The Scandinavian Defense (or Center Counter Defense) is a chess opening characterized by the moves:
- 1. e4 d5
The Center Counter Defense is one of the oldest recorded openings, first recorded as being played between Francesco di Castellvi and Narciso Vinyoles in Valencia in 1475 in what may be the first recorded game of modern chess, and being mentioned by Lucena in 1497. It is one of the oldest asymmetric defenses to 1.e4, along with the French Defence.
Analysis by Scandinavian masters including Collijn showed it is playable for Black. Although the Center Counter Defense has never enjoyed widespread popularity among top-flight chess players, Joseph Henry Blackburne and Jacques Mieses often played it, and greatly developed its theory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Alexander Alekhine used it to draw against World Champion Emanuel Lasker at St. Petersburg 1914, and Jos Ra l Capablanca won twice with it at New York 1915. Bent Larsen played it from time to time and defeated World Champion Anatoly Karpov with it at Montreal 1979, spurring a rise in popularity. The popular name also began to switch from "Center Counter Defense" to "Scandinavian Defense" around this time. Starting in the 1960s, David Bronstein and Nona Gaprindashvili played it occasionally, and Ian Rogers has adopted it frequently starting in the 1980s. In 1995, the Center Counter Defense made a rare appearance in a World Chess Championship match, in the 14th game at New York. Viswanathan Anand as Black obtained an excellent position using the opening against Garry Kasparov, although Kasparov won the game.
The opening is classified under code B01 in the Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings (ECO).
White normally continues 2.exd5 when Black has two major continuations: 2...Qxd5 and 2...Nf6 (Marshall Gambit). The rare move 2...c6 was played successfully by Joseph Blackburne on at least one occasion, but is thought to be unsound (after 3.dxc6), and is almost never seen in master-level play.
After 2...Qxd5, the most commonly played move is 3.Nc3 because it attacks the queen with gain of tempo. Against 3.Nc3, Black has a few choices. 3...Qa5 is considered the "classical" line and is currently the most popular option. Another response for Black which has gained popularity since the late 1990s, after being employed by Grandmasters Sergei Tiviakov and Bojan Kurajica is the more dynamic 3...Qd6, which is called the Bronstein Variation or Pytel Variation. Less common alternatives include the retreat 3...Qd8 and 3...Qe5+ (the Patzer Variation).
One other possibility is the rare 3...Qe6+ (the Mieses Kotrc Variation), one idea being that after the natural interposition 4.Be2, Black plays 4...Qg6 attacking the g2 pawn. This system is generally regarded as a terrible line because Black hasn't developed anything but his queen while White develops all his pieces. David Letterman played this line as Black in a televised game against Garry Kasparov, in which Letterman was checkmated in 23 moves.
Returning to the main line after 3.Nc3 Qa5, White can choose from multiple set-ups. A common line is 4.d4 c6 (or 4...e5) 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.Bc4 Bf5 (6...Bg4 is a different option) 7.Bd2 e6. White has a few options, such as the aggressive 8.Qe2, or the quiet 8.0-0. Black's pawn structure (pawns on e6 and c6) resemble a Caro-Kann Defence structure, therefore many Caro Kann players wishing to expand their repertoire have adopted this form of the Scandinavian.
Another set-up after 3...Qa5 is to target the b7 pawn by fianchettoing the bishop on the h1 a8 diagonal, instead placing it on the a2 g8 diagonal, by 4.g3 Nf6 5.Bg2 c6 6.Nf3 followed by 0-0, Rb1, and then exploiting the b7 pawn by b4 b5.
A more speculative approach against 3...Qa5 is the gambit 4.b4?! If Black plays correctly, White should have no compensation for the sacrificed pawn, but it can be difficult to prove this over the board.
Alternatives to 3.Nc3 include 3.d4, which can transpose into a variation of the Nimzowitsch Defense after 3...Nc6 (1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 Qxd5), or Black can play 3...e5, as well. After 3...Nc6 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.Be2 0-0-0 Black has better development to compensate for White's center after a future c4. Black may also respond to 3.d4 with 3...e5. After the usual 4.dxe5, Black most often plays the pawn sacrifice 4...Qxd1+ 5.Kxd1 Nc6. After White defends the pawn, Black follows up with ...Bg4+ and 0-0-0, e.g. 6.Bb5 Bg4+ 7.f3 0-0-0+ and Black has enough compensation for the pawn, because he is better developed and White's king is stuck in the center. Less popular is 4...Qxe5, since the queen has moved twice in the opening and is in the center of the board, where White can attack it with gain of time (Nf3). However, grandmasters such as Tiviakov have shown that it is not so easy to exploit the centralized queen.
Another common response after 2...Qxd5 is the noncommittal 3.Nf3. After 3...Bg4 4.Be2 Nc6, White can transpose to main lines with 5.d4, but has other options, such as 5.0-0.
The retreat with 3...Qd8 was depicted in Castellvi Vinyoles, and may be the oldest of all Scandinavian lines. Prior to the 20th century, it was often considered the main line, and was characterized as "best" by Howard Staunton in his Chess-Player's Handbook, but was gradually superseded by 3...Qa5. In the 1960s, 3...Qd8 experienced something of a revival after the move was played in a game by Bronstein against GM Andrija Fuderer in 1959, though Bronstein ultimately lost the game. Bronstein's game featured the older line 4.d4 Nf6, while other grandmasters explored fianchetto systems with 4.d4 g6 and a later Ng8 h6.
However, the line's reputation suffered after a string of defeats, including two well-known miniatures won by Bobby Fischer against Karl Robatsch in 1962 (later published in My 60 Memorable Games) and William Addison in 1970. The variation with 4...g6 "has been under a cloud ever since [Fischer's] crushing win", but the 3...Qd8 variation as a whole remains playable, though it is now considered somewhat passive.
The move 3...Qd6 offers another way to play against 3.Nc3, and it has been growing in popularity in recent years. At first sight the move may look dubious, exposing the queen to a later Nb5 or Bf4, and for many years it was poorly regarded for this reason. However, numerous grandmaster games have since shown 3...Qd6 to be quite playable, and it has been played many times in high-level chess since the mid-1990s. White players against this line have found an effective setup with d4, Nf3, g3, Bg2, 0-0, and a future Ne5 with a strong, active position.
The other main branch of the Scandinavian Defense is 2...Nf6, sometimes known as the Marshall Gambit after U.S. Chess Champion Frank Marshall, who played the line. The idea is to delay capturing the d5 pawn for another move, avoiding the loss of time that Black incurs in the ...Qxd5 lines after 3.Nc3. Now White has several possibilities:
The Modern Variation is 3.d4. Grandmaster John Emms calls this the main line of the 2...Nf6 variations, saying that "3.d4 is the common choice for White...and it is easy to see why it is so popular." The idea behind the Modern Variation is to give back the pawn in order to achieve quick development. 3...Nxd5 is the most obvious reply. Black wins back the pawn, but White can gain some time by attacking the Knight. White usually responds 4.c4, when the knight must move. The most common choices are 4...Nb6, named by Ron Harman and Shaun Taulbut as the most active option, and 4...Nf6, which Emms calls "slightly unusual, but certainly possible." A third alternative is the tricky Kiel Variation (4...Nb4?!), described by Harman and Taulbut as "a speculative try". Black is hoping for 5.Qa4+ N8c6 6.d5? b5! with a good game. However, White gets a large advantage after 5.a3 N4c6 6.d5 Ne5 7.Nf3 (or 7.f4 Ng6 8.Bd3 e5 9.Qe2) or 5.Qa4+ N8c6 6.a3!, so the Kiel Variation is seldom seen in practice. White may also play 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.c4. Now 5...Nb6 6.c5!? is a sharp line; Black should respond 6...N6d7!, rather than 6...Nd5? 7.Qb3, when Black resigned after 7...b6? 8.Ne5! in Timman Bakkali, Nice Olympiad 1974, and 7...Bxf3 8.Qxb7! Ne3 9.Qxf3 Nc2+ 10.Kd1 Nxa1 11.Qxa8 also wins for White.
An alternative to 3...Nxd5 is 3...Bg4!?, the sharp Portuguese Variation or Jadoul Variation. In this line, Black gives up the d-pawn in order to achieve rapid development and piece activity; the resulting play is often similar to the Icelandic Gambit. The normal continuation is 4.f3 Bf5 5.Bb5+ Nbd7 6.c4. Occasionally seen is 3...g6, the Richter Variation, which was played on occasion by Karl Richter in the 1930s.
Another common response is 3.c4, with which White attempts to retain the extra pawn, at the cost of the inactivity of the light-square bishop. Now Black can play 3...c6, the Scandinavian Gambit, which is the most common move. The line 4.dxc6? Nxc6, described by Emms as "a miserly pawn grab", gives Black too much central control and development. Most common after 3...c6 is 4.d4 cxd5, transposing to the Panov Botvinnik Attack of the Caro-Kann Defence. 3...e6!? is the sharp Icelandic Gambit or Palme Gambit, invented by Icelandic masters who looked for an alternative to the more common 3...c6. Black sacrifices a pawn to achieve rapid development. The most critical line in this double-edged variation is thought to be 4.dxe6 Bxe6 5.Nf3.
A third major alternative is 3.Bb5+. The most popular reply is 3...Bd7, though the rarer 3...Nbd7 is gaining more attention recently. After 3.Bb5+ Bd7, White has several options. The most obvious is 4.Bxd7+, after which White can play to keep the extra pawn with 4...Qxd7 5.c4. The historical main line is 4.Bc4, which can lead to very sharp play after 4...Bg4 5.f3 Bf5 6.Nc3, or 4...b5 5.Bb3 a5. Finally, 4.Be2 has recently become more popular, attempting to exploit the misplaced Bishop on d7 after 4...Nxd5.
White's 3.Nf3 is a flexible move that, depending on Black's reply, can transpose into lines with ...Nxd5 or ...Qxd5.
White's 3.Nc3 transposes into a line of Alekhine's Defence, normally seen after 1.e4 Nf6 2.Nc3 d5 3.exd5, and generally thought to be equal. After 3...Nxd5 4.Bc4, the most common reply is 4...Nb6, although 4...Nxc3, 4...c6, and 4...e6 are also viable continuations.
Alternatives to 2.exd5
There are several ways for White to avoid the main lines of the Scandinavian Defense. One option is to defer or avoid the exchange of e-pawn for d-pawn. This is most often done by 2.Nc3, which transposes into the Dunst Opening after 2...d4 or 2...dxe4. If instead 2.e5?! is played, Black can play 2...c5, develop the Queen's bishop, and play e6, reaching a favorable French Defense setup, since here unlike in the standard French Black's light-squared bishop is not shut in on c8. This line can also be compared to the Caro Kann variation 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5!?; since in the Scandinavian line Black has played c5 in one rather than two moves, he has a comfortable position.
White can also gambit the e-pawn, most frequently by 2.d4, transposing into the dubious Blackmar-Diemer Gambit. Other lines are possible, but are seldom seen, and generally considered highly dubious; among these are 2.Nf3?! (Tennison's Gambit), 2.g4?! (the Zilbermints Gambit), and 2.d3 dxe4 3.Nc3. Other second moves for White are very rare.
In general, none of these sidelines are believed to offer White more than equality, and the overwhelming majority of masters opt for 2.exd5 when facing the Scandinavian. The Scandinavian is thus arguably Black's most "forcing" defense to 1.e4, restricting White to a relatively small number of options. This has helped to make the Scandinavian Defense fairly popular among club-level players, though it is rare at the Grandmaster level.
Depiction in cinema
The Center Counter Defense is Ron Weasley's opening move in the 2001 film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. In the scene in question, Ron, Harry Potter and Hermione Granger have to play a chess game on a giant chessboard with giant chess pieces (it is one of a series of tests that one must pass in order to get to the Philosopher's Stone). Ron uses this defense to verify that the game they are playing is, in fact, exactly like Wizard's Chess (in which chess pieces are enchanted and can smash each other).
The chess positions used in the scene were created by International Master Jeremy Silman, though it is unclear if Silman was responsible for the choice of opening.
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