Hannes Langrock, The Modern Morra Gambit: A Dynamic Weapon Against the Sicilian, 2nd edition (Russell Enterprises, 2011). 320 pp. $29.95.
Many years ago, the Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3, henceforth SMG) was my preferred way to meet the Sicilian Defense, and while I'm not sure I ever completely believed in it it was generally fun to play and I scored extremely well with it. I only lost with it once - a fairly short loss, and of course that's the only Smith-Morra game of mine to get published - but I won something like 13 times while only giving up a couple of draws. I was almost always the higher-rated player, but even taking that into account my results were quite good.
Maybe this is because most people hate to defend, and thus never take the time and energy needed to get good at it. Whatever the case, the Gambit was generally effective. On balance, though, I didn't believe in it then and don't believe in it now. Further, the results in the database aren't very good for it either, which may reflect that above a certain rating - the sort of rating that gets one's games into databases in the first place - the aforementioned distaste for defense has dissipated.
Anyway, despite the unpleasant loss mentioned above, my memories of the SMG are generally fond. Further, while I haven't played it in a long time, I used to trot it out in blitz every now and again, and have had a couple of nice successes with it. But can it be played in serious chess?
Some pretty serious players have used it: GM Alex Lenderman and IM Marc Esserman in the U.S. have played it as an occasional weapon with success, even against very strong players. German GM Karsten Mueller has done some deep work on it, and FM Hannes Langrock, the author of the volume under review, has put in a tremendous amount of his own work trying to demonstrate its viability.
Whether he has succeeded in proving the gambit fully viable is for time to tell, but while his tone is often enthusiastic his evaluations seem objective: I found plenty of lines where the assessment was equality. (Of course, for gambit-haters that might be taken as a lack of objectivity!) He also notes on a regular basis places where his recommendations in the first edition (2006) had to be scrapped. I spot checked a few lines I used to know something about, and while I was able to add to his analysis his claims weren't crazy and he taught me a few things as well.
If you're thinking of buying the book and taking up the SMG, be aware that Black need not accept the pawn. First of all, there's 3…Nf6, which certainly makes sense for anyone who meets 2.c3 against the Sicilian with 2…Nf6. (The other stock response to 2.c3, 2…d5, does not transfer over: 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 d5 isn't nearly as good for Black. More on both of these lines below.)
Second, there's the 3…d3 line. When I was a teenager I had an old Chess Digest booklet on the Smith-Morra declined, and Ken Smith and his co-author considered 4.c4 Nc6 5.Bxd3 Nf6 6.Nc3 d6 7.h3 g6 8.Nf3 Bg7 9.Bf4 0-0 10.0-0 to be slightly better for White. (I'm not sure that's the exact move order given in that small book, but it's probably close.) Langrock doesn't quite affirm that White has an edge, but he does think that Black must play actively on the queenside to neutralize what he calls the Morra Maroczy Bind. That sounds encouraging for White, but I think most reasonably serious club players using 3…d3 already know that. Based on Langrock's analysis, I'd suggest the following for Black: 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 d3 4.Bxd3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.0-0 g6 7.h3 Bg7 8.Be3 Nf6 9.c4 0-0 10.Nc3 Nd7! (his punctuation here and throughout this citation) 11.Rc1 Nc5 12.Bb1! a5! 13.Qd2 Re8! (to meet Bh6 with …Bh8) 14.Rfd1 Be6 15.b3 (15.Nd5 a4 16.Bh6 "with a complicated position in Volman-Tyomkin, ISR 2005") 15…a4!? ("In this case this typical positional pawn sacrifice is a pure drawing attempt and Black gets what he wishes for") 16.Bxc5 dxc5 17.Qxd8 Raxd8 18.Nxa4 Nd4 19.Nxd4 Bxd4 20.e5 Bd7 21.Be4 Bxa4 22.bxa4 b6 23.Bc6 and the 2007 correspondence game Tinture (2455) - Goncharenko (2570) was agreed drawn. Langrock's comment seems slightly bitter, but the theoretical burden of proof is on White to prove an advantage. Black's job isn't to accept a worse position so he can fight for a win and make White happy.
Turning to 2…Nf6, Langrock doesn't cover this move. That's understandable, as it would expand the book's length greatly and in a way change the subject from the Smith-Morra to the 2.c3 Sicilian. Nevertheless, SMG fans need to know it while 2.c3 Nf6 advocates are freed from the responsibility of learning anything new against the SMG. As for 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 d5 4.exd5 Qxd5, I'm a little surprised that Langrock chose not to cover this but, again, immediately sends his readers to the 2.c3 literature. The reason I'm surprised is that this is not a clean transposition to 2.c3 d5. There, after 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.d4 Black generally plays 4...Nf6. Instead, 4...cxd4 transposes to what you'd get via the SMG move order, but it's considered risky at best. So I think that a few paragraphs would have been useful here.
Anyway, it looks like a good, thorough volume, and if you like the gambit it's surely a must-have book. I don't think it's out just yet, but the Chess Cafe is likely to have it first.