Four Knights Game is a principled chess opening where both sides develop their knights before other pieces. It starts with King’s Pawn Opening (1.e4 and e5), and both sides develop the Knights (2.Nf3, 2…Nc6, 3.Nc3, and 3…Nf6) and control the central squares.
Four Knights Game originated close to the game’s debut and was adapted by many top players after the 1800s. Due to its positional nature, principled masters like Capablanca used it as a noble weapon. Four Knights Game was considered symmetrical and not an ambitious choice for White before modern times. Nowadays, it is chosen at every level due to its solid lines. It can also transition to very sharp scenes.
Winning Percentage on Both Sides
The outcomes are pretty balanced at the master level.
Master Games Statistics
|Victory for White
|Victory for Black
Statistics from 25 Million Amateur Games
|Victory for White
|Victory for Black
Due to its symmetrical nature, this opening does not have a straightforward plan like other openings. It is often chosen to minimize the risk of sharp lines by both parties. White often wants to utilize its first-move advantage and claim the center. The main goal is to limit the rival from improving pieces. Exchanging pieces is often not beneficial for them. Black, on the other hand, often equalizes quickly. This leads them to choose a solid approach and go for a quick endgame. As long as they can have a safe king, it is hard for the opponent to crack them.
Four Knights Game’s Theory
1) The Scotch Variation often leads to open positions. White aims to unbalance the pawn structure and restrict the potential squares for the opponent’s pieces.
2) The Spanish Variation is a more positional approach where White puts pressure on the c6-Knight. These games can contain a lot of strategic nuances.
3) The Italian Variation is a principled approach by White. These games can be symmetrical and positional. However, it is not used at the highest level because Black can quickly equalize in the next move.
Scotch Variation: 4.d4
It starts with White claiming the center domination by going 4. d4. From that moment, the enemy has to take the d4-pawn (4…exd4) and not let White occupy the center. Another alternative chosen at the high level is to pin the c3-Knight by going 4…Bb4.
If we examine alternative 4…Bb4 (pinning the c3-Knight), it can be replied to by 5.Nxe5 (capturing the e5-pawn). Then, the natural-looking move 5…Nxe4 would be a mistake due to 6. Qg4 (assault on e4 and g7). After Black aims to release the pin on the e1-h5 diagonal by going 6…Nxc3, 7.Qg7 is a double attack on h7 and f7 with lethal threats. Unfortunately for Black, they don’t have a decent discovered attack with the c3-Knight and b4-Bishop. They can try 7…Ne4 check, which can be replied to by 8.c3. Both the b4-Bishop, f7-pawn, and h8-Rook would be hanging.
After 4…Bb4 and 5.Nxe5, Black can try to avoid the existence of e5-Knight and go for 5…Nxe5 6.dxe5 and then 6…Nxe4. However, that line loses to the same 7. Qg4 because after 7…Nxc3, b4-Bishop is hanging (8. Qxb4), and the rival’s c3-Knight is trapped.
Other than these variations, 5…Qe7 can be chosen to increase the pressure on the e-file. That can be met by 6.Qd3. The Queen serves as a tool to capture whatever will be taken to guard the pawn structure. White is often slightly better due to open bishops.
The opponent often takes on d4 (4…exd4) to avoid these lines. 5.Nxd4 is the only objectively logical move. Then, the mentioned 5…Bb4 is often chosen to ruin White’s pawn structure. Here, White should not try to guard the c3 and instead take on the c6-Knight by going 6…Nxc6. Otherwise, the rival will castle in the short side and put the Rook to e8. White will be down in development, with a fragile King on e1.
After 6.Nxc6, 6…bxc6 is mandatory because 6…dxc6 gives White a significant edge due to Queen trades (7.Qxd8 Kxd8) and a quick long side castle (8.Bd2 would guard the c3-Knight and castling queenside).
After 6…bxc6 is chosen, the tension is almost gone. White needs to guard the e4-pawn since the Knight is pinned. 7.Bd3 is the most common choice for this task. If the opponent ever takes on c3 (Bxc3 bxc3), they would give White a bishop-pain in an open position. Hence, they often castle in the short side (7…O-O). White can meet it by protecting their King (8. O-O).
The main concept for Black here is to go for 9…d5 and hope the rival fixes their pawn structure by taking that pawn. White can take the pawn (10.exd5, 10…cxd5) and pin the f6-Knight by going 11.Bg5.
White often places their Queen to f3, connects their Rooks, and oppresses on f6-Knight. They hope the enemy takes on c3 and gives them the bishop-pair. Black usually improves the Rooks to b8 and e8, puts pressure on the b2-pawn, and tries to utilize c- and d- pawns.
Spanish Variation: 4.Bb5
It begins with White assaulting the c6-Knight (4.Bb5) to ruin the enemy’s pawn structure. Since it is a flexible line, the opponent has several options from here.
The most popular attempts are 4…Bc5 (simply improving the Bishop to a good diagonal and getting ready to castle), 4…Nd4 (avoiding the Bishop to capture on c6), and 4…Bb4 (choosing a symmetrical approach).
4…Bb4 is the most popular option among these. White often resumes the tension and castle in the next move (5. O-O), and Black replicates it (5…O-O). White typically goes for 6.d3 and guards the e4-pawn. The enemy can do the same thing by going 6…d6. Then, 7.Bg5 can be chosen to force the rival to break the symmetry. If the enemy insists and goes 7…Bg4, 8.Bxf6 is a strong edge for White after 8…Qxf6 and 9.Nd5 (assaulting on f6-Queen and b4-Bishop). Bxc6 and Nxb4 are almost preventable in these variations.
Hence, after 7.Bg5, the enemy has to make a decision. They can take on c3-Knight with the Bishop (7…Bxc3 8.bxc3) and ruin the White’s Queenside pawn structure. However, this would give the bishop pair to White. Also, Re1 and d4 would become serious attempts.
Black can also pick to go for a maneuver with the c6-Knight by going 7…Ne7. This can result in a ruined pawn structure for Black’s kingside after 8.Bxf6 and 8…gxf6. However, it is not as bad as it looks because the position is closed, and Black pieces can rapidly transfer themselves in the short side. Also, they can go for the f5-pawn break and launch a kingside assault themselves.
4…Nd4 is an attempt to avoid these balanced scenes. The Knight on d4 assaults on b5-Bishop. Taking on d4 (5.Nxd4) could bring the position to sharp settings. If that route is chosen, 5…exd4 can be met with an ambitious 6.e5. After 6…dxc3, and 7…Qxf6, the game can also be simplified with 8.dxc3 Qe5+ (assaulting the b5-Bishop), 9.Qe2 (guarding the b5-Bishop) Qxe2 and 10.Bxe2.
A more principled way to continue after 4…Nd4 is simply bringing Bishop to c4 and scoping the ‘a2-g8’ diagonal. Then, the rival can choose to improve the Bishop to c5 and castle. Both the c8 and c1 Bishops are outside the pawn chains. Both sides often play d3 and d6 to preserve the e5 and e4 pawns. Then, White can choose to prevent Bg4 attempts with h3. This type of position would be highly positional, where both sides try to outplay each other.
4…Bc5 is the third of these options. It is played even at the highest level so far. Black often goes for d6 (to guard the e5-pawn) and Bd7 (to guard the c6-Knight), and castles Kingside. White typically castles in the short side and goes for the d4-pawn break. These games are generally drawish and require high positional understanding.
Italian Variation: 4.Bc4
4.Bc4 is not considered good because a simple tactic equalizes the game for the enemy. After 4…Nxe4 and 5.Nxe4 d5 is forking the c4-Bishop and e4-Knight.
After that, 6.Bd3 (to capture on e4 after dxe4) is the only move that doesn’t lose for White; otherwise, dxe4 would kick the f3-Knight back to g1.
If White plays 6. Bb5 instead, the enemy can play 6…dxe4. 7.Nxe5 (opposing on f6) is losing to 7…Qg5 after 8.Nxc6 and 8…Qxb5 (the Knight can only go to d4 from here). And after 9.Nd4, 9…Qg5 back resumes all the pressure on White’s Kingside (b2-pawn is fragile). 10. O-O also loses due to 10…Bh3 (g2 is undefendable without a g3-pawn push and losing a rook).
Hence, White often battles without its first move advantage after 6.Bd3, 6…dxe4, and 7.Bxe4. The rival often can easily improve the Bishops to d6 and e6. One sample line can be 7…Bd6 (developing the Bishop and preparing to castle on the short side), 8. 0-0 0-0, and 9.Re1 (improving the Rook). Then, the enemy can reply with 9…Re8 (an improving move), and 10.d3 can be chosen to support the e4-Bishop. 10…h6 would prevent Bg5 ideas because the Black Queen is not ready to move. From here, Black can continue with f5 in the next moves, finish its development by going Be6, and launch an assault on the enemy. White can fianchetto the c1-Bishop to b2 by pushing the b-pawn to b3.
These games are open and suitable for tactical battles, but they are mostly solid and hard to generate a plan.
Starting with the Scotch Variation, after 4…exd4 and 5.Nxd4 occurs, and the enemy chooses to improve the c8-Bishop to c5 (5…Bc5). Then, an assaulted d4-Knight is protected by 6.Be3. This move also sets up a fierce trap. If the enemy does not seize the threat and plays a casual move such as 6…O-O, the hidden menace on the unprotected c5-Bishop can be released by forcing 7.Nxc6. Since the Knight is attacking the d8-Queen, it has to be captured (7…bxc6 or dxc6). Then, the hanging Bishop on c5 can be taken with 8.Bxc5.
This one begins similarly to the other trap. Instead of blundering in the sixth move, Black takes on d4 (6…Nxd4), which is replied with Bxd4. Here, 7…Qe7 is chosen to activate the Queen to c5 if it is being taken. White casually improves the Bishop to e2 (8.Be2) and prepares to castle on the short side. This typical move also sets a powerful trap. If the opposing side castles (8…O-O) in the next move, 9.e5 is a killing blow to the enemy. The Knight has to go back to e8 (9…Ne8). Then, 10.Nd5 disconnects the Queen and Bishop’s bind. And the Bishop will be gained in the next turn.
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. Nxd4 Bc5 6. Be3 Nxd4 7. Bxd4 Qe7 8.
Be2 O-O 9. e5 Ne8 10. Nd5 Qe6 11. Bxc5 *
Pros and Cons of Four Knights Game
|Most variations lead to a solid scene where both sides can prove themselves.
|Most lines do not possess a straightforward plan, leading beginners to get stuck after the Four Knights Game.
|Most moves are parallel to the basic chess openings.
|Black can quickly equalize if White is not precise.
|A gained advantage can quickly be snowballed.
|Gaining a slight edge might be difficult.
|Most lines give a favorable ending for White once they get the Bishop pair.
|Black can ruin the opponent’s Queenside pawn structure in some variations.
The Four Knights Game is a relatively balanced opening where both sides try to outplay the opponent. Most games transition to a strategic battle without concrete plans. Beginners tend to play this move order due to its similarity to fundamental principles. Some lines can be challenging to manage at a low level due to their positional nature. The Italian Variation is often known to be worse than the Scotch and Spanish due to its easy refutation.
Is the Four Knights Game a good opening?
Yes, the Four Knights Game is a solid and straightforward opening, suitable for players of all levels. It leads to balanced positions and teaches fundamental principles.
How do you counter the Four Knights Game?
To counter the Four Knights Game, consider playing moves that challenge the center, like d5, or opt for asymmetrical structures to disrupt the symmetry, such as fianchettoing your bishop. Studying main line variations and understanding the underlying principles can also be effective.