September 16, 2011

Why does White move first in chess?

Have you ever asked yourself why is White the one to make the first move on the board? I never seriously thought about it before, not until today. I don't even know what strange connections or associations took place in my head to come up with this question. Rules are rules and we don't really bother to wonder why they are there in the first place. But just like when you cannot remember a word, a name, and you are struggling with it the whole day long to bring it into memory, so this question gave me no peace until I started to look out for the answer. And it's pretty interesting!

The FIDE Laws of Chess are clear on who is moving first:

Article 1: The nature and objectives of the game of chess
1.1 The game of chess is played between two opponents who move their pieces alternately on a square board called a ‘chessboard’. The player with the white pieces commences the game.

But it wasn't always like that. As late as the mid-to-late 19th century, the practice of White moving first had not yet become standard: it was either white or black that could start the game!
In annotations of some of the old games you'll see "adjustments" saying the players have been inverted (black<->white) to comply with today's requirements (especially computer programs that don't accept black beginnings.

The most known game is the "immortal game", played between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky:

Yes, I know, it looks like white had the first move but...that's not true and you can check for yourself in the original book: The Chess Player, written by Bernard Horwitz and Joseph Kling, published by R.Hastings in London, 1852.
You'll see that Black was the one to start the game:

I had absolutely no idea that I was looking at a mirrored game in my database!

Chess historian Robert John McCrary writes that the earliest rule he has found requiring that White move first is Rule 9 given on page 126 of the New York, 1880 tournament book, which specified, "In each round the players shall have the first move alternately; in the first game it shall be determined by lot. The one having the move, in every case, is to play with the white pieces."

Prior to that, it had gradually become conventional, over a number of years, to have White move first in published analysis, and by about 1862 to have White move first in all published games. But it was evident that players could in many cases choose Black when they had the first move, even if the published game-score indicated that White had moved first.

In 1889 Wilhelm Steinitz, the first World Champion, wrote that "In all international and public Chess matches and tournaments ... it is the rule for the first player to have the white men". Emanuel Lasker, the second World Champion, stated unequivocally in Lasker's Manual of Chess (first published in 1927) that "White makes the first move".

But we are still left with the same annoying question: WHY?!

We know now more or less when, but why does white move first?

Historically, chess has gone through a long metamorphosis, with the origins of white moving first being still unknown. There are a couple of opinions though, most of them circling around the same idea: racial politics on the first move.
Some argue that there are serious racial overtones in the game of chess : Psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress-Welsing has used chess as a metaphor to describe racism within the context of her social "color-confrontation theory." While Dr. Welsing's theories have been long debated, there are some interesting truisms in her explanations. 

Another opinion, which has no credible sources, would be: 
"In medieval times black was thought to be a lucky colour. The white player was allowed to go first since the black player already had the advantage of the lucky colour." 
As funny as it sounds, I cannot possibly think of black as being lucky...I could argue here the cats, the witches, all coming from the medieval times. Only ancient Chinese regarded black as the king of colors and honored black longer than any other color. But to draw a conclusion out of this, I think it's premature.

So where lies the truth? No one probably knows. Its just something you follow. Like Math. You just follow the rules...


  1. In medieval problem manuscripts, Black is often given first move. To what extent black pieces were associated with the first move in actual games, we cannot know. Also, the normative colors in medieval chess are Black and Red, although we find other colors as well. As to why Black may have been favored in medieval chess, I can only speculate that medievals adopted it from the Persian game (see Murray, A History of Chess, p. 224). --Mark N. Taylor

  2. In medieval times Black was highly regarded in Africa, for example, Mali and Songhai too. Before Medieval times, the (African) Moors, who also played chess, and came into Europe, regarded black as highly too and so maybe it is not that strange

  3. some say chess needs Change....could color do the trick? To me the fixed color and style of the board and the pieces of the game take away certain home field advantages other sports bring along with them. It is interesting to check out win/loss records of a home team. Is home field advantage a myth? Does standard colors/boards/rules make chess more even or does chess need to change and let the home team come up with rules that they believe to benefit their champions?

  4. To go along with black already being considered lucky, white was supposedly thought to need an advantage to make up for being the color of peace, or surrender during wartime.

  5. Many ancient sets had colored pieces (red, green...) instead of black, for example, ivory stained sets. So is not so strange that some players preferred the colored side and thought it lucky.

  6. One should look at both the pieces and there positions.

  7. No credible source? Wiki "White and Black in Chess". ALSO, it wasn't the medieval times that Black was considered lucky, it was a fad in the time the rule was instituted (which was the 1800s).

  8. The chess board is based on the story of cain and abel and also Jacob and Esau In the bible/Torah. The man of the sword moves first.

  9. Time to change then. I guess lets toss the game. the coin to be tossed should be white and black

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  20. For the people who doesn't aware of the fact why it has to be always white first in chess, It is nothing about theories. We many are aware of the fact that chess was originated in India... But in the 18th and 19th century the British invaders took our game and introduced to Europe as their own.. The entire Europe and World thought the games was invented by Britain: But actually it is not invented by British, it was started during the 6th century ..

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