When it comes to learning chess opening theory, most novice and club level chess players should aim for something practical that doesn’t take weeks or months to learn the ins and outs of. When facing 1. e4, black has options like the Ruy Lopez or the many Sicilian variations which individually could take days to learn without even really scratching the surface. Instead, black players who don’t mind playing balanced positions should consider the Scandinavian Defense because of how relatively easy it is to learn and how the basic plans are backed up by solid chess fundamentals.
The opening begins with white playing 1. e4 and black plays d5, immediately challenging white’s central play. Some chess openings like the Sicilian challenge the center indirectly, while others like the Caro-Kann or the French Defense prepare the d7-d5 advance with a supporting pawn move. Instead, black looks to quickly eliminate the white pawn on e4, keeping white from establishing two strong pawns in the center with a d2-d4 push on the second move.
Next the play continues with 2. exd5 Qxd5, 3. Nc3 Qa5. It would seem like white has gained a tempo by attacking black’s queen, but black gained a tempo first by forcing white’s e-pawn to move twice, and is simply giving it back. After white takes the center with 4. d4 black should solidify with the pawn move c6 which anchors the d5 square for later occupation and keeps white from ever clamping down on the black position with a d4-d5 push later in the game.
From here, white has multiple paths to completing his development, most of which follow the same scheme. He would like to keep his knights on f3 and c3 with bishops on e2 and g5 or c4 and d2. White usually castles king-side and will eventually move a rook to e1 to support the knight outpost at e5. Black’s development will involve moving a bishop to f5, avoiding traps involving moving his bishop to g4 and being attacked when white moves his knight from f3 to e5. Black will then play e6 to develop his dark-squared bishop along with having knights at f6 and d7. Black’s play will center around the d-file and the occupation of the d5 square with chances to jump into f4 after placing a bishop on d6.
With these development schemes in mind, one main line follows with 5. Nf3 Nf6, 6. Bc4 where black shouldn’t make the mistake of Bg4 which leads to 7. Bxf7+ Kxf7, 8. Ne5+ where black loses a pawn and has a much worse position. Instead black plays 6. … Bf5, and white continues with 7. Bd2 which threatens a discovered attack on the black queen by moving the c3-knight. The biggest threat white has is playing Nd5 or Ne4 followed by Nxf6 messing up black’s pawn structure. So black responds with 7. … e6 which prepares to develop his king-side bishop and allows black to counter Ne4 with Qd8, covering the f6-square.
This type of balanced position where the plans for both sides are clear is typical of the Scandinavian Defense, making it a very practical and effective alternative to other defenses to 1. e4 which are heavy in theory. Because of this, it’s an excellent opening to add to your repertoire.