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.
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.
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.
This move is difficult to resist if you don't see what's coming.
Marshall appears to be curling up and playing dead, like a possum!
and mate is unavoidable.0-1
Joseph Noa - James Mortimer [C65]
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).
5. Nc3 Ng6 (5... c6 6. Bc4 d5? 7. Bb3?! (7. exd5 cxd5 8. Bb5+)
7... Ng6 8.
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
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.
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.
This attacking line alone probably put the Mortimer Trap out of commission at the turn of the last century.
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.
White Attacking Scheme #2
A. Gabrielian (2490) - A. Gorbatov (2381) [C65]
Open/Moscow RUS (3) 2006
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.
Black must be very careful. It appears that best is 6... Qa5! -- see below.
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.
Black's New Tricks
Wisotschin - Tony Miles [C65]
Cappelle la Grande 1997
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.
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) 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=)
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.
Essential to stop Ng5 or Bg5 tactics.
This makes for some complications, but the Knight is lost here.
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
Games in PGN
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