Who Goes First In Chess and Does It Matter?

Chess Questions / By Andrew Hercules

Chess is a battle between two armies. One player has control of the white army, while the other plays the black army. Each army has 16 soldiers, who differ in strength and importance. The ultimate goal is to trap the opponent’s king and deliver a checkmate to end the game. If you are new to chess, then you may wonder: who goes first in chess? or what color goes first in chess?

To put it simply, white always makes the first move in chess. After that, black must make their move. The players then alternate making moves until the game ends in either checkmate, stalemate, or any of the various draws. Each player must make a turn as you are not allowed to skip turns in chess.

Who Gets The White Pieces?

Although the white player makes the first move, the official chess rules do not have a rule on determining who plays the white pieces. This decision is open to specific tournament rules, where players mutually agree to randomly assign colors.

A basic method followed by many players is to grab a random piece from a bag. They then reveal the color of the selected piece: if it is white, they must make the first move.

e4: white's first move
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Why Does White Go First In Chess?

Before the chess federation was built and rules were passed, it was believed that any color could move first. This was proven to be true during the game of Anderssen vs Kieseritzky. Although the game was shown as white, evidence shows that black actually moved first. Here is how the game went:

In the earlier days of chess, records showed the topic being discussed on and off for years. Until the late 1800s, the first move was commonly played by white or black, including the great international tournament of 1851.

However, in 1880, the first recorded rule requiring white to move first was written in the handbook of the New York 1880 tournament. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first world chess champion, later advocated this rule as a standard. He figured someone had to move first, so white was chosen to move first in tournament play.

Why Is It Important for One Color to Move First?

This topic has sparked many debates and it is important to understand why one color should always move first, especially in official chess tournaments. If any color could go first, then that could result in a lot of inconsistent results in chess tournaments.

In official chess tournaments, arbiters use solving for color as a method for their pairing systems, whether for Round-Robin or Swiss tournaments. This allows players to have an even outcome with black-and-white pieces. If you are playing a 6-round chess tournament, expect to have 3 games with white and 3 games with black.

However, tossing a coin would leave things up to random chance. And in a 6-round tournament, you may even end up playing 5 games with black pieces and 1 game with white pieces. This would be disadvantageous because playing with black often requires a defensive strategy for white’s attacking play in the opening.

Nevertheless, if you are playing a friendly match and want the black pieces to move first, you can go right ahead. All you need to do is change the position of the King and Queen so that the King is on its color.

Related Post: Is Chess a Sport or a Game

e5: black's first move
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Does White Have An Advantage With Moving First?

Statistics show that players playing with white pieces outperform the black pieces by a slight margin. Some top players and theorists even speculate that white should win every time with perfect play.

While this is not known to be completely correct, many results show that white has a slight advantage in the opening that could lead to a winning position. However, with skillful play and minimal mistakes, black can neutralize white’s initiative and attain equality.

From the data in the table below, white has a higher win percentage than black. As a result, we can conclude that white has an advantage in the first move. Chess engines like stockfish also agree with this observation with the starting position being evaluated at a score of 0.51 in white’s favor when running stockfish 14 at a depth of 20.

 White
Wins
DrawnBlack
Wins
Total Score
for White
Tournaments
1851–1878
45.52%14.07%40.41%52.55%
Tournaments
1881–1914
36.89%31.76%31.35%52.77%
Tournaments
1919–1932
36.98%36.98%26.04%55.47%
Tournaments Overall
1851–1932
38.12%30.56%31.31%53.40%
New in Chess Database
2000
N/AN/AN/A54.8%
World Blitz Chess Championship
2009
38.96%26.41%34.63%52.16%
CEGT Chess Engine Results (40/120)
2009
34.7%41.3%24.0%55.4%
Chessgames.com Database
2015
37.50%34.90%27.60%54.95%
Table 1. Winning percentage of white vs black during 1851-2015.

Why Does White Have The Advantage?

White has the advantage because of timing, which is an important element in chess. If you get the first move, you get a lead in development and could gain more control over the center of the board – giving you the initiative. In other words, you have a tempo on the black pieces.

Of course, black has its plans: one of them is to neutralize and strike back in the center. If you give black the time to develop and attack your center, your position can fall quickly. So, it is important to play precisely in the opening with your pieces.

Is It Racist That White Pieces Move First in a Chess Game?

This is a debatable topic in the chess community, but here is our take on the matter.

The rule was originally developed to make annotation easier and has never been considered in the context of prejudice. So the answer to that question is NO.

It is essential to keep a standard rule where one color moves first, allowing for consistency in tournament play. However, if you do not prefer white moving first, you can alternate the colors and ensure your king is on its colored square.

The Consequences of Overwriting the First-Move Rule

The main problem with changing who moves first is that many diagrams printed in databases and opening books would become invalidated.

There has been a movement endorsed by several grandmasters called Move For Equality, advocating for black pieces to start first instead of white pieces. However, it may be better to focus on giving players from underdeveloped countries more opportunities to participate at the international level. Nevertheless, everybody is free to devote their energy to what they believe is right, as long as it does not harm others.

How To Make Your First Move In Chess?

On the first move in chess, white has 20 different possibilities to choose from. The choice is dependent on their style of play. 

The image below shows the best opening moves for white. Green marks the most popular moves: e4, d4, Nf3, or c4. These moves are most playable because they help to control the center, which is the first principle in chess. Meanwhile, the moves in orange are not as popular.

Popular starting moves for white
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Making Your First Move With a Chess Clock

Most chess games are played with a clock, especially in tournaments. Before making your first move in a timed game, you should shake hands with your opponent. Then, the opponent can begin the clock for you to make your first move.

In real-life classical tournaments, the game can be forfeited if a player is absent or fails to make their move within 30 minutes to 1 hour. However, this is dependent on the arbiter’s discretion.

If you are playing online chess with friends, the game begins and each player is given about 20-30 seconds to make their first move. Otherwise, the game is aborted.

Is It Better To Go First or Second in Chess?

It is better to go first in chess because you will be up in tempo. If time was not an element of chess, then it would not matter who goes first. White usually has more control over the center, which they can use to their advantage. With a great play by white, you can expect a win or a draw.

On the other hand, black must focus on developing their pieces while striking the center when the opportunity arises. The advantage of black moving second is that they are usually prepared in opening moves. With a solid repertoire and opening knowledge, black can equalize and steadily gain an advantage over their opponent.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can A Pawn Capture on Its First Move?

If a pawn is in its initial position, it is possible to capture on its first move, as long as the pawn moves diagonally in one space.

Here is a popular line in the Ruy Lopez where a pawn captures on its first move:

What is the Best First Move in Chess for White?

Although there is no one concrete best move for white, 1.e4 and 1. d4 usually lead to solid openings. 1. e4 opens lines for the king’s bishop and the queen. It also controls key squares in the center and develops the kingside faster than 1.d4.

According to Chess Mega Database 2020, more games have been won with 1.e4, justifying it as the strongest first move.

Below is a table showing over 2 million over-the-board chess games of 2200+ Fide-rated players from 1952 to 2020.

The table below shows the success rates of first moves across 2 million chess games from 2200+ FIDE-rated players.

First MoveGamesWhite WinsDrawnBlack Wins
e41 million+33%42%25%
d4826,000+34%43%23%
Nf3235,000+34%44%23%
c4158,000+34%43%23%
g318,000+36%39%25%
b38,900+33%36%30%
f45,700+29%35%36%
Nc33,200+30%37%33%
b41,700+27%40%33%
e3680+33%27%39%
d3680+31%34%35%
a3570+29%40%32%
Table 2. First move winning percentages during 1952-2020.

What is the Best First Move in Chess for Black?

The first move for black depends on whites’ first move. If white opens with 1.e4, black typically replies with 1.e5 to equalize the position. Similarly, black’s response to white 1.d4 can be met with 1.d5.

However, in today’s hyper-modern chess, black can control the center from a distance with c5, d6, and fianchettoing the bishops in openings like the Kings Indian or modern defense. This type of play causes imbalances in the game and allows white to create a strong center and attacks it from a distance, piling on the pressure as time goes on.

Post You May Like: Where Was Chess Invented?

Andrew Hercules

Hercules Chess, launched in 2020, is a website that teaches you about chess. We started as a chess blog and became a chess training platform in early 2022.

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