Black Power

Conventional wisdom says White is better from the first move. A few noted grandmasters have challenged this assumption

Dominic Lawson

Do you remember the very first time you played chess? Perhaps it was with your father, or an older brother. Whichever it was, he would probably have mystified you by taking one pawn of each colour, shuffling them behind his back, and then holding out two closed fists, inviting you to choose. 

I used to get a tiny thrill if I guessed the hand holding the black pawn. This was perverse of me, both practically and theoretically. Theoretically, because almost all the openings manuals suggest that it is easier to gain an advantage with the opportunity to move first; practically, because all meta-analyses of chess games at the professional level demonstrate that White scores more heavily than Black.

For example, the database in the vast website, covering all recorded games in 2008, shows that White won 36.81 per cent, 36.50 per cent were drawn, and Black won only 26.69 per cent — leaving a White score of 55.08 per cent. A similar analysis covering all tournaments between 1919 and 1932 shows an almost identical pattern, with White scoring at 55.47 per cent. Most conclusively of all, a recent experiment that tested computer engines by playing them against each other produced a White score of 55.4 per cent.

This last result is particularly significant. Those few brave spirits who claim that Black is objectively at no disadvantage base their case on the idea that because conventional wisdom says that White is better from the first move, players with Black are almost brainwashed into believing that they are at a disadvantage — and that this accounts for their relatively poor score overall.

The most persistent advocate of this view has been the Hungarian grandmaster András Adorján. He has written a whole series of theoretical books under the general title of Black is OK! In one he states: “The tale of White’s advantage is a delusion…based on mass psychosis.” The Scottish grandmaster Jonathan Rowson, in his superb 2005 book Chess for Zebras: Thinking Differently About Black and White (Gambit), admiringly declares Adorján’s premise “one of the most important chess ideas of the last two decades. It has shaken our assumption that White begins the game with some advantage and revealed its ideological nature.”

Nevertheless, even Rowson does not accept Adorján’s full argument, concluding that, while Black may indeed be “OK” and have many more resources than some have imagined, that doesn’t mean that he is completely equal, from either a theoretical or a practical standpoint.

Adorján’s own playing style was razor sharp, so he played counter-attacking systems as Black; in this he was following the greatest player of his era, Bobby Fischer. Even with the Black pieces against the strongest opponents, Fischer would try to gain an advantage right out of the opening. Garry Kasparov had the same approach; indeed, for much of his career he adopted identical opening systems to those previously employed by Fischer: against the King’s Pawn opening he would play the ultra-sharp Najdorf variation of the Sicilian Defence, and against the Queen’s Pawn opening he would play either the Grunfeld Defence or the King’s Indian Defence — both of them fundamental and principled challenges to the very idea that White could lay claim to the initiative.

The fascinating thing is that although the greatest modern players have rejected the classical approach set out by such champions of the 19th and early 20th century as Steinitz and Capablanca, who asserted that Black should try to equalise rather than fight for an advantage, in master chess overall the modern counter-attacking defences give no better results for Black than the dour forward-defensive block favoured by the old school. 

This most basic dispute about the whole nature of chess is, at least in theory, solvable. By this I mean that if a computer could “solve” chess, then it would tell us whether the initial position was a draw or a win for White. If it told us that “chess is a draw”, then we would know that whatever advantage White seems to have is, in the last resort, of no theoretical significance.

Fortunately for us chess players, such a “solution” is very far away. Back in the 1950s, the pioneering chess computer programmer Claude Shannon pointed out: “There will be 10120 variations to be calculated from the initial position. A machine operating at the rate of one variation per microsecond would require over 1090 years to calculate its first move.” Computer calculating speeds have grown in a way which even Claude Shannon might not have been able to envisage — but his point remains valid: a conclusive answer as to whether the game is a draw, or a win for White, remains thoroughly elusive.

Meanwhile, the reason why some of us prefer to play with the Black pieces is because we prefer counter-attack to attack. We don’t want to charge at our opponents like a jousting knight, but instead feel more comfortable digging a hole, covering it, and then lying in wait for the enemy to fall in. By way of demonstration, this is a game I played earlier this year — with the Black pieces, of course — against Peter Lee (a man with the unique achievement of having been British champion at both chess and bridge). 1.e4 d6 2.d4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.Be3 a6 5.Qd2 Nd7 6.0-0-0 b5 7.h4 h5 8.Nh3 Bb7 9.Ng5 Rc8 10.f3 c5 11.dxc5 Nxc5 12.Bd4 Nf6 13.Qe3 (Black has allowed White to come charging forward; with his last move Peter is clearly intending to drive his king pawn into Black’s guts with e5, so…) Qc7 14.e5 dxe5 15.Bxe5 Ng4! (The ambush — White has fallen into the pit: If 16.fxg4 Bxe5 threatens Bf4 winning the Queen, but after 17.Kb1 Na4 wins) 16.Bxc7 Nxe3 17.Re1 Nxf1 18.Bd6 0-0 19.Rxe7 Bf6 20.Rxb7 (20.Bxc5 would have been best, but after 20…Bxe7 21.Bxe7 Rfe8 22.Rxf1 Rxe7 Black has a considerable advantage) Nxb7 21.Bxf8 Ng3 22.Rh3 Bxc3 23.bxc3 Ne2+ 24.Kd2 Nf4 25.Be7 Nxh3 26.Nxh3 Nd6 (with the point that after 27.Bxd6 Rd8 White’s Bishop cannot be saved) 27.Bf6 Rc4 28.Nf2 Ra4 29.Kd3 Nf5 30.g4 hxg4 31.fxg4 Nh6 32.Bd4 Rxa2 33.Ke4 Rxc2 34.Kf4 a5 35.Ne4 Nxg4 (The other knight sacrifices itself on g4, again for the greater good) 36.Kxg4 f5+ 37.Kg5 fxe4 38.Kxg6 a4 39.h5 Rh2 and White resigned.

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