Thursday, June 25, 2020

White Goes First, Right Goes Beatup: The ABC Did Not Attempt To Cancel Chess

In recent days I've been involved in a media and social media flurry sparked by the ABC's decision to explore the subject of whether White moving first in a game of chess was in any way connected to race issues.  This claim was once most commonly seen as a spoof of anti-racism campaigns, but these days, a small number of people seem to be actually fearing chess might be symbolically racist.

I appeared on ABC radio and gave an interview that outlined that there is no evidence this is the case.  The host did not try to argue that there was, just mentioned that people on social media have held concerns about the issue.  The mere existence of that interview has triggered a massive backlash from right-wing culture warriors, which had already started before the interview aired.  The thing is, it is unclear that the enemy they're tilting at exists!  The ABC may be guilty of filling up its programs with offbeat fluff on the slender pretext of a few tweets, but that does not mean it was trying to have chess cancelled.

There are things I would like to put on the public record together in one place about this episode, but it is also one I feel is worth commenting on as it touches on my interests in both politics and chess.  However, unlike previous such pieces here, it has nothing to do with chess politics.

Some on the right have made valid points lately about cases of people jumping at imaginary racism (a good current example of this being the Bubba Wallace NASCAR "noose" farce, which has been almost as embarrassing as NASCAR always is, and I say that as a motorsport tragic.)  But in this case the same culture warriors have fallen into their own trap.   They have accused the ABC of claiming that chess is racist, when there is no evidence the ABC did so.  They have imagined a case of imagined racism.  They have let their viewers down by feeding them nonsense rather than facts.  

The impetus for the story

On Tuesday, a Twitter user from Sydney, Stuart Khan, tweeted the following question:

Various comments were made in reply to this, notably including one where another Australian Twitter user, James Van Dyke, mentioned a four-year old child being reluctant to play black because black 'is always bad'.  (It sounds like even if black went first this child would not want to be black anyway.)

I had just answered a technical question on that thread after being mentioned on it when the phone rang.  It was a producer for James Valentine's ABC Sydney program wanting to talk to a chess authority about this very issue.    (At this stage they did not mention it was the above tweet stream that had sparked it, but it turned out that it was.)  In these times of Black Lives Matter, should parents be getting rid of the white-goes-first rule on the grounds that it could have racist connotations or send a racist message?  Or was it actually nothing to do with racism?  My understanding is that Valentine's program frequently explores what might be called everyday trivia.  

The producer mentioned that they had approached John Adams, who declined and suggested me.  John is a usually inactive club-level player who was at one stage a national chess administrator.  He served as Australian Chess Federation Government Relations Director for a few years (2015-8) and as ACF Treasurer for a single year during that time.  I am not sure whether the ABC were aware that John is also a public commentator. He has been published especially in the Daily Telegraph (and also, the Canberra Times, Spectator Australia and has even appeared on ABC's The Drum).  He was also once an advisor to former Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos.  

The ABC's dire luck in picking Adams as the worst possible person to call was compounded by news that the ABC is facing cuts and will lose the iconic 7:45 AM News.  It was hardly an ideal time for the ABC to be having offerings that were both contentious and fluffy in the foreground as the subject of media attention.  

I agreed to do the interview in a personal capacity, not on behalf of any of my many chess admin roles.  Soon after this, a John Adams tweet claiming that "The ABC have taken the view that chess is RACIST given that white always go first!" went moderately viral, and this then resulted in a range of media coverage.  There have been a number of other Adams tweets that are rather theatrical since, including describing the actual interview as entirely "OUTRAGEOUS & BIZARRE" even after it went to air.  A reporter from the Daily Telegraph interviewed me briefly, and the story has since gone global and featured in numerous items.  

John's view is that the ABC shouldn't be spending taxpayers' money on this sort of stuff when there are so many serious COVID-19 issues (direct and indirect) going on.  An alternative view is that by now listeners have rather had enough of wall-to-wall COVIDia and would appreciate diversity in what they hear.  I suspect the ABC cannot win because if it only broadcasts serious issues then it is accused of being too exclusively political.

Why white moves first in chess

I am not aware of any evidence that there is any racial/racist basis for white always moving first in chess games.  Forerunners of chess simulated military battles in India around 1500 years ago, the game then spreading to Persia and on to Europe where much of the modern game evolved around the fifteenth century.  The game is very loosely based around a battle between rival armies, not races, and the pieces have to differ in some way so a player can be clear which are their own pieces and which are their opponent's.  Using light and dark colours (not necessarily black and white, but called black and white for ease of uniform description) is the commonest and simplest.  

Standardisation of white moving first appears, from limited evidence, to have happened rapidly around the 1880s (see eg the well-referenced Wikipedia article), following a period in which the player moving first had the choice of colours (and some leading players preferred having the black pieces no matter what).  This followed an approach in chess literature of describing the first-named player as white no matter whether they had actually played with the white pieces or not.

I don't know if the background to why standardisation was accepted (without getting into which colour always goes first) still exists.  But it has obvious benefits, for instance:

* ease of illustrating and training opening strategies and chess diagrams without needing to imagine the board and colours reversed

* fairness - if a player is going first, why should they get to choose their colour on top of that?

* organisation - why should tournament organisers have to wait for players to decide and communicate a colour choice and reseat themselves or rotate the board accordingly?  (This might sound trivial but it is not when issues of disabilities, language barriers, late players and so on come into view)  There are many other organisational benefits of knowing who will be white and black in a given game.  

This illustrates why reversing the board is an issue:

In the top diagram black is about to move first and has the king on the left hand side.  In the bottom diagram white is about to move first and has the king on the right.  The two games are mathematically the same, but the position of the king and the queen as they appear to the player moving first is reversed.  These pieces could be switched when black went first, but this would cause confusion compared to the simple and easy rule that a queen goes on its own colour.  Modern notation, which scores the board from white's side, also becomes a problem in the top case.  

But if one side is going to always go first, why white and not black?  I haven't found anything concerning what motivated this choice, but the same choice has been made in a wide range of board games including various versions of draughts (checkers) and Go, with varying results.  If these choices were generally driven by racism one would expect that white would go first in the vast majority, but in checkers white goes first in some variants and black in others.  (In Go, where black goes first, it actually is based around symbolism, but it is nothing to do with race.)

Is going first an advantage?

The topic of "first move advantage" is much studied in chess.  In top-level opening theory, usually white is aiming to preserve a claimed advantage of moving first and turn it into something useful in the middlegame - a sniff of an attack, a better pawn structure, a bishop for a knight, perhaps if lucky material gain, and so on.  Black is trying to reach a position where the chances are equal and nullify white's first move benefit.  At the highest levels, if two equally matched GMs play each other 100 times and one is always white, most of the games will be draws, but white will win a fair few more than black will.  The expected scoreline is about 56-44 to white.

Not everyone agrees that white's advantage is this large or that it exists.  Some players think it is mainly psychological, and some argue that whatever white does gives black information that black can use to best react, so moving second might not be a disadvantage at all.  That said, recent computer results involving machine-learning suggest that for the strongest computers running without any human bias inputs, first move advantage is substantial.  In any case, first move advantage weakens in faster games, and it also weakens in players of my level (1900s ACF).  By lower club level (sub-1500) and unrated junior level it appears to be gone.  Much as some juniors might prefer to have white, it doesn't make them play any better.

In tournaments, players usually alternate colours from round to round where possible to minimise unfair advantages.  

Should it be changed?

Some leading chess players have played games where black goes first, but just as a symbolic exercise, not in serious tournaments.  There have also been some low-key symbolic tournaments of this type, which cannot be rated by FIDE but can be rated on online servers.  (In one of those I saw, the time limit was fast and despite going second, white outscored black anyway).

A serious shift to black going first in major tournaments would be very disruptive to the game, rendering almost all its literature mirror-imaged and miscoloured and hence much less easy to use. We should not do this just because of people who are mistakenly concerned that white going first could be a race reference.  They should understand and explain that so far as is known it is not, and that not everything that looks like it might be racism is.  The pieces are armies in uniform, not people with different skin.  One could mention that winning with black is considered special and better than winning with white by the best players in the world.  Or even that white started the fight so black has the nobler cause.  

If people want to play casual games where black goes first, there is no problem with that.  The FIDE Laws of Chess are mandatory only for FIDE-rated competitions, and recommended for other competitive games - in casual games, people can play whatever rules they like!  It may even be useful practice for strong players to just now and then play with colours reversed, as it's good practice for those times when you do accidentally or deliberately find yourself playing a black setup with white or vice versa.  But if players are going to play in serious events, they need to get used to generally playing with white going first.  

Calls for black to go first do not come from serious bodies representing people of colour.  They do not seem to come from individual people of colour to any major extent either.  In 25 years of chess administration I have never encountered serious lobbying on the issue.  Indeed, aside from the odd passing joke now and then, I've never noticed it.  

Nor is there any reason it belongs officially on the radar now.  Guilty white people getting angsty about trying to clean up every potential micro-racism in their lives (and police the same in the lives of others) is not what Black Lives Matter is about.  Black Lives Matter is about the need for police, justice systems and prison authorities to stop killing, injuring, dangerously neglecting and over-arresting people on account of (or neglecting risks relating to) the colour of their skin.  It gets trivialised when the narrative gets taken over by middle-class whites with good intentions but no idea that they're encouraging people to think the whole cause is silly.  It's even patronising - it implies that people of colour are so weak they need constant obsessive protection. 

Indeed, changing the rules to make black go first would only give succour to those who hold the ridiculous view that white people are already disadvantaged.  That would probably be reason enough alone not to do it even if some connection to the odd racist was found in the history of why it is white and not black who moves first.  

Media and political misreporting

Following John Adams' comment to the Daily Telegraph, a media circus developed with a range of right-wing sources including Senators Molan and Hanson and failed ex-Premier Campbell Newman since getting involved in silly claims about the  interview.  I can't vouch exactly for John's experience of being called by the ABC as I was not part of it.  I can say that:

* The ABC never intended to hold a "debate" about whether chess was or wasn't racist.  Their intention was always to have a single chess authority on to talk about the background to the issue and whether the concerns were valid.

* At no stage in talking to me did the ABC give any appearance of bringing an agenda to bear, or of wanting to hear a specific answer (in the early stages they didn't know what my answers were likely to be).  It was the Daily Telegraph journalist who called me who clearly had a preconceived view that it was unbelievable that the ABC were talking about this.  

* The Daily Telegraph article attributed two verbatim quotes to me that were not exactly what I said:

"There are complex patterns that require white to move first" 
"At the casual and club level, it does not matter which colour starts the game.”

These are at best paraphrases and the second one (which said "lower club level") is out of context, which was the context of first-move advantage.  I realise I'm a painful person to interview because I tend to speak at a million words an hour and use a lot of big words.  But (i) outlets choose to interview me to make money for themselves, offering nothing in return (ii) verbatim quote marks exist for the purpose of telling readers exactly what is said and to use them in any other fashion is wrong.  

* The Daily Telegraph has failed to disclose its link to John Adams in reporting the story involving him.

* The Daily Mail, in its link, promoted John Adams to "chess master", in line with the usual clueless approach that says everyone who has ever played chess competitively (especially Heath Ledger for some reason) is/was at least a master if not a grandmaster.  In fact very few chess players hold master titles - but also in some cases players holding at least "candidate master" titles are only average club players.  The criteria for awarding master titles are uneven.  Various other sources used the confusing term "representative" - he was briefly an elected representative as an administrator, but was not a playing representative.  

* Sky and other sources alleged that the upcoming interview was an example of "cancel culture" and "bullying" before it was even aired.  However, they were the ones trying to pressure the ABC to not even discuss the subject and trying to cancel the ABC for doing so, so I found Sky's panel discussion extremely hypocritical.  There is nothing in the interview that justifies these comments. (By the way I actually appear in the Sky background footage of the event, footage from the 2019 Tasmanian Open that originally aired on WIN News!).  

* Prue MacSween informed her followers "Isn’t it comforting to know that a radio show on @abcsydney was debating the racial context of chess and whether white should go first.  This taxpayer funded wonk wank should be wound up".  Except at the time she wrote it the interview hadn't happened, and there was no debating (or any racial context really for that matter), so the "wank" that should be wound up was MacSween's worthless twitter account.

* Yet another Daily Tele item claims that "world renowned chess players" have slammed the ABC.  But the only one who it quotes as doing so is retired former world champion Garry Kasparov, who unfortunately took a poor item at face value.  It also interviews Sydney chess coach Michael Zhou, a very strong player but hardly world-renowned (and who is not quoted as dissing the ABC) and Adams, who it again incorrectly implies was a playing representative.  

I'm sure there is more where those came from, but that will do for now.  I'll post a link to the actual interview if it ever goes up!

Update (Saturday - Sunday)

A few more items of note - firstly there was this Facebook post from James Valentine explaining the story.   Unfortunately I have been unable to find a working link to the interview. The post mentions a Minties reference James made that was obviously satire to anyone with even three-fifths of a brain cell, yet was reported by the Tele as if he was seriously claiming Minties were racist.  He also mentions that the Breitbart article on the matter is actually very fair, which doesn't say too much for those that are not.  (My only quibble with the Breitbart piece really is the ambiguous title.  There wasn't a taxpayer-funded debate on radio, but there was a debate about taxpayer-funded radio!)

Secondly there was a podcast by Martin North and John Adams that was picked up by a source from India.  Aside from the latter bungling matters by calling Adams a "former Australian chess master" (a serious insult, since master titles are for life unless stripped for ethics violations) the items argue that a focus on fluff such as whether chess is racist is media "misdirection" that distracts people from much more important and pressing issues (especially, in Adams' view, government debt).  If that is so then those most guilty in this particular story have been the Daily Telegraph, Sky etc who have already banged out numerous stories about this episode in reply to a single interview run on the ABC, and will presumably continue doing so for weeks to come. These media have caused far more distraction and misdirection than the ABC did.  Adams' theory of misdirection will be gladly embraced by many ALP brokens, waterdrops and miscellaneous Twitter leftoids who hold exactly that view of the Murdoch press already.

Thirdly there was a ridiculously braindead item by Peter Gleeson on Sky News that was indistinguishable from classic reds-under-the-beds paranoia in the way that it alleged the left were coming for chess in spite of the complete lack of evidence for that accusation.  Gleeson, who recently used appalling racial language in an article, is a disgrace to the Australian media and must be sacked for the sheer stupidity of his coverage of the chess item if nothing else.  It was an insult to the intelligence of any person capable of turning on a TV set.

Fourthly, whereas former world champion Garry Kasparov unfortunately took right-wing reports of the events at face value,  there have been some more thoughtful contributions from a few leading players.  GM Jonathan Rowson, a psychologist and philosopher, wrote "Chess For Zebras", a very interesting book that has a lot to say about first-move advantages.  In another book that he quotes from he has actually explored the racism question to some degree, and he tweets that he feels the answer is "no, but not a simple no".  Former US Women's Champion and author of "Chess Bitch: Women In The Ultimate Intellectual Sport", WGM Jen Shahade, writes:

"I’ve been shocked at how triggered people are by bringing this up as a serious Q. 

One of the top google searches after “chess is...” was “racist” when I checked a few years ago. Perception problem even if the rule has nothing to do w race. Brought this up, was called a psycho."

Finally for now, I think I should record this pair of tweets from John Adams.  Critics have accused him of fuelling a beatup in order to gain publicity, and with stuff like this he's left himself wide open to that charge:

My hope is that the game will not be damaged by this nonsense.  My small fear is that since so many right-wing media hacks are so vehemently (if correctly) denying it is racist, some lefties may conclude it must be. 

Update (8 July): The caravan has moved on, but this article would not be complete without a link to the excellent item by Media Watch.


  1. Kevin,

    A few points with your blog post:

    1) You didn't mention the comments of Garry Kasparov which I think are important. They have been reported widely - see the following link:

    2) Why did the ABC focus on chess and not checkers or GO? Is it because in these other games - black goes first?

    It is clear that the ABC have a pre-defined political agenda and they attempted to use chess to further their narrative about racial inequality.

    This is political corruption at its worst in my view. The ABC, as a public broadcaster, has no business entertaining this sort of topic.

    This is why I took a very tough stand against the ABC and their behaviour.


    John Adams

    1. 1) I may edit in a comment re Kasparov but it seemed he was taking poor quality news reports at face value.

      2) Because they saw a tweet from someone who had concerns about chess in this regard and decided it would be interesting to explore. The show covers a lot of everyday trivia and isn't generally political.

  2. And the moral of the story is: Never post a light-hearted musing touching on a highly divisive topic, unless you’re prepared to see it twisted and radiated back to you from pages of Breitbart.

    1. Never has my path to 15 minutes of fame been clearer.

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Thankyou for an excellent article. I am looking forward to the link to your interview.


  4. The fact that the ABC chose to even spend time discussing this is the point. Really, it's gotten to the point where we're discussing which piece in a game goes first may indicate racial bias? And how does that advance the cause of anti racism. The publicly funded ABC should not have even entertained this nonsense, and that was the point of the other media outlets interest. And that interest was at least as valid as the ABC decision honour this ludicrous rubbish by discussing it.

    1. It was in the context of a show that isn't political and is basically a curiosity segment. Stuff like how to make the perfect cup of tea, the etiquette of opening umbrellas inside, whether you can hard boil turtle eggs, who does the driving in listeners' relationships (to give some random examples). They saw some tweets on social media, they thought it would be interesting to know what the facts were about it, they thought listeners would find it interesting, they decided to ask some chess people. I doubt it was originally expected to be remotely serious (and if you heard the talkback afterwards, it didn't stay that way for long either.)

      If the ABC broadcasting fluffy items on the public purse is a problem, then fine, but that's a much broader issue that should be engaged with on its own terms.

      The other outlets are entitled to their "interest" in the fact that the matter was even being broadcast at all, but they are not entitled to their own facts or their own baseless conclusions.

  5. This article is pawnagraphic. you get there by Rook or by crook

  6. Kevin,

    By the way - I have no 'links' to the Daily Telegraph.

    In the past, I have written for several publications on a freelance basis including the Daily Telegraph,, the Canberra Times and the Spectator Australia, among others.

    Attempting to suggest a conspiracy when no conspiracy exists is not a useful contribution to the conversation.

    1. I am not suggesting any conspiracy, I am suggesting a unilateral failure by the Tele to disclose information that readers may consider relevant. But I should probably change it to "link" (singular).

      It is relevant at the least because the existence of a prior relationship - even if purely freelance - between you and the newspaper may have caused it to report your claims more readily or less critically than would otherwise have been the case. I realise it is only the Daily Telegraph and I give it a lot of credit by implying it would have applied critical thought to this story no matter what.

      In my own city, Greg Barns is a columnist at the Hobart Mercury and also is an at times outspoken barrister, a former sporting administrator and a backer of Julian Assange. When the Mercury reports on matters involving Barns it will often (not always) disclose that he is a columnist.

      If I were to make an explosive public claim that looked like it was a claim of fact, without providing evidence that proved it true, and the Mercury was reporting favourably on that, I would expect the Mercury to disclose that I am someone who it from time to time commissions to write about elections.

      The claim I am referring to here is the claim that the ABC had a preconceived view that chess was racist. There is absolutely no public evidence for that claim so if it is true then the only evidence for it could be in unverifiable conversations that you had with them.

  7. Yes Kevin, I think the nub of it is your remark that the pieces are not people with black and white skins but armies wearing different uniforms. Given its origins in India and Persia, the armies they were thinking of were probably engaged in civil war (I'm thinking in particular of Cyrus's rebellion against his brother Artaxerxes, famously written-up by Xenophon). They would have shared the same skin colour inside their uniforms. No race-consciousness there - just a quest for power.

  8. It is amazing to think that Chess, Kevin Bonham and Garry Kasparov have been mentioned in the same sentence!

    Chess, Magnus Carlson and Garry Kasparov would be uneventful.

    We truly live in amazing times.

    Keep up the good work Kevin...

    1. Not the first time actually - the Kasparov ticket nominated me as "scrutineer" for the 2014 FIDE election, following a misunderstanding in which I intended to offer my services as an observer but was instead nominated for election as a vote-counter.

      I have even been on a fishing boat with Kasparov! There is something about watching arguably the greatest chess player ever catch fish of the non-chess variety that is quite indescribable.

  9. As the risk of under appreciating the importance of the 2014 FIDE elections I don't recall your (mal) appointment as scrutineer going viral globally!

    Fishing with Kasparov - now that is worth a post all on its own. There has to be a story behind that.


    1. Not viral but there was some reporting of it in the specialised chess media. Incidentally I wasn't elected to that position, which was a bullet dodged as the election was incredibly slow.

      The ACF supported Kasparov in the election following his very successful visit to Australia and as a result I was invited on a scenic cruise around Tromso. Some people including Kasparov went fishing off the boat during this cruise. (I didn't as I was too busy eating/drinking/chatting/more drinking, but I did watch some of the action.)