Chess has been associated with a lot of values such as conquest, competition, strategy building but also racism. After all the colors of the pieces are white and black where white can move first, a sign of privilege.
I have wondered about this myself since I’ve been playing this game for so long, and I decided to investigate deeper. I will discuss all of my findings here in order to stimulate a discussion about the nature of chess.
There are no roots of racism for white having to move first, the white and black colors are chosen since they are common and easy to differentiate. White was given the first move since it used to be color for the first bracket player.
This is a controversial topic that requires a sufficient answer (racism after all is serious). So I want to pick your brains for this one, I’ll let you be the judge if chess is really rooted in racism, let’s begin.
Has white always been the first to move in chess?
Historically white is not the one to move first, and players will decide who moves first by having a coin toss/draw, white has been granted the first move later since it is the bracket the first player belongs to.
There was a time where players would just decide who will get to move first via draw lots, not really the color. In fact, there isn’t any standard coloring for the sets before the 18th to 19th century.
The coloring ranges in a variety of options and no particular color have been assigned to move first. After the conception of the Staunton chess set (standard set) there exist the first record of white and black pieces.
If you want to learn more about where chess came from and how it evolved over time this article (will open in a new tab) will let you know that.
The fact that there isn’t any particular side who can move first tells that there is no racist intent for the first move. If the time is a little bit different black could have been granted the first move for example, and this discussion wouldn’t be relevant.
At least at this point, we can establish that there aren’t any problems of racism proliferating within the rules of the game. To prove this, in 1851 there are records that the German Karl Ernst Adolf Anderssen, widely considered the best player of that decade, opened with black against the Baltic German master Lionel Kieseritzky.
As far as 1851 there aren’t any standard rules recommending white to move first, it’s all a matter of agreements and some other deciding method. Johann Löwenthal, a British master, put forth one of the first proposals of record to give white the obligatory first move.
At the First American Chess Congress, held in New York in 1857, Löwenthal sent two letters to the secretary of the New York Chess Club, Frederick Perrin. The first American chess congress is the first national meeting of masters that allow discussions regarding the rules of the game.
On page 84 of the congress’s proceedings, it refers to one of the letters by citing “the advisableness of always giving the first move, in published games, to the player of the white pieces…”. This however didn’t become popular immediately since people are used to deciding moves via draw lots and such.
In fact, white is not advised to move first in general environments where the game is played (tavern and clubs), and would only do so in serious competitions. In the Fifth American Chess Congress in 1880, it was written on page 164 of the Code of Chess Laws, “The right of the first move must be determined by lot”.
It was also rejected by some chess masters like Wilheim Steinitz, the first world champion, and has repeated this idea in his 1889 book, “The Modern Chess Instructor,” where he wrote on page XII: “The players draw by lot for move and choice of color. In all international and public Chess matches and tournaments, however, it is the rule for the first player to have the white men.”
You could argue that the masters choosing the white for the first player can be racist, but there is no evidence that it is the reason. After all, it is just a color assigned to the first player, not really the one who has to move first.
This means that even if you get white there’s still a probability that black would have to move first. There aren’t any issues at this point hinting privileges to the one playing white, but it did help in making the white pieces move first.
You see, white was granted the first move since it is the color that is given to the first bracket player. Over time it becomes accepted that the standard first player bracket should be the one to move first which happens to be white.
If black was chosen to be the one on the first bracket player then it would be black who has the one having to move first. This rule provides a standard in regular competitions eliminating the need to do any draw lots and the likes.
And the first move advantage is critical in making chess games equal, there needs to be a balance of distribution of first-move for participants. This standardization did just that, although with the cost of making white move first and expressing a bit of racism.
It is tradition at this point to make white the one who moves first, they could make it for black but they are just not used to it. It’s really hard to determine if the choice is really about racism or just their tradition, but I personally think it is the latter.
Is there a case of racism in the place where chess originated?
Europe and America, the places where the standard international chess game has originated and become popular have conditions of racism which may have transferred to the game.
I personally think that racism is not the reason for this system, but I won’t deny the possibility of chess being this way due to it. Europe after all has the extreme case of racism where certain races are given stereotypes of being superior and inferior.
I would agree that there would be a racist origin if Europe was in fact the place where the colors are conceptualized, which is not. It is where the Staunton chess set has been created yes, but that only contributed to the white and black color.
And again, creating a game with white and black does not automatically indicate racism until one is given an advantage. Just as discussed earlier, it is in the American Chess Congress where the idea of having white to move first becomes accepted.
This means that if we’re going to trace back racism it should be in America not Europe, and America at the time has racism. But this in itself proves that the intent of having white and black is not made to just give white the first move privilege.
If the colors are red and blue for example, then going down the history normally would give us red as having the first move. Just the fact that the places are separated means that there is not a singular scheme that is intended to be expressed this way (racism).
But still you can argue that the United States of America played a role in making white move first eventually due to a racist reason, which is a possibility. However I don’t think this is entirely the case since they should have made it the case (white move first) immediately instead of just making it the first bracket player.
Is racism a driving force for chess piece’s colors to be white and black?
Racism isn’t necessarily the reason why chess pieces are colored black and white. There used to be no standard color until the conception of the Staunton chess set, black and white is just easy to differentiate and is more common than other colors making it ideal.
The coloring of the pieces (black and white) was only really useful due to their stark contrast which provides differentiation. There after all are so many pieces in chess where the eyes could get confused if the coloring is too crazy.
I have played in a set that hosts red and blue before, and trust me it is not friendly to play. The pieces become harder to identify since the edges of the carvings are much harder to see, plus it is distracting.
I cannot imagine trying to look at that thing for consecutive hours straight, which is the natural lifetime of a chess game. This testifies that the black and white coloring are made to accommodate the visually demanding aspect of the game not necessary for a racist reason.
The black and white color after all is the perfect contrast of a color that makes things easier to recognize. It does not contain any impurities that would be distracting to the eyes nor make it harder to make sense of the pieces.
That’s why other board games like go and checkers contain the same colors (white and black) since it is just ideal. It could be that the color fits perfectly for the elements of the game and doesn’t have to do with any white or black people.
Adding to this, black and white are among some of the most common materials that can be produced instead of a red, green, or yellow for example. And I know other colors such as red pigments exist even at the times of cavemen but white and black has a whole story to tell.
There are many potential colors that fall in the production of black and white making it flexible, and also optimal. We have to remember that the conception of international chess begins shortly after the industrial period where things got mass produced.
It would not be a stretch that many forms of black and white exist back then, such a time could influence the coloring of chess. Yes the origin of chess can be racist, but I think it is likely that the circumstances just led to this outcome, not necessarily of race.
Do modern players think chess is rooted in racism?
Some modern players like Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri recognize that there is at least some level of racism in chess but is not entirely the intention with white having the first move.
Magnus posted a video in twitter supporting the united nation’s effort to end racism, he showed his support by breaking the rule of white having to move first. The video features Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri (top grandmasters) in a dark background all to address this very same issue.
Carlsen: “We broke a rule in chess today.”
Giri: “To change minds tomorrow.”
Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri are challenging one of the most rudimentary rules of chess which were talking today, white having to move first. This in itself shows that top players are aware of the stigma around chess even if not agreeing that it is made because of it (racism).
It is unclear if there definitely isn’t any trace of racism to the creation of the first move, but we are sure that the top players do not agree with it if it is the case. This proves that even if hypothetically the creation of chess is rooted on racism, we know that those who are playing it today do not represent the same views.
Does chess in its entirety represent racism even if White moves first?
White moves first in chess which can be a representation of racism, but black can still win by playing good moves. This is a symbolism that initial privileges do not determine a person’s capability to achieve success.
This is the thing that most people miss in this whole debate, we’re considering too much of the initial privileges and ignoring the outcome. Black can win too, even if there are challenges that are against their favor, it does not stop them from reaching success (if they worked hard enough for it).
Even if white has the first move doesn’t mean that it is the side that is going to win, in a fact black could overcome the superiority by playing good moves. I think it’s a good representation of equality instead of inequality, where the marginalized can prevail.
It is a good reflection of reality where certain colors might be favored, but will not determine individual achievements long-term. There are after all a lot of memorable black and white people throughout the ages, both sides can win if they play good enough.
And in fact it’s not even to clear if white do have certain advantage, black actually has an edge even being the second move. It is just anonymously considered better (white) since most grandmasters prefer the little tempo that it has over black.
But for most people who could not convert every little advantages they have (the majority) black could be better. So black having the second move does not necessarily imply that it is the lower class, in some instances it is the higher one.
If you want to learn more about the situations where black has an edge my other article (will open in a new tab) will explain it. It will prove that it isn’t necessarily the case that black is always inferior, white can actually be worse.
To conclude there has been no evidence of racist origin with white having the first move, since there are other reasons. The white/black color isn’t necessarily a reflection of races that draws parallel to reality.
Just because white has been granted the ability to move first does not mean that is always better nor the intent behind it is racist. Such color (white and black) just compliments the desired experience that it needs to provide and makes the game playable.
And even if there are elements of racism in this, modern players as well as many people do not subscribe to this ideology anymore (which is the most important). This has just turned into a tradition that someone has to move first and white being the first bracket player, is standard to be eligible for it.
Do you think chess is racist?
I have presented facts and historical background to give clarity on the details of this case, I think the answer is pretty clear. And for those of you who are not convinced, I think the perspective of people who are playing it and the masses count the most.
Nobody cares if white moves first since if it is not perceived to be a reflection of reality, and someone has to move first. If black moves first then it would still be racism, so I don’t think the argument will ever end.
Instead it is just become a standardized procedure among the colors that is most ideal (easy to identify) that doesn’t have to do with skin color at all. I hope I brought up some interesting perspective to keep you thinking, sleep well and play chess.