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The first-move advantage is said to make it slightly more likely for white to win. This is shown in many databases of chess games, such as chessgames.com which shows the following results:

White wins 294,068 games (37.57%)

Black wins 216,938 games (27.72%)

271,659 games are drawn (34.71%)

Despite this, Capablanca actually had a higher win rate when playing black compared to playing white. Of course there is always an exception to the rule, but what aspect of his play makes him different to all the other players of his time?

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    What do you mean by "won more games playing black"? 1) He had more Black wins than White wins 2) A greater fraction of his Black games were wins than of his White games 3) He won his Black games more than 50% of the time 4) Something else? – dfan Aug 15 '16 at 12:30
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    He had a higher win rate while playing black – Aric Aug 15 '16 at 12:59
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In Megabase 2016, Capablanca played 791 games as White and won 52.6% of them, and played 406 games as Black and won 48.5% of them, so he didn't win more as Black but it was surprisingly close.

The discrepancy between number of White games and Black games was surprising, so I broke out his simultaneous displays (in which he would generally be playing White). In his simuls, he played 304 games as White and won only 40.8% of them, and played 26 games as Black and won 34.6% of them.

When we subtract out the simul games, he won 292/487 = 60.0% of his games as White, and 188/380 = 49.4% of his games as Black.

In conclusion, I suspect that the unique aspect of his play was that he didn't try that hard in simuls.

  • Interesting. I found somewhere that he had a higher success rate while playing black, however your answer disproves this. Let me see if i can find any more sources. – Aric Aug 15 '16 at 13:29
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    It also occurs to me that our record of his simul games is likely to be biased. Probably his simul losses were much more likely to be published than his simul wins, since the only person keeping score would have been his opponent, and they would have a much bigger incentive to make the game record public if they won. – dfan Aug 15 '16 at 13:32
  • point taken. In that case my only remaining question is how his style differs from the other masters of his time. – Aric Aug 15 '16 at 13:36
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Capablanca was a master of strategy and positional playing and was able to play some of the greatest defenses of all times. Those are all aspects that are fundamentals in playing as black. Also Magnus Carlsen excels in those aspects and plays very good games with the black pieces. Yet, the win % of both is higher with White.

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Surely Capablanca played much more than a few hundred games, so obviously the observation bias makes it undesirable to base this answer on the numbers.

Therefore I provide a general answer to why strong people may score better with black than with white:

If you play a significantly weaker opponent, it is common courtesy to let them play with white. At least in the first game.

As a result ones scores with black can be 'boosted' compared those with white if one plays against weaker opponents in casual settings frequently.

  • This is plausible, but don't you almost always play an equal number of games as each side? – Aric Aug 23 '16 at 12:09
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Check out the simul games and results of a top player from today: Topalov. The last I saw his play in simuls was horrendous. I think there are just some players who use time differently and faster time controls hurt them. Nigel Short is another stark example.

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Capablanca was the best defensive player of his time (if not of all time). He excelled at games where he beat back an (overextended) opposing attack, and went on to win. He was a good attacking player, but no better than many of his peers, and inferior to Alekhine at playing White. It was at "defense" where he excelled, and that's why he won a greater percentage of such games than other masters.

Most of the above types of games were played as Black. There was one famous exception where he was playing Ruy Lopez against Marshall who unveiled his signature Marshall Attack. Capablanca defeated a "prepared variation," one of the greatest bugaboos of chess masters, by playing "defense." This is a testimony to his defensive ability, which is more often demonstrated playing Black.

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