Every chess enthusiast knows that white pieces have a small but potentially decisive advantage in chess: the right of the first move. The white begin rule dates back to the mid-19th century, and some scholars believe it is time to rewrite it.
The authors of an upcoming article entitled “Honest Chess” propose to change the rules in chess. They expect to “eliminate the unfair advantage that whites have.”
These proposals are sure to spark a heated debate about whether it makes sense at all to “fix” an ancient game that exploded in popularity during the quarantine, and especially with the release of the award-winning Netflix series Queen’s Move, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a young chess genius. The brief findings of the study of chess players intrigued, but they considered them eccentric.
At the highest level, White wins 64 percent of games with a decisive outcome, according to researchers from King’s College London and New York University.
In another study, with the participation of the world’s most powerful chess computer AlphaZero, White won a whopping 86 percent of the decisive games out of 10,000 games. “The white advantage is undeniable,” says Mehmet Ismail, 34, a researcher at King’s College London, who has been studying the fairness of sports rules for two years. “It is generally accepted that you play for a win with white and a draw with black.”
Ismail studies other sports as well, such as tennis, where the first serve in a match gives a slight statistical advantage, and penalties in football. “At the recent Euro all the penalty shoot-outs were won by the teams that hit first,” he stressed.
Ismail and American game theorist Steven Brams have come up with a radical, yet feasible solution to how to combat white supremacy in chess. Their system, called “balanced alternation”, suggests that Black make two moves after White’s first move, after which White makes the next two moves, and then the game returns to its usual rhythm.
According to Ismail, if Black is given two moves in response to White’s opening, the imbalance will be sharply reduced. According to the scientist, this change will make chess “fairer than the previously proposed reforms.”
British grandmaster Luke McShane, often referred to as the world’s strongest amateur, admitted that he would be curious about the study’s findings. But at the same time he admitted that he foresees a number of obstacles.
Thus, the proposed rule change will erase centuries of scientific thought about openings, perhaps the most discussed part of the game. Even the names of opening strategies such as “The Spanish Game” (aka “Rui Lopez’s debut”), “Alekhine Defense” and “Najdorf Variation” are reminiscent of chess champions leaning over the boards, contemplating a new plan of attack on the opponent’s king.
“Two moves in a row is a huge change in the game,” says McShane. – It’s not just to tweak the rules, but a fundamentally different game. I foresee that White’s advantage will indeed diminish, but it will come at a high cost – sacrificing a variety of opening variations. It will be a pity.”
Other chess players also doubt that chess should be “fairer” – given the number of draws at the elite level. In last year’s AlphaZero experiment, 98 percent of games ended in a draw. “More draws? How boring! ” – the leading chess expert reacted.
Ismail admits that the chess world is “quite conservative.” “I really expected a negative reaction to this proposal, but I still hope that open-minded players will still take the risk of trying,” he added.
He is warmed by the thought that Taylor-Joy in Queen’s Move has inspired a new generation of players to dive into the world of “bad” bishops, “poisoned” pawns, sacrificed queens and classical chess.
During the AlphaZero experiment, other alternative rules were studied, including the prohibition on castling (this favorite move allows you to save the king from trouble), the so-called “torpedo” option, when pawns can move two squares not only by the first move, “side” pawns , when it is easier to dodge troubles, and “take everything”, where it is allowed to “eat” even your own pieces, if they interfere with the attack.
Although many players are interested in the changes, the traditional rules have found many supporters. One visitor to chess.com lamented: “All this fuss about the great game of chess, which has been around for many centuries, is just machinations … I have played, play and will play classical chess.”
The authors of the Honest Chess study plan to present it at the next international conference in Copenhagen on 17 August.