Openings

Scandinavian Defense

1.e4 d5

The Scandinavian Defense, formerly better known in English language texts as the Center-Counter, is Black's seventh most popular response to 1.e4.

Starting Position

The Scandinavian Defense is one of Black's more offbeat responses to White's 1.e4, where Black immediately attacks the white pawn with 1...d5. This is how it got its old name of the Center Counter, because Black immediately counters in the center.

Easily White's best response, and overwhelmingly its most popular, is to capture with 2.exd5. Although it is Black's first move that defines the Scandinavian, the position after that pawn capture is effectively the starting position for the opening. It's at this point where the Scandinavian really gets interesting.

Pros

  • Black opens the game immediately
  • Usually both black bishops have freedom
  • A provocative opening

Cons

  • After the capture 2.exd5, Black loses time recapturing
  • Because Black loses some time, he is in danger of a quick knockout
  • White usually has more central space

Variations

Black has two main second moves: recapturing with 2...Qxd5, or playing 2...Nf6 planning to recapture with the knight. The former of these options breaks the rule, often taught to players just starting out, of not developing the queen too early.

Scandinavian Defense
The arrows represent Black's best options on move three.

2...Qxd5

White actually has several reasonable options here, but by far the most common is 3.Nc3, immediately asking Black why the queen exposed herself so soon. The temptation as Black on move three may be to check the white king down the e-file, but this is considered inferior to three main alternatives.

3...Qa5

The most common move for Black. Black often plays ...c6 to drop the queen back to c7 at some point, develops the light-squared bishop to f5 or g4 before playing a pawn to e6. The pawns on c6 and e6 create a solid structure for Black. However this is not the only way to play the position; see below how GM Viswanathan Anand treated the opening at the 1995 World Championship.

3...Qd6

This move only becomes more popular over time. It is generally more flexible than the other options and Black often obtains an imbalanced position including, if possible, queenside castling. The fact that White can play Nb5 to attack the queen again is not a big deal for Black because it wastes time for White as well.

3...Qd8

The oldest move, which is considered passive but playable. Black is just looking to return the queen to safety before setting up the same solid structure, with pawns on c6 and e6, as comes in the 3...Qa5 variations. Black also has the alternative of fianchettoing the dark-squared bishop with ...g6 and ...Bg7 instead of playing ...e6.

Qd8 Scandinavian
A typical position in the 3...Qd8 Scandinavian.

2...Nf6

If Black does not want to bring the queen out, this is the move to play. White can try to keep the pawn with 3.c4 or continue developing with either 3.Bb5+ or 3.d4. The tradeoff for Black is that while the queen does not come out early, the knight will have to move at least twice to regain the pawn.

How to Play Against the Scandinavian

The first key to playing against the Scandinavian as White is to always play 2.exd5. Other moves like 2.Nc3 or 2.e5 are playable but only give Black an immediately equal position and are rather easy to meet naturally.

However, White has much more flexibility on move three. Even if Black captures on d5 with the queen, it is not necessary to play 3.Nc3; 3.Nf3 and 3.d4 are also good. In fact, 3.Nf3 scores 47% for White compared to 44% with 3.Nc3. No matter what, however, natural development will give White a fine position.

Scandinavian Defense
White has alternatives on move three.

Otherwise, it's pretty much up to Black how the game will go from there. That ability to play several second and third moves, while White is somewhat limited, is one reason Black plays the opening despite its reputation as inferior. But it's that same reputation that gives White hope. In master play, White wins 44% of master games in the Scandinavian, compared to 40% against the French or 37% against the Sicilian.

History

The Scandinavian Defense can actually be considered the oldest opening in chess! This is because it is the opening used in the first known recorded game of chess.

Despite its early start, the Scandinavian does not appear in any other known game until 1839. Adolf Anderssen tried it twice in his 1858 match against Paul Morphy and lost both games. Late 19th century masters Joseph Blackburne and Jacques Mieses were the first to employ it semiregularly but the opening has never gained mainstream master acceptance.

In 1995, GM Vishy Anand made history by becoming the first player to try the Scandinavian in a world championship match. He got a good position against GM Garry Kasparov but could not convert.

Famous Games

Perhaps it is a comment on the strength of the Scandinavian, or lack thereof, that Black has won rather few brilliancies with it over the years. That said, it has definitely had its moments.

GM Bent Larsen used it to defeat the world champion GM Anatoly Karpov in 1979.

World champions have also won with the Scandinavian. Jose Capablanca did so a couple times before he was champion, and more recently GM Magnus Carlsen used the 3...Qd8 variation to defeat future championship challenger GM Fabiano Caruana at the 2014 Chess Olympiad.

But the most spectacular Scandinavian game on record was a win for White, once again featuring Anand, this time as the victor over GM Joel Lautier.

Conclusion

Although it is difficult to play at the highest levels of chess, for most enthusiasts the Scandinavian is a perfectly playable option for Black. When you are facing a 1.e4 player, they will tend to be more familiar with the Sicilian Defense or 1...e5, and you are likely to know more about 1...d5. And even if you don't want to play it as Black, it is good to be ready for it if you are a 1.e4 player as White. 

The Scandinavian will always have a niche in the chess world and is well worth knowing. Learn more about it by exploring our Master Games database.

Lesson
Spicy Gambits: Hacking The Scandinavian!

Spicy Gambits: Hacking The Scandinavian!

What opening would boxing legend Mike Tyson choose if he played chess? GM Simon Williams thinks he’d pick a super-aggressive opening, probably one from the “spicy” series. Continuing to reveal his secret opening repertoire, GM Williams shows you his favorite ways to knock out the Scandinavian Defense!
18 min
5 Challenges
Notable Game

Top Players