Dealing with the Smith-Morra Again
The recent USCL Week 4 GOTW Esserman-Bartell put the Smith-Morra on the map yet again! I thought it was dead and gone ever since Smith-Evans and Smith-Mecking, San Antonio 1972.
The Flexible Variation
After listening carefully to Manest (Alex Lenderman) material presented on ICC Chess.FM, I came up with improvements for black in what I think should be the main line of defense,
1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3
White gambits a center pawn for space and a lead in development. If black can catch up in development without making any concessions, he will be left with that extra pawn. The best defensive lines always involve being careful not to make concessions.
3…dxc3 4. Nxc3 Nc6 5. Bc4 d6 6. Nf3
And now I term the “Flexible Variation” the careful 6…a6!? leaving the option of Bc8-g4 open. It is very appealing to me not to shut in the B/c8 quite yet. However and of course, thousands of games have seen black defend with an early e7-e6 as well. The “Flexible Variation” was espoused by GM Evans all those moon ago (tournament book, San Antonio, 1972).
A manuscript in PDF format on the Flexible Variation (Lenderman white suggestions with my additional lines) has been very popular with thousands of downloads. The amusing thing about many of the lines in the manuscript is that black manages to get an attack on the white king when white overpresses, a highly unusual occurrence in this variation! I think this is the way to play that is the soundest coupled with the most chances for counter-attack and victory. However, there is a more solid option, namely…
The Solid Gulko Defense
We note in the Esserman-Bartell game, black chose to shut in the B/c8 with an early ….e6 which is perfectly sound if he plays accurately. In fact, a Lenderman-Gulko game did see black play the right way so we should mention it. I have no doubt that Gulko’s defense was taught to thousands of school kids in Soviet chess academies but since we don’t have those, Bartell was left out in the proverbial cold.
1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Nxc3 Nc6 5. Bc4 d6 6. Nf3 e6 7. Qe2 Be7 Note Gulko plays e6 and Be7 before Nf6.
8. O-O Nf6 9. Rd1 e5 and now Lenderman went wrong with the illogical 10. Bb5? Bg4 11. Qc4 O-O 12. Bxc6 Rc8 and white had a bad game. Gulko duly won. I think this was a World Open a few years back…?
The question is, what does black do if white plays normally?
Well, let’s say he gears up with a3 and b4 as Esserman played in the Bartell game.
10. a3 O-O 11. b4 Be6! Black is smart to not play a6 yet. It is much more important to get development completed fast to check what white is up to. This well-timed …Bc8-e6 is just in time to neutralize white.
And now… nothing is really going on!
12. Bxe6 fxe6 13. Qa2 Qd7 is actually slightly better for black since 14. Ng5 Nd8! leads nowhere; and on 12. Nd5 black has the luxury of ignoring it and playing 12…Rc8!. This is smart because white gets nowhere with 13. Nxe7+ Qxe7 winning the bishop pair but getting rid of his own most active piece and black is quite solid with an extra pawn.
Note in the Bartell game black incautiously took on d5 at a bad moment, after wasting time with Bc8-d7-e6, and got driven completely back and flattened. He also didn’t want or need the move b7-b5.
Conclusion: The Gulko Defense is smart because we dispense with …a6 and get on with development to neutralize white’s initiative.
Overall Conclusion: It’s a tossup to play solidly (the Gulko Defense) or try the sharp counterattacking ideas in my “Improved Manest Flexible Variation” which starts with 6…a6 reserving the possibility later of …Bc8-g4. The latter variation probably offers more winning chances and so appealing to Sicilian players….
2nd Overall Conclusion: Any Sicilian Player needs to be ready with one of these.
Lesson by Analogy
Take a quick look at the Esserman-Bartell game score.
1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 e6 7.0-0 Be7 8.Qe2 Nf6 9.Rd1 e5 10.Be3 0-0 11.Rac1 Bd7 12.a3 a6 13.b4 b5 14.Bb3 Be6 (obvious time-wasting, much better and perfectly playable was 14…Rc8! Black can always do Be6 later if need be, without tactical problems) 15.Nd5 Bxd5? (15…Rc8! is still the most careful! After, e.g., 16. h3 (what else?) now black can safely play 16…Bxd5 17. exd5 Nb8 with a fighting middlegame in prospect, 18. Nxe5?? fails to 18…Rxc1. The fact that the BR is on c8 makes all the difference.) 16.exd5 Nb8? Despite the earlier inaccuracies, this is really the huge blunder. 16…Na7! and 17. Nxe5? does not work due to 17…dxe5 18. d6 Bxd6 19. Bc5 Nc8!. After, e.g., 17. h3 Qd7 black is not by any means losing. It’s not optically nice with the N on a7 but at least he has an extra center pawn.
17.Nxe5! It’s gone already but it was pleasing to GOTW judges. They don’t like defense or a well-contested game except for, apparently, Michael Aigner and Greg Shahade judging from the post-GOTW commentary.
17…dxe5 18.d6 Bxd6 19.Bc5 Bxc5 20.Rxd8 Bxf2+ 21.Qxf2 Rxd8 22.g4 a5 23.g5 Nfd7 24.Qxf7+ Kh8 25.Qe7 Rf8 26.Qxf8+ Nxf8 27.Rc8 Black resigns 1-0
Given our discussion of the Gulko defense, where is the key improvement? Yes, you guessed it, 11…Be6! is the right move.
In defense of white’s opening choice, after 11…Be6! the wild wing lunge 12. b4! (something Esserman likes to play) black is only equal after 12…Nxb4 or 12…Bxc4; no trace of an advantage. The game will fizzle out and sail into Draw Harbour. There are some other kooky lines here too. After 11…Be6 12. Bxe6 fxe6 white again can try the wild 13. b4 – a move I’ve seen Esserman play in similar situations. Black can defend with 13…Ng4! 14. Bc5 Qe8! 15. Bxd6 Bxd6 16. Rd6 Qe7! lining up the rook and the b4 pawn. Or, 13…Ng4! 14. b5 Nxe3! 15. Qxe3? Nd4! and black stands well due to the tactical point 16. Nxd4 Bg5! – OUCH! Better would be 15. fxe3 Na5 16. Nxe5 and at least white got his pawn back at the cost of structure. That position is equal after 16…Qe8 or 16…Bg5.
Finally, a variation from Outer Absurdistan: 11…Be6! 12. Bd5 Ng4 13. Bc5!? Nf6 14. Be3 Ng4 repeating! Black can also risk 12…Qe8 to play on or tempt white into the amusing 12…Bxd5 13. exd5 Nb8 and hope white plays 14. Nxe5 analogous to the Bartell game. If 14. Nxe5 the whole thing might blow up in white’s face: 14…dxe5 15. d6 Bxd6 16. Bc5?? Bxc5 17. Rxd8 Rxd8 18. Qxe5 Bxf2!+ (This old tactical chestnut!) and black wins. Or, 16. Nb5 Ne8 17. Bc5 Nc6! and black is better. Bartell unfortunately allowed really one of the only structures where the Nxe5 trick works. Usually it backfires as in these lines.
I am particularly interested in reader comments on the Flexible Variation PDF manuscript.