Wednesday 24 June 2020

Whitewashing chess history

Often I get asked on Quora the question "Is chess racist because white moves first?". My answer is "No. White moves first because someone has to". This question now seems to have leaked into the real world, as the ABC (in Australia) is doing a story along similar lines.
However, the fact that it is the ABC, and it is part of a wider discussion concerning 'Black Lives Matter' has triggered a response from some members of the chess community. In one camp are people who thinks it is a silly question, while in another (smaller) camp, this is evidence of a wider culture war being waged by the "left" and the ABC.
I am in neither of those camps. As a customer of the so called "free marketplace of ideas" I think discussions like this are both interesting and healthy. Not all cultural norms are obvious to outsiders, and sharing why chess chooses to do things in a certain way is good.
More importantly, the rule that white always moves first has a) only been firmly established since the 1880's and b) still isn't always followed. For example, "The Immortal Game" started with Black moving first, as noted in this post
One thing that has been changed since the rule came in, is that game scores have been 'whitewashed'. Rather than being presented with historical accuracy, modern books (and databases) simply show white always moving first, even if this didn't happen. I am guilty of doing this myself btw, not just in this blog, but also in a reprint of the London 1851 tournament book that I produced for ePlus books.
As for point B, there have been a few recent online events where Black has moved first. These tournaments are explicitly linked to the #BLM movement, and while I don't see them catching on in the long term, there is nothing wrong with holding them now.

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