Who Goes First In Chess and Does It Matter?

Guides / 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?

The first rule of chess is that the white player makes the first move and, at every turn, players must make a move. It is against the rules to skip a move. Even if moving a piece is detrimental, you must make a move or the game will not continue.

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.

Picture showing white making the first move

White goes first
Chess E4 opening move

Why Does White Go First In Chess?

Before the 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:

(Open pgn from mobile)

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 that 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

Why white moves first in chess

Does White Have An Advantage With Moving First?

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

 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.

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 starting first instead of the 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.

White opening moves chess

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. You can play online chess for free on lichess.org or chess.com!

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 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?

The best first move in chess for white is 1.e4. This move opens lines for the king’s bishop and the queen. It also controls key squares in the center and develops the kingside faster than the second-best move, 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 with c5, d6, and fianchettoing the bishops. This type of play causes imbalances in the game and creates more winning chances for both sides.

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.

Related Posts:

Difference Between Check Checkmate & Stalemate

Difference Between Check Checkmate & Stalemate

By Andrew Hercules

It is important that beginners understand the difference between check and checkmate. It is obvious that “check” and “check mate” are not the same thing. These are two different terms and are not to be confused with each other. It is safe to say that the check precedes the checkmate. A check is when the […]

10 Tips To Winning A Chess Game

10 Tips To Winning A Chess Game

By Andrew Hercules

In this article I have highlighted certain tips that may help you win the game and become a stronger chess player in the future. Let us go over them in detail. 1. Memorize openings In one of my latest articles, I went over numerous different openings that are used in chess and spoke about some […]

7 Chess Tournament Rules Every Player Should Know

7 Chess Tournament Rules Every Player Should Know

By Andrew Hercules

What is the point of knowing about the various deployment strategies in chess if you are not aware about the rules of the tournament? The chances of you losing the game are very probable if you are left in the dark regarding tournament rules. This is precisely why I have listed the important tournament rules […]

So what are you waiting for?

Sign Up Now