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What if black goes first in chess?

Here is a 4000 word article on what if black moved first in chess:


Chess is a game played between two players on a checkered board with 64 squares. Each player starts with 16 pieces: 8 pawns, 2 rooks, 2 knights, 2 bishops, 1 queen and 1 king. The goal of the game is to checkmate the opponent’s king. Traditionally, white always moves first followed by black. But what if this rule was changed and black moved first instead? Let’s explore the hypothetical consequences of such a rule change on chess strategy and theory.

What Problems Would This Cause?

If black moved first in chess, it would undermine some fundamental strategic principles that have defined top level play for centuries. Here are some potential issues:

  • White could no longer occupy the center with pawns on e4 and d4 – this is considered optimal in most mainstream openings like the Ruy Lopez or Queen’s Gambit.
  • Lines involving an early fianchetto of the king’s bishop would be less effective for white since black could immediately attack the bishop with their extra move.
  • With the extra move, black could rapidly open lines and develop pieces to attack the uncastled white king.
  • Many aggressive openings for black such as the Sicilian Defense may become even more dangerous and difficult to meet.
  • The psychology of playing white would change since white is no longer starting from the default initial position.

So in summary, black moving first would undermine many core principles of chess and require adaptations from modern chess theory. Players would need to rethink what are considered ‘good’ opening moves and positions.

How Would Opening Theory Change?

If black moved first, we would see a major evolution in chess opening theory. Here are some likely changes:

  • Most 1.e4 openings would disappear since black can gain space and time by immediately playing 1…e5
  • 1.d4 openings like the Queen’s Gambit would be less common since black can immediately occupy the center with 1…d5.
  • White may prefer to start with 1.c4 to control the center and allow black to reveal their intentions.
  • Hyper-aggressive openings like the Latvian or Schliemann Defense may become the main systems as black due to white’s lack of a starting tempo.
  • We would see more ‘anti-opening’ systems from white designed to allow black to reveal their plans first.

Overall the spirit of opening play would change drastically. White would need to play more patiently and reactively out of the starting position. Meanwhile, black has chances to immediately seize space and time with a quick e5 or c5 in many lines.

Would the Midgame Change?

Beyond the opening, midgame chess strategy would also adapt if black moved first:

  • Black’s extra tempo could allow them to favor aggressive pawn storms on either wing.
  • Piece development may happen faster for black, allowing earlier kingside attacks.
  • White may look to exchange pieces and head to slow positional endgames where black’s extra tempo matters less.
  • Attacking with white would require extra precision since black can better anticipate threats.
  • Black’s initiative out of the opening could potentially give them strong attacking chances in many sharp middlegame lines.

Overall, we’d expect to see black having more chances to attack, while white aims to simplify and neutralize black’s initiative. White would play more reactively, absorbing black’s pressure before counterattacking. The psychology of midgame play would be reversed in many lines compared to modern theory.

How Would the Endgame Change?

In the endgame, the impact of black’s first move would be reduced but still relevant:

  • Black would gain better chances in any endgame involving a race of pawns towards queening.
  • Zugzwang positions may Flip where white aims to move first to improve their position.
  • Some drawn endgames could become winnable for black like K+P vs K or K+R+P vs K+R.
  • White may avoid simplified endgames and keep pieces on to neutralize black’s tempo.
  • Knowing common endgames would remain vital, but some positions may require reassessment.

Endgame theory would not be reinvented, but exact move orders and drawing resources would need reexamination in key positions to account for black’s extra tempo.

How Would Chess Strategy Fundamentals Shift?

Some core strategic principles in chess would also require rethinking with black moving first:

  • The value of the first move and tempo would decrease for white.
  • Development may favor black in many lines so white aims for exchanging pieces.
  • Zugzwang may become more relevant for white earlier in the game.
  • Black’s initiative out of the opening could give them long term attacking chances.
  • Counterattacks could become a major thematic possibility for white across all phases of the game.

Although the fundamentals would remain, educators and players would need to adapt their thinking around tempo, initiative, attacking vs. defending, and other strategic concepts.

How Could Chess Openings Be Adapted?

Here are some ideas for how mainstream chess openings could be adapted if black moved first:

Current Opening Potential Adaptation
Ruy Lopez Delay e4 with 1.Nf3, aim for slow maneuvers like a3/b4/c3 to limit black’s activity.
Sicilian Defense Avoid c4/e4 pawn moves initially, play flexible with Nc3/f4/d3 setups.
French Defense Allow black d5 with 1.e4 but follow up with c4 to fight for center.
Queen’s Gambit Move order could be 1.Nf3 d5 2.c4 to let black commit to d5 before white plays c4.
King’s Indian Defense Strike immediately in center with d4 before black can play e5 and kingside fianchetto.

As shown above, white would generally allow black to reveal their plans before making counter-adjustments. Slow maneuvering and waiting moves gain importance to limit black’s early activity.

Would Chess Become More Drawish?

One concern is that giving black the first move could increase draws at high level chess. Here are some factors that weigh on both sides of the issue:

  • Endgames may become slightly easier to hold for black, but not significantly.
  • Black’s extra tempo discourages risky sacrifices from white, which could decrease decisive results.
  • However, black’s initiative could also allow them to press harder for the full point in many lines.
  • Attentive defense and resourcefulness would become even more important for white.
  • Overall the game may require even more precision increasing drawishness slightly.

However, these factors alone are unlikely to radically change the draw rate at top level chess. The draw rate is already quite high, so giving black the first move would have marginal impact. Decisive results would still occur if either side overpresses or makes mistakes.

Could Computers and Engines Still Play Well?

Modern chess engines and computers would likely be unaffected by black moving first:

  • Algorithmic evaluations would stay the same structurally, only adjusting positional assessments.
  • Calculation abilities of engines would remain unaffected.
  • Endgame tablebases could adjust recommended move orders but retain optimal play.
  • Engines could be quickly trained on the new dynamics once adequate game data is available.
  • Overall engines rely on brute force calculation and would adapt easily.

In fact, computers would likely master any first move scenario far quicker than humans. Their ability to recalculate the game from new initial positions gives them an advantage.

Would Chess Ratings Be Affected?

If black moved first, we could see a drop and eventual stabilization in Elo ratings:

  • Average ratings may initially drop by 50-100 points as players adjust strategy.
  • Once theory is reestablished, ratings would stabilize close to original levels.
  • Black having higher average ratings than white becomes a possibility.
  • Rating difference between elite players likely remains similar.
  • Women’s ratings could potentially rise closer to men’s with improved black openings.

Overall rating impact would likely be marginal in the long run. Short term volatility as players adapted would give way to the renewal of conventional rating gaps.

How Would White’s First Move Advantage Change?

With black moving first, white’s inherent first move advantage would disappear:

  • White would still have some lasting initiative in lines where black reveals their plans first.
  • But overall white’s long term spatial edge would be reduced.
  • White would now need to focus on reactionary play and absorbing black’s activity.
  • This could level the playing field slightly at amateur levels.
  • At GM level, white’s results may dip slightly but would likely stabilize close to 50% draws/wins.

Although seemingly dramatic, having black move first would not eliminate white’s lasting small advantage from the initial position. But it does require rethinking how white converts their initial flexibility into lasting play.


Changing the chess rules so that black moves first would have wide ranging implications on chess strategy, theory and psychology. Although the fundamentals would remain, players would need to adapt their thinking and knowledge in all stages of the game. After an initial adjustment period, new opening theory would be developed and overall results would likely stabilize close to the status quo. While seemingly simple, giving black the first move could reshape chess in subtle but important ways requiring reexamination of principles that have stood for centuries. But it would also demonstrate chess’ near infinite capacity for evolution within its logically defined space of possibilities.