The Scotch Game – A How to Play Guide (for White and Black)

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Table of Contents

Quick Summary

  • The Scotch Game is the third most popular opening arising from the King’s knight game (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6) after the Ruy Lopez and the Italian Game.
  • It fights immediately for control of the center by directly undermining it with 3.d4, which gives a spatial advantage that may be used by both sides.
  • White tends to determine how the opening will play out, rather than waiting for Black’s response with the Ruy Lopez, for example.
  • Both sides enjoy relatively easy and natural development.
  • The Scotch also has some fun sideline gambits.

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The Complete Scotch

Introduction to the Scotch Game

The Scotch Game receives its name from a correspondence game from 1824 played between London and Edinburgh. This was in the era when the King’s Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.f4) was very popular, and the Scotch Game failed to become the new favorite.

It is however an opening that was well suited to the Romantic style of playing chess in the 19th century, i.e. opening lines, and fast attacking chances. So it seems a little odd that it was not really met with fanfare at the time.

Jan Timman tried it against Anatoly Karpov three times in the 1980s, but Karpov, then in his prime, won one and drew two of the games, so the Scotch failed to receive acclaim from players.

It was left to Garry Kasparov to show what the Scotch could really do. He resurrected it against Karpov in their 1990 title match, earning a win and a draw from two games, going on to use it sporadically – but successfully – for the next decade.

Naturally, Kasparov’s use of the Scotch meant that its use among club-level players increased significantly. That said, it still lags behind the Ruy Lopez and the Italian Game in open games.

Scotch Game

The Scotch Game arises from the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4. All mainline Scotch theory revolves around a recapture with 3…exd4.

To stay in mainline Scotch theory, White recaptures with 4.Nxd4. From here, there are several options for Black.

The most interesting sidelines for White are the Scotch Gambit 4.Bc4, declining to recapture the pawn to get rapid development, and the Goring Gambit, 4.c4, a true and daring gambit for those who like to play dangerously.

This video is from the Attacking Repertoire for Club Players: 1. e4 course by FM Midas Ratsma

Is the Scotch Game a good opening?

The Scotch Game is an excellent opening and a great choice for club-level players up to even masters.

The main problem for the Scotch is the benefits it affords to White, it also affords to Black. White has natural easy development with an open file, but so does Black. This makes the opening ideal for beginners, as development is natural for both sides, and it is very low in theory.

This makes the Scotch kind of an equalish position for both sides, and probably the reason it is not played at the top level as say, the Ruy Lopez. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Scotch is only a beginners’ tool, this is a very versatile opening, which is frankly a little underplayed.

Explore some other openings and find which one suits your style, with our recommended Top Ten Openings for Beginners.

Main ideas of the Scotch

As mentioned, 3.d4 is a direct strike on the center which aims to immediately undermine the center. By playing this move, White has easy development, all pieces may go to their most natural squares, and also the d-file is open to place heavy pieces on to launch an attack.

3.d4 decides the nature of the game quickly. In the Ruy Lopez, whatever Black has prepared or plays will decide the nature of the game, so White must be ready for this White gets the opening they want with the Scotch; however, all the aforementioned advantages White has Black also has.

3…exd4 is basically the only move. If Black goes 3…d6, 4.dxe5, If Black takes 4…Nxe5 5.Nxe5 dxe5 6.Qxd8 and White will lose the right to castle.

Scotch Game after 3...d6 4.dxe5

4.Nxd4 is the starting point for all mainline Scotches, from there, the main lines are 4…Qh4, the Steinitz Variation, 4…Nf6 the Schmidt Variation, and 4…Bc5, the Classical Variation.

4…Nxd4 (known as the Lolli Variation) is considered a mistake, as 5.Qxd4 develops the queen to a nice square. It being developed so early is not really a problem, as it cannot really be chased away from here.

The Steinitz Variation

4…. Qh4

This looks like a great move, as it directly attacks the e-pawn, which if captured would put White in check. If White tries to hang on to material equality, they can get in a bind.

5.Nc3 Bb4 6.Be2 Qxe4 Black wins the pawn. But 7.Nb5 hits the c7 square, if the bishop moves back to a5 or c6, White can capture with check, and because the knight is no longer pinned, White wins the queen.

7…Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 White has doubled pawns on the c-file, and Black is up a pawn, but Black must play 8.Kd8 to protect the c7 pawn, thereby losing castling rights. Plus White is much better developed.

Good development in the Steinitz Variation

The Schmidt Variation

4..Nf6

Scotch Game- Schmidt Variation

Black develops their kingside knight and attacks the e-pawn. White sort of has a conundrum here; how are they to defend the e4 pawn. 5.Nc3 is the most natural move, but it does not solve the problem as 5…Bb4 pins the knight. This transposes into what is known as the Four Knights Variation. The only real option for White here is 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Bd3.

5.Nxc6 is the most common way to respond to 4…Nf6, it is also the most radical. After 5…bxc6 6.e5, White takes the initiative in a variation known as the Mieses Variation. Very complicated positions are common in this line.

Mieses Variation of the Scotch Game

The Mieses Variation

5.Nxc6 bxc6 6.e5

This variation is a sharp one. Kasparov did a lot to help popularize it in 1990.

6…Qe7 This move looks a bit awkward, from a positional perspective anyway. Black is blocking in their bishop, but in doing so, White is forced to do the same. After all, how else can White defend the e-pawn?

6..Ne4 and 6…Nd5 appear to be safer moves, but they give white a lot of room to use their spatial advantage.

Mieses Variation-Critical Position

7.Qe2 Nd5 8.c4

The critical position in the Mieses and maybe the most critical in the whole Scotch Game. White has a nice space advantage, but Black is better developed. White attempts to chase the well-positioned Black knight away and to develop aggressively.

8…Ba6 is the sharpest reply. Black is upping the ante here by saying, I see your threat and raise you a larger threat. If 9.cxd5, Black is happy to win a queen for two pieces. It is pretty evident that this is a complicated position.

Let’s look at two possible scenarios that may come up and their possible complications.

After 9.b3 0-0-0 10.g3 Re8 11.Bb2 f6 12.Bg2 fxe5, who is best here? Black with the extra pawn? Or is their turbid piece development too much of a liability?

Complicated Mieses position

The position is bonkers. White has alignment issues down the d-file. Black’s knight still hangs, but then so does White’s queen if they capture it with the c-pawn. Both of White’s bishops are fianchettoed. Black’s kingside structure is damaged and looks like it is just inviting trouble, and as mentioned, Black is up a pawn, but their development looks much worse than White’s. Accurate play here is a must, but it’s enough to cause any cautious player many a headache.

If that is not wild enough for you, take a look at the even crazier position after 9.b3 Qh4 10.a3 Bc5 11.g3 Bxf2+

How much is hanging here?!

12.Kxf2 and 12.Qxf2 both lose a rook after check on d4 and e4, respectively.

Engines actually give White about a 1.5 advantage, but of course, engines will play the best move always. Navigating such choppy waters for club players is not so easy.

These examples are illustrative of what attacking potential can arise out of the Scotch Game. Razor-sharp! Whoever said the Scotch was boring?

Of course, since the 1990s, it has been common for Black to play 8…Nb6. Black will often play a5, lest White play a4 and get to a5 trapping the knight.

The Four Knights Scotch

The Four Knights Scotch results from the Four Knights Game and delays playing d4. It arises after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.d4. All knights are developed first before launching striking at the center with d4.

At the top level, the Four Knights Scotch is considered a drawish opening. However, it is very well suited to beginner and intermediate players as it allows players to get all of their pieces out easily and naturally.

4…exd4 like in other Scotch Games, is the main approach as the e-pawn has two attackers, but only one defender. The options for bringing another defender are not so appetizing.

4…Qe2 and 4…d6 both block in the dark-squared bishop, whereas 4…Bd6 is even worse as it will make development very complicated for Black.

5.Nxd4 Bb4 Is the classic response, and White should take with 6.Nxc6 bxc6.

7.Bd3 d5 Black expands immediately with an aggressive strike of their own in the center.

7.e5 Qe7 8.Qe2 and Black is better. 9.c4 obviously cannot be played (as in the Mieses Variation), which White would obviously want.

8.exd5 cxd5 9.0-0 0-0

Black looks pretty good here. White’s dominant e4 pawn is gone. Black now has a central pawn majority and can develop their pieces naturally.

10.Bg5 pinning Black’s king knight. This exhibits a downside to Black’s aggressive play as White is threatening 11.Bxf6, meaning the d5 pawn needs to be protected. This is the most important starting position in the Four Knights Game.

Four Knights Scotch

From here, Black has both 10…c6 and 10…Be6. Black must be prepared in both scenarios for 11.Qf3, once again threatening Bxf6, with a pretty potent-looking set of attackers facing their kingside.

The Classical Variation

4…Bc5

Scotch Game- Classical Variation

This move is slightly behind 4…Nf6 in popularity. White has several replies. Once again, White can play 5.Nxc6 and double pawns for Black on the c-file. Black will play here 5…Qf6, which is not intending to recapture the knight on c6, but rather threatens a checkmate on f2! The only way to go about defending against this checkmate is to play a wild 6.f4 or awkwardly move their queen for instance to d2, blocking in the dark-squared bishop.

5.Be3 is the most popular option, which supports the knight. It also threatens to win a piece if not defended properly. However, Black can reply 5…Qf6 and keep the pressure on.  The Scotch Game has many early queen moves that go unpunished.

What else does White have at their disposal? 5.Nb3 (known as the Potter Variation), directly attacks the recently developed bishop to not lose time and avoids complications. Black naturally retreats with 5…Bb6, white can try to keep pressuring the Bishop with 6.a4 a6 and 7.Nc3 and would like to go 8.Nd5 as capturing the bishop on b6 would be nice as black can no longer recapture with the a-pawn.

Fun sideline gambits

The Scotch Gambit

4.Bc4

Scotch Gambit starting position

White declines to take back the pawn (at least initially) and if Black does not know what they are doing, they can wind up in hot water.

White would like to play 5.Nb5 to get some sort of Fried Liver Attack going on.

However, if Black tries to hold onto this pawn with 4…Bc5 White may play 5.c3, offering up another pawn, and greed by Black here will be punished. 5…dxc3 6.Bxf7+ Kxf7 7.Qd5+ Ke8. Here White can immediately win the bishop back, but why not toy around and show who is boss with 8.Qa5+.

Black’s kingside is already destroyed and they may no longer castle. 8…g6 weakens the kingside even more, while 8…Kf8 allows White to recapture the bishop with 9.Qxc5+, forcing Black to lose yet another tempo.

Black exposed in the Scotch Gambit

After 8.Qa5+ g6 9.Qxc5 d6 10.Qe3 cxb2 11.Bxb2 and Black is way too exposed and severely underdeveloped.

The best way to play against the Scotch Gambit for Black is to simply develop and play 4…Nf6. Play goes on to a dead-even game with 5.e5 d5 6.Bb5.

The Göring Gambit

4.c3

A true gambit, offering a pawn while developing quickly and aggressively. 4…dxc3 5.Nxc3 5…Bb4 6.Bc4 d6, Black accepts.

Göring Gambit

White has superior development, though a pawn down. Engines give this a dead-even 0.0.

Black could play 4…d5 here, and after 5.exd5 Qxd5 6.cxd4, the position is again even. White also has an isolated queen pawn, and it remains to be seen if it will be a strength or a weakness. Not to mention, this is probably not the position Göring Gambit players were hoping for.

If you’re an e4 player and are interested in playing gambits, be sure to check out our free Short and Sweet: 1.e4 Gambits course.

Model game

This model game is between Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura from The Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge on May 28, 2020. The game is a real beauty that shows the effective space Scotch Games provide players and how it is a truly open game played on open files.

Summary

The Scotch Game is a great game for any e4 player at all levels. It teaches great ideas of tactics and positional play to the most beginners, and it offers experienced players, yes even up to the top grandmasters, opportunities to develop attacking plans with an open center.

It has aggressive qualities, yet it is far from a gimmicky opening with unnecessary risks.

It is also a great tool to play with either color. It is an opening where the better player wins, as it offers the same possibilities for both sides. It has some fun and interesting sideline gambits too which more attacking-minded players may be interested in. Overall, the Scotch Gambit offers something for all e4 players.

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GM Avrukh against the Scotch

FAQs

What is the Scotch game?

The Scotch Game arises from an open game (1.e4 e5) followed by 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4.

Is the Scotch Game a good opening?

The Scotch Game is considered a highly reputable and sound opening for all levels.

How do you play the Scotch?

The best way to play the Scotch is by activating pieces early and focusing on attacks by taking advantage of the open file. This is true for both the White and Black pieces.

Is the Scotch Game aggressive?

The Scotch Game by nature is considered aggressive as it directly strikes at the center in an attempt to open the game up. Within the Scotch Game are more aggressive lines such as the Mieses, the Scotch Gambit, and the Göring Gambit.

How do you play the Scotch Gambit?

The Scotch Gambit is played by White denying to take back the pawn on d4 and instead of developing their kingside bishop to c4 on move four.

How do you beat the Scotch?

The Scotch is best countered by seeking active and rapid development and by taking advantage of the openness of the position to create long-range threats.

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