The 4 Move Checkmate (Scholar’s mate)
The main goal of a chess game is mating the opponent’s king.
There are numerous ways a player can accomplish that during the game. According to some sources, the number of possible checkmate positions are somewhere around 10^43, although it is quite possible that this number is actually much higher.
Therefore, I think you will agree that there is no sense in trying to learn every possible checkmating position by heart.
However, there are some mating patterns that occur more often than the others. One rather well known checkmate that can happen right out of the opening is the famous 4 moves checkmate, more widely known as the Scholar’s mate.
The Scholar’s Mate
The Scholar’s mate is a mating pattern that often occurs in the games of beginners. Therefore, it is important to know the mechanism behind it, in order not to fall victim to it.
Generally, the Scholar’s mate refers to a position in which White queen, with the help of the White’s light squared bishop, delivers mate to the uncastled Black king on the square f7. One typical mating position is given on the diagram below:
The two prerequisites for a successful Scholar’s mate are as follows:
- f7 square must not be defended by another piece. In the diagram below, the knight on h6 defends the f7 square and therefore checkmate is impossible. If White takes the f7 pawn with the move Qxf7, Black simply recaptures with Nxf7 and there is no mate.
- Black’s d8 and d7 squares must be occupied by Black’s pieces (or controlled by White pieces, which is a less likely scenario). For instance, in the diagram below White queen on f7 doesn’t mate the Black king, since he has an escape route via d7.
The Most Common Way to Win Chess in 4 Moves
So far, we have examined the basic mating pattern and the prerequisites that need to be in place in order for a four move checkmate to be successfully executed.
The most common form of Scholar’s mate that happens over the board lasts exactly four moves, hence the origin of its alternative name.
As an example, let’s take a look at a model game in which a Scholar’s Mate appears after four moves.
White opens the game with the advance of the king’s pawn – 1 e2-e4
- Black replies symmetrically. He advances his own king’s pawn, which is often recommended for beginners (fighting for the control in the center): 1… e7-e5
- White now develops his queen with 2 Qd1-Qh5, attacking the f7 pawn and also the f7 pawn.
- This opening is known as The Parham attack, named after a chess player Bernard Parham who used to play it regularly
- Black should defend the e5 pawn. One way of doing so is playing the move 2… Nb8-Nc6.
- White now continues with bringing out his light squared bishop to c4 with the move 3 Bf1-Bc4
- We can see now that both White’s queen and White’s bishop are attacking f7. In the beginner games, Black often forgets about that threat and continues to develop with 3… Ng8-Nf6.
- Black has left the pawn on f7 undefended and all the prerequisites for the Scholar’s mate are met. Therefore, White can deliver mate by taking the f7 pawn with his queen: 4 Qh5-Qxf7++ mate.
Don’t Become Fixated on the Scholar’s Mate
There is a certain similarity between a chess novice delivering the first Scholar’s mate of his life and a drug addict.
They both want more… and the desire for more can cause both the chess novice and the drug addict some serious trouble.
Chess players that are new to the game, playing other players of similar skill level, often succeed in delivering the Scholar’s mate, because their opponent is not experienced enough to pay attention to tactical threats.
Having realized that they can win a chess game in such a fast and smooth fashion, they often try to execute the same strategy over and over again. There are two serious drawbacks to this tendency:
- By repeating the same pattern all the time, a player doesn’t improve his understanding of other aspects of the game of chess, such as strategy, tactics or endgame.
- The Scholar’s Mate most likely will only work against weaker opposition. Any experienced player should defend easily against the mating threat, which often leads to a position favorable for him.
Defending the Scholar’s Mate
Previously it was stated that intentionally playing for the Scholar’s Mate can backfire. This claim will be backed by two example games in which very strong players playing as Black were faced with the threat of mate in four moves.
The first game is also one of the very rare instances where a world class player played the White side of the Parham opening.
In the game between Hikaru Nakamura and Krishnan Sasikiran, played in the Malmo/Copenhagen tournament in the 2005. Nakamura (a future top 10 player), opened the game with the familiar sequence of moves:
1 e2-e4 e7-e5 2 Qd1-Qh5 Nb8-Nc6 3 Bf1-Bc4
- Naturally, Sasikiran (a very strong chess Grandmaster) didn’t fall for the Scholar’s mate, but played the move that defends against the threat – 3… g7-g6
The move g6-g7 removes the attack of the White’s queen on the f7 pawn. Here we see the most obvious drawback of an early Queen foray.
White loses time by moving his strongest piece once again, losing tempo in the process. He hasn’t managed to gain anything substantial in return and Black should be completely fine in the opening.
Incidentally, Sasikiran went on to win this game in the end.
The second example is the game between a Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson and the World Champion Garry Kasparov, played in Prague in 1999.
The context behind the game is given by grandmaster Larry Evans in his article: As The Crowd Cheers, Actor Shows Killer Streak:
“Kasparov arranged a Eurotel Trophy match in Prague between Alexei Shirov against Judith Polgar, the highest rated woman in history.
One of the spectators was actor Woody Harrelson, who was on his way back from a film festival in Karlsbad. He stole the show by playing a skittles game with Kasparov.
The second game was played with a lot of banter as Woody tried the Scholar’s mate. Woody, who got tips from two grandmasters all along, jokingly asked the crowd to please refrain from giving his opponent any advice.“
Let’s take a look at the game and see how the greatest player ever handled the threat of the Scholar’s mate.
After the customary moves: 1e2-e4 e7-e5 2 Qd1-Qh5 Nb8-Nc6 3 Bf1-Bc4
- Kasparov chose a slightly different way of defending against the threat than Sasikiran in his game against Nakamura.
- Kasparov preferred to move his queen and played the move 3… Qe8-Qe7.
- From the square e7, Black queen defends the f7 pawn. The game continued with the moves 4 Ng1-Nf3 Ng8-Nf6
- And once again White had to lose some time with his queen and Kasparov had no problems in the opening.
The game ended in a draw though, because Harrelson apparently had a plane to catch.
To conclude, here’s a funny little anecdote, tightly connected with the main theme of the article.
Two chess players were playing a game, starting with the previously examined moves:
1 e2-e4 e7-e5 2 Qd1-Qh5
“Hey, did you know that your king has a magnet on the bottom?” – asked the White player at this precise moment.
“No I didn’t, really?” – replied Black while simultaneously taking the king into his hand to have a closer look.
“No. But now you have to move the king, because of the touch rule.” – exclaimed White in delight.
Therefore, Black was forced to play the move 2…Ke8 – Ke7
- And White was able to deliver the mate by taking the pawn on e5 – 3 Qh5 – Qxe5 mate.
I finished this article with this anecdote, because I think it illustrates a pretty funny point about chess tricks, like the Scholar’s Mate.
The types of opposition who are likely to fall victim to these tricks, are the same types of opponents who could be tricked like in the anecdote above. The Scholar’s Mate will only be effective against beginner players, who may not even have a firm grasp on the rules of chess. While the four move checkmate is a neat trick in beginner play, don’t become too obsessed with these tactics, because even if you win a couple of quick games, you don’t really improve your chess skill by going for the so called “cheapos”.
Do you want to become a stronger chess player?
Why not improve your instincts and skill with lessons from Chess World Champion Garry Kasparov?