The Four Knights Game is a King’s Pawn Opening beginning with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6
This opening is a classical example of both players adhering strictly to the classical Opening Principles of chess – both sides claim space in the center and rapidly develop their knights to their most active squares. While the Four Knights Game isn’t considered as ambitious as some of white’s more popular options after 1. e4 e5 (such as the Ruy Lopez or the Italian Game), it certainly remains a solid opening choice – for both white and black!
White has two main options in this symmetrical position – the Scotch Four Knights Game with 4. d4 and the Spanish Four Knights Game with 4. Bb5
White uses his extra move to thrust forward in the center. Black often continues with 4…exd4 5. Nxd4 Bb4 (other moves aren’t as popular – for example, 5…Bc5 6. Be3! and white is able to develop with a threat. Black must prevent white from winning a piece with Nxc6.)
The most popular line by far continues with 6. Nxc6 bxc6 7. Bd3 d5 8. exd5 cxd5 9. 0-0 0-0
Both sides rush to evacuate the king from the center now that the e-file has opened up. Black may also castle before striking back at the center with …d5, but that will generally result in this same position – just with a different move order!
White will often play 10. Bg5 here, pinning the black knight. After 10…c6 to stabilize black’s central pawn, white can play 11. Qf3 to increase the pressure.
If black breaks the pin with 11…Be7, we’re left with an interesting position:
Black has the infamous “Hanging Pawns” structure, with the c-and-d pawns in the center with no friendly pawns on adjacent files. Black has a space advantage for the time being, but white has a more compact pawn structure, easy piece development, and no real weaknesses. The position is roughly equal.
White develops the light-squared bishop actively, completing his kingside development. Black can do the same with 4…Bb4
“Removing the Defender” ideas to win the black e-pawn here do not work. For example, after 5. Bxc6?! bxc6 6. Nxe5 Qe7, white isn’t going to be able to maintain their extra pawn.
Instead both players will generally focus on rapid development. 5. 0-0 0-0 6. d3 d6 7. Bg5
White is threatening to play Nd5, when the pawn structure on black’s kingside would be wrecked. To prevent this, black will usually break the symmetry here and play 7…Bxc3
Maintaining the symmetry with 7…Bg4 can be dangerous for black after 8. Nd5 Nd4. In a highly tactical position, white’s extra move is bound to come in handy eventually. White has won some fast games in this line if black is not careful – see the video above for examples!
After 8. bxc3 Qe7:
Black’s c6 knight is rather restricted by the central pawns, so black will often re-route this knight to e6, where it can attack white’s bishop and break the pin.
White can preempt this with 9. Bxc6, but giving up the “bishop pair” not very ambitious. The pawn structure would become symmetrical once more, and the game is equal.
Instead, after 9. Re1 Ne8 10. d4 Ne6:
White’s most ambitious option is 11. Bc1! Surprisingly, the bishop has the most scope from its starting square – it may swing to the other diagonal with Ba3 later, if it suits white’s purposes.
Besides 4. d4 and 4. Bb5, white has some alternative options in the Four Knights Game, but most of them are not well-regarded. For example:
The Four Knights Game is an easy-to-learn, fundamentally sound opening that can be played at any level of chess. Both players will develop rapidly and castle early in almost all variations, and the struggle will begin from there!
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