In chess, white has a distinct advantage. Historically, white’s winning percentage has ranged from 52 to 56 percent. In 2017, two top chess engines – AlphaZero and Stockfish – played 100 games against each other. AlphaZero won 25 games as white, but only three as black.1The remaining 72 were draws.
Why? Because white goes first.
By going first, white has a large say on how the game will unfold. While white can play any opening, black is limited by white’s initial move. This puts black on the back foot from the very beginning, with white calling the shots until black can successfully counterattack. In chess, white is said to have the initiative.
In competitive spheres, it is generally advantageous to make the first move. Companies that are first to market enjoy advantages such as technological leadership, preemption of scarce assets, and switching costs. A fighter pilot that acts first has a better chance of achieving a tactically superior position. Even the slightest of head starts would be an insurmountable advantage in real time strategy games like Starcraft.
Going first is even more beneficial in cooperative spheres. People don’t make the first move for various reasons, such as laziness or fear. If you go first, you open the door to interactions that probably wouldn’t have otherwise occurred. And since humans are naturally cooperative, each interaction is like a lottery ticket. You never know when a chance encounter might change your and their life for the better.
There were these two women a little bit older than me. We couldn’t be more different, right? And I walked by them, and I just looked at them and smiled. The smile came to their face so instantly. They’re ready, but you have to go first, because now we’re being trained in this world [to opt out]—nobody’s going first anymore.Gabby Reece
Granted, it’s not always advantageous to make the first move. Sometimes, it’s better to go second. Follower companies benefit from copying the first mover’s innovations, avoiding the mistakes the first mover made, and free riding on any work the first mover did to create the market. Birds and cyclists bear the brunt of the wind drag when they go first. And in situations involving imperfect information, going first gives your opponent an informational advantage.2Examples include poker and salary negotiations.
However, taking the initiative is more advantageous than not. Thus, making the first move is still advisable whenever possible, especially in spheres of cooperation.
Featured photo by Shirly Niv Marton.