Why Does White Go First in Chess? (Explained)

Among the many conventions of chess, one often stands out to newcomers and casual observers: Why does the white side always initiate the game?

Looking into this tradition provides insights into the history of the game, practical considerations, and the influence of convention.

Historical Roots

Ancient Precedents

Chess traces its origins to ancient games like Chaturanga from India and Shatranj from Persia.

In these early iterations, there was no standardized rule for which color (or side) went first.

Over time, as chess made its way westward and evolved, the notion of the white or lighter side moving first began to take shape, although the exact reasons remain a subject of speculation.

Emergence of Modern Chess

With the establishment of modern chess rules in the late 19th century, the practice of white going first was solidified.

It’s noteworthy that this was also a period where written rules and standardization became essential to promote the game on an international scale.

Practical Considerations

Consistency and Learning

Consistency is critical for learning and mastering any game.

Having a set rule that white always goes first provides a fixed starting point for every game.

This allows players to study opening theories and strategies with a consistent framework in mind.

Symmetry and Fairness

Chess is a game of symmetry – the board, pieces, and initial positions mirror each other.

By giving white the first move, it introduces an asymmetry that can create dynamic possibilities.

To counterbalance this advantage, the players switch colors in matches, ensuring an equal opportunity for both.

Cultural and Convention Influences

Imitating Real Battles

Historically, battles and duels often started with a challenge or a signal, much like a first move in chess.

It’s possible that giving one side the privilege to start might have been an attempt to mimic real-life encounters.

Societal Norms and Prejudices

The preference for white to go first might also reflect historical societal biases where ‘white’ or ‘light’ was often equated with purity, positivity, or precedence.

Over time, even if these biases faded, the tradition in the chess world persisted.

Is There a Racial Connotation to White Going First in Chess?

The tradition of the lighter-colored pieces moving first is a matter of convention and not a reflection of any racial biases.

FIDE, the International Chess Federation, specifies that the pieces should be of light and dark colors for clear distinction and ease of play.

The emphasis is on practicality and ensuring that the game is accessible and visually understandable to all players, regardless of the specific colors chosen.

FAQs – Why Does White Go First in Chess?

In chess, what color goes first?

In chess, the player controlling the white pieces goes first.

This is a standard rule followed in all official chess games.

What is the historical basis for white moving first in chess?

The tradition of white moving first in chess has deep historical roots.

The exact origin is not entirely clear, but the convention became widely accepted in the 19th century.

Before that, the rules varied by region and even by individual chess clubs.

As international competition increased, standardized rules became necessary, and the convention of white moving first was one of those rules that was established.

Does the color advantage significantly impact the game’s outcome?

Yes, there is a slight advantage for the white pieces due to the initiative of the first move.

Statistical analyses of millions of games, especially at the elite level, show that white scores slightly better than black on average.

However, the advantage is minimal, and many other factors, such as player skill, strategy, and tactics, play a more significant role in the game’s outcome.

Why not alternate starting colors or let players choose?

In tournament play, players typically play an even number of games, half with white and half with black, to ensure fairness.

In casual games, players often alternate colors or decide the starting color with a coin toss or other random methods.

The convention of white moving first is more about consistency and tradition than any inherent advantage.

Has there been any movement to change this convention?

While there have been discussions about the convention, especially in the context of ensuring fairness and removing any perceived advantages, the tradition remains strong.

The slight advantage of moving first is balanced out in tournaments by alternating colors.

Changing the convention would also disrupt historical game records and comparisons.

How does the “white moves first” rule affect opening theory?

Opening theory in chess is vast and has been developed over centuries.

Since white moves first, many opening sequences and strategies have been developed with that in mind.

If black were to move first, it would significantly alter opening theory, requiring players to relearn and adapt to new sequences and strategies.

Are there any other games or sports where one side has a traditional starting advantage?

Yes, many games have conventions about who starts.

In Go, for example, black moves first, which is the opposite of chess.

In baseball, the home team always fields first and bats last.

These conventions often arise from tradition and can provide a slight advantage or simply set the flow of the game.

Does the “white moves first” rule have any cultural or symbolic significance?

The choice of white moving first in chess is more about tradition than any cultural or symbolic significance.

However, some critics argue that it might inadvertently perpetuate biases or stereotypes.

Most chess players and historians view the convention as a simple rule of the game, devoid of deeper cultural implications.

How do online chess platforms handle the “white moves first” rule?

Online chess platforms typically follow the same convention of white moving first.

However, most platforms allow players to choose their preferred color if they wish.

When playing multiple games against the same opponent, colors are usually alternated to ensure fairness.


The convention of white moving first in chess is a blend of historical evolution, practical considerations, and cultural influences.

As with many traditions, once established, they tend to persist due to their inherent advantages or simply the power of habit.

In modern chess, while the white side does enjoy the privilege of the first move, the game remains a testament to skill, strategy, and intellect, with the outcome determined by the players’ choices rather than the color they begin with.

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