Scholar’s Mate In The Netflix Miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit”

The very first game in the wonderful “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix miniseries) features Scholar’s Mate. Something most beginners learn the hard way but once you fall for it you usually never forget it. In the video above, NM Fernando Broca explains what happens in this game.

The Queens Gambit

In this highly acclaimed Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit”, based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis with the same name, we follow the challenges faced by an orphan Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) at and away from the chessboard.

Beth wants to become one of the world’s strongest chess players but must also deal with drug and alcohol addictions. The series is set in the 1950s and 1960s and teaches us a lot about life as well as chess.

It’s Mr. Shaibel (played by Bill Camp), the orphanage custodian, who teaches Beth to play chess and in her first game, he also teaches her the notorious Scholar’s Mate.

What Exactly Is Scholar’s Mate?

This is a mating attack many beginners learn the same way Beth does. You usually only become aware of it after losing to it. Here is one way to achieve Scholar’s Mate:

At the start of a chess game, the squares f2 and f7 are the weakest points because only the king defends them.

In comparison, four pieces defend the pawns on e7 and d7 – the queen, king, bishop, and knight. This means the weakest pawn closest to the king is the f-pawn and makes it a logical target.

Chess Starting Position
The f-pawn is only defended by a king but the e and d-pawns are defended by four pieces

There are other pawns only defended by one piece but losing the king ends the game.

For example, white can attack the h7 pawn with a queen, and bishop. Black can recapture with his rook and even if he loses material he can play on.

However, if white attacks the f7 pawn with a queen and bishop this poses a much greater threat. If the king is the sole defender then Qxf7 is checkmate. Because the bishop defends the queen and the king is lost.

Always remember if you are down in material but checkmate your opponent you win the game. After all, checkmate ends every chess game.

Scholars Mate from the Netflix miniseries "The Queen's Gambit".
Scholars Mate Final Position

How To Defend Against The Scholar’s Mate

Scholar’s mate is one of the first checkmates a chess beginner learns but the downside is your opponent can easily defend against it. There are many ways to defend against Scholar’s Mate. Here are a few suggestions.

First, black could play the French Defense with 1…e6. Now there is no point in trying 2.Bc4 because the bishop no longer attacks f7. Furthermore, 2…d5 will gain a tempo by forcing the bishop to move.

The French Defense
French Defense

Black could alternatively play 1…e5, and White follows up with2.Bc4. This is a good attacking square for the bishop in many openings but after 2…Nf6, there is no way for the queen to attack f7.

Defending Scholar's Mate in Chess
2…Nf6 Defense

The knight on f6 controls h5 and blocks the queen’s path from f3. White’s pawn on e4 is under attack so white must defend it with a move like 3. Nc3.

One thing to remember is even though Scholar’s Mate is easily defended you mustn’t become complacent because it’s easy to lose your pawn on e5 and rook on h8. This is another well-known trap and another reason White plays 2.Qh5.

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This happens if black tries to block the checkmate with g6. A possible line of play is 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 g6? 3.Qxe5+ Qe7 4.Qxh8.

Because the capture of e5 leads to a loss of material black is advised to first defend the pawn before playing g6. White only has the queen attacking f7 on move 2 and isn’t threatening checkmate yet.

A solid defense is 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 Nc6 (the knight defends e5) 3.Bc4 (attacking f7 and threatening Qxf7 mate) g6 (blocking the queen from capturing on f7) 3.Qf3 (white is determined to attack f7) Nf6 (blocking the queen’s path to f7 – 3…Bg7 loses to 4. Qxf7 mate).

Interestingly enough there is an even quicker checkmate than the four moves needed for Scholar’s Mate and this is called Fool’s Mate. Black only needs two moves to win the game (1. g4 e5 2. f3 Qh4#)

Fool's Mate in Chess
Fool’s Mate

Final Thoughts On Scholar’s Mate

Even past World Champions have fallen for Scholar’s Mate so if it happens to you, know you are in good company. Mikhail Tal’s brother used it to defeat him!

Mikhail Tal would go on to become World Chess Champion known for his attacking style. Perhaps this loss made him realize he preferred being the attacking player!

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The producers of the Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” set a very realistic tone using Scholar’s Mate in the first game.

This was a very good way to illustrate Beth’s humble beginnings in life and at chess. At the same time, it’s also a way of losing a game almost every chess player can identify with.

This is the perfect way to draw us in and make us eager to watch more episodes.

Unlike a lot of movies, in the Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” the chess games were given careful consideration. Seeing proper respect given to the game we love so much is always good.

Further Reading

Read this informative article to help you avoid the “Most Common Beginner Mistakes“.

While you are there why not brush up on your chess strategy?

Remember, if the series inspires you to take up the game or take your chess up a notch, a very effective way to go about it is by becoming a member of the iChess Club for only $1!

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