Scandinavian Defense – How to Play As White and Black

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In many chess openings playing …e5 or …d5 is essential for achieving equality for Black. In light of this, the sooner black plays …d5, the better? You cannot play it sooner than the first move.

  • The Scandinavian Defense (1.e4 d5), or Center Counter game as it is sometimes called, has been around since at least 1475 when Narciso Vinyoles played it against Francesco di Castellvi. The game ended badly for black, who lost in 28 moves, but the defense has improved a lot in the past five-hundred-and-forty years.
  • Many players who choose 1.e4 as their primary weapon will prepare for the most well-known defense, like the Sicilian Defense, Ruy Lopez, Caro-Kann, and French Defense. However, many of them will be unprepared to meet the Scandinavian Defense.
  • This is not to say the Scandinavian Defense is a surprise opening or one you keep for rapid or blitz games. The Scandinavian Defense is a sound opening, and you can play it confidently in all time controls at all levels.

Although the game from 1475 might be the oldest recorded Scandinavian Defense game, certainly one of the most famous is the Bent Larsen’s victory against Anatoly Karpov in 1979.

After the game, Larsen, who is Scandinavian, defended his opening choice by saying the Scandinavian Defense is an improved version of the Caro-Kann. In the Caro-Kann Defense, Black often plays …dxe4, leaving him with no d-pawn and White with no e-pawn.

This is precisely what happens in the Scandinavian Defense after 2.exd5. A vital difference is that Black keeps the option of playing either …c6 or …c5.

Another good reason to choose the Scandinavian Defense over the Caro-Kann Defense is there are fewer variations for Black to learn. You can decide if you wish to play 2…Qxd5 and meet 3.Nc3 with 3…Qa5, 3…Qd6, or 3…Qd8.

When you play the Caro-Kann Defense, you must know how to meet the Advance Variation with all of White’s different options, Classical Variation, Panov-Botvinnik Attack, Fantasy Variation, and King’s Indian Attack.

For the busy chess player or beginner who does not have time to learn lots of theory, the Scandinavian Defense can be a good choice.

This video is from the Understanding Chess Openings: 1. e4 – Part 1 course by GM Vladimir Kramnik

Scandinavian Defense With 2…Qxd5 and 3…Qa5

1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qa5

Playing 3…Qa5 seeks an improved variation of the Caro-Kann. The move …c6 is crucial to provide the black queen with an escape route to c7 or d8.

Black will develop his knights to f6 and d7, place his bishops on f5 and e7, and castle short. After that, he will either use the semi-open d-file to attack the d4-pawn or seek greater control of d5 with …b5 and …Nb6.

Playing for control of d5 is part of Black’s light-squared strategy in the 3…Qa5 variation. 

There are three main pawn breaks for white – d5, f5, and b5. Of these pawn breaks, arguably the most dangerous is d5, especially if the black king is still in the center.

Typically in the …Qa5 variation of the Scandinavian Defense, White has a lead in development. 

When your opponent has a lead in development, you do not want the position to open up or to engage their pieces since you will be outnumbered.

Highlighted course

IM John Bartholomew's Scandinavian Defense

4.d4 c6 5.Bc4 Nf6 6.Nf3 Bf5 7.Bd2 e6 8.Nd5 Qd8 9.Nxf6 gxf6

Although doubling pawns might appear strange, it helps black keep control of the fourth rank. The semi-open g-file might prevent white from castling short, as it is an open line against the king.

When Black plays …gxf6, he makes it clear that he will most likely castle queenside.

Both sides castled on the queenside in this battle between two 2700-rated players. Black achieved a very nice victory thanks to his two extra passed pawns on the kingside.

Scandinavian Defense: Black Plays 2…Qxd5 and 3…Qd8

The reason behind 3…Qd8 is quite clear. Black reasons if the queen on a5 is going to get driven back after Bd2, why not save time and go straight to the d8-square?

1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qd8

Scandinavian Defense with 3...Qd8 - a playable but passive approach.

4.d4 Nf6 5.Nf3 Bg4 6.h3 Bxf3 7.Qxf3 c6 8.Ne2 e6 9.g4 Qd5 10.Bg2 Nbd7

The early development of the bishop on c4 might allow black counterplay against the bishop and in the center. Black must remain flexible if he wants to achieve equality and be ready to take advantage of all weaknesses White creates.

For example: 5.Bc4 a6 6.a4, to prevent …b5 leaves the b4-square weak. Black soon took advantage of it after 6…Nc6 7.Nge2 e5 8.d5 Nb4.

Once again, Black must not fear doubled f-pawns after Bg5 and Bxf6. In fact, with opposite-side castling playing …exf6 gives black an important extra pawn in front of the castled king.

The retreat to d8 on move three is a sound approach by Black. However, there is no denying that it is more passive than 3…Qa5 and the modern 3…Qd6.

Back in 2014, foreshadowing their world championship match, Magnus Carlsen played 3…Qd8 against Fabiano Caruana at the Olympiad and won thanks to a well-played endgame.

Scandinavian Defense: the Modern 3…Qd6

1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qd6

On d6, the queen performs several crucial functions. She adds support to the central squares, prevents Bf4, and does not get in the way of queenside castling.

4.d4 Nf6 5.Nf3 c6 6.Ne5

Apart from moving closer to attack the f7-square (with help from Bc4), the knight interferes with the black queen’s control of f4. Now, Bf4 is possible and will contain threats of a discovered attack.

Even without the aid of the bishops, such an advanced knight must be dealt with by Black. Fortunately, exchanges tend to favor the side with less space and work in favor of Black.

6…Nbd7 7.Nc4 Qc7 8.Qf3 Nb6 9.Bf4 Qd7 10.Nxb6 axb6

Even though 9…Qd7 takes aim at the g4-square and attacks the pawn on d4, the pawn does not need defending. Players with White can explore the lesser-played 10.h3, which Bologan has used to win some excellent games.

Black Begins With the Knight Before the Queen – 2…Nf6

1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6

Such a natural developing move should be fine for black, but surprisingly it is not as effective as 2…Qxd5. The downside of the move is it allows white to establish a c4, d4 center. Also, the knight does not exert as much control on the center as a queen on d5, a5, or d6.

Play becomes very easy for White regardless of where Black develops his c8-bishop. Since on g4, it gets harassed by h3, and on f5, it comes under attack from Nh4.

Thus it makes sense to hold back the bishop and begin to play with a kingside fianchetto.

Unfortunately for black, despite being the most popular approach, it does not provide white with any challenge. Natural developing moves are all it takes for white to gain a comfortable and dangerous attacking position.

3.d4 Nxd5 4.Nf3 g6 5.c4 Nb6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.c5 Nd5 8.Bc4 c6 9.Qb3 0-0 10.0-0

In this variation, Peter Svidler shows quite clearly how to work up a dangerous attack with White.

In Conclusion

Surprisingly the recapture with 2…Qxd5 offers black better prospects than the classical development with 2…Nf6 in the Scandinavian Defense. Such anomalies add richness to chess and allow us to uncover new ways of playing the game.

After 2…Qxd5, all three of the queen moves, 3…Qa5, 3…Qd8, or 3…Qd6, offer black a playable position. You have every chance to play for the win.

Although 2…Nf6 is playable, giving away a slight, comfortable advantage to your opponent hardly makes sense, especially if you have an excellent alternative that makes no such concession.

Thanks to the minimal theory and few mainlines, the Scandinavian Defense is an excellent choice for busy chess players and beginners.

Scandinavian Defense: Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Scandinavian a good defense?

Yes, the Scandinavian Defense is a good defense. Jovanka Houska credits the defense for helping her become a WGM.

What is the point of the Scandinavian Defense?

The Scandinavian Defense prevents white from establishing the e4, d4 center by immediately challenging the center with 1…d5.

Is the Scandinavian Defense good for beginners?

Yes, the Scandinavian Defense is suitable for beginners because the strategies and ideas are easy to remember and implement. As with any chess opening, you need to know some theory, but the must-know lines are minimal.

How do you destroy Scandinavian Defense?

There are two main approaches for White against the Scandinavian Defense. You can play in classical style with d4 and centralize your pieces. A second approach is to play the more modest d3, Nge2, and castle long. If Black castles short, White can attack with f3, g4, and h4.

Highlighted course

IM John Bartholomew's Scandinavian Defense

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