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02 August 2021

Simple rule change could mean check-mate for unfair advantage in chess

A simple change to the rules of chess could eliminate the unfair advantage enjoyed by players using the white pieces, according to new research.

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Statistics show that moving first in chess offers an advantage. Picture: STOCK

By introducing a two-move switch in order early in the match – known as Balanced Alternation – researchers believe they may even out the 2:1 advantage enjoyed by the player using the white pieces, which traditionally makes the first move.

The proposal has been made in a new paper by Dr Mehmet Ismail, from King’s College London, and Dr Steven Brams, from New York University, and comes amid a resurgence in the global popularity of chess, boosted by the pandemic and hit TV show The Queen’s Gambit, which features chess prodigy Beth Harmon.

The researchers propose that, after white opens, Balanced Alternation would first allow black a double move, followed by a double move by white, before the order returns to normal. The revised order would be: WB/BW/WB/WB/WB…, with the switch occurring only on the third and fourth moves from WB to BW.

The researchers have suggested a simple change to address the first-move advantage. Picture: UNSPLASH

The researchers said: “We believe that our reforms are compelling for two reasons: they require only a switch in the order of the third and fourth moves; and they would not be difficult for chess players to learn and adapt to.

“Perhaps the main benefit of balanced alternation is that it almost surely will make chess fairer, putting black on a par with white, even if we cannot guarantee that it forces a draw with optimal play.”

According to the researchers, in matches that have a winner at the elite level of human play, white has a winning percentage of 64 per cent – equating to an average advantage of almost 2:1 over black.

And, in a series of matches, research has shown that the person who plays white first carries an advantage into subsequent matches, with a 62 per cent winning advantage at the elite level. This is despite players playing an equal number of games as white and black.

The advantage enjoyed by white is amplified further in the world of computer chess. In 2020, AlphaZero, said to be the world’s most powerful chess engine, played against itself in 10,000 games, taking a minute per move. White won in 86 per cent of the decisive games, giving it about a 6:1 advantage, though these games constituted only two per cent of the total— 98 per cent were draws.

The game theory researchers added: “We should make clear that we have not proved that Balanced Alternation equalises the chances of white and black winning, much less that it forces a draw with optimal play. But, by giving a boost to black that puts it on a par with white, Balanced Alternation renders chess fairer than any other reform of which we are aware.”

The paper, ‘Fairer Chess: A Reversal of Two Opening Moves in Chess Creates Balance Between White and Black,’ has been accepted at the 3rd IEEE Conference on Games, which takes place on 17 August.

In this story

Mehmet Ismail

Lecturer in Economics