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It is often debated that white has an advantage over black. Some even say that with perfect play on both sides, black simply cannot win. Is there any research that backs up this claim, or is it mere speculation by the greats such as Rauzer?

Also, if this has been or could be proven true, could the black pieces be given some sort of aid to make them equal to the white ones?

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14 Answers 14

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These statistics come from a database of over 600,000 games:

White wins   37.35%
Black wins   27.41%
Drawn        35.23%

http://www.chessgames.com/chessstats.html

The stats suggest that White has a significant, measurable first-mover advantage. Not an overwhelming advantage, but better than the house advantage in any casino game.

Is that advantage structured into the game or psychological? Comparative stats on games between mature chess engines may help to decide that.

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The most comparable game to chess that has been solved is checkers, where it has been shown to be a draw given perfect play by the second player. The first move gives a player a very slight edge initially, but does that convert to a winning advantage?

Tablebases give us some insight into the debate. The vast majority of positions which are materially balanced result in draws. Positions that are somewhat dynamically balanced (say knight vs bishop) still result in draws a high percentage of the time, although the more powerful the remaining pieces are, the more likely first to move is the winner. (take for instance, KQRKQR endgames, the first to move wins 67% of the time).

Another important factor seen in tablebases is that most wins have a relatively short distance to conversion (or moves to force a win). There are extreme cases, for instance, the record had jumped from 292 moves in 1989 to 330, 545 in 2006, and then to 549 in 2014. The striking quality to me is that the gap between move lengths in these records jumps so much all at once, which suggests that it gets harder to force a win the more moves away from the end you are, because most positions that far away are draws. It would be a winning lotto ticket if starting from the opening position, it happened to be one of those extremely long won positions. To me, this is strong circumstantial evidence that chess will be another game shown to be a draw.

Unfortunately, it is currently impossible to generate a full 32 piece tablebase for chess, as there are more possible chess positions than atoms in the universe. Barring some breakthrough in quantum computing allowing all possible positions to be evaluated simultaneously, I doubt chess will ever be fully solved by man.

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One solution for equalizing a first-move advantage is the Pie Rule, AKA "I cut, you choose".

Under this rule, immediately after the nth move by White, the player that started as Black would have the option of either switching sides or proceeding with game as is. The number n is fixed in advance.

This rule is used in other boardgames, like Twixt, Havannah, or Hex, that have a more significant first-move advantage. With the Pie Rule, the first player must quickly give up the advantage lest it be seized by the second player.

The more common solution, since draws are acceptable in Chess, is to play multiple games, with players alternating sides.

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The first move in chess affords a slight advantage. This is why pairing systems try to alternate a player between the white and black pieces. Some GMs are 'underrated' because over time, they have randomly been assigned the black pieces more often than is normal. They are at a slight disadvantage and thus lose an unnatural frequency.

I have never seen it demonstrated that with perfect play white (or black) will win.

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I think statistically it has been shown that White has the advantage, but as the saying goes, "The winner of chess is the player who makes the second to last mistake". White only has the advantage on the first move and this would not matter if they make a horrible second move. I would also say that White has more of an advantage at top level play because there are not likely to be too any mistakes, but at the lower level, being White or Black does not offer much of an advantage because there are probably many mistakes.

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This is an open problem, but historically:

Since 1851, compiled statistics support this view; White consistently wins slightly more often than Black, usually scoring between 52 and 56 percent. White's winning percentage is about the same for tournament games between humans and games between computers;

enter image description here

In the recent games played by AlphaZero against Stockfish:

With White AlphaZero [vs. Stockfish] scored a phenomenal 25 wins and 25 draws, while with Black it “merely” scored 3 wins and 47 draws. It turns out the starting move is really important after all!

enter image description here

So, if the performance of AlphaZero is evidence of what the best current possible play is, white does indeed have an advantage.

It would be interesting to see the statistics on white/black wins of AlphaZero playing against itself.


Source:

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I have analyzed the statistics of the top players in history, and the top chess engines of the last few years, and found that white has a distinct winning and scoring advantage except for one player (Lasker, who was about 1% better with black!). The stats are:

Top players of history: white wins 7.5% more than black, white scores (wins plus draws x .5) 2.5 % more than black Top chess engines to date: white wins 37% more than black white score 34% more points than black

For comparison, the stats for: All players (several million games in public databases): white wins 13% more, and scores 8.5% more Hundreds of 1000's of games from available chess engine games for last 8 years (over 1500 engines): white wins 15% more than black, and scores 14% more than black.

The higher caliber of human player, or higher rating of the chess engine, the higher the advantage for white (ranged from 1 to about 40%). For me, this is pretty good evidence that white has a big advantage, since both the top players and basically ALL the engines achieve more wins and points as white. The best engines rarely, if ever, lose as white, but lose more often as black. Yes, engines draw more than top humans (about 50% compared to 20-30% for humans) but the remaining games are won most often by white. The top human players ranged from 1-22% more wins with white, while the top computers ranged from 6.5-44% more wins by white.

Of course, since chess isn't 'solved' then we can't be sure, but the top players, who look ahead 20-30 play, and the top computers, who look ahead 30-50 ply easily now, are a good indication that white has a definite advantage. Perfect play by both sides is still a mystery, though! :) John

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Looking at the statistics shown by Sunanda above, it appears that white has some advantage. I feel it is more a question of human brain's (or machine's) capability to handle 8x8 squares to maintain that advantage for white or achieve equality or advantage) for black. With this in mind I tend to believe that white's advantage is more if the size of the board is say 5x5 or 6x6 (of course with some pieces removed from the board). The simple reason for my belief is that the game becomes a lot easier with smaller sized board. On the other side, if the board is large say 12x12, with some additional pieces and pawns, the game would be lot more difficult for white to have any advantage, because there would be many more possibilities for the moves at every stage of the game. First move advantage may actually cease to exist at some size of the chess board (as we move from small to large size for the board). This size at which it breaks has to be found out. To digress a little, some game designers have come up with chess variants to eliminate this supposed advantage. Google for Synchronous chess, parity chess and synchronistic chess to know the rules of these variants.

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There is not a single game where white wins because of the first move advantage. All wins for white are related to something else (e.g. blunders or more inaccuracies). If both sides play perfectly (i.e. achieving the most out of a move according to any decent algorithm), the game ends in a draw.

But it is difficult to play 50+ moves perfectly. Either side will go wrong sooner or later. Apparently this happens to black more. Maybe it is just psychological: chess players are told that White has the initiative from the start and that Black needs to respond to that initiative and try to equalize. Responding to the other players plan is more difficult. Based on a single move played and the current position, you need to understand what the opponent is trying to do. As long as mind reading is not allowed in OTB games, mistakes will happen.

The interpretation of the stats, are misleading at best. It assumes that difference in winning percentage can only be explained by the first move advantage, and that is demonstrably not true.

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Some here have stated that white has a one-move advantage, which is certainly incorrect.

White has a half-move advantage. It is true that before each black move, white is ahead one move. However, after each black move, equal moves have been made by each side. Averaging all decision points in the game yields a .5 move advantage.

Also, it is easy to see that there are a number of ways to give up a move immediately in most real-world games, if having it were not actually an advantage.

If we take a simple example of a mirrored game, where black attempts to duplicate every move of white's, white will rapidly be ahead material. You could argue that being ahead material is not an advantage in some configurations, but having the choice to take that material, having more control of the outcome, certainly is.

You might find the previous concept absurd, but let's look at it from another perspective. Given every possible exactly mirrored board position, it seems intuitive that more of them would be mate-in-one for the first to move. (I have not done this calculation, but it would be an interesting and probably achievable search to run.) If we broaden this to all possible configurations, it seems intuitive that mate-in-one would on-average be more accessible to the first to move. Etc. And we need not follow this trail too deeply, either. Forced mate-in-six is a challenging find for most humans.

Many people have played many games of chess, some without any preconceived notions. If a clear way to neutralize white's opening advantage with certainty had been played, it would be well-documented by now. In fact, much opening strategy exists in chess surrounding this concept. See chess "tempo".

In endgames a well-known concept is zugzwang, where a clear disadvantage exists to having to move. However, this disadvantage exists because of the lack of choice, not because of having first choice; the move a player must make is disastrous (or more accurately the disaster has already occurred). Reiterating tbischel's comment, chess may never be solved by man. Because of this, we play games forwards, rather than backwards, as humans - and because of THAT, having the first move is an advantage.

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Your question turns on the meaning of perfect play. If White starts with a Colle system and neither player offers any aggression I cannot imagine that the result is anthing but a draw. For one side to win, at some stage an ambitious move must be played to unbalance the position.. If it turns out that this move actually gave the advantage to the opponent then it could not have been perfect play. In the days of Alekhine and Capablance, many players expressed fear that Chess would experience a draw-death, Instead, the Kings Indian became popular

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In Chess White has an advantage or not depends upon who is playing and what opening is played on board . Man or Machine.There are statistics to prove and both disapprove . Playing white for Humans is more of a Psychological thing and for Machines it hardly matters .

Generally from the opening itself if you take any powerful Chess Engine Fritz/ StockFish/Komodo they will show a Score slight advantage of +0.3 to +0.7 even if the most accurate Openings are played .

If it is Sicilian then the Score will incline more and if it is Petroff then the Score will be less . Please remember Petroff is the only defence where White has not been able to find a real advantage . So it really depends upon the Opening and the Player who plays White .

I will take the best instance of WCC matches from Lasker, Alekhine, Capablanca to Carlsen where both Players have got equal number of matches with both white & black and the mightiest Player have always won with their respective chosen openings.

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Wondering if this may have something to do with white possibly having a greater ability to push the game down a line of play for which white has spent more time preparing. This may mean that Black is more likely to run into time constraints as they are have to spend more time figuring out the right response. Play at a high level seems to some extent to be to follow common lines of play for first set of moves and to then to try to push game into a less common line of play where you may have spent more time preparing/which you are more used to playing/where you have an advantage. To extent to which this is easier for white, there may be some advantage.

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Though taking it from a suggested article, there is a great need to point it out literally as it is the best argument.

"The first-move advantage is founded more in psychology than in reality." - Andras Adorjan

Explanation of above conjecture:

First-move advantage doesn't just exist in Chess but approximately in all games but theoritically (pychologically). This is often neat. Come, play football! Let team A (say) start the game then, if, both teams A and B play perfect games (equal play), A is going to have first Goal. But this is certainly all theoretic. This has very small to do with Reality (as it happens nearly never) since, one team is always going to play different from other. This either results in a Draw (before penalty shootout) or a win/lose.

The point is, "theoretically, things seem much different as they look practically". This is why the problem is a chess theorists' problem and not of chess players!

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