The Scandinavian Defense: A History

The Scandinavian Defense: A History

| 33 | Opening Theory

The time has come to look at the history of perhaps the first chess opening: the Scandinavian Defense

Also known as the Center-Counter, the Scandinavian Defense can be viewed as the most direct and forcing counter to 1.e4. The intrepid white pawn is immediately challenged.

The Scandinavian Defense was played in what is allegedly the first recorded game of chess: De Castellvi-Vinyoles, played in Valencia, 1475.

As it turns out, this was not the highest-level game; but for history's sake, here it is:

The game reminds me of what the games between small children looked like, when I used to teach chess in schools. Nevertheless, chess and the written word had intersected at this point, during the Renaissance. It went from just a game to be played in parlors to something that could be recorded, viewed again, or discussed.

The earlier name for the Scandinavian Defense was the "Center-Counter" -- and it is sometimes still called as such. In my first chess books, as I remember, the defense was called "Center-Counter."

As I understand, the name "Scandinavian" did not become widespread until fairly recently.

The name originated from its adoption by Ludvig and Gustav Collijn, two Swedish brothers who played in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1897 Nordic Championship, they played the opening many times, each time meeting 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 with 3...Qd8, which is a rarely played variation these days.

Their results were not good: six losses and two wins between them.

The Scandinavian has always been a rather obscure opening at the top level -- an unusual backwater of chess, along with the Nimzowitsch defense (1.e4 Nc6) and the Alekhine Defense (1.e4 Nf6). Few grandmasters have specialized in these openings, but many have used them as an occasional surprise weapon.

One of the first top-level masters to play the Scandinavian Defense frequently was Joseph Blackburne.

image via wikipedia

Blackburne also usually preferred the retreat 3...Qd8. It looks like the original interpretation of the Scandinavian was fairly modest -- White launched the e-pawn to e4, and Black forcibly removed it and returned home with the queen.

In the following game, Blackburne showed a frequent idea in the Scandinavian: to develop the king's knight not to f6 but to h6 followed by ...Nf5, putting pressure on the d-pawn.

Another early top master who used the Scandinavian frequently was Jacques Mieses. Unlike Blackburne and Collijn, Mieses preferred the more modern 3...Qa5, leaving the queen slightly more exposed but also more active.

In the following game he shows the Scandinavian's main virtue: provocation.

Before moving on, we should note that there are two interpretations of the Scandinavian. In one, Black meets 2.exd5 with 2...Qxd5. In the other, 2.exd5 is met by 2...Nf6, with the aim of recapturing with the knight. While the structure might look similar, the play is quite different.

Players like Frank Marshall preferred 2...Nf6. And a future world champion, Alexander Alekhine, used the Scandinavian with 2...Nf6 to draw with then-current world champion, Emanuel Lasker, in a wild game:

One of the most obvious objections to 2...Nf6 is that White can protect his pawn by 3.c4. However, from the earliest times, masters realized that 3...c6 would regain the pawn, since 4.dxc6 Nxc6 would give more than enough compensation to Black, and could only appeal to the greediest players:

Instead, 4.d4 cxd5 5.Nc3 would transpose to the Panov-Botvinnik variation of the Caro-Kann. If Black was not satisfied with this, there was the extra possibility of 3...e6!?, the Icelandic Gambit.

Although there were a few occurrences of the gambit earlier on (the first one I have seen is Acevedo-Kupfer, Mexico City, 1963), it is named after the work of the Icelandic players, particularly GM Throstur Thorhallsson. Here is a spectacular example from one of his early games:

One of the defects of the system with 2...Nf6 is that White can simply allow Black to recapture on d5, chase the knight away with c2-c4, and enjoy a fairly simple space advantage.

However, this way of playing with Black can apply to cagey kinds of players who don't mind to stand slightly worse, if they can avoid theoretical problems and put the emphasis of play on the middlegame.

In the next article, we will return to the main variation of the Scandinavian Defense:  2...Qxd5, and see how more modern players have dealt with this provocative and tricky opening.


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