The Scotch Opening – An Attacking Chess Opening for White

The Scotch Opening (or Scotch Game) is a chess opening for white that starts with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4. The Scotch Opening caters to different playing chess styles and can easily be played by chess beginners and intermediate players.

the scotch opening a complete guide blog image

The Scotch Opening proves you don’t need to spend hours burning the midnight oil studying chess theory to play a powerful chess opening.

Solid and offering enough dynamic potential to please players of different playing styles in chess the Scotch Opening is a dependable opening.

If it’s good enough for Garry Kasparov, one of the all-time greatest chess players to ever play the game of chess, it’s surely good enough for everybody else!

What is the Scotch Opening?

The starting position of the Scotch Opening is reached with the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4.

starting position of the Scotch Opening
The Starting Position of the Scotch Opening

The Scotch Opening made its debut in a correspondence match between the Edinburgh Chess Club and the London Chess Club, 1824 – 1828.

Although a regularly played opening in chess, the Scotch Opening never threatened to dethrone the Ruy Lopez or Italian chess openings, as the most popular choice for white.

A lot of players choose this opening because it requires relatively little theoretical knowledge and is dependable. Like the Ruy Lopez and Italian Opening, black is not going to come up with a refutation.

The Scotch Opening in chess also caters to different playing styles.

If you like tactical battles, choose the Mieses Variation. For quieter positions, play the Scotch Four Knights, a dependable way to achieve a small edge.

Scotch Opening Four Knights Variation

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3

scotch four knights
Scotch Four Knights

Now black has two main options:

  • 5…Bb4
  • 5…Bc5

With 5…Bb4 black renews the threat against the e4 pawn and asks white how he will defend e4 and d4. The move 6.Bd3? is a blunder that loses a piece with 6…Nxd4!

four knights 5...bb4
Four Knights 5…Bb4

White’s best approach is 6.Nxc6 followed by 7.Bd3.

The mainline after 5…Bb4 usually continues 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Bd3 d5 8.exd5 cxd5 9.O-O O-O 10.Bg5 c6 11.Qf3

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White has a slight lead in development, his rooks are connected, and his pieces are very active.

However, black’s position is solid and he has the c6 and d5 pawns giving him control of central squares. The b- and e-files are available for the black rooks.

All-in-all, this position of the Scotch Opening remains dynamically balanced with a draw the most likely outcome. That doesn’t mean you should give up on the idea of a win, as the following game clearly shows.

Schneider, Ilja – Onischuk, Alexander, 1-0, EU-Cup, 2009

5…Bc5 attacks the knight on d4. A solid approach by white is 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Bd3 d6 8.O-O Ng4

scotch four knights 5...bc5
Scotch Four Knights 5…Bc5

Black is threatening 9…Qh4! Although 9.h3 is the most popular response by white in this position, 9.Bf4 has a higher winning percentage for white.

Take a look at how the strong grandmaster Gawain Jones played this position of the Scotch Opening with the white pieces.

Jones, Gawain – Santos, Latasa, J., 1-0, 19th Dubai Open 2017

In the following video, IM Irina Bulmaga presents some of the most powerful attacking ideas in the Scotch Opening:

Scotch Opening Mieses Variation 4…Nf6

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nxc6

mieses variation 5.nxc6
Mieses variation 5.Nxc6

This variation of the Scotch Opening is named after Jacques Mieses, who played it frequently at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century.

White exchanges on c6 to save himself from having to defend the knight on d4 and to give black a structural weakness.

Black must play 5…bxc6 since 5…dxc6 6.Qxd8+ Kxd8 leaves him with no compensation for his doubled pawns.

5...dxc6? 6.Qxd8+ Kxd8 Mieses variation
The Scotch Opening 5…dxc6? 6.Qxd8+ Kxd8 in the Mieses variation

After 5…bxc6 6.e5 Qe7 7.Qe2 Nd5:

mieses variation 7...nd5
The Scotch Opening Mieses variation 7…Nd5

Both sides have restricted their development by placing the queens on e2 and e7. Black’s queen, however, isn’t tied down to defending a pawn and has greater freedom.

When white plays c4 to drive the knight from its central position on d5, Black can play …Ba6 pinning the pawn.

White has the long-term advantage of the better pawn structure in this variation of the Scotch Opening. 

After 8.c4, black’s two most popular choices by a long way are

  • 8…Ba6
  • 8…Nb6

Scotch Opening Mieses Variation 8…Ba6

mieses variation 8...ba6 1
The Scotch Opening Mieses variation 8…ba6 1

This is black’s most active and aggressive response in the Mieses Variation of the Scotch Opening.

8…Ba6 pins the c-pawn against the queen.

The drawback is it’s more committal than 8…Nb6. By keeping the bishop on c8 black keeps the option of developing it on the kingside.

After white defends his c- and e-pawns, the bishop can find itself out of play. When white breaks the pin on c4, the knight will have to move anyway.

White’s most popular response by far is 9.b3, but 9.g3 is a good alternative. The bishop doesn’t usually get developed on g2 in the Scotch Opening, but there is a sound justification for it in this instance.

Developing the bishop to g2 puts pressure on the doubled c6-pawn.

mieses variation 9.b3
The Scotch Opening Mieses variation 9.b3

9.b3 not only supports c4, it allows white to play Bb2 defending e5 or Ba3. Black usually continues with 9…g6 intending to develop the bishop on g7 and castle.

Note that 9…d6 is powerfully met with 10.Qe4! Nb4 (the only way to defend c6) 11.a3 gives white the advantage.

White intends to play 10.f4 to protect the e5 pawn and allow him to move his queen out of the pin. Once again White has a pleasant space advantage in this position of the Scotch Opening.

Here are two former world champions, Kasparov and Karpov, showing us how to play the Scotch Opening. 

Kasparov, Garry – Karpov, Anatoly, 1-0, Tilburg, 1991

Another good way for white to play the position is with 9.g3

mieses variation 9.g3
The Scotch Opening Mieses variation 9.g3

and after 9…g6 10.b3 Bg7 11.Bb2 O-O 12.Bg2 Rae8 13.O-O

mieses variation 8...ba6 9.g3
A typical variation in the Scotch Opening Mieses with 8…Ba6 9.g3

This is a dynamically equal position of the Scotch Opening, where both sides have everything to play for.

Magnus Carlsen has played this position with white against the very best in the world.

Carlsen, Magnus – Aronian, Levon, 1/2-1/2, Wch Blitz 5th, 2010

Scotch Opening Mieses Variation 8…Nb6

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nxc6 bxc6 6.e5 Qe7 7.Qe2 Nd5 8.c4 Nb6

The Scotch Opening Mieses variation 8...nb6
The Scotch Opening Mieses Variation 8…Nb6

Now the modern approach in the Scotch Opening is to play 9.Nc3 instead of 9.Nd2. The move 9.Nd2 is a sound choice and was played by Kasparov as recently as 2016 against Fabiano Caruana.

Garry Kasparov played the move 9.Nc3 back in 1999 and 2000 instead of the previously more popular 9.Nd2. Ever since then, 9.Nc3 has become the popular choice.

Although 9.Nd2 is a flexible waiting move, it blocks the bishop on c1. There is invariably a give-and-take with every move in chess.

9.Nc3

mieses variation 9.nc3
The Scotch Opening Mieses Variation 9.Nc3

After 9.Nc3 Qe6, attacking the c4 pawn which 9.Nc3 leaves undefended, 10.Qe4 Bb4 11.Bd2 Ba6 12.b3 Bxc3 13.Bxc3 d5 14.Qh4

mieses variation with 9.nc3 and 14.qh4
The Scotch Opening Mieses variation with 9.Nc3 and 14.Qh4

Since former world champion Kasparov used this variation of the Scotch Opening to defeat Jan Timman in 2000, Fabiano Caruana has also played it with success.

Take a look at how a world champion contender plays this position.

Caruana, Fabiano – Bacrot, Etienne, Thessaloniki FIDE GP, 2013

9.Nd2

mieses variation 9.nd2
The Scotch Opening Mieses variation 9.Nd2

This move used to be the mainline of the Scotch Opening 8..Nb6 variation until Kasparov introduced 9.Nc3 and 14.Qh4.

The advantage of 9.Nd2 is it protects the c4 pawn allowing the queen to move to either e3 or e4. When white plays 9.Nc3 the queen becomes the defender of c4.

9.Nd2 Qe6, to allow the bishop to develop and put pressure on c4, 10.b3 a5 11.Bb2 a4 12.g3

The Scotch Opening Mieses variation with 9.nd2 12.g3
The Scotch Opening Mieses variation 9.Nd2 12.g3

Developing the bishop on g2 will put pressure on the doubled c6 pawn and allow the king to reach safety.

Shabalov, Alexander – Yurtaev, Lenoid, 1-0, Elista ol (Men), 1998

White can set a very subtle trap for black in this variation by switching up the move order. This could be a handy surprise weapon in the Scotch Opening.

Take a look at this very instructive video showing the importance of not playing automatically in the opening.

Scotch Opening 4…Bc5

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5

scotch 4...bc5
Scotch 4…Bc5

The move 4…Bc5 is nearly always a helpful developing move in the opening. In the Scotch Opening, it has the added benefit of creating a threat against the knight on d4.

When black plays 4…Bc5 instead of 4…Nf6 black is focusing his attention on the d4 square rather than the e4 square.

White has to either defend or exchange his knight on d4. There are three main choices for white in dealing with the threat to his knight

  • 5.Be3
  • 5.Nxc6
  • 5.Nb3

5.Be3

Against 4…Bc5 of the Scotch Opening 5.Be3 is the most popular choice by white.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5 5.Be3

4...bc5 5.be3 scotch opening
4…Bc5 5.Be3 Scotch Opening

Ideas in the 5.Be3 Variation

White decides to follow black’s example and develop with a threat. Now white threatens to play Nxc6 and win a piece with Bxc5.

Once again 5…Qf6 is a good move for black. Now 6.Nxc6 can be met with 6…Bxe3 threatening checkmate on f2.

The knight on d4 is attacked three times and only defended twice, so white must take action to defend it or move it. Defending it with 6.c3 is the most popular choice.

And now there follows 6…Nge7 7.Bc4 Ne5 8.Be2 Qg6 9.O-O d6 10.f4

4...bc5 5.be3 and 10.f4 scotch opening
4…Bc5 5.be3 and 10.f4 Scotch Opening

The more often played move is 10.f3 but 10.f4 is a more aggressive move used by the current world champion Magnus Carlsen.

Magnus, Carlsen, – Leko, Peter, 1-0, Nanjing Pearl Spring 2nd, 2009

In this variation of the Scotch Opening, black frequently plays 7…O-O instead of 7…Ne5. This is a flexible developing move and keeps …Ne5 as a later option.

After 8.O-O Bb6 is a prophylactic move. This removes any tactics against an undefended bishop on c5. In this line, white must develop the knight to a3 since Nd2 loses a pawn after exchanges on d4.

The following is a game between Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short in 1992, a year before their world championship match.

Perhaps this victory influenced Kasparov’s decision to play the Scotch Opening in their world title match a year later.

Kasparov, Garry – Short, Nigel D, 1-0, Linares 10th, 1992

Whenever the black queen moves to f6 white must consider Nd4-b5. Restraining black’s two main pawn breaks …f5 and …d5 will often keep black in a passive position.

5.Nxc6

Like many variations of the Scotch Opening, this line was given new life by, former world champion, Garry Kasparov. He played it against Nigel Short in their world championship match of 1993.

As in the Mieses Variation of the Scotch Opening, white exchanges the d4 knight instead of defending it.

Although the vacant f6 square gives black the possibility of avoiding doubled pawns, Black usually plays 5…Qf6 and 6…dxc6. This avoids moving the queen twice.

Developing the queen to f6 avoids any chance of white denying black the right to castle with Qxd8 check.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5 5.Nxc6 Qf6

4...bc5 variation of the scotch opening with 5...qf6
4…Bc5 variation of the Scotch Opening with 5…Qf6

The modern approach by white is to defend the mate threat with 6.Qd2 keeping the option to play Qf4 later in the game.

Transposing to an endgame benefits white because white will then play against black’s structural weakness of doubled-pawns.

6…dxc6 7.Nc3 Be6

4...bc5 variation of the scotch opening with 7...be6
4…Bc5 variation of the Scotch Opening with 7…Be6

This position might appear very drawish but white can still play for a win.

Garry Kasparov managed a win from this position against the strong grandmaster Artur Jussupow.

Kasparov, Garry, – Jussupow, Artur, 1-0, Horgen CS, 1994

the scotch opening im irina bulmaga email 1
Get 50% Off Instantly! 80/20 Tactics Multiplier The Scotch Opening – IM Irina Bulmaga

Transposing to an Endgame in the Scotch Opening

Playing for an endgame advantage from the start of the game is an effective strategy that can reduce the amount of opening theory by quite a bit.

In the Scotch Opening black’s queenside pawn structure is often weakened by Nxc6. Watch the following video to see how white can take advantage of this in the endgame.

By playing 6.Qf3 white can offer to transpose to an endgame early in the game.

4...bc5 with 6.qf3 in the scotch opening
4…Bc5 with 6.Qf3 in the scotch opening

when 6…Qxf3 7.gxf3 bxc6 8.Be3 Bb6 9.c4 forces the exchange of bishops, or else c5 shuts the bishop out of the game.

4...bc5 with 9.c4 scotch opening
4…Bc5 with 9.c4 Scotch Opening

After 9…Bxe3 10.fxe3 white has good control of the central squares in exchange for his doubled pawns.

Here is a game showing how even a 2600 rated player couldn’t hold this position of the Scotch Opening with the black pieces. Games like this remind us why devoting time to study the endgame is extremely important!

Ni, Hua – Jakovenko, Dmitrij, 1-0, CHN-RUS Summit Men 3rd, 2006

If you are not a fan of chess endgames then it’s best to consider playing 5.Be3 or 5.Nb3 instead of 5.Nxc6.

In this variation of the Scotch Opening, white’s better structure gains in strength after the queens are exchanged.

Another good strategy by white is to exchange black’s bishop on c5. This is often black’s best minor piece and combines well with the queen on f6 to put pressure on white’s f2 pawn.

5.Nb3

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5 5.Nb3

4...bc5 and 5.nb3 scotch opening
4…Bc5 and 5.Nb3 Scotch Opening

Although b3 might not be the best square for the knight, white gains a tempo by attacking the undefended bishop on c5.

This variation is the one to play if you want to avoid the queenless middlegame and endgame that often arise in the Scotch Opening 5.Nxc6 variation.

Of course, trying to avoid endgames in chess is not a sound long-term strategy. Fortunately, there are many top-quality endgame courses available to teach you how to win games in the endgame.

Play can continue 5…Bb6 6.Nc3 Nf6 7.a4 a6 8.Be2 d6 9.O-O Be6 10.Nd5

4...bc5 5.nb3 variation of scotch opening with 10.nd5
4…Bc5 5.Nb3 variation of the Scotch Opening with 10.Nd5

Now white will gain the bishop pair because black’s d-pawn will become very weak after Nxb6.

There isn’t a lot of theory to know in this variation of the Scotch Opening. Your knowledge of middlegame techniques will serve you well here.

Take a look at this very well-played middlegame by Michael Adams against Peter Wells.

Adams, Michael – Wells, Peter K, 1-0, Dublin zt, 1993

It’s also possible to create an unbalanced position by castling queenside with white.

This is the approach taken by Magnus Carlsen against Etienne Bacrot, a strong 2700 rated player.

Carlsen, Magnus – Bacrot, Etienne, 1-0, Nanjing Pearl Spring 3rd, 2010

Here is IM Irina Bulmaga demonstrating the tactical resources white has available in positions with opposite side castling.

Fourth Move Alternatives by Black in the Scotch Opening

Of all the fourth move alternatives available to black 4…Bb4+ along with 4…Qf6 are the most popular.

4…Qf6 often transposes to the 4…Bc5 variations after 5.Be3 Bc5 or 5.Nxc6 Bc5.

There is one other variation white must know how to play against. This is the Steinitz Variation (4…Qh4), named after the first world chess champion Wilhelm Steinitz.

Neither of these two lines, 4…Bb4+ and 4…Qh4, are likely to pose white problems. In chess and the Scotch Opening, early attacks, before completing your development, are unlikely to cause problems for your opponent.

4…Bb4+

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Bb4+

4...bb4 variation of the scotch opening
4…Bb4+ variation of the Scotch Opening

This move is chosen by black because blocking the check with c3 deprives the white knight of its natural developing square.

After 5.c3, 5..Bc5 threatens to win the knight on d4. White defends with 6.Be3 and black removes any tactical shots against the undefended bishop on c5 with 6…Bb6.

The moves by both sides have been logical and easy to understand. Take a look at this game between two strong grandmasters both rated 2700+.

Yu Yangyi – Bu Xiangzhi, 1-0, World Blitz, 2016

4…Qh4 Steinitz Variation

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Qh4

steinitz variation 4...qh4 scotch opening
Steinitz Variation 4…Qh4 of the Scotch Opening

Black attacks the e4 pawn, but developing the queen this early to only win a pawn is hardly worthwhile. This is true in both the Scotch Opening and chess in general.

Yes, it might catch the unprepared white player off-guard but nowadays most players will know how to play this variation. There are simply too many good resources for players now to risk taking somebody by surprise.

A little time spent studying this variation is all it takes to ensure that in the ensuing attacking play black is kept on the back foot. Giving up a pawn to play with all this initiative is an opportunity not to be missed by white.

5.Nc3 Bb4 6.Be2 Qxe4 7.Nb5! Is a great way to deal with the double-attack against the white knight and displace the black king to d8.

steinitz variation 7.nb5
Steinitz Variation 7.Nb5

For the cost of a pawn white has a lead in development, is ready to castle and has trapped the black king in the center.

Still, hard as it is to believe strong players sometimes attempt to play this variation. Here are two players rated around 2500 indulging in the Steinitz Variation.

Unsurprisingly white won the game in 25 moves.

Sinka, Istvan, – Zenker, Othmar, 1-0, WC 2001

In Conclusion

Playing the Scotch Opening leads to positions that appear simple on the surface but contain a lot of hidden venom for the unwary black player.

A well-prepared opponent with good fundamental skills in chess can certainly navigate the Scotch Opening safely.

Even then white will often have a position that is easier to play and a space advantage.

The moves for white are easy to understand, which makes them easier to remember.

In the Scotch Opening theory and opening, principles merge seamlessly into one cohesive whole.

Become an all-around better chess player by playing this classic chess opening that has been played for almost 200 years!

Act now and Get 50% Off! 80/20 Tactics Multiplier The Scotch Game Learn the key squares and tactics involved in the Scotch Game with excellent coaching from IM Irina Bulmaga. You will learn not only the tactics you want to play with white but also what black is trying to achieve. 8 hours of essential opening-specific tactics instruction can be yours for as little as $29.95!

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