The Mortimer Trap

By Michael Goeller

I first came across "the Mortimer trap" (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3 Ne7!?) in Graham Burgess's wonderful little book, 101 Chess Opening Surprises, where it gets a very brief and optimistic mention.

He notes that 5.Nxe5? (the "Trap"!) "fails to 5...c6, winning a piece" and that Black's intent otherwise is ...Ng6, ...c6, and ...d5. In practice, though, Black rarely can play ...d5 right away without risking an attack on the e-file, but he will get a solid game unless White plays aggressively. What's more, because of the line's relative absence from the literature, quite a few opponents at the amateur level will fall for the trap, as did a young Frank Marshall in our first illustrative game.

Unfortunately, if White does not fall for the trap and does play aggressively, he can get a strong attack in at least three ways: with an early h4 thrust to harrass the wandering Knight on g6, a d4 break to blow open the center, or a direct attack on Black's f7 square by Bc4 and Ng5. These early White attacks seem justified by Black's potentially time-wasting Knight maneuver, and they have been known for some time. In fact, it was likely because of these attacking ideas that the Mortimer trap was practically abandoned at the master level for the past 100 years.

The line appears to be undergoing a mini-revival of sorts, to judge by some recent database games. It's only natural that it should be rediscovered, given the recent popularity of the Berlin Defense to the Spanish / Ruy Lopez generally. It is not clear, however, that Black has solved the old problems with the line, though a recent article in Kaissiber 20 by GM Bent Larsen suggests some new ideas that may well lead to a more positive reconsideration. I have only touched on the critical variations and refer interested readers to my bibliography for additional commentary and analysis.

The Trap

Frank J. Marshall - Vladimir Sournin [C65]

Match (10), Brooklyn Chess Club (10) 1897


In his Brooklyn Eagle chess column, Hermann Helms writes: "Two games were contested in the match between F.J. Marshall, Junior State Champion, and V. Sournin of New York, at the Brooklyn Chess Club, yesterday. Sournin won the tenth game in which he caught his opponent in the Mortimer trap of the Ruy Lopez, winning after tewenty-seven moves...." Based on Helms's remarks, I'd assume the Mortimer trap was well known at the time and that the "Young Marshall" simply did not know his theory.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Ne7!?

The idea of American amateur James Mortimer, who popularized the idea in the late 19th Century. After a break of 100 years, during which the move practically disappeared from theory, the move is again seen occasionally, and can again catch unwary opponents in its trap.

 

5. Nxe5?

This move is difficult to resist if you don't see what's coming.

 

 

5... c6! 6. Nc4!?

Trap counter-trap was always Marshall's method! Not much better was 6. Bc4 Qa5+ 7. Nc3 Qxe5

 

6... d6

Of course, not 6... cxb5?? 7. Nd6#

 

7. e5?!

7. Nc3 a6! 8. Ba4 b5

 

7... dxe5 8. Ba4 b5 9. Nxe5 bxa4 10. O-O Qb6 11. c4 Be6 12. Re1 Ng6 13. Qxa4 Nxe5 14. Rxe5 Bc5 15. Re2? O-O 16. Qc2 Bf5 17. Rd2?

Marshall appears to be curling up and playing dead, like a possum!

 

17... Rad8 18. Rd1 Rfe8 19. h3 Bxd3! 20. Rxd3 Rxd3 21. Qxd3 Re1+ 22. Kh2 Rxc1 23. Qd2? Qc7+ 24. g3 Rf1! 25. Qd3 Rxf2+ 26. Kh1 Ne4! 27. Qxe4 Qxg3

and mate is unavoidable.

0-1

Mortimer's Games

Joseph Noa - James Mortimer [C65]

London 1883


Chess amateur Mortimer himself had little success with his line against the masters of his time, though he often got good positions. In an article on Mortimer at ChessCafe, Jeremy Spinrad suggests that Mortimer may have been invited to master events based on his reputation as a chess fan (he was one of the few spectators at the famous Anderssen-Morphy match, for example) more than for his play. The following shows him handling his opening line with some success, but he loses in the end (as he always did).

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Ne7 5. O-O

5. Nc3 Ng6 (5... c6 6. Bc4 d5? 7. Bb3?! (7. exd5 cxd5 8. Bb5+) 7... Ng6 8. O-O Bg4?! 9. h3 Be6 10. exd5 cxd5 11. d4 e4 12. Ne5 Bd6 13. Bg5 Bc7?! 14. f3 exf3 15. Ba4+ Kf8 16. Nxf3 h6 17. Be3 1-0 Englisch,B-Mortimer,J/London 1883 (56)) 6. O-O c6 7. Ba4 d6 (7... Bb4!?) 8. Bb3 Bg4?! 9. h3 Bd7? 10. Ng5! d5 11. exd5 h6 12. Nge4 cxd5 13. Nxd5 Nxd5 14. Bxd5 Bxh3 15. Bxf7+ Kxf7 16. Qf3+ Kg8 17. Qxh3 Kh7 18. Ng5+ 1-0 Rosenthal,S-Mortimer,J/London 1883.

 

5... c6 6. Bc4 Ng6?! 7. Nc3 Be7 8. Ne2?!

8. d4!

 

8... O-O 9. Ng3?! d5! 10. exd5 cxd5 11. Bb3 Bg4?!

11... Qd6

 

 

12. h3 Bxf3?! 13. Qxf3 Qd7 14. Bg5 Rad8 15. Rfe1 h6 16. Bxf6 Bxf6 17. Nf5 Nf4 18. Qg4 Kh7 19. Ne3 g6?

Drops a pawn in an otherwise equal position. Better 19... Qxg4= with equal chances.

 

20. Qxd7 Rxd7 21. Ng4! Bg7 22. Nxe5 Re7 23. d4 Rfe8 24. Ba4 b5 25. Bxb5 Rb8 26. a4 a6 27. Bxa6 Rxb2 28. Nc6 Rxe1+ 29. Rxe1 Rxc2 30. Bb7 Ne2+ 31. Rxe2 Rxe2 32. a5 Rc2 33. a6 Rxc6 34. Bxc6 Bxd4 35. Bxd5 Kg7 36. Kf1 Kf8 37. Ke2 Ke7 38. f3 f6 39. Kd3 Ba7 40. g4 Kd6 41. Bf7 g5 42. Ke4 Kc7 43. Kf5 Bd4 44. Kg6 Kb6 45. Bc4 Ka7 46. Kxh6 Ba1 47. f4 gxf4 48. h4 Bd4 49. g5 fxg5 50. hxg5 Kb6 51. g6 1-0


White Attacking Scheme #1

Zahar Efimenko (2601) - Alexander Cherniaev (2509) [C65]

Coventry open (3) 2005


1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Ne7 5. Nc3

The same idea as the present game also occurred in the following miniature: 5. Bc4 c6 6. Nc3 Ng6?! (6... Qa5!) 7. Ng5! d5 8. exd5 cxd5 9. Nxd5 Nxd5 10. Qf3 Be6 (10... Ngf4 11. Bxf4 Nxf4 12. Nxf7 Qa5+ 13. Kf1) 11. Nxe6 fxe6 12. Bb5+ Ke7 13. Bg5+ Nf6 14. Qxb7+ Kd6 15. Bd2 a5 16. c4 1-0 Berger,J-Gaspary/corr 1889.

 

5... Ng6 6. h4!

I like this move as it puts immediate pressure on Black's kingside and invites ....h5 weakening the g5 square. Black needs to play carefully in the Mortimer line lest his loss of time hand White an attack. Therefore it is best not to open up the center with an early ...d5?! even though the Knights seem poised to support that. For example: 6. O-O c6 7. Bc4 d5?! (7... Bb4!?) 8. exd5 cxd5 9. Bb5+ Bd7 10. Bxd7+ Qxd7 11. Nxe5! Nxe5 12. Re1 Be7 (12... Qf5 13. d4 Ne4) 13. Rxe5 O-O 14. Bg5 Qc7 15. d4 Rac8 16. Qf3 h6 17. Rxe7 Qxe7 18. Nxd5 Qe6 19. Nxf6+ Kh8 20. c3 Rfd8 21. Bh4 Rd6 22. Ne4 Re8 23. Nd2 Qg6 24. Nc4 Rde6 25. Ne5 Qc2 26. Qxf7 Qxb2 27. Rf1 Qb6 28. Bf6 Rg8 29. Ng6+ Kh7 30. Nf8+ Kh8 31. Qg6 1-0 Englisch,B-Albin,A/Vienna 1890.

 

6... c6?!

In his excellent article in Kaissiber #20, GM Bent Larsen suggests Black may be ok with 6... h5! 7. Bc4 Bb4 8. Ng5 Rf8! Alapin 9. Bd2 c6 10. Qe2 Qe7 11. O-O-O d6 Larsen.

 

7. Bc4

7. h5!?

 

7... h5 8. Ng5 d5 9. exd5 cxd5

 

 

10. Nxd5!

This attacking line alone probably put the Mortimer Trap out of commission at the turn of the last century.

 

10... Nxd5 11. Qf3 Be6

11... Ndf4 12. Bxf7+ Kd7 13. Bxg6 Nxg6 14. Qf7+ Ne7 15. Ne6 Qe8 16. Qxe8+ Kxe8 17. Nc7+

 

12. Nxe6 fxe6 13. Bb5+ Ke7 14. Bg5+ Nf6 15. Qxb7+ Kd6 16. c4! Rc8 17. Bd2! Rc5 18. Qxa7 Qc7 19. Qa6+ Ke7 20. b4 Rxb5 21. cxb5 Kf7 22. Rc1 Qd7 23. b6 Be7 24. O-O Nd5 25. Qa7 Qxa7 26. bxa7 Ra8 27. Be3 Bxb4 28. Rc4 Bd6 29. Rb1 Nge7 30. Rb7 Ke8 31. Bc5 Bxc5 32. Rb8+ 1-0


White Attacking Scheme #2

A. Gabrielian (2490) - A. Gorbatov (2381) [C65]

Open/Moscow RUS (3) 2006


1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Ne7 5. Bc4!?

The game continuation is more typically reached by 5. Nc3 c6 6. Bc4 etc.

 

5... c6 6. Nc3!

Any delay allows Black to get in ...h6 and set up a solid Philidor-like position, with the potential advantage that his Knight is repositioned to the kingside. For instance, 6. Bb3?! h6!? 7. Nc3 d6 8. d4 Qc7 9. Qe2 Ng6 10. Qc4 Bg4 11. Be3 Rc8 12. O-O-O b5 13. Qd3 Be7 14. a3 a6 15. dxe5 dxe5 16. Rhg1 O-O 17. h3 Bxf3 18. gxf3 Kh7 19. Qf1 Nh4 20. Rg3 Nh5 21. Rg4 Nf4 22. Qg1 g6 23. Rxh4? Bxh4 24. Qg4 Bf6 25. Bxf4 h5 26. Qg1 exf4 27. Ne2 Rcd8 0-1 Shahade,J-Lakdawala,C/San Diego USA 2004.

 

6... Ng6?!

Black must be very careful. It appears that best is 6... Qa5! -- see below.

 

7. d4

Even stronger, with the same idea, is 7. h4! h5 8. d4 (Or 8. Ng5 d5 9. exd5 cxd5 10. Nxd5 Nxd5 11. Qf3 as in Efimanko-Cherniaev discussed above.) 8... Bb4 9. dxe5 Nxe4 10. Qd4 Qa5 11. Qxe4 Bxc3+ 12. bxc3 Qxc3+ 13. Ke2 Qxa1 14. Bxf7+ Kxf7 15. Qf5+ Kg8 16. Qxg6 Qc3 17. Qe8+ Kh7 18. Ng5+ Kh6 19. Qxh8+ Kg6 20. Qh7# 1-0 Taubenhaus,J-Goetz/Paris 1890.

 

 

7... Bb4 8. dxe5 Nxe4 9. Qd4 Qa5?

Black may be able to survive by 9... Bxc3+ 10. bxc3 d5 (10... O-O 11. O-O d5) 11. exd6 O-O 12. O-O Nxd6 13. Rd1 b5 14. Ba3 bxc4 15. Bxd6 Re8 16. Qxc4

 

10. Qxe4! Bxc3+ 11. bxc3 Qxc3+ 12. Ke2 Qxa1 13. Rd1 Qc3

Or 13... b5 14. e6!!

 

14. Bd2 Qb2 15. Bb3 O-O 16. Qb4! d5 17. Bc1 a5 18. Qd2 Qxc1 19. Qxc1 a4 20. Bxd5 cxd5 1-0


Black's New Tricks

Wisotschin - Tony Miles [C65]

Cappelle la Grande 1997


1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Ne7 5. Nc3

The idea of an early d4 to open things up works better with Nc3 than an early O-O, since it is important to protect the e-pawn directly lest Black equalize. For example: 5. O-O c6 6. Bc4 Ng6 7. d4 Nxe4 8. dxe5 d5 (8... Be7!? 9. Re1 d5 10. exd6 Nxd6 11. Bb3 O-O 12. Nc3 Bf6 13. Be3 Bxc3 14. bxc3 Bg4 15. Bc5 Bxf3 16. Qxf3 b6 17. Qxc6 bxc5 18. Rad1 Rc8 19. Qxd6 Qa5 20. Qd5 Qxc3 21. Re3 Qf6 22. Rf3 Qe7 23. Re3 Qc7 24. Qd7 Qb8 25. Bd5 Nf4 26. g3 Nxd5 27. Qxd5 c4 28. Qe5 Qb7 29. Qc3 h6 30. Rde1 Rfd8= 1/2-1/2 Atakisi,U-Georgiev,K/Gothenburg SWE 2005 (81)) 9. exd6 Nxd6 10. Bd3 Be7 11. Nc3 O-O 12. Ne4 Bg4 13. h3 Bxf3 14. Qxf3 Ne5 15. Qg3 Nxd3 16. Qxd3 Nxe4 17. Qxe4 Bf6 18. c3 Re8 1/2-1/2 Ernst,T-Wedberg,T/Umea SWE 2003.

 

5... c6!? 6. Bc4 Qa5!

Larsen gives this move a "!?!?" -- doubly interesting? It looks to me like the best method of rehabilitating the line and therefore deserves the full exclamation mark.

a) 6... Ng6?! 7. Ng5!? (7. h4!) (7. d4) 7... d5 8. exd5 cxd5 9. Nxd5 Nxd5 10. Qf3 as in Berger-Gaspary seen earlier.

b) 6... d6?! 7. d4 (7. Ng5 d5=) 7... exd4 8. Qxd4 d5!? 9. exd5 Nexd5 10. Nxd5 Nxd5 11. O-O Be6 12. Re1 Qb6

 

 

7. O-O

a) 7. Bd2 Qc7! Larsen 8. d4 (8. Ng5?! d5=) 8... Ng6!? Larsen(8... d6? 9. dxe5 dxe5 10. Ng5) (8... exd4!? 9. Nxd4 Nxe4 10. Nxe4 (10. Bxf7+ Kxf7 11. Nxe4 Qe5 (11... d5 12. Ng5+ Kg8) 12. Qf3+ Kg8 13. Be3 d5 14. Ng5 Nf5 (14... Qf6 15. Qxf6 gxf6 16. Nge6 Bxe6 17. Nxe6 Nf5=) 15. O-O-O h6 16. Nf7 Kxf7 17. g4 Qe4) 10... d5 11. Qe2 (11. Nb5 cxb5 12. Bxb5+ Nc6) 11... Qe5 12. Bd3 dxe4 13. Qxe4 Qxe4+ 14. Bxe4 Bg4!? 15. f3 O-O-O) 9. Ng5 exd4!? Larsen(9... d5 10. exd5 cxd5 11. Bxd5 Nxd5 12. Nxd5) 10. Bxf7+ Ke7 11. Ne2 Ne5 Larsen

b) 7. Qe2!? is a Fritz favorite when best appears 7... h6! (Not 7... b5? 8. Nxe5!! bxc4 9. Nxc4 Qc7 10. e5) (7... Ng6 8. Bd2) 8. d4!? (8. Bd2 Qc7 9. d4 d6 seems tenable.) 8... d6 9. O-O Ng6 10. Rd1 Be7 (10... Bg4!?)

 

7... h6!

Essential to stop Ng5 or Bg5 tactics.

 

8. d4 d6 9. d5?

9. h3 Ng6 (9... g5?!) 10. Be3 Be7.

 

9... b5! 10. Bb3

10. Bd3 b4 11. Ne2 cxd5

 

10... c5!?

10... b4 11. Ne2 cxd5 (11... Nxe4 12. dxc6) 12. exd5 Nexd5 13. a3

 

11. a4?! b4 12. Nb5?

This makes for some complications, but the Knight is lost here.

 

12... Ng6 13. Nxe5!? Nxe5

13... dxe5? 14. d6

 

14. f4 a6 15. fxe5 dxe5 16. d6 axb5 17. d7+ Bxd7 18. Bxf7+ Kd8 19. Be3 bxa4 20. Qd2 Kc8 21. Rad1 Bg4 22. Rxf6 gxf6 23. Qd5 Ra6 24. Rf1 Be7 25. c3 Rd8 26. Qc4 bxc3 27. bxc3 Rd1 28. Rxd1 Bxd1 29. Be6+ Kb8 0-1

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Games in PGN

Bibliography
Readers may be interested in the following sources for additional information on this line.

Burgess, Graham. 101 Chess Opening Surprises (Gambit 1998 / 2001): 25.

Hilbert, John S. Young Marshall: The Early Chess Career of Frank James Marshall, with Collected Games 1893-1900 (Moravian Chess 2002): 165.

Larsen, Bent. "So machen wilden Pfad." Kaissiber 20 (July-September 2005): 10-17.

Spinrad, Jeremy P. "New Stories about Old Chessplayers: James Mortimer." Chess Cafe

Urcan, Olimpiu G. "Captain Vladimir Sournin: A Russian Chess Player's Exploits in America.. Correspondence Chess, On the Square (September 1, 2006).

Winter, Edward. "Mortimer's trap." Chess Notes 4845

Michael Goeller © 2007