Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Thoughts on Gambits, and a Mini-Review of The Modern Morra Gambit

Gambits have been on my mind lately for a few reasons.

  • A while ago, in my Openings for Beginners series, I recommended main lines. However, I still wondered if certain tactical, dodgy openings would be appropriate for developing tactical skills. Things like the Moller Attack in the Italian Game, or the Max Lange Attack, or the Morra Gambit. The latter two were actually some of the first weapons I adopted when I started playing rated chess, but I abandoned them early on.
  • I actually succumbed and bought Langrock's The Modern Morra Gambit to relive the past and give it a whirl in blitz. I was wondering if it might be appropriate after all.
  • I saw that Nigel Davies has put out a book called Gambiteer I, featuring gambit lines for white after 1.e4. The bastard. I have his Play 1.e4 e5! book, so the dirty blackguard was holding out on us with his secret weapons.

I've mulled the matter over in my head. Here's what I believe:

  • If you're not playing "real chess" yet, don't play dodgy, anti-positional openings. Build a repertoire around solid moves that feel good and make sense. Concentrate on playing "real chess" until your mistakes depend more on other aspects of chess strength such as visualization and calculation of variations.
  • If you're playing "real chess" on almost every move, then look at your games and see what's costing you points. If it's tactics and calculation of variations, or using the initiative, or attacking the king, try out some tricky lines. If it's strategy or endgames, work on those instead. If you're like most of us patzers stuck in the under-expert category, you'll be lucky to get the "real chess" aspect solved.
A problem I have with some of the tricky openings is that they encourage memorization of lines. I don't think that the Max Lange was as bad as some of the others in this regard. I had read through Koltanowski's booklet when I picked this opening up and, although there's a tactical maze to pass through, a lot of the tactics made sense and felt OK. In contrast, the Morra Gambit feels bizarre in a unique way, which leads to my mini-review.

My reference book when I took up the Morra Gambit aeons ago was Burgess's Winning with the Smith-Morra Gambit. One thing that made the book hard to use was the organization. Transpositions abound, so the material was organized along the lines of "lines where Black plays Qc7" or "lines where Black plays ...Bd7". Langrock's book follows pretty much the same organizational setup, except with a much harder to follow index of variations at the end. I've owned a lot of chess books, and this one takes the cake for difficulty in finding the line you're interested in. I had to make pencil marks in the index to tie together which variation ties on to which preceding move. I actually entered the whole freakin' index into Chessbase and printed it out as a table, and then as an index of variations....that helped a lot. However, there are still a lot of variations that are either not covered in the book, or well hidden. {After I wrote this, I found a review of the book by Silman, who agrees with me on this.}

For example, the lines with ...Qc7 presume that ...a6 is played first. Presumably this is to prevent a Nb5 from White to harass the queen. Yet I couldn't find this specifically addressed, nor could Fritz spit out an outright condemnation of omitting ...a6. For example, a recent blitz game went 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 dxc3 4. Nxc3 Nc6 5. Nf3 e6 6. Bc4 d6 7. O-O Nf6 8. Qe2 Qc7. Fritz wasn't giddily jumping up and down over 9.Nb5 at this point, so the most reasonable continuation to me seemed to be to transpose into the main line with standard Morra moves. This is what indeed happened, as did many of the games in my database.

Maybe I need to play more gambits, but the Morra stands out to me as completely alien, an entirely different kind of game. A lot of the tactical motifs seem peculiar to this opening. A lot of the best moves for White, at my level of ability, are highly tactically sophisticated. Although I can see that there are certain tactical patterns that can act like signposts to guide you through the opening, there seems to be a high premium on memorization.

On the plus side, the positions get so crazy that, even if you badly bobble the opening, your opponent is likely to screw up badly as well. Also, some of the tactical patterns you learn here do appear elsewhere. One of the simpler tactical tricks I learned when I first played the Morra was this idea:

1. Bxf7+! Kxf7 2. Qxd8 +-

I must have internalized this motif, because 13 years later I spotted this in a flash during a blitz game, in an entirely unrelated opening:

1. e4 e5 2. f3 Nf6 3. g3 d5 4. d3 Bc5 5. Ne2? (Diagram) 5...dxe4! 6. fxe4 Nxe4 7. dxe4 sets up the same decoy tactic: 7...Bf2+ 8. Kxf2 Qxd1 9. Be3 Bg4 10. Nec3 Qf3+ 0-1

I'm still impressed that I found this tactic almost at a glance.

I think the bottom line is that, if you are a weaker player (I'll guesstimate below class A), you can successfully employ this opening if you have a good memory. I could see kids booking up to the eyeballs on these lines and taking scalps. Even with my poor memory and limited study of this gambit, I can already see common Black mistakes and can recall the proper White response (without fully understanding it, perhaps). However, if you're not playing "real chess" reliably yet, playing such an opening is probably holding you back, because you're overwhelmed with memorizing lines and getting lost in a maze of tactics, rather than working on fixing your sloppy thought process.

(On a similar note, I flipped through Davies' Gambiteer I, and if I recall correctly some of the main lines led to bizarre, icky-feeling positions where, although Davies says white has an advantage, I would hate to have to play that mess. I seem to recall one position with an uncastled king on f1 with damaged pawn cover being a position to aim for. I'm just going by my impression of what I saw flipping through it in the book store, so don't hold me to specifics. I may at some point buy the book if I find my opponents using the lines against me, but right now I'm not anxious to try them out myself as White.)

So, what if you love gambits but frankly suck at the whole "real chess" thing? Intuitively, it seems to me that a reasonable compromise would be to play your gambits against lower rated players, and play solid against higher rated players. On the other hand, if you've ever read Simon Webb's Chess for Tigers, you'll see he recommends the opposite approach. Webb argues that even bunnies have sharp teeth, so you should play solidly against them rather than try to blow them out of the water. In contrast, when playing a stronger player you should muddy the waters with complexities to counter their edge in technique. And on the third hand (?!), Webb's advice would violate Petrosian's Rule:

The great Petrosian was patron to his assistant, the young and
talented Russian-Armenian master Karen Gregorian. Once
Gregorian returned from an important qualifying tournament and
showed Petrosian a game in which the young man had played
some very risky opening moves as Black and lost. Petrosian cross-
examined him in a characteristically chiding way.

Petrosian: "Why did you play such terrible moves? Even you
should understand these are bad."
Gregorian: "I had to win to qualify."
Petrosian: "Make a note. It's much easier to play for a win
from an equal position than from a bad position!"

So, hell, I don't what you want.

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