White Moves First, and Other Deeply Ingrained Facts

In my Math 2240 discussion section last week, I played my first game of chess in nearly two months. It felt like it had been forever since I last played chess. But considering how much I used to play it, I thought I’d slide back in easily. It turned out I did not.

There was one slight variation we added to the game. Instead of white moving first, we had black move first. This probably doesn’t seem like much. You would think that it is the exact same thing as a normal chess game, just that black acts as white and white acts as black.

But to me, I looked at the board and felt that something was eerily wrong. As someone who had spent a great deal of time memorizing openings, I am used to seeing certain patterns and positions on the board. This time I wasn’t seeing any of them. The piece colors and left-right orientation were messed up.

Because of the first-move switch, the game did not feel like chess. It felt alien, it felt like I was playing the game for the first time in my life.

Logically speaking, black moving first is not a different game. It is exactly the same as normal chess but with colors and left-right reversed. A computer AI would never know the difference. But for a human, there’s something odd when something you take for granted suddenly changes. It’s like you wake up one day and the Sun appears green. It’s still giving off plenty of light for everyone to go about their daily life. But it would still be odd. Odd enough that people would behave differently, even if they don’t have to.

When a fact as deeply ingrained as “White moves first” is violated, it sends a hell of a confusing message to our minds.

Does this apply to anything in real life? Other than for annoying or disorienting people, it seems not. It’s just something quite strange to think about.

2 thoughts on “White Moves First, and Other Deeply Ingrained Facts”

1. Samie says:

Things about chess that are interesting: I just recently watched a few of my friends play mental chess. Have you ever done this before? Enjoyed it? Found it particularly challenging over and above other variations on chess? (I presume you have never played the chess drinking game, which I assume is more difficult than .. well, I’m not convinced it is possible to complete the game…)

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2. Jeff says:

As a Go player I find the idea of white going first to be very disturbing.

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