Once a month, my students play in a local tournament here in San Francisco. The tournament is very casual because it’s meant to introduce new players to the idea of competitive play in a non stressful manner. My students do extremely well and have done so for a number of years, due to their hard work (as opposed to my instruction). My students aim for longer games, not trying to pull off fast checkmates, and exercise principled play. However, in the beginner’s section, their were a few of their opponents who had been taught the Scholar’s Mate as a means of winning games quickly. Of course, this method of winning works exclusively on players with no practical experience. While my students know how to easily defend against such a ghastly attack, a fair number of students from other schools fell victim to this rather shaky ploy. Therefore, I decided to revisit this topic so any of you who are new to the game won’t fall prey to it.
Scholar’s Mate, otherwise know as the four move checkmate, is a favorite attack with very young chess players. While I dissuade my students from employing it, parents will often allow their children to use it against them in an effort to encourage further study of the game. These parents feel that allowing their children to win, using this attack, is a form of positive reinforcement. Sadly, it has the opposite effect in the long run. It may win a few games at junior level but it will lead to a greater number of losses against slightly more skilled opponents later on. Good chess is all about building a position up until you have more directional options, not going for the quickest attack possible. With that said, let’s look at this sketchy form of checkmate.
The target square for this checkmate is the f7 square. Why the f7 square? Because it’s the weakest of two square on the board (f2 being the other) at the start of game. It’s weak because the only defender of the f7 square is the King and the King isn’t in a position to defend early on. White’s weak square at the start of the game is the f2 square. While I’m giving this example from white’s point of view, it should be noted that black can also checkmate on the f2 square employing the same technique. The first step to avoid falling victim to the Scholar’s Mate is to know that the f7 square is the square to watch.
When we first learn the game, we’re taught to start out with the move 1. e4 for white and 1… e5 for black. Both sides place a pawn on a central square and open up lines for the King-side Bishop and Queen. You should note this (opening lines or diagonals for Bishop and Queen) when making this first move. Playing the black pieces, you should note that your King and f pawn are on light squares while the white Queen and King-side Bishop are also on light squares. This alone suggests the possibility of an early threat. However, there’s no need to panic yet if your playing the black pieces. It’s move two that will tell you whether or not your opponent is going to go for a fast checkmate. As a beginner, it can be difficult to fully comprehend the possibilities within a position. Of course, when there are only two pawns on the board, it’s not too difficult! However, move two will be the test! I’ve already mentioned that the black King and f pawn, and white’s King-side Bishop and Queen are on light squares. White’s two pieces are also no longer blocked in by the e pawn. As the person playing black, you should watch white’s next move carefully. If white plays 2. Nf3, you don’t have to worry about Scholar’s Mate. However, if white plays either 2. Bc4, 2. Qf3 or 2. Qh5, it’s time to start paying extra close attention to the action!
Normally, we’d see white moving the Knight to f3 on move two. Once the Knight occupies the f3 square, the white Queen can no longer move to either f3 or h5. Let’s say that white instead plays 2. Bc4. At this juncture, the beginner should follow the squares the Bishop controls, paying close attention to the f7 square which the Bishop attacks. Of course, there is now only one white attacker (the Bishop) and one defender of f7 (the King). Placing the Bishop on c4 is the start of a legitimate opening for white but you’re not likely to find many beginner’s pursuing this line. Therefore, you should consider it the start of a two piece mating attack on f7. Developing the Bishop first during the Scholar’s Mate is the less obvious way to employ this attack. Many beginners will be far less subtle and move the white Queen to either f3 of h5. In either case, the beginner should draw an imaginary line from either the Bishop or the Queen and see if that line intersects with the f7 square. If the answer is yes, alarm bells should sound off!
With 2. Bc4, the beginner can continue with a normal developmental move for black. Ideally, 2… Nf6 will put the kibosh on this attack because the black Knight on f6 blocks a Queen attack from f3 and keeps her off of the h5 square. Remember, to deliver Scholar’s Mate, you have to have both white’s Queen and light squared Bishop simultaneously aimed at f7 with nothing standing in the way (blocking). See the example below.
Alright, that seems simple enough. However, beginner’s not familiar with this attack tend to end up in trouble by making what they think are correct moves. Let’s say that we reach the position below after 1. e4…e5, 2. Qh5…g6:
Black, being an inexperienced player, has decided to use a pawn to attack the Queen, thinking that a one point pawn will force the nine point Queen away from the attacking square. Well, the Queen does move but unfortunately, she simply takes the e5 pawn with check (Qxe5+…Be7, 4. Qxh8), forking the Black King and Rook on h8. Black loses the Rook and often other valuable King-side material. Black’s mistake was not fully looking at all of the white Queen’s possible escape squares. The correct move for black is 2…Nc6 which defends the black pawn on e5. Remember, the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop, so she can go a lot of places on the board. Therefore, you should note every square she can move to before considering a response. Don’t attack the Queen until you’ve defended any undefended pawns or pieces.
In our next example, black get a little further with piece movement but makes a fatal mistake in the end. After 1. e4…e5, 2. Bc4…Nc6, 3. Qh5, black once again decides to attack the Queen with 3… Nf6. Well, black is attacking the Queen with a piece of lesser value but the Knight is not blocking the Queen’s access to the f7 square. The Queen simply smiles and winks at the Knight and she slips past to f7 delivering checkmate (Qf7#).
The third move that black could have made was 3… g6, attacking the white Queen. This move works now because the Knight on c6 is stopping the Queen from taking the pawn on e5 with check. Now, it’s safe to use the black g pawn to attack the white Queen.
Scholar’s Mate is very easy to defend against if you’re paying attention to the geometry of the attack on the board. Knowing that f7 is extremely weak and knowing that it is the epicenter for many mating attempts goes a long way toward preventing such attacks. Noting that the white Bishop or Queen has come into play on move two gives you advanced warning of this specific mating attack. Following the attacking lines formed by the white Queen and Bishop and seeing them intersecting at the f7 square helps prevent falling victim to Scholar’s Mate. Now, if you suddenly notice that white’s Queen and Bishop are aimed at the f7 square, provided it’s black’s turn, you can always either play Qe7 or Nh6. In either case, you’ll have two defenders to white’s two attackers. Remember, the checkmate will not work if attackers equal defenders in this case. If white had a Bishop on c4 and a Queen on f3 (with an unblocked attack on f7), and you had your Queen on e7, white wouldn’t go through with the attack because they’d be trading 12 points of material for 10 points of material (black’s f7 pawn and Queen).
So pay attention to white’s light squared Bishop and/or Queen coming out early if they’re aimed at your f7 pawn if you want to avoid such an awful and quick demise. Use common sense and you’ll avoid becoming yet another victim of the Scholar’s Mate. As white, apply the same ideas to the f2 square. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!