Who Goes First In Chess and Does It Matter?

I like to think of chess as a battle between two armies. In the game of chess, one player has control of the White army and the other player controls the Black army. Each of these armies have 16 brave soldiers, who differ in strength and importance. The ultimate goal is to trap the opponent’s king and deliver checkmate, since checkmate or the death of a king will end the game.

If you are fairly new to chess, then you may have asked yourself, “Who 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 else the game won’t continue.

Who Gets The White Pieces

We have already established that the white player makes the first move. However it’s also important to note that the official chess rules do not have a set rule on determining who plays the white pieces. This decision is open to specific tournament rules, in which case players mutually agree to let the colors be randomly assigned.

A basic method followed by many players is to grab a random piece from the bag of pieces. They then reveal the color of the selected piece; if it is white, he or she has the first move.

Picture showing white making the first move

White goes first

Why Does White Go First In Chess?

Back in the older days of chess, before the Federation was built and rules were passed, it was believed that any color could move first. That was proven to be true during the game of Anderssen vs Kieseritzky. An immortal game that was shown as white, but evidences showed that black actually moved first. Here is how the game went:

(Open pgn from mobile)

In the earlier days of chess, there were also records that showed the topic being discussed on and off for years. Up until the late 1800s, it was common for the first move being played by white or black, including the great international tournament of 1851.

However, it was in 1880 that the first recorded rule requiring white to move first was written in the handbook of the New York 1880 tournament. This was later cemented by the first ever world chess champion, Wilhelm Steinitz who advocated this rule as a standard.

He figured that someone has to move first, so it was decided that white should move first in tournament play.

Why It Is Important to have one color move first as the standard rule

This topic has sparked numerous debates and it’s important that we 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 and the rest of federation use solving for color as a method for their pairing systems, whether for Round-Robin or Swiss tournaments. This will allow players to have an even outcome with the black and white pieces. Therefore, if you are playing a 6 round chess tournament, then expect to get 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 having to play 5 games with the black pieces and 1 game with the white pieces.

This would actually be at your disadvantage since playing with black often requires a defensive strategy for white’s attacking play in the opening.

On the other hand, if you are just playing a friendly match and you want to have the black pieces move first, then you can go right ahead. All you would have to do is change the position of the King and Queen so that the King is on its color.

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Does White Have An Advantage With Moving First?

Statistics have shown that the white pieces outperform the black pieces but only by a slight margin of percentage. Some top players and theorists have even speculated that with perfect play, white should come out victorious at all times.

While that’s not known to be 100% correct, we do see a number of results and statistics that shows white has a slight advantage in the opening that could convert in a winning position.

However, Black should not be too worried by this since with good play and minimal mistakes, he should be able to neutralize white’s initiative and attain equality. Below is a table that shows the winning percentage of white from the year 1851 to 2015.

Master Games Database:

  White
wins
Drawn Black
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/A N/A N/A 54.8%
World Blitz Chess
Championship 2009
38.96% 26.41% 34.63% 52.16%
CEGT chess
engines results
(40/120) 2009
34.7% 41.3% 24.0% 55.4%
Chessgames.com
database 2015
37.50% 34.90% 27.60% 54.95%

From the data in the table, we see that white has a higher win percentage than black and therefore, we can conclude that white does have an advantage on the first move.

Why Does White Have The Advantage?

This is largely because of time which is an important element in chess. If you get the first move, you would be ahead in development, you could potentially have more control over center of the board which gives you the initiative.

Of course, black has its own 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 often fall very quickly. So it’s important to play precisely in the opening even with the pieces.

Is it racist that white pieces move first in a chess game?

I couldn’t go around this question because it’s quite a debatable topic in the chess community. Nonetheless, here is my 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.

And, as previously discussed, its important to keep a standard rule which involves only one color moving first which allows for consistency in tournament play.

However, if you don’t like the idea of white moving first, then you can simply alternate the colors, ensuring that 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 which have been printed in databases and opening books would now be invalidated if the federation decides to overwrite this rule out of prejudice.

Now there has been a movement in chess endorsed by several grandmasters called “MoveForEquality”, which revolves around the idea that the black pieces should start first instead of the white pieces.

In my opinion, I’d rather have chess players focus on giving people from underdeveloped countries more chances to participate at the international level than something like this. Nevertheless, it’s a free world and everybody may devote their energy as they deem fit, as long as it doesn’t 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 his or her style of play. If you wish to know you’re style of play, go to https://www.chesspersonality.com/ and find out now.

The image below shows the best opening choices for white. Green marks the most popular 1.e4 1.d4 1.Nf3 1.c4, while the ones in orange are not so popular. The moves highlighted in green are most playable because they help to control the center which is the first principle in chess.

Making Your First Move with a Chess Clock

Most chess games are played with a clock, especially in tournaments. To make your fist move in a timed game, you and your opponent should first shake hands and the opponent should then begin the clock for you to make your first move.

In real-life classical tournaments, the game can be forfeited if one of the players is absent or fail to make their move, within 30 minutes to 1 hour. Nonetheless this is dependent on the arbiter’s discretion.

On the other hand, if you are playing online chess with friends, the game usually begins and each player is given about 20-30 seconds to make their first move, else the game is aborted. You can play online chess on lichess.org or chess.com. Its free!

Final Verdict – Is It Better To Go First or Second in chess?

It’s better to go first in chess because you will be up a tempo. If time was not an element of chess, then it wouldn’t matter who goes first. White usually has more control over the center and he can use this at his advantage. With great play by white, you can usually expect either a win or a draw.

On the other hand, black must focus on developing his pieces and striking out on the center when he has the chance. The advantage of black moving second is that he’s usually prepared in his opening moves. With a solid repertoire and knowledge in the opening, black can easily equalize and steadily gain an advantage over his or her opponent.

What do you think? Should white always achieve victory with perfect play? Drop a comment and let me know what you think.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can A Pawn Capture on its First move?

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

Here is a popular line in the Ruy Lopez where a pawn can capture 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 open the lines for the king’s bishop and the white queen, it controls key squares in the center and helps develop the kingside at a quicker pace when compared to the second best move 1.d4.

According to Chess Mega database 2020, more games have been won with 1.e4 which justifies why it’s the strongest first move in Chess.

1.e4 is also more attacking and opens up more winning chances for white than the more subtle 1.d4

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

First Move Games White Wins % Drawn % Black Wins %
e4 1 million+ 33 42 25
d4 826,000+ 34 43 23
Nf3 235,000+ 34 44 23
c4 158,000+ 34 43 23
g3 18,000+ 36 39 25
b3 8,900+ 33 36 30
f4 5,700+ 29 35 36
Nc3 3,200+ 30 37 33
b4 1,700+ 27 40 33
e3 680+ 33 27 39
d3 680+ 31 34 35
a3 570+ 29 40 32

What is the best first move in chess for black?

The first move for black is dependent on white’s first move. If white opens with 1.e4 it’s usually principled for black to reply with 1..e5 and try to equalize the position. Similarly, black’s response to white 1.d4 can be met with 1..d5.

However, in this hyper-modern chess as we know it today, it’s respectable for black to control the center with moves such as c5, d6, and fianchettoing the bishops. This type of play causes imbalances in the game and creates more winning chances for both sides.

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