As avid chess players, we get so used to the game rules that we take them for granted. Though, some questions may inspire your curiosity from time to time, such as, why does white go first in chess?
There’s no apparent reason behind the white moves first rule. In the 1800s, a growing consensus emerged among chess players that White should move first. Chess masters like Johann Löwenthal and William Steinitz proposed this rule in writing.
Let’s go into a more detailed investigation into the history and origin of this chess rule.
Has White Always Moved First in Chess?
White moving first appears to have always been the convention, but the rule isn’t as old as you may think. Until the late 1800s, players drew lots to pick the playing order and chose which color to play.
Then, Johann Löwenthal wrote two letters to the Secretary of the New York Chess Club, proposing the rule change.
One of the letters was read at the first American Chess Congress in 1857. In it, Löwenthal discussed “the advisableness of always giving the first move, in published games, to the player of the white pieces.”
William Steinitz echoed this sentiment in his book The Modern Chess Instructor.
Consensus grew until it became the usual practice for white to go first. Then, in 1931, the rule became one of FIDE’s Official Laws.
A standard rule about which color goes first seems like a logical suggestion, but why white?
Why Does White Go First in Chess?
As of yet, there are no clear explanations for why white moves first in Chess. All we know is the rule became popular in the late 1800s. The actual reason is subject to theories and speculation.
Theory 1: It’s About Superstitious Beliefs
One theory claims that the reason behind this rule is superstitious. Black was supposedly a lucky color in medieval times, giving the person playing black in chess an advantage. To even out the playing field, white was allowed the edge; the first move.
However, few sources support this claim. In medieval Europe, black was associated with hell, the devil, and death, contradicting this theory and making it highly unlikely to be true.
Theory 2: It’s About Race
Some people speculate that the rule is rooted in racism. No direct evidence supports this claim, though controversy on the topic has cropped up before.
Nevertheless, it may be worth noting that racism against black and indigenous people was rife in the 1800s. The master chess players writing chess books and proposing the rule, like Johann Löwenthal, were often white, European men.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they shared the prevalent racist beliefs of the time. Research also shows that people usually correlate the color white with good and black with bad.
Is it possible the chess masters were motivated by racism, consciously or unconsciously, to propose this rule? Yes, but it might be too much of a stretch.
Theory 3: It’s in the History of Chess Literature
A more plausible theory is rooted in the history of chess literature. According to this theory, the rule naturally progressed from certain events in the history of writing chess books and manuals.
As more people wanted to learn how to play the game, chess books and manuals became essential. The authors of these manuals needed to standardize how they presented diagrams.
The standard way of presenting diagrams placed white at the bottom of the page, facing the reader. So, from the reader’s point of view, it seemed like they were playing white.
Since then, this has become a pattern. Chess players wrote notations from the reader’s, and thus, white’s perspective. When Stamma numbered the squares for algebraic notation in 1737, he started counting from White’s side.
Different ways of naming squares popped up, but it was always based on White’s perspective. Following this pattern, perhaps it’s the natural outcome for chess players to propose that white goes first as a way to standardize the game.
Can I Choose to Move Black First When Playing Chess?
If you’re playing a casual chess game with a friend, nothing can stop you from breaking the official chess rule. Feel free to play the black pieces first! Even with the order changed, the game will flow in the same way.
In 2018, master players Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri reversed the playing order in a #MoveforEquality campaign. Black moved first in their game. They broke the chess law in a demonstration to support the anti-racist campaign.
However, if you’re playing in an official competition or on a chess engine, you’re required to follow the convention.
Would It Make a Difference If Black Moved First?
Regardless of the reason behind the playing order rule, some believe that white moving first in chess is an analogy to white privilege in real life.
Some may even suggest changing the rule permanently. If the chess community goes down this route, Black will move first at least some of the time.
How can the way we play change in this scenario?
Since we’ve been playing White first for a long time, changing the rule could throw many players off. The black and white pieces are positioned a little differently on the board. In White’s army, the queen is on the left-hand side. It’s the opposite for Black.
Learning opening theory can be a little bit more tricky. The flip in opening positions can be confusing for some players, as well.
However, players will surely adapt quickly to these changes if they ever happen.
The longstanding convention that White should go first in chess has no clear-cut explanation. Theories exist that this rule can be chalked up to superstitious beliefs or racism, but no definitive evidence supports them.
A more convincing theory points to the history of chess literature. It’s possible that the standard ways of creating diagrams and notations, favoring White’s perspective, played a role in cementing this rule.
Perhaps it’ll always remain a mystery. Whatever the true reason behind this rule, the chess community continues to accept and follow that white moves first.