There’s a boy at the chess club who’s been playing for several years but is still obsessed with playing for Scholar’s Mate in every game. He even does things like 1.d4 e5 2.dxe5 Qh4. I’d emailed his mother, who replied saying she’d speak to him about it.
So I took the black pieces against him to see what he would do.
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4. So, the Scotch Four Knights. Fine if you know what you’re doing (a former colleague taught this exclusively for years) but not easy to avoid losing material at this level. We’ll see.
5.. Bb4 6.a3 He’s letting me carry out my threat. Instead, 6.Nxc6 dxc6 7.Bd3 is fine.
6.. Bxc3+ 7.bxc3 Nxe4. I’m ready to meet 8.Qg4 with 8.. 0-0 9. Qxe4 Re8 – a trick I’ve brought off many times in similar positions. It’s one of those patterns everyone needs to know. But instead I faced 8.Nf5 0-0 and only now 9.Qg4, with an obvious threat. I tried the same trick again with 9.. g6 (Qf6 was better) but he didn’t take the bait. The game continued 10.Bh6 Re8 with threats of discovered check. He tried 11.Ne7+ Rxe7 12.Bc4 Nf6+ and Black won easily.
We went through the game quickly. I suggested that he was trying to attack too soon in his games and he’d do better to complete his development first. “Ah, that’s where you’re wrong”, he replied, citing a distant relation, a Spanish grandmaster who’d told him that some grandmasters started attacking on move 5 or 6. No arguing with that, then.
On move 9 he told me that he’d hoped I’d play something like h6, when he was planning Bxh6 followed by Qxg7#. Interesting: he hadn’t realised that the knight on f5 was also attacking g7. This is something I’ve seen over and over again over the past 40 years. As soon as one player castles the other player hurries to get a queen on the g-file followed by a bishop on h6, ignoring all material considerations and anything else happening on the board. I may be wrong but I suspect he was so focused on his plan that he didn’t notice or wasn’t bothered that he could capture on e4. This seems to be a pattern that many children know even if they haven’t been taught it. I guess they’re attracted by the idea that they can play Bh6 because of the pin on the g-file. But the mate threat can usually be met by Nf6-h5 or e8, or, if there’s no knight on f6, Qf6. Quite frankly, most kids would be better off if they hadn’t seen this pattern at all.
Children are naturally attracted to checkmate patterns such as Scholar’s Mate and this queen and bishop attack, but they will often become obsessed with the idea to the exclusion of everything else. You do need to know Scholar’s Mate early on if you’re playing in junior tournaments, so that you know how to stop it, not because you want to play it yourself.
I was using two patterns in the game that everyone needs to know. Firstly, the idea of the rook pinning the queen on the e-file: you can often leave a piece en prise, as I did, and, if the queen captures it, Re1/8 will pin and win the queen. Secondly, the discovered check on the e-file when a piece (usually a knight) moves out of the way, attacking an enemy queen or rook while the rook calls check.
This game also exemplifies the need to castle early in positions where the e-file is, or can become, open. These ideas are much more important than going for a quick checkmate at the expense of everything else. Teaching checkmate patterns is fine, but children also have to understand the basic principle that, other things being equal, superior force wins, and perhaps also have the maturity to realise that your opponent, especially if he or she is a chess teacher, probably won’t overlook your crude mate threat.