The best approach for dealing with the Sicilian Defense depends on your personal playing style and preferences. As White, you can choose to play sharp, theoretical lines or adopt a more positional strategy.
If you prefer to avoid extensive study of theory but still want to take the initiative from the start of the game, the Smith-Morra Gambit may be a suitable choice.
The Smith-Morra Gambit is an aggressive option against the Sicilian Defense. It starts with the moves 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3.
White sacrifices a central pawn to accelerate the development and seize the initiative. Black can accept the sacrifice with 3…dxc3 or decline it with 3…d3, 3…d5, or 3…Nf6.
Smith-Morra Gambit: The Main Trap
It might look like White doesn’t gain much if Black accepts the sacrifice. But the following line shows what can expect Black if they don’t sense the danger and play some natural moves. After 3…dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 Nf6, the following position arises:
Black often plays like this when they don’t know the theory of the Smith-Morra Gambit. White can strike in the center with 7.e5! Now, after 7…Nxe5? 8.Nxe5 dxe5 9.Bxf7+ Kxf7 10.Qxd8, Black loses the queen. Instead, 7…dxe5 leads to an unpleasant ending for Black: 8.Qxd8 Nxd8 9.Nb5:
Trying to cover c7 with 9…Kd7? Is a huge mistake: after 10.Nxe5, Black can only go back with 10…Ke8 and get checkmated with 11.Nc7#
Instead, 9…Rb8 should be preferred. After 10.Nxe5, Black’s king is still in trouble. White is better developed and has the initiative.
That is why Black should be careful. One of the most popular setups for them is to put pawns on d6 and e6. For example, 3…dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 e6:
The pawns restrict White’s minor pieces but make Black’s setup passive. After 7.0-0 Nf6 8.Qe2 Be7 9.Rd1, White is threatening to break Black’s defense with e4-e5.
This is the main setup for White in the Smith-Morra Gambit. After developing the dark-squared bishop, White will also put the rook on c1. Black seems solid, but their position can crack under such strong pressure coming from White. With precise play, Black can reach equality here, but in practice, it is a hard thing to do with no prior knowledge.
Black Plans …Bg4
If Black doesn’t want to play passively with 6…e6, they can opt for 6…a6.
The idea is to develop the knight on f6 without running into the powerful e4-e5 pawn thrust. Now the b5-square is under control, so that idea wouldn’t work. Let’s note that Black couldn’t play 6…Bg4 because of the typical 7.Bxf7+ Kxf7 8.Ng5+ and 9.Qxg4. It will be possible to develop the bishop to g4 only when the knight protects it from f6.
After 6…a6 (the diagram above) 7.0-0 Nf6, Black already can play …Bg4. That makes White’s regular approach with 8.Qe2 less logical: after 8…Bg4 9.Rd1 e6, White doesn’t have any e4-e5 anymore. Moreover, if Black takes on f3, White will have to move the queen again. That is why instead of 8.Qe2, it makes sense to play 8.Bf4. Now, after 8…Bg4 9.h3 Bxf3 10.Qxf3, White took on f3 in one go. To compensate for the sacrificed pawn, White has the bishop pair advantage and better development.
Smith-Morra Gambit: The Siberian Trap
In the lines above, Black was mostly trying to avoid getting trapped. Some players would, on the other hand, try to set their own traps. One such idea is to play 3…dxc3 4.Nxc3 e6 5.Nf3 Nc6 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.0-0 Qc7:
This is called the Siberian Trap. The point is to meet 8.Qe2 with 8…Ng4. Now White should be careful. 9.h3? runs into 9…Nd4!
Now 10.Nxd4 will lead to 10…Qh2# There is no other defense, and White should part with their queen.
White had better options than 9.h3, but it is even better to play differently on move 8. For example, 8.Nb5 Qb8 9.e5! Now 9…Nxe5 10.Nxe5 Qxe5 11.Re1 gives White a strong initiative.
Systems with …Nge7
In the lines shown above, we could see Black getting in trouble along the center files. That is why experienced players often refrain from developing the knight to f6. For example, 3…dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 e6 6.Bc4 a6 7.0-0 Nge7:
The knight is heading to g6. Black can develop the light-squared bishop to b7 after …b5. This way Black ensures piece control over the e5-square and doesn’t let White break through easily.
White’s main idea against this setup was demonstrated by one of the main popularizers of the Smith-Morra Gambit, Marc Esserman. The game was played in 2011 against a famous Dutch grandmaster Loek van Wely.
Marc Esserman (2453) – Loek van Wely (2683) [B21]
US Open–112 Orlando (3), 03.08.2011
After the first 7 moves, the game reached the position from the diagram above. Next, White develops the bishop, pinning Black’s knight and provoking a weakness: 8.Bg5 f6 9.Be3 Ng6 10.Bb3 b5
White’s pieces seem restricted by Black’s pawns. Exploiting the Black king’s vulnerable position in the center, White opts for a powerful knight sacrifice to open roads for the rest of the army. 11.Nd5! the idea is typical and has to be remembered by everyone who plays the Smith-Morra Gambit. White is threatening to trap Black’s queen with Be3-Bb6, so the best for Black was to reject the sacrifice and cover b6 with 11…Rb8.
Instead, van Wely accepted the sacrifice. 11…exd5 12.exd5 Nce5 13.d6! Bb7 14.Nxe5 fxe5 15.f4!
White blows up the center. The lines are beautiful: after Black’s best 15…exf4, White would play 16.Re1! fxe3 17.Rxe3 Be7 18.Qd4, planning to bring the other rook to e1. It seems like Black could survive with precise play, but it is hard to imagine it happening in practical chess. In the game, Black went wrong with 15…Qf6? It ran into 16.fxe5 Qxe5 17.Bg5! and White won the game soon. You can see it in the viewer below.
Black declines Smith-Morra Gambit: 3…d3
Many players don’t know how to react to the Smith-Morra Gambit and decide to decline it. One of the most obvious ways to do that is to play 3…d3.
Black keeps the c-file blocked and slows down White’s development. After 4.Bxd3, White will play Nf3 and castle. Regarding the queenside, it is possible to go c3-c4 and Nc3, building the Maroczy Bind. Another idea is to go Na3-c4 and aim for the piece play in the center.
Black declines it: 3…d5
Another way to decline the offer is to counterattack the center with 3…d5.
This move usually transposes to the Alapin Sicilian (2.c3 d5) after 4.exd5 Qxd5 5.cxd4. This version is considered favorable for Black since the c3-square is available for the knight. In the Alapin Variation, Black often delays taking on d4 not to let the knight have the c3-square so early. White has good chances for an opening advantage here.
Black declines the Smith-Morra Gambit: 3…Nf6
Another transposition to the Alapin Variation happens after 3…Nf6 4.e5 Nd5.
This is something that the Smith-Morra Gambit players face quite often. After 2.c3 (the Alapin Sicilian), the move 2…Nf6 is considered the main line for Black. Therefore, many players prefer to study less theory and play the same system against the Smith-Morra.
White can play 5.cxd4, 5.Qxd4, or 5.Nf3, followed by Bc4. It is different from what we’ve seen above, but the Smith-Morra Gambit players can still enjoy the character of the arising positions.
The Smith-Morra Gambit is an interesting way of dealing with the Sicilian Defense. It suits aggressive players and can lead to many quick victories. It forces Black to defend from the very beginning of the game and can be especially effective at the club level.