificed pawn.
White sometimes aims for an f2-f4-f5 expansion, after the f3 knight comes to d4. An exciting middlegame battle will result.
Before moving on, we should note that black has other set-ups in the Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted, those the two above are the most popular. One alternative is the Fianchetto Defense – I showed a game in the video above where black managed to defend white’s attack with accurate play.
Black, of course, does not have to accept the gambit. The diagram above shows black’s four most popular moves to decline the extra pawn white has offered.
Many of these options transpose to other opening systems. For example, 3…Nf6 4. e5 Nd5 5. cxd4 leads to one of the main variations of the Alapin variation of the Sicilian. (1. e4 c5 2. c3 Nf6 3. e5 Nd5 4. d4 cxd4 5. cxd4 leads to the same position)
3…d5 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. cxd4 is another line from the Alapin.
3…g6 4. cxd4 looks like it gives white the whole center, but now black can play 4…d5. After 5. cxd5, black does not have to take back with the queen and get hit by Nc3 – 5…Nf6 can be played, intending to take back with the knight. This is actually a line from the Panov variation of the Caro-Kann Defense! (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. c4 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6 6. cxd5)
3…d3, the “Push variation,” is perhaps the only reasonable move that leads to a position unique to the Smith-Morra. After 4. Bxd3 Nc6, we get the following position:
White still has a space advantage, and black isn’t even up a pawn. These factors make the Push variation a somewhat unpopular choice, but it does have its merits. Black makes sure that the white pawn remains on c3, depriving the b1-knight of its best square.
The Smith-Morra Gambit has become one of white’s most popular weapons against the Sicilian at nearly all levels of chess. Black can go wrong quickly if they are not careful, and even against proper defense by black, white will get enduring positional pressure and a promising position.
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