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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Chessmaster Ken Smith of Texas

“It is my belief that chess is an amazingly accurate model for many situations in life. The strategies, the competition, and the challenges of living.” Ken Smith, Texas chessmaster of Smith - Morra gambit fame, 1930 - 1999.

Ken Smith will probably be remembered for the work he did on what was previously known as the Morra gambit which was of sufficient quality and quantity that he felt (as do many others) that he was justified in calling it the Smith - Morra Gambit.

A gambit is the giving up of material (usually a pawn) for space or time. The Smith-Morra Gambit is played by white against black's Sicilian Defense. 1. P-e4 P-c5 2. P-d4 PxP 3. P-c3. If black captures PxP the white replies Nxc3 and white is a pawn down with (most people think) insufficient compensation in space and time.

Smith played the gambit at every opportunity against weak and strong players alike. In one tournament Smith was white against Mario Campos Lopez who played the French Defence, 1...e6 instead of the Sicilian against Smith. This led the world class player Bent Larsen to give Lopez's move a question mark along with the comment "stronger is 1...c5 which wins a pawn", presuming Smith would play his 2. d4 gambit.

When I lived in Texas in the sixties and seventies I had four encounters with Ken Smith which netted me one draw, one loss, one win, and one compliment (sort of). The sort of applies to three of the four occasions. The loss was real. The first was in 1964 when I went to the Texas Open (my very first tournament). Ken Smith was giving a simultaneous exhibition (i.e. he was playing about 30 to 40 players at the same time on 30 to 40 boards). Since I was a newbie he perhaps underestimated me and I managed to get a draw by perpetual check. The next two occurred at the Orin Perry Open in West Texas in 1965. We played in the first round, I was white and played P-e4 he played P-c5. Figuring that it would be an interesting way to lose, I played the Smith-Morra against him and sure enough he crushed me. Later in the day we were between rounds and he decided to show off a bit and offered to play me a blindfold blitz game. I have never seen anyone play a game in 5 minutes in which they did not look at the board. Sure enough he lost. He was a little short on a sense of humor though, because I reminded him of the draw the year before and said, "So I guess we have an even score." He was not amused.

Nine years later at a tournament in Fort Worth I had had unusually good results on Friday and Saturday and in the penultimate round 6 I was on Board 2 against an expert named Babcock who was much stronger than me. But "on any given Sunday" ... I sacked a pawn for position and found some very nice moves and won a pretty little miniature of about 23 moves. Smith had watched the game closely and afterwards he said that it was a very nice game and that it should be published!
I beamed and then he said: "I didn't think that you'd find all of those moves."
Like I said, a compliment, sort of.

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