The Scandinavian Defense, also known as the Center-Counter Defense, is a King’s Pawn Opening beginning with 1. e4 d5
Black immediately challenges white’s central control in the Scandinavian Defense, attacking white’s King’s Pawn immediately, and meanwhile opening lines for some pieces to develop.
White almost always responds to the Scandinavian Defense with 2. exd5. Not much else makes sense. 2. e5?! c5 is a significantly worse version for white of the “Advance variation” of other openings.
2. Nc3?! d4 isn’t very appealing for white either. And 2. d3?! dxe4 3. dxe4 Qxd1+ is certainly not what white has in mind.
2. exd5 Qxd5
White exposes the main downside of the Scandinavian Defense by drawing black’s queen into the center. Now white often plays 3. Nc3, developing a piece and forcing black to move the queen again.
After the queen moves, white can restore their central space advantage by playing d4.
3. Nc3 Qa5 4. d4 Nf6 5. Nf3 c6 6. Bc4 Bf5
This is typical of how the game usually progresses. Black has lost some tempos by moving the queen multiple times (and she’ll soon have to move again after white plays 7. Bd2 eyeing the queen: 7…Qc7 is a common response), and white controls the center with the queen’s pawn.
But black is not without their own advantages. Compared to a lot of other openings, black’s pieces have great mobility and scope. Black is often able to find good squares for all of their pieces and complete development, and it’s not too easy for white to exploit their lead in development.
White is usually said to gain a slight advantage in the Scandinavian Defense, but white has to play very precisely to make use of it. After black completes development, black will try to organize a strike in the center with either …e5 or …c5, negating white’s space advantage.
Many Scandinavian games proceed in the manner described above, but let’s look at a couple key variations:
1. e4 d5 2. exd5 Nf6 – The “Modern” Scandinavian Defense
In this variation, black seeks to recapture with a knight on d5 instead of with the queen, to avoid making multiple queen moves in the opening.
It’s surprisingly quite dangerous for white to try to hold on to his extra pawn. 3. c4 c6! 4. dxc6 Nxc6
Black is down a pawn, but has surprisingly good compensation, based on the fact that white cannot play d4 and take the center. After 5. Nf3 e5 6. d3 Bf5, black has his fair share of central space, more active pieces, and tremendous pressure against white’s “backwards” d-pawn.
This pressure can be later intensified with …Qd7 and …0-0-0, bringing heavy firepower down the d-file!
Instead, though, white can give the pawn back. After 3. Nf3 Nxd5 4. d4, white still succeeds in taking control of the center, and will be able to play c4 to gain even more space and kick the knight away. Black may not have to make multiple queen moves, but now they will have to make multiple knight moves!
1. E4 d5 2. exd5 Qxd5 3. Nf3 – the Kingside Knight variation
White’s not in a rush to kick the queen away from the center in this variation. White knows that the queen will have to move again sooner or later, and is avoiding blocking in their c-pawn with Nc3 for the time being. Depending on how black responds, white may want to kick the queen away later with c4 instead of Nc3 – gaining more space!
I’ve taken a liking to playing this way against the Scandinavian Defense myself in recent years, but it’s not without its downsides. If white doesn’t kick the queen away immediately, black can try to take advantage of this by developing more aggressively:
3…Nf6 4. d4 Bg4 5. Be2 Nc6
Black may seek to castle queenside very quickly, putting massive pressure against white’s d-pawn.
All in all, the Scandinavian Defense isn’t as bad as it looks. While it often results in black having to move the same piece multiple times in the opening, it’s difficult for white to exploit, and leaves black with open lines for most of their pieces.
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