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I am a beginning player in chess.(~1300 on chess.com/blitz: 5 and 10 minutes) And I mostly like to attack and favor fully open positions to closed and defensive. In response to e4, when the opponent plays c5, I don't have much options left. I don't like nf3, d4 too much. So, I have to resort to d4 and the Smith-Morra gambit. And, I really like this opening. However, this opening is not famous among top chess players and I wonder why. Please explain the merits and demerits of this opening apart from the early loss of a pawn to white.
Further information about openings I like and I'm comfortable with: Scotch Gambit, King's gambit. Please explain in simple terms and don't use terminology related to chess theory as I'm not familiar with those. I only play chess on chess.com and sometimes practice a few puzzles.

  • The Sicilian Defense is 1. e4 c5, not 1. e4 c6. As for not using terminology relating to chess theory, that's somewhat unclear, and may make it difficult to explain it in a way you would understand. – Herb Wolfe Feb 4 '17 at 6:29
  • Thanks for the correction, Wolfe. Could you mention what kind of terminology you would use to answer the question? – bat_of_doom Feb 4 '17 at 8:21
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    If black plays the Sicilian you are already in for a wild fight even in the main lines. No need to play the Smith-Morra. – user1583209 Feb 4 '17 at 9:01
  • The Smith-Morra gambit is more of a positional lead in development initiative gambit then an all out attack gambit. Don't worry about your openings just learn general attacking ideas in the Sicilian. – ToddM Feb 14 '17 at 4:51
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Merits for white:

  • easy and quick development
  • attacking chances, particularly against f7 (with a bishop on c4) and on the open c and d files (after putting rooks on c1 and d1
  • potentially (depends on the opponent) playing off-beat openings like this can avoid theory/preparation of the opponent

Demerits for white:

  • you lost a pawn
  • if black plays properly there is no danger from the white attack
  • black is not forced to accept the gambit (does not have to take the pawn on c3). There are basically two ways to decline it: (1) 3.... d3, which can be annoying for a Morra-Gambit player because now you don't get as nice squares for the pieces (knight cannot go to c3 and after capturing on d3 the bishop is blocked by the e4 pawn). (2) 3...Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 which is the Alapin variation and a bit dry/boring (for me playing this with black), so also not what somebody looking for a wild game wants.

If you look at regular Sicilian lines, in many you get very nice open tactical positions with lots of attacking potential and you are not a pawn down.

Why is it not popular at the highest level?

Simply because after all, if black plays correctly (as grandmasters tend to do most of the time), white ends up just a pawn down with no compensation for the pawn.

This does not mean that you have to give up playing the Smith-Morra if you like it. At your level I am sure you can have fun with it as black will often not play perfectly. However as you improve towards Elo 2000 or so, you might want to look at more normal openings.

  • The Morra Gambit is uncommon enough and hard enough to refute that even above 2000 level you can achieve success with it. Long ago I had a few nice miniatures with this as white against 2000+ players. And I would not say white has "no" compensation for the pawn - it's probably just "not enough" compensation. GMs don't want to waste a white game potentially obtaining a slightly worse position out of the opening. – TMM Jun 11 '17 at 16:52
  • (The main reason for me not to play it anymore was indeed the simple transposition to Alapin variations, which I don't like as white.) – TMM Jun 11 '17 at 17:02
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If you like the Morra gambit, then there is no reason not to play it. It indeed leads to open positions where white has a lead in development. Moreover, black players are typically more familiar with the main lines than the Morra, while white's initiative can be quite dangerous.

Profound analyses can be found in Mayhem in the Morra!, written by IM Marc Esserman in 2012. The forewords in the sample pages are interesting and fun to read.

The theoretical status of the Morra is that black is fine: white has enough compensation for the pawn, but nothing more. White has better chances for an advantage in the main lines after 2.Nf3 and 3.d4. Therefore, the Morra gambit is not seen very often at the top level.

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    If the "chance of an advantage" is computed as a function of both your and your opponent's knowledge as well, then maybe with the Morra you actually have a better chance for an advantage against a Najdorf player who knows the Najdorf very well, but rarely ever faces the Morra. The objectively best line is not always the psychologically best line. – TMM Jun 11 '17 at 16:57
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I played Morra at 1500- level, and Morra is very fun to play. I have big lead in development and opponent will make obvious tactical mistakes for me to take advantage of.

Now I'm at 1800-2000 level and I stop playing Morra. The reason is that at this level, opponents book up to some extent. They won't make obvious tactical mistakes and my understanding in Morra and tactical skill isn't enough to carry out the initiative successfully. In many Morra variations, if your opponent isn't very well booked up, you'll probably have one shot at Nd5 sac, you miss it and they'll develop properly and you are just down a pawn. On the other hand, even if you make the right sac, it still requires lots of tactical skill to make it winning.

I believe at 2000+, players will have better understanding of initiative and much better tactical skill. Then opponents' less obvious tactical error is punished properly and Morra becomes dangerous again.

At world top level, the reason that Morra disappeared is because you can't surprise you opponent anymore. Every GM game is in a database and your opponent can check your opening repertoire and prepare accordingly.

In any case, if you play Morra, don't fall into the Siberian trap (the second time).

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A gambit is the giving up of material for time, generally a pawn in the opening. Accordingly, you must maximize your use of the time advantage before your opponent catches up, when your pawn shortage will become a long-term deficit. Since these types of games such as the Smith-Morra and the other gambits you have mentioned become tactical very quickly and your opponent won't have time to analyze all the variations with probable resulting inaccuracies, they would seem to be particularly well suited to quick play. In slower games, your opponent would be able to avoid these tactical pitfalls and emerge into an ultimately winning position after completing his development.

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