The first move advantage in chess seems like a very unfair advantage for the white pieces, if they are to move first then obviously they would be the side that is better in the long run. But is this actually true? Is the white pieces really better than the black pieces intrinsically? The answer is no, it is not that simple.
In this article we will be talking about the common questions regarding the first move advantage in chess and if white actually better, this will open your eyes about this issue. This is more useful if you are still a beginner in chess since you will have these questions, keep on reading if you are interested.
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Why does white always move first in chess?
Contrary to what some people think there was a time where black was the one to move first, it is only when tournaments have become standardized when white started having the first move. The origin is not as clear, however the first recorded one was somewhere in America, the first tournament where white has been said to move first.
There was a time in chess history that a coin was tossed in order to choose which color is going to move first, however this has changed when tournaments are starting to become more formalized. There is a certain hassle when trying to have a coin toss on each round, the distribution of colors may not be as fair.
If we are only to rely on coin toss to determine which side will have the first move then the game will be unfair, the first move advantage should be distributed equally among the participants. Otherwise the tournament results may not be decided by skill, but rather by the luck of having to be favored by the coin toss.
It is more productive to have one color always move first and then pair the participants in a way that everyone will have the first move advantage, this makes things more organized. For easier pairings the white pieces are designated to always move first, this tradition has carried onto subsequent tournaments and eventually to casual games.
How much of a disadvantage does black have in chess?
Some people think that playing white is the only way you can have an advantage, after all if one were to have the first move then their position will always be better. Black on the other hand has to settle in making a defense in order to compensate for the lack of tempo, however this is not true to say the least.
Contrary to the popular opinion there isn’t as much disadvantage to playing the black pieces on the lower level, the difference only becomes more apparent at the league of the elites. On lower rated games, most players who have the white pieces don’t know how to turn it into an advantage, the position becomes equal after several moves.
In the super grandmaster level most of the competitors would be comfortable in playing for a win with white, this does not mean however that white is inherently better all the time. There are many games where the black pieces have been won by a super grandmaster, it is not like a player cannot win if they have the black pieces.
Even looking at super grandmasters you can tell that any disadvantage for black is minimal if not insignificant, there are of course some restrictions for black but not much. We are talking about the best players in the world, imagine the impact in lower rated scenarios where people do not know how to exploit, the advantage for white is not that much.
Can black gain an advantage in the opening?
There are some who think that black will always be on the defensive since it is the second to move, this is not true if the white pieces do not play the best moves. Some openings for black actually have the player looking for an advantage, you still have to play the best moves even if you have the white pieces
Black can actually gain an advantage in the opening as long as white does not play the accurate moves, we can see this a lot in games involving lower-rated players. There are also many openings that are claimed to be better for white but not necessarily winning, this is because the advantage is not that much in the first place.
In many accepted openings where white do play the best moves in the position, the advantage is not so much that it is apparently winning, it is still undecided. In most openings the position could go either way depending on the subsequent moves, it would still depend on the player’s ability to find the right moves.
There are also some instances where white does not play the right moves (which is apparent in lower rated games) and black have the advantage in the opening, it is not as black and white as you think. Of course there will be a virtue in playing the white pieces since you will be ahead in tempo, however it is not so much that white will win every single time.
Can playing the black pieces be better in certain situations?
Playing the black pieces is advantageous in some situations believe it or not, especially for people who prefer to have their preparation in place rather than that of the opponent’s. When you are playing the black pieces you will decide which line to play into, whether the french defense, the caro-kann, or the sicilian defense, you will have full control.
When you are playing the white pieces you are at the mercy of the opponents preparations, if they for example played the french defense, you cannot implement the plan you have against e4. If you have prepared something for the Sicilian defense you can easily play c5 and deviate, the white pieces do not have as much freedom.
Of course you can still choose to avoid your opponent’s preparation with the white pieces, however your initial moves will be more predictable (either e4, d4, or c4), whereas black would be more unpredictable. They can easily prepare something for you even if you have the white pieces, this just proves that in preparation, the black pieces are often better than the white pieces.
There are some situations where it is better to play with the black pieces, another is when you are more well-versed with the openings involving the black pieces. Another is in the cases of Armageddon games, black is usually preferred since you only need a draw in order to win the matchup.
Can super grandmasters win by just having the white pieces?
The point that I have made above might be discredited due to the people who do not follow super grandmaster games as much, having the white pieces really is not indicative of a win in the high level. In fact most of the games played in the elites end in a draw, this would not be possible if the white pieces are inherently better than the black pieces.
This kind of phenomenon would make more sense if the white pieces are not much better than the black pieces, if the difference is so little that most games played in the elites end in a draw this would make more sense. If the white pieces are really better than you would expect most games to end in a win for white, however this is not what we are witnessing.
We have already seen that having the white pieces does not necessarily win the game even for a super grandmaster, most games in this level actually end in a draw without anyone winning. Now some do prefer going more aggressive with the white pieces at this level, but even magnus carlsen himself can lose with the white pieces.
Not just the word champion (magnus carlsen) but also other super grandmasters lose a lot of time with the white pieces, it is not as clear cut as you think. Just because one player has the black pieces does not mean that he/she would be losing all the time, even in the highest level this is not true, the black pieces can win just as much as the white pieces.
Can supercomputers win by just having the black pieces?
You might think that turning to super grandmasters in order to determine which pieces are better is a mistake, after all humans are still fallible, we may not have the best data to compare. In today’s era of technology, machines can do as good of a thing if not better than humans, this is true in the game of chess.
Supercomputers are many times stronger than the best super grandmaster, they have computing capability that humans cannot comprehend. So if you look at super grandmaster games who have a lot of draws, maybe supercomputer games would have a different result? this would confirm if the white pieces are really better than the black pieces.
However this is not what we see, even in tournaments that are focused with supercomputer games we can still observe that the results are unpredictable. Even in supercomputer games we can observe that the black pieces can still win occasionally, sometimes even against a more superior supercomputer, this further supports the idea that the advantage is minimal.
We have already established that there are some advantages in wielding the black pieces, but this is usually not enough to win the game even for a super computer. Even in cases of armageddon where black only needs to draw in order to win, white sometimes wins even if the one playing black is a super computer.
Will white win over black when both are played precisely?
It is interesting to answer the question of what if both the white and black pieces are played correctly, fortunately we already have many references from supercomputer games. Supercomputers (or chess engines) play games with each other in the TCEC for example which we can look at, even here white does not necessarily win against black, the opposite can happen.
There are many cases where the supercomputer who is playing the black pieces can win, we have also tried giving specific openings to supercomputers which may give varied results. What we have found is interesting, it seems that even in positions where white is better it does not necessarily result in a win for white.
Supercomputers can definitely play accurately in the literal sense, of course we don’t know the best moves in the position which is why we still pit supercomputers against each other. But the fact that the opposite can happen (black pieces winning) means that the first move advantage is not as great, it can still be overturned by less accurate moves.
Is it better to have the first move in chess?
If we are to do logic it would be reasonable to assume that a white would be winning since it has the first move, however chess is not that simple and things are complicated. There are many pieces that have a unique set of moves which can spring uncountable variations, just because you have the first move does not mean that you are already winning.
To say that one particular side is already winning means that there is a positional or material advantage that we can directly observe, however the fact that black can still follow the next move counters this. If white plays one move and black does not follow then white would indeed be slightly better, however by the fact that black can already follow in its next move, it equalizes the position already.
There are many merits in having the first move in chess but usually cannot be taken advantage of, chess is very complicated and any edge from a first move would be hard to convert. Therefore we cannot say that white is truly better since playing black can have an advantage too, in the end it will come down to which player is stronger in the first place.
With the white pieces having the first move we can say that players in general feel more comfortable playing it, however we cannot say that it is better. In the objective sense there are many reasons why the black pieces can also be better, one of the main reasons is it is unpredictable (players can easily deviate).
Another reason is there are other conditions like armageddon where playing the black pieces would be better (since it can already win with a draw), such are some of the reasons. We cannot really say that the white pieces are intrinsically better, thank you for reading.