Review: Mayhem in the Morra!
The world can be divided into two kinds of people: those who finish one book before starting another, and those who read multiple books during the same period of time. Belonging to the second category myself, I wasn’t much surprised by the feeling of serendipity I experienced while reading Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s new book on creativity, together with Marc Esserman’s Mayhem in the Morra!
Lehrer, science journalist and author of the bestselling Proust was a Neuroscientist, has been accused of fabricating quotes in Imagine (some of which he admitted), but I must say I still enjoyed the book as I naturally related a lot of what’s in it to chess. Lehrer stresses the importance of both “out of the box” thinking and hard work, which are precisely the qualities in Marc Esserman’s book on the Morra Gambit, published by Quality Chess.
Now, a confession must be made: I’ve always hated the Smith-Morra Gambit. Could there be a more annoying, infuriating and insulting chess variation than the desperate-looking 2.d4?! against the splendid Sicilian Defense?! And by God, I wasn’t alone. Everybody seems to hate this gambit – it must be the most despised variation in chess history.
Esserman, in his book, asks a simple question – a question I’ve personally never bothered to answer; a question so obviously silly and undeserving that it hardly justifies a serious answer; a question so simple that all Morra Haters must have asked in their worst nightmares, and were unable to honestly answer… that question is: why?
Why is the Morra Gambit so universally hated when thousands of romantic old fools still faint at the sight of a mere King’s Gambit; when Garry Kasparov is praised for digging up the ancient Evans Gambit, and when Tal, Shirov and Morozevich are still admired to no end for their uncompromising and risky opening play?
Reading the book’s Preface, in which Esserman throws these and other, equally valid questions at the unsuspecting reader, was a mind-blowing experience for me. I was forced to acknowledge that I didn’t in fact have a single good argument to hate the Morra, knowing next to nothing about it and seeing my prejudice exposed for what it was: fear.
After accepting Esserman’s convincing and accurate account of the gambit’s sad history, the “hostile environment” in which it was forced, often wrongly, by even the most “romantic” grandmasters of the past, I had to admit that I’d always been afraid of the Morra Gambit - which is why I have never had it on the board, always declining the gambit with 3…d3, 2…e6 or even, once, the ridiculous 2…d6?.
So what’s there to fear?
1.e4 c5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3
I must confess that this is often the moment in my chess praxis when my heart thumps most - will my opponent accept the sacrifice in the spirit of the Romantics, or will he shun the most honorable path and meekly decline? Sometimes I wait for the critical decision for many minutes as my grandmaster foe flashes me an incredulous, bordering on insulted, look. Other times, I receive the answer almost instantaneously. Yet every time I am greeted with 3…dxc3, I could not be happier. My knight freely flows to c3, the Morra accepted appears, and we travel back in time to the 19th century. Already ahead a full tempo in development, I smile, knowing that all of my pieces will soon flood the center. My bishops will zoom to the central diagonals, and my nimble queen will influence any sector of the board she desires. Meanwhile, Black remains cramped. His queen and bishops lie sleeping, and while his queen’s knight can reach c6 unharmed, the king’s knight must constantly fret about the dangerous e4-e5 thrust.
With scientific rigor (meaning with the help of the strongest chess engines in the world), Esserman, an International Master himself, debunks some of the world’s leading players’ opinions on the gambit, as well as scrutinizes his own games for mistakes by both his opponents and himself. Then again, he displays superior knowledge of strategic themes and positional considerations.
New York (rapid) 2003
1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 e6 6.Bc4 Qc7 7.0-0 Nf6 8.Nb5 Qb8 9.e5 Nxe5 10.Nxe5 Qxe5 11.Re1 Qc5
As you will see, there are no rules in chess, only guidelines. Normally we march forward in gambit play, but sometimes we retract like a bow and arrow, only to unleash with more vigor later. After the coiling 12.Bf1 the trap is laid clear, and White’s minor pieces will banish the queen to a land where she wishes not to go. The threat of Be3 and Rc1 force Black’s hand.
(…) Here I wanted to play 13.Qxd5, but after 13…Qxd5 14.Nc7+ Kd8 15.Nxd5 exd5, I merely succeed in trading pieces. Therefore I set up a threat, which as Nimzowitsch philosophizes, is stronger than the execution.
The hunter becomes the hunted. White now menaces 14.Qxd5 Qxd5 15.Nc7#! Meanwhile, Rc1 swirls in the frosty air. Black suffers on...
13…f6 14.Rc1 Qe7
The queen shields her king from the fiery white rook, but in turn, entombs her entire kingside. If only the king foresaw her fate, he would have never sent her off to c7 to do his bidding so many moons ago.
White aims to drive the queen from her hideout on e7 via Bd6 followed by Qxd5 +-, so Black must cede the exchange. But that’s not all he will lose (…).
If you think, after reading above fragment, that Esserman just likes to show off, both with his own moves and his prose, you’d be wrong. His mission is deadly serious, as he puts forward in his introduction:
As I’d do with any serious opening, I will not stop the analysis in each critical variation until I have demonstrated that White is fighting for the advantage. Yes, that is not a misprint – that White is fighting for an advantage in the Morra Gambit. If after studying the Morra Gambit for 15 years I did not believe I could make this claim, I would not be writing this book.
Does he succeed? Well, it’s hard for me to judge in a superficial review, but in general I found his analysis extremely convincing.
Take this example, perhaps the most striking one in the entire book (riddled, hilariously, with quotes from the Austin Powers movies), which starts off with a sarcastic sneer towards a former World Championship candidate that could easily be mistaken for arrogance, then switches to astonishingly accurate conclusions impossible to resist.
1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 e6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bc4 a6 7.0-0 Qc7
Larsen’s delusion pervades in the present day. As I am writing, I leaf through the December 2011 Christmas edition of New in Chess where British superstar GM Nigel Short plays the role of the Grinch who stole the Morra Gambit: "A belief in the existence of Santa Claus is more rational than imagining White has adequate compensation after the unwarranted [3.]c3?" (…). And this comes from a man who ventures the King’s Gambit. Well Nigel – ho, ho, ho, baby.
A virtual novelty on move 8 (played only once in a game between unrated players), which stops Larsen’s Defense even before it starts. With this dashing knight sacrifice, all the previous Nd5 themes again apply. Switch on your Rybka and watch as she gyrates wildly from -1 to +1 and beyond! Fembots: "You can’t resist us Mr. Powers. You can’t resist us Mr. Powers… resist us Mr. Powers.” Mr. Powers: "Au contraire baby, I think you, can’t resist me."
8…exd5 (…) 9.exd5 Nce7 (…) 10.Bb3 d6 11.Re1
We reach a freestyle position where White remains a full piece down with seemingly few threats, but Black simply cannot consolidate his material gains. When the smoke clears, White’s queen routinely ravages from the a5-square in the key lines. (…)
Before reading on, I decided to feed this position to my own engine. Sure enough, it gives Black an advantage of +.70 but with a full piece down it’s clear that White must be onto something. But can it really be enough? My engine recommends the logical-looking line 11…Bg4 12.Bf4 Qd7 13.Rc1 which is also given by Esserman.
The longer I looked (and my engine was looking along!), the more I became convinced that this position is horrible for Black. He will simply run out of ideas while White is ready to follow up with amazing plans like a2-a4-a5 and Bb3-a4 (after 13…Nf6) or (after 13…Nh6) 14.h3 Bxf3 15.Qxf3 Nhf5 16.Qc3! with a devastating bind.
This is impressive stuff indeed, and the book is full of it. Esserman is not afraid to discuss well-known “refutations” of the Morra, such as the so-called Taylor set-up with ...Nc6, d6, a6 and Nf6 (a line he calls “Taylor’s treacherous Temple of Doom”) and present his own treatment of it. In this case, his recommendation is 8.Bf4! and after 8…Bg4 9.h3! Bh5 White should play IM Langrock’s move 10.Qb3!
which Esserman claims leads to promising positions for White. Not convinced yet? Watch his lengthy analysis of this position and see for yourself.
Likewise, the “Chicago Defense”, in which Black plays the somewhat artificial-looking manoeuvre Ra8-a7-d7 (“and Black is a pawn up” – as a friend of mine likes to say), is treated with respect, but in this line, too, Esserman convinced me that White can fight for the advantage.
Mayhem in the Morra! is one of the best and funniest opening books I’ve ever read, and there’s hardly anything to criticize. Even his sometimes revengeful-sounding style is usually compensated by realistic goals, such as when he acknowledges the strength of the “Improved Siberian” move order for Black (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 e6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bc4 Nf6!), commenting that in this line “the battle rages fierce” still.
Esserman’s book is an outstanding example of out-of-the-box thinking, profound enthusiasm for a subject and a lot of hard, hard work. It’s hilarious as well as ambitious; arrogant as well as amiable. It describes how an opening can make you sad and happy at the same time, depending on the way it is treated and how it treats you.
Marc Esserman has written a celebration of chess in all its imaginative richness. You should read it, even – no, especially if you’ve always hated the Morra Gambit.
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