Smith-Morra Gambit

The Smith-Morra Gambit is one of the most prominent sideline openings in Sicilian Defense to avoid mainlines. The Gambit starts with a pawn sacrifice: 1.e4 (King’s Pawn Opening) c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3.

Smith-Morra Gambit

The opening became fashionable in the early 20th century due to the analysis and publications of Pierre Morra and Ken Smith, who were members of the Dallas Chess Club. Because the opening offers only a modest degree of advantage, if any at all, against Sicilian, the Smith-Morra Gambit rarely appears on the board in top-level chess. Nevertheless, every now and then, many famous top players, such as Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura, Michael Adams and Gata Kamsky, employ this gambit to reduce the risk and get a safe game.

Winning percentages on both sides

Results Rate
Win for white 26%
Draw 36%
Win for black 38%

Main ideas

The Smith-Morra Gambit can prove psychologically demanding for Sicilian Defense aficionados who thrive on counter-attacks. This gambit deviates sharply from their familiar major lines and the typical Sicilian structure, often serving as a strategic curveball to catch opponents off guard.

Accepting the Gambit enables white to swiftly develop their pieces to their most energetic and natural squares, such as Nc3,Nf3 Bc4,Bg5. White gains control over the c- and d-files, utilizing the open and semi-open files for rooks, thereby applying consistent pressure on black’s d-pawn. In many variations, thematic knight or bishop sacrifices on d5 are possible due to black’s development issues. For example, a timely Nd5 comes as an unexpected blow when the black king is still stuck in the center and …exd5 opens up the e-file in a dangerous way.

Smith-Morra Gambit’s Theory

To accept or to decline the Gambit is the question that Black has to answer early on after 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3. Materialistic approach with 3…dxc3 4.Nc3 might put black into a temporary state of passivity. To stabilize their position, black may either choose a Schveningen type of setup with 4…e6 followed by ..d6 (or vice versa) or skip …d6 altogether and develop 4….Nc6 5.Nf3 e6 followed by …Nge7 and …0-0. If Black is not in the mood to take an extra risk, they might simply decline the gambit, which can be accomplished either by continuing with the following deployment like 3…Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 or by giving up the extra material right away with 3…d3, claiming that the c3 pawn deprives the knight of developing on that square.

Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted: 3…dxc3

Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted - 3…dxc3

If black accepts the gambit, white usually gets a lot of dynamic compensation and activity after 4.Nxc3. Now black needs a setup to choose to stay solid and safe until they can consolidate the position. The two main ways are 4…Nc6 with …e6 or the …e6-…d6 setup.


Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted - 4…Nc6

When black chooses 4…Nc6, oftentimes they play …e6 without …d6 to speed up the development. 5.Nf3 e6, not only opening up the diagonal for the bishop but also closing the diagonal off to protect the f7 square. 6.Bc4, preparing to castle as quickly as possible, black still needs two more moves until they can castle. Now that white has committed the light bishop to the c4 square, black usually wants to chase away the bishop, because the bishop on this diagonal has potential for tactical blows. So, 6…a6 7.0-0 and chasing the bishop away with 7…b5 8.Bb3 Na5 9.Bc2 Bb7 is usually a good idea for black.

Sometimes black prefers 7…Nge7 (7…Nf6 8.e5), but then white can provoke ..f6 or …h6 with 8.Bg5. After 8…f6 9.Be3 b5 10.Bb3 Ng6, white can go offensive with 11.Nd5!, threatening Bb6.

Black is almost forced to accept this knight sacrifice sooner or later. For example: 11…exd5 12.exd5 Nce5 13.d6 and black’s pieces are tied to defense, and they have to find the only moves to deal with the attack.

4…e6 and 5…d6 or 4…d6 and 5…e6

Smith-Morra Gambit Accepted - 4…e6 and 5…d6 or 4…d6 and 5…e6

Black’s second viable defensive option is the Scheveningen type of setup: 4…e6 5.Nf3 d6 (or 4…d6 5.Nf3 e6) 6.Bc4 and it looks visually promising for white, as they have three pieces already developed, which perfectly justifies the pawn sacrifice. 6…Nf6 7.0-0 Be7 8.Qe2, preparing e5, so black prevents it with 8…Nc6. White persists with the same concept, playing 9.Rd1, and now black must respond with 9…e5 to prevent white from doing the same 10.Be3 0-0 11.Rac1 and the position are objectively equal, but white’s every single piece is perfectly placed.

Smith-Morra Gambit Declined, Alapin Formation, 3…Nf6

Smith-Morra Gambit Declined, Alapin Formation - 3…Nf6

The most common method for black to reject the Gambit is by playing 3…Nf6, which puts pressure on e4 with tempo. White almost always reacts with 4.e5, keeping the initiative, and the knight moves out of attack with 4…Nd5. White can develop 5.Nf3, leaving the dxc3 option still open, or recapture on d4 with 5.cxd4 and claim the central control. Both lines mostly transpose into each other eventually. In either case, white gets a space advantage due to the pawn on e5, while black tries to undermine the center with …d6, ….Nc6.

3.c3 Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 5.Nf3

Smith-Morra Gambit Declined, Alapin Formation - 3.c3 Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 5.Nf3

Two main replies against 5.Nf3 are 5…Nc6 and 5…e6.

White will develop the bishop to c4 in most cases, so 5…e6 defends the knight on d5 in advance, and also prepares …Be7, …0-0. The game might continue with either 6.cxd4 d6 7.Bc4 Nc6 or 7…Nb6 8.Bd3 Nc6.

5…Nc6 follows a similar idea of striking at the center, but just slightly faster. The game usually follows a single line: 6.cxd4 d6 7.Bc4 Nb6 8.Bb5, threatening d5, 8…dxe5 9.Nxe5 Bd7 10.Nxd7 Qxd7 11.Nc3 e6

Black has a structural long-term advantage due to white’s isolated queen’s pawn on d4, which will be a target in the endgame. In return, white has a bishop pair and great attacking chances in the middlegame, especially with the key defender of kingside being on b6 instead of the usual f6 square.

3.c3 Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 5.cxd4

Smith-Morra Gambit Declined, Alapin Formation - 3.c3 Nf6 4.e5 Nd5 5.cxd4

Recapturing on d4 with 5.cxd4 usually transposes into the lines we’ve just covered with 5…Nc6 and 6…d6. There is not much room for white to deviate from that line, so the same position is reached after 5…d6 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.Bc4 Nb6 8.Bb5 dxe5 9.Nxe5 Bd7.

Sometimes, a kingside fianchetto is an idea for black, for example: 10.Bxc6 Bxc6 11.0-0 g6 12.Nc3 Bg7 with an equal game.

Smith-Morra Gambit Declined 3…d3

Smith-Morra Gambit Declined - 3…d3

The main point of 3…d3 is to slow down white’s development by depriving white of the opportunities of cxd4 or Nxc3 and now the pawn on c3 stands in the way of the knight after 4.Bxd3. However, now, after 4…Nc6, white can now go for the Maroczy Bind type of setup with 5.c4. If black tries to control the d5 with 5…e6 6.Nc3 Nf6 7.Nf3 Be7 8.0-0 0-0, white can squeeze black’s forces with 9.e5.

The alternative way of developing with 5…d6 6.Nc3 g6 7.Nge2 (instead of 7.Nf3 to keep f2-f4 possible) Bg7 8.0-0 Nf6 9.f4 gives white a significant spatial advantage in the center.

Because of the comfortable play white gets with the c4-e4 setup, it can be concluded that compared to 3…Nf6, 3..d3 is an inferior way of declining the gambit

Common Traps in Smith-Morra Gambit

Trap №1: Siberian Trap

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 e6 6.Bc4 Qc7 7.0-0 Nf6 8.Qe2 Ng4, sets up a sneaky threat after 9.h3??, trying to chase the knight away would be a decisive blunder because of 9…Nd4!! A deflection sacrifice, if 10.hxg4 Nxe2+ wins the queen, or if 10.Nxd4 then 10…Qh2#.

Trap №2

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.e5 Nxe5??, wrong way to capture; the best would be 7…Ng4 or 7…dxe5, because the knight is needed to guard d8, e.g. 8.Nxe5 dxe5 9.Bxf7+, deflecting the queen Kxf7 10.Qxd8

Pros and Cons

Energetic squares for the pieces and initiative White does not get any edge out of the opening if black plays it accurately.
Strong grip in the center with either a c4-e4 setup or a spatial advantage with d4-e5 pawn structure The isolated pawn on d4 might turn into a liability once the position is simplified.


The Smith-Morra Gambit is a sound sideline against the Sicilian Defense, where white gets enough activity and dynamic compensation to justify the pawn sacrifice. However, the most resistant defense for black is to decline the Smith-Morra Gambit with the Alapin Formation (3…Nf6), which lets black equalize the game with a cautious play. This is likely to be one of the main reasons why the Smith-Morra has not become a mainstream opening at the top level. Nevertheless, dealing with the Smith-Morra Gambit can pose significant challenges in an actual, practical game, particularly if one is not adequately prepared.

Written by
Deniz Tasdelen, National Master
National Master with over 20 years of experience. He has participated in many prestigious tournaments, including the European and World Youth Chess Championships.
Ask Question


Should the Smith-Morra Gambit be accepted?

Accepting the Smith-Morra Gambit can lead to dynamic and open positions, favoring players who are comfortable with aggressive tactics and imbalanced material situations. However, it’s important to be familiar with the resulting positions and counter-strategies.

Is the Smith-Morra Gambit refuted?

The Smith-Morra Gambit is not officially refuted, but it is less commonly seen at the highest levels of play due to the theoretical preparation and defenses developed against it. Skilled players can defend effectively against it, although it remains a viable option in club-level play.

Is the Smith-Morra sound?

The soundness of the Smith-Morra Gambit is debated among chess theorists. It is considered less sound than some other openings due to the pawn sacrifice, but it can be effective in creating tactical opportunities and unbalancing the game, especially against unprepared opponents.

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