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Thursday, July 07, 2022

Explained: Does opening with white in chess have anything to do with racism?

The topic for a radio show has put the spotlight on racism in the board game, or the absence of it.

Written by Nihal Koshie , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 15, 2020 10:15:14 am
Those who matter in the world of chess didn’t hold back and hit out at the suggestion that opening with white had racial undertones. (Image: Pixabay/FelixMittermeier)

A radio show on Australia’s national broadcaster faced flak around the world recently after a former Australian Chess Federation official who had declined an invitation to go on air posted his outrage on Twitter about the topic of discussion.

“ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) have taken the view that chess is RACIST given that white always goes first!” John Adams, the former chess representative who describes himself as a “professional economist”, tweeted. “They are seeking comment from a chess official as to whether the rules of chess need to be altered! Trust the taxpayer funded national broadcaster to apply ideological Marxist frameworks to anything & everything in Australia!”

James Valentine, the host of the afternoon show on Sydney radio, said the idea of the show had arisen out of a tweet by a father who said he had wondered whether chess rules had racist origins after he was asked by his daughter why white always moved first.

In a statement released after the show, Valentine clarified that he had quipped on air that “Well, I think we can conclude that chess is not racist, it’s tradition and no more than that”. However, by that time, ABC was getting pilloried on social media, including for trivialising the problem of racism at a time of Black Lives Matter.

How did the chess world react?

Two legendary Russian grandmasters rejected the idea that opening with white was racist. Russia’s state-controlled website RT quoted Anatoly Karpov as saying: “A period of total insanity has begun. What does it have in common with the centuries-old game?” Garry Kasparov tweeted: “If you are worried that the game of chess is racist, please take up Go, where black moves first, instead of looking foolish by wasting taxpayer money at a state broadcaster to ‘investigate’ it.”

In Go, an ancient Chinese board game that also became popular in Japan, the black pieces move first. Shogi, the strategy board game that is often called ‘Japanese chess’ because of shared roots, doesn’t have black and white pieces but the first (Sente) and second (Gote) players are commonly referred to as ‘black’ and ‘white’ respectively, and ‘black’ starts the game.

Is the first time that opening with white has been linked with racism?

In a game played with Grandmaster Anish Giri in March last year, World Champion Magnus Carlsen opened with black as part of the campaign for the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21). As he sat down to play, Carlsen said the rule “was never about race or politics”, but added that “we can break it to send a message to everyone who believes colour should grant advantage in chess or in life”.

Giri underlined the need to change attitudes – using the hashtag ‘Moveforequality’, he said, “It is difficult to change your mindset in a chess game with a different start, but if we can change our minds in the game we can surely help people change their minds in real life.”

UNESCO’S International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities (ICCAR) supported the campaign.

What is the international chess federation’s (Fide) rule on the opening move?

Article 1.2 of the Rules of Play says “the player with the light pieces (white) makes the first move, then the players move alternatively, with the player with the dark-coloured pieces, making the next move.”

But did chess always open with white?

One of the earliest known mentions of the white opening is in the rules of the Fifth American Chess Congress of 1880, which are available as an ebook online. Rule no. 9 under the ‘Rules To Be Observed in this Grand Tournament’ states: “In each round the players shall have the first move alternatively; in the first game it shall be determined by lot. The one having the move in every case is to play with white pieces.”

Until the late 19th century, records of games show that the player who started first would choose the colour of the pieces. The periodical The Chess Player, which documents a series of games from 1851, 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.

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Manuel Aaron, India’s first International Master and co-author of the book Indian Chess History, says those who made the rules influenced which colour would start first. “These rules were made by Europeans and not Asian or Africans. They had to bring some kind of uniformity to the game. Probably if we had made the rules, we would have said black moves first. In Europe naturally, they will say white moves first.” Aaron said. “But”, he added, “I don’t think there was racism involved in it. In Indian chess nobody was bothered who played first, the entire arrangement was different here. They did not care if the right-hand corner was black or white in Indian chess. From India [an early form of the game] went to Persia and from Persia to Europe.”

In Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, the two chess addicts Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Saeed Jaffrey) are seen playing with white and red. In the mid-nineteenth century, where the film is set, chess pieces were made of clay, stone, and ivory.

Does the player opening with white have an advantage?

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A long-held belief is that white plays to win while black tries for a draw but hopes for a mistake from the opponent to turn the tables. In his book Black is Ok! the Hungarian Grandmaster Andras Adorjan wrote: “In my opinion, the only obvious advantage for White is that if he or she plays for a draw, and does so well, then Black can hardly avoid this without taking obvious risks.” Adorjan dedicated over 30 years to looking at the game from the point of view of black pieces, and also penned books titled Black is Still Ok! and Black is Ok Forever!

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