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Chess Openings: A Comprehensive and Offbeat Repertoire for White Against the Scandinavian (Center-Counter) Defense

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About the Scandinavian

The Scandinavian or Center-Counter Defense is an opening that is somewhat related to the Caro-Kann Defense and its concepts. Generally, black's idea is to trade white's e-pawn for black's d-pawn and for black to create a strong pawn triangle with pawns on e6 and c6. The Caro-Kann has a similar strategy in some lines, but it is also less committal and thus more flexible, so black has more options in how to progress.

The Caro-Kann is also known to be more sound and solid, objectively speaking, and so it happens to be more popular at the higher levels. The Scandinavian, on the other hand, often loses time compared to Caro-Kann, as there are relative drawbacks for black whichever way black intends to recapture the white pawn on d5 after the sequence, 1.e4 d5, 2.exd5. If black captures the d-pawn with the queen (seen here), black must move the queen again if it is attacked with 3.Nc3, which happens to be the main line. Similarly, if black gambits the pawn (often only temporarily) with the move 2...Nf6 (see the Marshall Gambit), then the knight in the center of the board often becomes a tempo-gaining target to moves like c4.

This is not to say that either of these variations of the Scandinavian or the Scandinavian as a whole is by any means unsound. In fact, my purpose in writing this blog post is to express some of the difficulties that I've had in finding a sufficient response to the Scandinavian Defense. As you might know, the solid pawn triangle black creates in this opening and those aforementioned Caro-Kann variations makes it difficult for white to progress. That is, black often willingly trades off the light-squared bishop in both openings and then places pawns on e6 and c6 (light squares) to make up for that exchanged bishop. Despite white often getting the bishop pair in the Scandinavian Defense, the compact nature of black's pawn structure makes it difficult to crack.

So rather than playing a very long and forcing theoretical line that only leads to rough equality anyway, I am going to propose a solid and easy-to-remember repertoire against the Scandinavian that has helped me no longer fear this so-called "second-tier" opening. It may not fight for the biggest advantage, but it does give white something, and in my opinion white's position is often much easier to play.


My Easy-to-Remember System Against 2...Qxd5

It is pretty well established that the only way for white to play for any significant advantage against the Scandinavian Defense is to take the d-pawn (2.exd5), and this is what I will be recommending. After 2...Qxd5, I am recommending that white kick the queen with 3.Nc3. From here, black has three major third move options: In order of popularity, they are 3...Qa5, 3...Qd6 and 3...Qd8. There are other squares to which the queen may go, but they are considered highly inferior because they often allow white to develop with even more tempi on the queen. For example, 3...Qe5+ and 3...Qe6+ are rare possibilities that are sometimes seen at lower levels and in blitz, but after a continuation like 3...Qe5+, 4.Be2 Bg4, 5.d4! Bxe2, 6.Ngxe2, white is already significantly better. Therefore, I will only discuss my recommendations for black's three main third move options.

The overall summary of my recommended repertoire is for white to play slowly and prophylactically so as not to create many weaknesses. In some of the variations, there is the option for white to castle kingside for a safer game or queenside for a more aggressive game, and the lack of provocative moves from white in my recommended lines does sometimes keep black guessing about the style in which white will play.

Against 3...Qa5 and 3...Qd6, the thematic moves of my recommendation are very similar to those recommended by IM Andrew Martin (seen here). On that webpage, he classifies this recommendation as "strategic," and I agree that it is also. The responses to these two black third move options are characterized by the moves 4.Nf3 and often 5.h3. Then white has the intention to develop their light-squared bishop to c4 and play their pawn to d3 should black permit this, which black usually does. Again, playing moves like an unprovoked h3, and playing d3 when white sometimes ends up playing d4 later on does mean that white isn't fighting for the objectively largest advantage possible, but it also means that you will not overstretch and be worse early on either. Furthermore, many of the lines that I am recommending keep more pieces on the board while having clear and intuitive strategic plans to follow early on. This means that there is less to study and remember.

With black's move 3...Qd8, I recommend a slightly different strategy. Here, I will be recommending that white not play with the move 5.h3. Often the line continues 3...Qd8, 4.Nf3 Nf6, 5.Bc4. The immediate Bc4 instead of h3 means that black can't play 5...Bg4 anyway because of the tactic 6.Bxf7 followed by 7.Ne5+ and 8.Nxg4, where white wins a pawn, exposes black's king and is probably objectively winning. (Oddly, 6.Ne5 is also quite advantageous for white.) Therefore, it doesn't make sense for white to prevent a move that black can't play anyway; meanwhile, white develops a piece instead and creates some latent threats to black's king.

I have looked into other offbeat responses for white to 2...Qxd5 in the Scandinavian, such as the idea 3.Nc3 followed by 4.g3. However, I was never satisfied with the resulting positions, as they aren't necessarily solid and they don't give white much of anything if anything at all. Therefore, I have adopted this "system," and I will discuss the subvariations in detail in the sections below.


Black's Main Options Following 2...Qxd5, 3.Nc3 Qa5, 4.Nf3

The continuation 2...Qxd5, 3.Nc3 Qa5 is the most common line overall in the Scandinavian Defense for black. Again, this easy-to-remember system that I am recommending has white play 4.Nf3 no matter which of the three main options black chooses in the 2...Qxd5 line. Also, remember that against 3...Qa5 and 3...Qd6, white will likely play 5.h3 unless black does something unusual on move four. As you will see, often the way to determine whether to play 5.h3 in either of those variations is based on these cases: 1.) If black can still play Bg4 in a single move (i.e. if black's light-squared bishop has not moved yet); 2.) If the potential pin on the f3-knight can be easily broken (i.e. if black has played g6, when after Bg4, pinning, h3 forces the bishop to take the knight or break the pin); and 3.) If white playing Bc4 creates a tactic on f7 should black pin with Bg4 (e.g. the line 2...Qxd5, 3.Nc3 Qa5, 4.Nf3 e5, 5.Bc4 Bg4??, 6.Bxf7+ Kxf7, 7.Ng5+, winning a pawn and exposing black's king).

Generally, moves like h3 and a3 are questionable unless very justified, as they otherwise only waste a move and potentially weaken your castled king. Often, weaker players will be overly cautious and play such moves regularly, but my point in recommending the prophylactic h3 so regularly is to maintain the integrity of white's kingside while reducing black's options; this gives white more options with how to progress during the game. Also, in the Scandinavian, black often applies pressure to white's d-pawn because of black's open d-file, so the move h3 prevents tactics and complications that would undermine white's center. In these and other lines, such moves could be called "useful waiting moves," as white often wants to determine how black will develop before making committal moves in the center.

In order of popularity, here are some example games and lines:

2...Qxd5, 3.Nc3 Qa5, 4.Nf3:

4...Nf6, 5.h3: 5...c6 [5...Bf5, 6.Bc4 e6 (6...c6 transposes to the "main line")(6...Nbd7, 7.d3 e6, 8.0-0 c6 transposes to "main line"), 7.d3 c6 (7...Nd5?, 8.Bxd5 exd5, 9.Nd4!) transposes to "main line"][5...Nc6, 6.Bc4 Ne5, 7.Bb3 Nxf3, 8.Qxf3][5...g6, 6.Bc4 Bg7, 7.0-0][5...e6, 6.d4 c5, 7.Bd3][5...e5, 6.Bc4 Bb4 (6...Bd6, 7.0-0), 7.0-0][5...c5, 6.d4 cxd4 (6...e6 transposes to 5...e6 line), 7.Qxd4 Nc6, 8.Qh4], 6.Bc4 Bf5 (6...b5, 7.Bd3), 7.d3 e6 (7...Nd5?, 8.Bd2), 8.0-0 Nbd7 (8...Bd6, 9.Ne4 Bxe4 (9...Be7, 10.Re1 Nxe4 (10...0-0?, 11.Nxf6+ Bxf6, 12.g4 Bg6, 13.h4 h6, 14.Bd2), 11.dxe4 Bg6, 12.Bf4)(9...Nxe4??, 10.dxe4), 10.dxe4 Qc7, 11.Qe2 Nbd7, 12.c3), 9.Re1 Be7 (9...0-0-0, 10.Bf4: {Speelman v. Summerscale, Championship of Great Britain (1990)})(9...Bd6, 10.Bd2 {Ledger v. Pickersgill, Hastings Chess Congress (2005)})(9...h6, 10.Bd2)(9...Nd5, 10.Bxd5 cxd5, 11.Nd4 Bg6)(9...Bg6, 10.Ne2), 10.a3: 10...0-0, 11.Bd2: {Janos Havasi v. Janos Laszlo, Hungary Team Championship (1992): 1.e4 d5 2. exd5 Qxd5 3. Nc3 Qa5 4. Nf3 Nf6 5. h3 Bf5 6. Bc4 e6 7. O-O Nbd7 8. a3 c6 9. Re1 Be7 10. d3 O-O 11. Bd2 Qd8 12. Nh4 Bg6 13. Nxg6 hxg6 14. Qe2 Nb6 15. Ba2 Nbd5 16. Ne4 Qc7 17. Ng5 Bd6 18. c4 Ne7 19. Nf3 Rad8 20. d4 Qb8 21. Bc3 b5 22. Rad1 bxc4 23. Ba5 Rd7 24. Bxc4 Rb7 25. b4 Nfd5 26. Rc1 Qa8 27. Rc2 Rbb8 28. Ng5 Bf4 29. Ne4 Bc7 30. Bxc7 Nxc7 31. Ng5 Ncd5 32. Qe4 Qb7 33. Bxd5 Nxd5 34. Qh4 Nf6 35. Re3 Rfd8 36. Rf3 Rd5 37. Rc5 Rbd8 38. Rxd5 Rxd5 39. Rxf6 gxf6 40. Qh7+ Kf8 41. Qh8+ Ke7 42. Nh7 Rd8 43. Qxf6+ Ke8 44. Qh8+ Ke7 45. Qf6+ Ke8 46. Qg7 1/2-1/2}

4...Nc6, 5.Bb5: 5...Bd7 [5...Nf6, 6.Ne5 Bd7 (6...a6, 7.Bxc6+ bxc6, 8.d4), 7.Nxd7][5...a6, 6.Bxc6+ bxc6, 7.h3][5...Bg4?, 6.h3 Bh5, 7.g4 Bg6, 8.Ne5 0-0-0 (8...Be4??, 9.Rg1 a6, 10.Nc4 Qb4, 11.a3 Qc5, 12.d4 0-0-0, 13.dxc5 Rxd1+, 14.Kxd1)(8...Qb6??, 9.Nd5 Qc5, 10.Bxc6+ bxc6, 11.Nxc7+ Kd8, 12.Nxg6 hxg6, 13.Nxa8), 9.Nxc6 bxc6, 10.Bxc6], 6.a3 Nf6 (6...0-0-0, 7.0-0 a6, 8.Be2), 7.0-0: {Delgado Ramirez v. Romero Holmes, Magistral Internacional de Aje (2010): 1.e4 Nc6, 2.Nf3 d5, 3.exd5 Qxd5, 4.Nc3 Qa5, 5.Bb5 Bd7, 6.a3 Nf6, 7.0-0 a6, 8.b4 Qb6, 9.Ba4 Nd4, 10.Bxd7+ Nxd7, 11.Bb2 e6, 12.Ne4 Qc6, 13.Re1 Nf5, 14.Ng3 Nxg3, 15.hxg3 Qd5, 16.Qe2 Qh5, 17.c4 Nf6, 18.d4 c6, 19.Rad1 Rd8, 20.Qd2 Be7, 21.Re5 Qh6, 22.Qe2 0-0, 23.Nh4 g6, 24.Nf3 Nd7, 25.Re4 Bf6, 26.Nh2 Bh8, 27.Rh4 Qg5, 28.Ng4 h5, 29.Bc1 Qe7, 30.Nh6+ Kg7, 31.Nf5+ gxf5, 32.Qxh5 Kg8 1-0}

4...c6, 5.h3: 5...Nf6 [5...Bf5, 6.Bc4 Nf6 transposes to 4...Nf6 "main line"] transposes to 4...Nf6 "main line"

4...Bf5, 5.Bc4: 5...Nf6 [5...e6, 6.d3][5...c6, 6.d3][5...Nbd7, 6.d3], 6.d3 to be played like the 4...Nf6 line above, with the possible exclusion of h3

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4...g6, 5.Bc4: 5...Bg7, 6.0-0 Nf6, 7.h3 transposes to the 4...Nf6, 5.h3 g6 line

4...Bg4, 5.h3: 5...Bh5 [5...Bxf3, 6.Qxf3 c6, 7.b4!][5...Qh4??, 6.hxg4 Qxh1, 7.d4], 6.d4

4...e5?, 5.Bc4: 5...Nc6 [5...Bd6, 6.Ng5 Nh6, 7.d3 0-0, 8.Nge4][5...Bg4??, 6.Bxf7+], 6.d3


Black's Main Options Following 2...Qxd5, 3.Nc3 Qd6, 4.Nf3

For those who play the Scandinavian at the higher levels, the move 3...Qd6 has quickly become the most popular line for black, though admittedly the Scandinavian is still relatively rare in general; the reason for the Scandinavian Defense's rarity at all levels has already been mentioned in the introduction of this blog post. That being said, even Magnus Carlsen plays the Scandinavian Defense, having played two games as black against Fabiano Caruana. Magnus, however, seems to prefer 3...Qa5 and 3...Qd8, as those are the only games available in databases.

The move 3...Qd6 saw a surge in popularity several years ago, and it is still regarded as a formidable and highly viable option at all levels. This is likely because the queen on d6 plays a more active role in the game (as opposed to the 3...Qd8 lines) and because it doesn't get harassed as much as in the 3...Qa5 lines; that said, black must still take some measures to secure the queen's position on d6, and this often involves the move a6 or, more commonly, c6 early in the game to keep the knight out of b5.

Here are some example games and lines that showcase my recommendations for how to meet this variation:

2...Qxd5, 3.Nc3 Qd6, 4.Nf3:

4...Nf6, 5.h3: 5...c6 [5...a6, 6.d4 b5 (6...Bf5, 7.Bd3 Bxd3, 8.Qxd3)(6...Nc6, 7.Be3 Bf5 (7...e5, 8.a3), 8.Bd3 Bxd3, 9.Qxd3)(6...e6, 7.Bd3)(6...c5, 7.dxc5 Qxc5 (7...Qxd1+, 8.Kxd1), 8.Bd3)(6...g6, 7.Bc4 Bg7 (7...b5, 8.Bb3), 8.a4), 7.Bd3 Bb7, 8.0-0][5...g6, 6.Bc4 Bg7, 7.0-0 0-0 (7...a6, 8.a4), 8.d4 a6, 9.a4 c5, 10.dxc5 Qxc5, 11.Bb3][5...Bf5, 6.Bc4 c6 (6...a6, 7.0-0) transposes to the "main line"][5...Nc6, 6.d4 a6 (6...Bf5, 7.Bd3 Bxd3, 8.Qxd3) transposes to the 4...Nf6, 5.h3 a6 line], 6.Bc4 Bf5 (6...b5, 7.Bb3 a5, 8.a4 b4, 9.Ne2)(6...Be6, 7.Bxe6 Qxe6+, 8.Ne2), 7.0-0 e6 (7...Ndb7, 8.d3 e6 transposes to the "main line"), 8.d3 Nbd7 (8...Be7, 9.Ne2)(8...a5, 9.a4), 9.Ne2

4...g6, 5.Bc4: 5...Bg7 (5...Nf6, 6.0-0 Bg7 transposes to the 5...Bg7 line), 6.0-0 Nf6 (6...Bg4?, Bxf7+!), 7.Re1

4...c6, 5.h3: 5...Bf5 [5...Nf6 transposes to 4...Nf6 "main line"], 6.Bc4 e6 (6...Nd7, 7.0-0 Nf6 transposes to the 4...Nf6 line)(6...Nf6 transposes to the 4...Nf6 "main line"), 7.0-0 Nf6 transposes to the 4...Nf6 lines

4...a6, 5.h3: 5...g6 [5...Nf6 transposes to the 4...Nf6 line)(5...Bf5, 6.d4 Nf6 transposes to the 4...Nf6 line][5...Nc6, 6.d4 Bf5, 7.Bd3 Bxd3, 8.Qxd3 Nf6 transposes to the 4...Nf6 line], 6.Bc4 Bg7, 7.d4 Nf6 transposes to the 4...Nf6 line

4...Nc6, 5.h3: 5...Bf5 [5...Nf6 transposes to the 4...Nf6, 5.h3 Nc6 line][5...e5, 6.Bc4 Be7 (6...Be6, 7.Nb5 Qd7 (7...Qe7, 8.Bxe6 fxe6, 9.0-0 e4, 10.Re1), 8.Bxe6 fxe6, 9.0-0), 7.d3 Nf6, 8.0-0][5...a6 transposes to the 4...a6, 5.h3 Nc6 line], 6.Bb5

4...Bg4, 5.h3: 5...Bh5 [5...Bxf3, 6.Qxf3 Nc6 (6...c6, 7.Bc4 e6, 8.Ne4), 7.Bb5], 6.Nb5 Qb6 (6...Qd8, 7.g4 Bg6, 8.d3)(6...Qd7?, 7.g4 Bg6, 8.Ne5 Qc8 (8...Qd8, 9.Qe2 c6 (9...a6, 10.Bg2)(9...Bxc2??, 10.Qc4!), 10.h4!), 9.Bg2)(6...Qc6, 7.g4 Bg6, 8.d4)(6...Qe6+, 7.Be2), 7.d4

4...Bf5, 5.d4: 5...Nf6 [5...e6, 6.Nb5 Qd8 (6...Qb6, 7.Bf4 Na6, 8.Ne5), 7.Bf4 Na6, 8.c4][5...a6, 6.Bd3 Bxd3, 7.Qxd3][5...c6, 6.Nh4], 6.Bc4

4...c5?, 5.d4: 5...Nf6 [5...a6, 6.Ne4 Qc7, 7.Nxc5][5...cxd4, 6.Nb5], 6.Nb5 Qd8, 7.Bf4 Nd5 (7...Na6?, 8.dxc5), 8.Bxb8 Rxb8, 9.dxc5