The Scotch Opening

Beginners who play with the White pieces often play timidly at first, pushing a pawn one square instead of two on their first turn. They worry that pushing a pawn to e4, for example, will leave that pawn stranded without protection whereas as pushing a pawn to e3 affords that pawn protection by it’s fellow pawns on f2 and d2. However, if you’re playing White you should aggressively go for control of the board’s center immediately. The Scotch Opening is a good opening for teaching aggressive play from the start. The classical Scotch comes into play after the moves 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. d4…exd4, 4. Nxd4…Nf6 and 5. Nc3, White immediately contests Black’s attempt to control the board’s center, a crucial concept (central control during the opening) as far as opening principles are concerned, while Black fights back to equalize the position. It should be noted that because black is a move behind, he or she should play to equalize or keep the position balanced rather than play for a fast attack during the opening.

The point the beginner should embrace is the idea that, because White moves first, White can gain control of the center before Black does and should therefore aim for central control from move one rather than making passive moves that allow Black to gain central control, turning the position around. The first two moves for both White and Black, 1. e4…e5 and 2. Nf3…Nc6, are the first two moves in a number of openings. Why? Because they fight for the center in a sound way. Move three of the classic Scotch, 3. d4…exd4 demonstrates the idea of White aggressively attacking Black’s own plan for control of the center. One of the reasons I teach this opening to beginners is because it clearly demonstrates the the opening principles in action, especially playing aggressively. A Scotch Opening might proceed a bit further like this:

Let’s review each move in terms of opening principles. Move one, for both players, 1. e4…e5, follows our first opening principle, controlling the center with a pawn. The pawns on e4 and e5 both control key central squares. The Queens and King-side Bishops are given room to develop. On move two (2. Nf3), White correctly develops (with tempo) the King-side Knight to its most active square, f3 where it attacks the e5 pawn while putting pressure on the d4 square. Tempo comes about because the Knight is attacking the pawn on e5, forcing Black to defend it which Black does with 2…Nc6. Black’s last move is a sound and logical choice because it develops a minor piece that not only protects the e5 pawn but also attacks the d4 square. Remember, Black needs to try and equalize the position and this move does just that! On move three, 3. d4, White attacks Black’s centralize pawn on e4, forcing Black to capture the d4 pawn. Does Black have to capture back?

If Black does something other than capture, instead developing the King-side Knight to f6, White can further gain tempo by playing either 4. d5, attacking the Queen-side Knight which forces it off of c6, or playing 4. dxe5 which attacks the King-side Knight, forcing it off of f6. Either way, White gains tempo and dislodges one of Black’s Knights off of an important square. Therefore, Black has to capture the pawn in order to avoid becoming further behind in tempo and sound position.

After Black captures the d4 pawn with 3…exd4, White can capture the pawn with 4. Nxd4. This moves works because the White Knight on d4 is protected by the White Queen on d1. If Black were to capture the White Knight on d4, the White Queen would simply capture it back which wouldn’t be good for Black from a positional point of view. Remember, as Black you want to keep things equalized. Therefore, Black plays 4…Nf6, attacking White’s e4 pawn. White develops a minor piece with 5. Nc3 which protects the pawn. Notice that White develops rather than attack the Knight on f6 with 5. e5. Attacking the Knight with a pawn would be silly since the c6 Knight would simply capture the attacking White pawn. Think development rather than all out attacking during the opening. Of course, White moving the pawn to d4 earlier is an attacking move, but one which was made to contest or stop Black’s attempt to control the center. There’s a difference between the two!

Black now plays 5…Bb4, pinning the c3 Knight to the King on e1. This move by Black stops White’s c3 Knight from being able to protect the e4 pawn due to the absolute pin. Black develops a new piece into the game while preventing White’s previously developed minor piece from doing its job, acting as a bodyguard for the e4 pawn. White plays 6. Nxc6. This does break an opening principle, not moving the same piece during the opening, but there’s a reason for breaking this principle. It should be duly noted that principles are not rules and can be broken if the reason is sound. Here, removing the Black c6 Knight, doubles up Black’s pawns on the c file after 6…bxc6. Note that using the d6 pawn to capture back on c6 would lead to a potential trade of Queens in which the Black King would have to capture back, forfeiting the right to castle. It also allows White to play 7. e5, attacking the f6 Knight. This last move by White is dangerous because Black moves the attacked Knight to e4 (7…Ne4) where it teams up with the Black Bishop on b4, attacking the pinned Knight. There are a few ways to deal with this last move by Black, such as 8. Qd4 which not only adds a second defender on the c3 Knight but protects the vulnerable f2 square from a potential fork by the Black Knight on e4.

Then there’s a more modern approach in which White goes after Black sooner. Take a look:

In this variation, which I first met on a wonderful Andrew Martin DVD on the Scotch, White immediately goes after the center with 2. d4 rather than developing the Knight on move two. After Black captures the d4 pawn (2…exd4), White develops the Knight with 3. Nf3. When Black plays 3…Nf6, White hits back with 4. e5, forcing the Black Knight off of the f6 square. When Black plays 4…Ne4, White captures the pawn on d4 with the Queen (5. Qxd4), attacking the Black Knight and covering the f2 square so Black can’t sacrifice the Knight by capturing on f2 which would fork the King-side Rook and Queen.

All in all, the Scotch is a great way to teach aggressive play to beginners. I highly recommend playing around with this opening, really experimenting with it, seeing what works and what doesn’t. You should always tinker with openings. While learning the mainlines and variations is sound, experiment a little. Be a scientist and explore the board. While you’ll find that many of your ideas can be refuted, you might find a little something in the way of a move that will surprise your opponent. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).