Ever wonder why does white go first in chess?
White goes first in chess due to the standardization of rules in the late 19th century, which gave white the inherent initiative and flexibility of the first move.
Further in this blog post, we’ll explore:
- The historical reasons for white’s first move advantage
- The statistical evidence of white’s higher win rate
- Proposals to reform chess and make it more balanced
The Historical Reasons
In the early history of modern chess, the rules were not standardized. Some casual games and even major tournaments had players draw lots or flip a coin to determine who would move first as white or black.
But in the late 1800s, leading chess players and theorists pushed for the rule that white must always move first. They argued that this would better highlight the skills of the players rather than leaving it to chance.
Advocating for White’s Advantage
Influential chess masters such as Johann Löwenthal and Wilhelm Steinitz were among the key advocates for giving white the guaranteed first move.
The American chess prodigy Paul Morphy was also in favor, stating:
“Undoubtedly the first move is an advantage. All the openings are made for White’s superior position.”
Steinitz, who later became the first official World Champion, wrote:
“The player with the white pieces has the first move, which gives him the initiative from the beginning of the game.”
They viewed this initiative as an inherent strategic benefit that enabled more creative and dynamic play from white’s side.
White’s Opening Flexibility
Having the first move allows white greater control over the center of the board. They can occupy key central squares right away and prevent black from claiming that space.
White also has more options available to start the game. There are dozens of established openings white can choose from, allowing them to dictate the tone and course of the opening phase.
Whereas black has just a few viable responses to steer the game into channels they are comfortable with. As GM Andrew Soltis summarized:
“White plays to win; Black plays to equalize and then win.”
This opening flexibility gave white practical strategic latitude. They could shape the position how they wanted and challenge black to react.
By the late 1900s, the rule of white moving first was standardized in competitions worldwide. While some still argued that black could equalize with proper play, white’s first move advantage became an entrenched chess tradition.
So the stage was set for over a century of high-level chess battles, with white pieces always marching forward across the board at the start of the game. This unique asymmetry has shaped the development of openings, tactics, and strategy.
Next we’ll review the statistical evidence of how white’s initial position affects game outcomes.
Analyzing decades of high-level chess games reveals that white consistently wins slightly more often than black. Chess databases contain millions of games played by top masters around the world, providing a rich dataset to study trends and statistics.
One extensive analysis was conducted by ChessBase using a database of over 1.1 million games between 2200+ rated players. They found that white scored 54.4% while black scored only 45.6% – a nearly 10 percentage point gap in favor of white. The remaining games were drawn.
Here is a summary of the win/loss statistics:
|Color||Win %||Loss %|
While these results clearly show an advantage for white, chess experts debate exactly how significant this discrepancy is.
Factors Contributing to White’s Edge
There are several psychological and practical factors that may contribute to white’s higher win rate:
- Greater confidence – Having the first move initiative encourages more ambitious, aggressive play from white. Whereas black may feel they need to be cautious and reactive.
- Risk-taking – With the first move, white can afford to sacrifice pawns or pieces to launch strong attacks. Black has a harder time justifying risky sacrifices.
- Time pressure – In the ending phase, black is more likely to run short on time as they tried to catch up with white’s development. This can lead to more mistakes from black.
- Opening preparation – White has a wider range of options to choose from, making it harder for black to prepare against all possibilities.
However, some argue these factors provide white only a slim, marginal advantage.
Not All Agree White Has an Advantage
In his book “Black is OK!”, Hungarian grandmaster András Adorján claimed:
“I firmly believe that the second move is as good as the first move!”
Adorján contends that with accurate play, black should be able to equalize the position and neutralize white’s initiative. Other GMs like Mihai Suba expressed similar sentiments in their books and games.
So the chess world continues to debate whether white objectively has a meaningful advantage, or if the win rate stats simply reflect psychological and circumstantial factors.
The evidence shows white does win more often, but it remains unclear if this is due to the opening position itself, or other variables at play. Determining the true cause requires deeper statistical analysis and discussion in the chess community.
Proposals for Reform
While white’s first move advantage has become standard in chess, some have raised concerns about its impacts on the game. In particular, there is a fear that it could lead to more predictable openings and an increase in unexciting drawn games. This has sparked debates around potential rule changes to make chess more fair and engaging.
Draw Death Concerns
With extensive chess opening theory available, elite players know the best continuations for both white and black for 20 or more moves deep into common lines. This can lead to games fizzling out to uneventful draws.
Some chess analysts have warned that this over-studied nature of the standard start position could slowly kill the excitement and fighting spirit of chess at high levels.
For example, GM Julian Hodgson predicted:
“Classical chess has started to die, draws are killing the game.”
While there are differing views on the extent of this “draw death” problem, it has been a talking point when discussing reforms.
Alternatives to Standard Chess
To reduce the impact of memorized opening theory, chess innovators have created new variants like:
- Chess960 or Fischer Random Chess – randomized starting positions
- Capablanca Chess – 10×10 board with extra pieces
- Grand Chess – 10×10 board with common pieces
These change the initial structure away from the classic 8×8 chessboard. Other ideas like allowing black to move twice and then white twice have been proposed to compensate for white’s inherent edge.
Pros of such variations:
- More diverse, dynamic openings
- Decreased drawing
- Innovation and creativity
- Loss of cherished chess history and culture
- Reduced complexity and strategy
- Unproven benefits
Keeping or Changing Tradition?
There are good-faith arguments on both sides of whether to maintain the orthodoxy of chess or modify the starting position. Those favoring tradition value the rich heritage and spirit of the classic game. Reform advocates want to inject more unpredictability and balance.
At top levels, classical chess remains dominant while some players also experiment with new variants. Chess organizations so far have kept the original rules intact.
But the question of how to make chess fair and engaging long-term remains open for debate. There are interesting discussions to be had around the merits of potential changes versus respecting traditional chess.
Conclusion on Why does white go first in chess
In this post we’ve seen that white’s privileged first move position emerged from 19th century standardization of chess rules. And while white does win more often statistically, there is disagreement over how significant this advantage really is.
Some propose chess variants and rule changes to create more fairness between the two sides. But others argue we should respect the traditions of the game.
What do you think? Should chess reform the starting position, or stick to its classical roots? Let me know in the comments!
Benjamin Miller is the founder and editor of The Extra Game. He plays chess, scrabble and Monopoly at a masters level. He is a board game enthusiast, publisher, designer, and reviewer with over 10 years of experience in the industry. He loves to share his passion, knowledge, and recommendations for board games with the world.