A tale of two titles: Morra gambit and the romantic school of chess

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.

I have spent decades rejecting the Morra gambit on the grounds of materialism, an unnecessary squandering of material in response to the Sicilian. I purchased a book by Marc Esserman, Mayhem In The Morra, to introduce a volatile option for blitz and rapid play. What I found instead was a compelling appeal by a zealot, urging a return to the true faith, romantic chess.

MayhemInTheMorra

The Morra gambit is a deeply controversial opening, where white immediately sacrifices a pawn to gain time, space, and open lines in a direct attempt to show black’s opening move of c5, an indirect pawn move to confront white’s pawn center, is a suspect plan, leaving the king’s field underdeveloped and subject to attack. The flow and cohesiveness of white’s development for the first 10 moves offers numerous opportunities for tactical forays against opponents who misunderstand the dangers inherent in their position, making the Morra appear to be a trick opening, where victories come from poor defense, rather than from the positional virtues underlying the gambit. Esserman makes an impassioned appeal for these virtues, in prose that verges on the rhetoric of a zealot, but supporting his argument with a substantial offering of games and positions which show the potential for his beloved Morra, both tactically and positionally.

From the Introduction – The Much Maligned Morra:

After 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cd 3. c3,

we reach the starting position of the much maligned Morra Gambit. 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 …dc, 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.

The style of Morphy, Anderssen, and Blackburne, with the improvements required by the refinement of defensive technique, leads Mr. Esserman deep into examples from his own play, and the play of similarly talented and titled players. Each variation leads into increasingly complex and subtle means for the gambiteer to find an advantage against the varied schemes that black has tried over the decades. Esserman’s presentation includes numerous subreferences to contemporary movies, particularly the Austin Powers and James Bond franchises. The quotes are entertaining, and well suited to the material, but must make any thought of translating his book from English to other languages a nightmare for any editor. For the American reader, the quotes are fairly relevant, and an amusing alternative to the usual dry commentary found in other opening and repertoire works. I will further admit that I have altered my entire opening repertoire to be as dynamic and volatile as Esserman has suggested by using the Morra. There is an intense liberation from the staid positional stylings of modern chess which make the return to romanticism deeply appealing. Chess is a game. It is supposed to be fun. I strongly recommend giving an immersion into combinational play, where active piece play supplants cautious pawn structures and strategic plodding throughout the game. In particular, any youthful player would be well served to include tactically rich openings as their early repertoire, to build a base of combinative knowledge as a foundation for their future play. The recognition of tactical possibilities, both for yourself, and by your opponent, is a requirement for success.

Esserman covers the responses to the Morra accepted with great skill and depth, offering the reader a wide array of novelties and options with which to strive for an advantage. Included in this is his famous game against Justin Sarkar from 2008, where black incites white’s sacrifice of a piece on the key square d5:

I choose this example to show how sexy the Morra can be, how much fun it is to play. Finding out that sex is fun sounds good, but we need a second book to help us raise the kids.

Langrock_Morra2sm

Published by Russell Enterprises, The Modern Morra Gambit: a dynamic weapon against the Sicilian, by Hannes Langrock, now in its 2nd edition, bringing many of the recent novelties forward for careful examination. Where Esserman exhorts the reader towards the edge of chaos, Mr. Langrock offers a thorough and careful assessment of the varied positions generated by the Morra. Very often the assessment of each other confirms what the other says, but where Esserman is exuberant and optimistic, Langrock is careful in his language and his assessments. It is difficult to imagine a greater divergence in personality between these two authors, discussing a topic so volatile, and stating the contrary while finding the same result. The difference between attempts to put out a fire, one using gasoline, the other using ice water, is a dramatic contrast. Let’s look closer at the ice water approach.

The introduction to many books comprises a lengthy thank you list to those who made the work possible, along with some ambitious claims which may or may not be delivered in the course of the book. I mean this about nearly all non-fiction works, not just those related to chess. Both Langrock and Esserman defy that model, and the reader will be rewarded in each case with a clear map of the undiscovered country each author is about to lead them into. Esserman offers exceptional positions which detail tactical and positional themes; Langrock offers high quality games which show the Morra’s potential, even against well-considered, albeit insufficient, defensive schemes. From Langrock’s introduction, the subsection headed “The Practical Point of View” (italics are Langrock’s, not mine):

The practical aspect of the Morra Gambit plays an important role, as it is a typical over-the-board opening. As the theoretical sections demonstrate, most of Black’s defensive systems objectively offer acceptable prospects in a complicated battle. Nevertheless, I can promise that every talented attacking player who studies the Morra Gambit will achieve excellent practical results. The positions that arise are extremely difficult to play, especially if the defender is not familiar with them. I’m not claiming that the defender fails more often in these positions than the attacker, but one mistake by Black frequently means the end of the game, while White more often gets a second chance.

There were many choices available for citation in Mr. Langrock’s introduction, and I recommend that when you purchase this book you take the time to savor his insights patiently. While the rhetoric is much more measured than Mr. Esserman’s, the content and opinions are not. This continues throughout his presentation of the Morra Accepted, and I find his argument that transpositions to the c3 lines against the Sicilian are beyond the scope of his work. Whether or not I ever have the energy and inspiration to tackle a review of Sveshnikov’s Complete c3 Sicilian is yet to be seen. I have rewritten this review so often that I question whether I ever wish to offer criticism again.

One aspect of Mr. Langrock’s writing that I am not overly fond of is his repeated reference to the statistical results of opening lines in undefined databases, particularly one that he has delimited himself, apparently filtering from ChessBase’s Mega Database 2010. I am not implying that any part of Mr. Langrock’s analysis is a database dump, nor a compilation of engine derived lines, far from it, but justifying choices for which avenue to pursue at critical junctures based on the percentages of results from an undefined database is not the most convincing rhetorical device. Telling me that White’s results OTB are 49%, but in correspondence they are 51% is a useful statistic, where we count on correspondence play to be more thoughtful and measured, but I am intuitively disinclined to think that the correspondence player who chooses the Morra is the norm for correspondence play in general.

Going back to the Esserman – Sarkar game cited earlier, Langrock includes that game as a secondary option after black accepts the sacrifice 9. Nd5 ed 10. ed d6, and suggests that 11. Re1+ is more exact. I might recommend that both lines appear to succeed, and that black should refrain from playing 8. . . .b4, inciting the Knight sacrifice. When two divergent lines both succeed after a sacrifice, black might look for alternatives prior to the allowing the sacrifice in the first place.

There is one item that both Langrock and Esserman agree upon, that playing the opening moves for white by rote will not be sufficient against the spectrum of black responses. I would like to close with an example where the two works diverge. This particular line is named after the Danish great, Bent Larsen, whose ridicule of the Morra gambit stunted its development for decades. Finding a way to refute his recommendation should be one of the goals of any author, if only to redeem the Morra in history, with apologies to GM Larsen.

and here we find two completely different recommendations, with Langrock only looking at 8. Qe2 Bd6, while Esserman recommends 8. Re1, and appears to ignore the queen move to e2. Actually, Esserman has a third recommendation so outlandish that I will leave it for the reader who wishes to support chess writers by purchasing their works to enjoy the insanity that ensues. I promise it justifies the purchase of the book. Enjoy.