Black History Month: A Prejudiced Chess Rule?

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A much-debated topic in chess circles is why White always goes first in chess. Was it decided on a whim, or was there something more sinister going on? In the Chinese game Go, Black moves first, so why isn’t that the case in chess?

It’s worth noting that pieces in shatranj and its cousins like senterej were typically NOT black and white.

In shatranj, the predecessor to chess, players would toss a coin (or something similar) to determine which colour would get the first move. This was also likely true for chaturanga, the original Indian game. But there is something important to note here: in these games both sides are set up identically, so there is no difference at all in game play from either side. This is not true of chess, where the king is on the right half of the board for White, and on the left for Black.

The Immortal Game, with Anderssen shown as playing with the White pieces.

In 1749 François-André Danican Philidor wrote his first treatise on chess, and showed games in which Black moved first. In some offhand games in 1851 played between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, Anderssen, sometimes moved first with the black pieces, including the Immortal Game, one of the most famous chess games ever played. The record of this game was later “standardized” to have White move first.

 

These casual games coincided with the famous London International Chess Tournament,  which Anderssen won. This was the first major international tournament in the history of chess, and its rules of play, detailed in Howard Staunton’s The Chess Tournament, indicated that players drawing winning tickets “had the choice as to the colour of the Chessmen, i.e. whether they would play with the white or the black pieces, and the privilege of moving first…”

Johann Löwenthal, a Hungarian who had played in London 1851, had since moved to the United States. In 1857 he wrote several letters to the president of the American Chess Congress arguing that White should always have the first move. This rule was not adopted until the Fifth American Chess Congress in 1880, and from there the rule was rapidly adopted

Much of the drive towards having a consistent opening side seems to coincide with chess becoming a more rigorously competitive game, rather than a casual pastime. It made sense for all games to start the with the same side. Indeed the first official world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, stated in 1889 that, while for casual games either White or Black could start, for serious tournaments White should always have the first move.

But why White and not Black?

There have long been questions about what motivated this decision. When Steinitz said that chess was an “intellectual pastime of civilized nations,” this was at a point in history when many did not regard Africa as civilized, and anti-Black racism was rampant throughout the western world.

Nevertheless, there is no direct evidence that the tradition of White having the first move is inherently or explicitly racist. What’s more, the first move advantage is likely overstated.

For much of the twentieth century, it was common for top players was to play White for a win, and settle for a draw with Black, as having the first move was believed to give an edge in initiative. White wins between 52% and 55% of games in our records. This advantage was considered important at the top levels, but does not matter much at lower levels, where this advantage is easily erased by inaccurate play.

With the advent of chess engines, we have learned that Black enjoys certain advantages, and the gap between White and Black in chess is rather narrower than had been earlier thought. Indeed, with best play many believe that chess is a draw. Today it is quite routine for top players to fight for a win as Black, with great success. As George Walker said in 1846: “The first move is an advantage… but if properly answered, the first move is of little worth.”

Those who may want Black to move first are largely met with the argument of “tradition” by those who do not understand how recent this tradition actually is!

This article is part of a series of pieces exploring chess in the context of Black History Month. Click on Black History Month to learn more about Black chess players, the African history of chess, and other issues relating to chess and race.

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