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I was looking back at a game played between Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen at the 2017 London Chess Classics in which Hikaru employed the Scotch game and played very creatively getting a winning advantage at one point. In the end, however, he failed to win it and the game ended in a draw. If any of you haven't seen it yet, I recommend to check it out since it's a real bloodbath!

There have also been many great players who have used it such as Garry Kasparov who never lost a single game with it! I have been wondering why it isn't used at the top level for a long time, but never got a chance to ask it. Could someone please explain why it isn't used at the top level?

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I think you are on to something, and statistically, there is a very good reason to play the Scotch over the Ruy Lopez, but that might not be all there is to it.

I think that the main reason is that we are taught that the Ruy Lopez is THE most classical opening, and is the best. I have seen that mindset in SO many books written by the top players over the years, in particular, Karpov. Also, I was watching "Method in Chess" videos recently, and GM Dorfman said that white is statically better because white has more space, and black is confined to three ranks, and white can play on the kingside, center, or queenside, and thus, black must always be on the lookout. I think that is just what classical Soviet players were taught, and that mindset has not been broken among the elite, especially since so many of them became trainers in other countries after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Statistically, you are right on the money.

All the top players I looked at had similar results to Kasparov, meaning an overwhelming plus score with it. I left out Anand, Aronian, So, MLV, and Grischuk from the following list since they played it so few times (less than 6 each), it was clear that their reason was simply surprise.

  1. Carlsen 11-1-6 (wins-losses-draws) 78%
  2. Caruana 5-0-6 72%
  3. Nepomniachtchi 34-6-29 70%
  4. Nakamura 13-6-7 63%

These are against all players, and the problem is that in Carlsen's case, in particular, is most of the games were from when he was not the Carlsen we know today, and I could have left him out. Caruana's games were virtually all against elite competition!

Then I decided to search only for all games in the Mega 2020 database with players both above 2700, and then the stats fell dramatically down to a typical winning percentage for white, 58% even (53-25-97, 175 games total).

When I then did the same thing for 2700 players playing the Ruy Lopez, there were 2366 games with a breakdown of 580-373-1412, or only 54%.

That is still a healthy plus for the Scotch, but maybe the Soviets still were right, and that the only reason the stats for the Scotch are so good is that the opponent was not expecting it as much. Also, I did not attempt to look at hundreds of games to identify where the games where lost. It might have just been due to other circumstances.

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I don't know about the top players these days, but Morphy handled all of his open games with the idea that when he played d2-d4, he wanted it to stick. So that meant two things, either 1. e4 e5 2. f4, when the e5-pawn is deflected away, or 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. b4! Bxb5 5. c3 plus d2-d4.

When Kasparov — whose opponents were a little better than Morphy's — revived the Scotch, he was working with a slightly less advantageous pawn formation:

4k3/ppp2ppp/3p4/8/4P3/8/PPP2PPP/4K3 w - - 0 1

White is pretty much guaranteed this slightly-better pawn structure in every open game, because when d2-d4 comes, Black is usually compelled to give up some center space with the swap.

Kasparov seemed to take into account something that no other master did for 150 years. Compare that pawn formation to the one that arises after 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4. Why is White willing to give up the better center pawn for the wing pawn? One, because Black loses a little space and White gains a little. Two, more important, White gains time with the recapture. Kasparov said "hey, I can get the same advantage in time and space in the Scotch, but Black is trading a center pawn instead of a wing pawn." At Kasparov's level, that slight gain of time and slight gain of space is enough to build from.

Time passes, fashion changes. When one strong player decides he doesn't like some evaluation at the end of a topical variation, other strong players go along, and so do the 1300 players.

In my view, the elite decided that Morphy was right, that White should probably be aiming for both pawns in the center instead of merely e4-vs.-d6. Then the fashion became 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 or 3. Bb5, plus a slow d2-d3, c2-c3, d2-d4.

Opening theory is like Vogue magazine, that's all. What's fashionable today won't be fashionable tomorrow. No matter what opening book publishers will have you believe, your only task in the opening is to reach a playable middlegame. Chessplayers save years of wasted study when they get around to accepting this.

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  • Don't forget that in those Open Sicilian formations, sometimes Black's central pawns are a burden to their side, as they do not allow for its pieces to deveelop actively. Also, not playing d4 on move 3 does not imply we're giving up on the idea altogether (most relevant lines of the Ruy Lopez include it at some point, often supported with c3) – David Sep 7 at 7:21
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Dont confuse small sample statistics and results from a top player with the quality of the opening.

Scotch is popular with beginners who want to play a wide open slash and burn tactical game as they can often beat other beginners who are not familiar with all the opening variations.

Also they would rather lose a fun game than learn how to win a positional game that they think is boring.

It is far less popular with top players who know how to play black properly because their result is more likely to be a draw or loss which would mess with their final tournament standing and prize amount.

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  • This isn't an answer to the question. He is asking why it is less popular with top players, and you haven't given any reason. – RemcoGerlich Sep 7 at 6:54
  • @RemcoGerlich "It is far less popular with top players who know how to play black properly because their result is more likely to be a draw or loss which would mess with their final tournament standing and prize amount." This could be right or wrong but it's a reason – David Sep 7 at 7:22

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