Lifetime Repertoires: Wesley So's 1. e4 - Part 1
- Scholar’s Mate is an opening sequence where White can checkmate Black in four moves. It takes advantage of the vulnerability of the weak f7 square
- Black has several good ways to defend against Scholar’s Mate, and actually get an opening advantage by doing so
- For that reason, Scholar’s Mate often backfires and is considered dubious
What? Checkmate in four moves? Is it possible?
Not only is it possible, it happens all the time to beginners making seemingly natural moves!
In this article, we’ll explain this common four-move checkmate, called the Scholar’s Mate – and how to prevent it as Black.
Before we learn how to stop it, let’s learn the moves that achieve Scholar’s Mate. Scholar’s Mate can arise from fairly natural opening moves.
(Check this article out if you have a hard time reading chess notation)
Nothing odd here. These moves have been played millions of times – White opens with the king pawn, grabbing some control of the center and opening the way for their bishop on f1 to develop. Black responds in kind, grabbing some central control, halting White’s pawn, and opening up their f8 bishop for development.
2. Bc4 Nc6
Not usually what the pros prefer, but still pretty normal looking. White develops their king’s bishop to an active square in the center. Black also develops a piece, which has the nice benefit of guarding the pawn on e5.
3. Qh5 Nf6
Now things are looking suspicious! White brings their queen out, violating the principle of “never bring your queen out too early.” So Black aims to shoo the queen away with …Nf6, attacking the queen. There’s just one little problem…
This move is checkmate! White is threatening to take the black king, which has no escape squares. They also can’t take the white queen because the bishop on c4 is defending her!
Note that this isn’t the only sequence that results in Scholar’s Mate. Instead of 3.Qh5, White could play 3.Qf3, for example, and if Black doesn’t defend against it with a move like 3…Nf6, Qxf7 is again checkmate. There’s another sequence that is also very common and tricky to defend against for beginners.
The Wayward Queen Attack (1.e4 e5 2.Qh5)
Another common sequence is 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5, bringing the queen out already on move 2 – attacking the pawn on e5 in the process.
It is logical for Black to defend the attacked pawn with 2…Nc6. Now, White can bring out the bishop to c4 on move 3, and you’ll notice a familiar setup – White is ready to deliver Scholar’s Mate with 4.Qxh7#.
This move order can be very troublesome. After all, if Black can’t play 3.Nf6 on account of 4.Qxh7#, what are they to do? True, Black can defend f7 with their queen, but this has the drawback of blocking Black’s other pieces from development. For example,
3…Qd7, and Black’s bishop on f8 is locked in.
3…Qf6, and they take away the best square for their knight
But fortunately, you can defend in a much stronger and more proactive way!
Defense Against Scholar’s Mate and the Wayward Queen Attack
Let’s start by addressing White’s first move order – 2.Bc4, known simply as The Bishop’s Opening. Instead of 2…Nc6, Black is well-advised to play 2…Nf6, stopping Qh5 in the first place and taking some initiative by attacking White’s undefended pawn on e4. Boom – you stopped Scholar’s Move from move 2, and you’re taking the fight to White!
But the Wayward Queen Attack move order is a little trickier to defend. But actually, Black has a few options to do so. A very low-risk and sensible way to play is the following:
1.e4 e5 2. Qh5 Nc6 3.Bc4 g6
Black attacks the queen and blocks her attack of f7 simultaneously. It seems like a crisis has been averted, but what if White ‘reloads’ with 4.Qf3, again threatening Qxf7#? See the diagram below and find a good move for Black.
In this position, Black can play 4…Nf6 – a great move, not only defending against checkmate, but developing a piece. Black can play …Bg7 next (assuming no more threats from White), developing the bishop and getting ready to castle. After castling, Black will find their pieces well-developed and their king safe – ready to proceed comfortably! White, on the other hand, will find their queen misplaced on f3. “Never bring your queen out too early” – in this case, the maxim holds true!
But if you’re feeling bold and want to turn the tables on White and punish them for breaking the principles of opening play, you have another fun option!
1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 Nf6!?
Wait, doesn’t this give up a pawn? White can play 3.Qxe5+, right? Yes, they can, but it’s okay!
Remember that one of the most important principles in the opening – if not the most important principle – is rapid development of your pieces. So Black can actually give up that pawn and just continue development, getting plenty of compensation for the pawn. Let’s see an example.
1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 Nf6 3.Qxe5+ Be7 (defending against the check) 4.Bc4 Nc6 (threatening the queen) 5.Qg6 (threatening Qxg7) O-O
Okay, Black is a pawn down, but look at their development compared to White’s! Black’s king is already castled, and they have three pieces in the game while White has only two – one of them being the queen. And you can bet that the queen has a target on her head! Black is also threatening …Nxe4, getting their pawn back. Computers evaluate Black as having an advantage here despite being a pawn down!
Just to give you an example of all the fun Black can have in such a position, consider this continuation:
6.Nc3 (White defends the pawn on e4) Nxe4 anyway!
White is okay to sacrifice their knight, because if 7.Nxe4, Black has 7…d5! Forking White’s knight on e4 and bishop on c4. Black gets their material back with interest!
While Scholar’s Mate can take some unsuspecting victims making seemingly natural moves, once you know about it, the jig is up! It is easy to defend against, and defending against it properly actually gives Black the advantage.
For that reason, it’s not recommended to attempt a Scholar’s Mate with White. You might claim a victory or two at very low levels, but even just a couple of rungs up the rating ladder, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an opponent who doesn’t know how to defend against it and get an advantage against you. Simply put, this plan usually backfires.
For that reason, don’t bother with Scholar’s Mate with White – study mainline openings. It’s good for your chess and leads to more interesting games!
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is Scholar’s Mate in chess?
Scholar’s Mate is a checkmating pattern where White can win the game in four moves. It can happen in a few different move orders, which are covered above. Two typical ways are 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Qxf7# and 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nc6 3.Qh5 Nf6 4.Qxf7#. Both ways take advantage of the weak f7 square, which is only guarded by the king.
2. Does the Scholar’s Mate work?
No. Black has several easy ways to defend against it, and even get an advantage against White by doing so. Scholar’s Mate has a good chance to backfire. Chances are, only very new students to the game of chess will fall for it!
3. Is Scholar’s Mate the same as Fool’s Mate?
No. While Scholar’s Mate is often called the 4-move checkmate, Fool’s Mate is actually a 2-move checkmate that arises after 1.f3 e5 2.g4 Qh4#. It is the shortest possible checkmate in chess, but because the moves are unnatural, it is much rarer than Scholar’s Mate, which arises after somewhat more natural moves.
4. Why is it called Scholar’s Mate?
It is called Scholar’s Mate because it often appears in the games of beginners who are just learning the game of chess – i.e., ‘scholars.’
Interestingly, not all languages refer to it as ‘Scholar’s Mate.’ The Russian equivalent literally translates to “Children’s Mate” and the Spanish equivalent literally translates to “Shepherd’s Mate”, for example.