Nowadays, playing as Black is not easy. Strong chess engines, a prospering market of chess opening books and plenty of easy to access chess videos have greatly increased the opening knowledge in the chess world.
Due to the rise of the internet, every chess player, regardless of where in the world they live, has access to a wide range of good sources on chess openings for Black and White.
Even average club players are often quite well prepared in the opening – the stage of the game which is most studied by club players.
When you have the White pieces, you usually don’t need to worry about being mated in less than 20 moves. Playing Black, however, means that you need to be very well prepared. Otherwise, you can easily get under severe pressure in the opening.
At least, this is what most chess players think about playing Black and White. However, is it true that playing White is an advantage? Does it only feel like an advantage? Are there even some advantages to playing Black? How can you create a good opening repertoire with Black? Which are the best chess openings for Black to play? All these questions are going to be addressed in the following article.
Differences In Playing Black Or White for Openings
“White has to strive for a win, Black – for a draw!” – Evgeny Sveshnikov
Many chess players struggle to play well with the Black pieces. That said, the aim of this article is to help you to approach your Black games more confidently. The best opening repertoire with Black does not help if you have no confidence in playing with the Black pieces. Therefore, at first, it’s essential to get an objective view on the differences in playing Black and White.
So, why do so many chess players dislike playing with Black? Why are many players content with a draw against weaker opponents, only because they play Black? Why does White have a better score in the statistics? Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both colors step-by-step.
Advantages Of Playing White in the Opening
Today, most players generally agree that White begins the game with some advantage. Still, there are great chess books like Chess for Zebras: Thinking Differently about Black and White by Jonathan Rowson who claims that while White has some advantages by being allowed to make the first moves, Black has some other advantages.
In his book, in order to explain the first mover advantage in chess, GM Jonathan Rowson compares it the serve in tennis: “The advantage of the first move has some similarities with the serve in tennis in that White can score an ‘ace’ (for instance with a powerful opening novelty, he has more control over the pace and direction of the game, and he has a ‘second serve’ in that when things go wrong his position is not usually losing.“
This quote contains several arguments about why it’s an advantage to play White. First of all, White has the chance to come up with sharp opening novelties which can knock out an unprepared Black player immediately.
In theory, Black also has the possibility of a quick win in the opening but it is much more difficult, of course. The game David Bronstein vs NN, Moscow 1950 is a nice illustration of how tough it is to deal with a novelty in the opening over the board.
Bronstein, David – NN, Moscow 1950
Secondly, it is easier for White to channel the game towards his or her style. If you’re playing 1.e4 and your opponent plays the Pirc Defense, for example, you can still choose if you burn all bridges with the Austrian Attack or if you go for a quiet positional system like the Fianchetto Variation.
The same applies to other openings, of course. After 1.e4 e5, White can decide to set the board on fire with the King’s Gambit (2.f4) or to play a slow maneuvering game in one of the quieter lines of the Italian Game.
Against the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5), White can accept the challenge and play the main lines against, Najdorf, Dragon or Sveshnikov or he can go for some calmer Ani-Sicilians like the Closed Sicilian.
Finally, a small mistake by White usually leads only to the loss of the initiative or an equal position. If Black makes a similar mistake, his position might already be clearly worse.
This advantage is closely related to something Grandmaster Andras Adorjan pointed out in his famous chess book BLACK IS OK! in the 1980s: “In my opinion, the only obvious advantage for White is that if he or she plays for a draw, and does so well, then Black can hardly avoid this without taking obvious risks.”
In fact, this is probably the most significant advantage of playing White. To illustrate this point, we can take a look at a recent game between Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Magnus Carlsen from the Biel Chess Festival 2018.
With just two rounds to go, Mamedyarov (6/8) led the tournament by a full point. Magnus Carlsen was one point behind with 5/8. In the penultimate round, Magnus was playing against Mamedyarov with the Black pieces. If Magnus still wanted to have a chance to win the tournament, he had to go all out for a win.
Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar (2808) – Carlsen, Magnus (2843), Biel 2018
On top of that, GM Rowson emphasizes an additional aspect which favors White: “If White only wants to draw, it is often not so easy for Black to prevent this. This advantage is particularly acute in cases where there is a possible threefold repetition because White can begin the repetition without committing to a draw and Black has to decide whether to deviate before he knows whether White is bluffing.”
To illustrate this aspect, GM Jonathan Rowson points at the Zaitsev Variation of the Ruy Lopez:
Finally, the winning percentages in chess favor White. Many sources have pointed out that White scores better than Black. The exact percentage always depends on the number of games you consider, but in most studies, White’s winning percentage was around 55%. In fact, in this article of the Openings of the Top Ten Chess Players of All Time, none of the listed openings started with black first.
If you take a look at the free online database on lichess.org, for example, you quickly see that White scores better than Black after all the big four opening moves – 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4 and 1.Nf3:
In this respect, it is also interesting to consider the 100 games Google’s AlphaZero played against Stockfish, the strongest chess engine, in 2017.
AlphaZero convincingly defeated Stockfish. With White, AlphaZero won 25 games and drew 25. With Black, AlphaZero only won 3 games and drew 47.
So, statistics support the view that White has a consistent advantage. But is the score really of informative value? In his chess book, BLACK IS OK!, Adorjan claims that the main reason for Black’s statistical disadvantage is that a lot of Black players don’t even try to play for a win.
Playing Black, even higher-rated players would often agree to a quick draw against lower-rated opponents. In essence, many chess players would simply act overly cautiously with the Black pieces.
Advantages of Playing Black
“To play for a draw, at any rate with White, is to some degree a crime against chess.” — Mikhail Tal
Throughout the history of chess, there has been a long debate if, given perfect play for both sides, the game should end in a draw or a win for White. Today, the consensus is that such a game would end in a draw.
It’s not possible to prove this thesis with absolute certainty. However, the fact that most probably not a single Super-GM would disagree can be seen as a very strong indication that this thesis is correct.
This thesis also implies that if playing White gives you some form of a small advantage, this advantage is not decisive or permanent, but only temporary. At some point, Black is able to neutralize White’s initiative.
It becomes clear that White’s advantage is far from obvious. Winning with Black begins with having the right attitude. It all begins with the names of many good chess openings for Black. Grunfeld Defense, Nimzo-Indian Defense, Sicilian Defense – on a subconscious level, the word defense already has an impact on how we think about playing Black.
It seems like Black has to defend from move 1 by choosing a certain defense against White’s first move. However, it is key to not equate defense with passivity. Instead, it’s better to think of counterattacking with Black.
In any event, there are certain advantages to playing with Black. One key advantage might be more of a psychological nature, but nevertheless of paramount importance in games between human beings.
In his book Chess For Zebras, GM Jonathan Rowson brilliantly puts it in a nutshell: “One of Black’s advantages is that White has a certain responsibility to play for a win. […] I have seen many games lost through misunderstanding the idea that you have to play for a win because you are White. […] White’s alleged advantage is also a kind of obligation to play for a win, and Black can often use this to his advantage.”
Secondly, there are also plenty of examples in which Black surprises White with an opening novelty, an innovative concept or by quickly taking over the initiative.
Let’s take a look at some examples where White quickly collapses.
The first example shows one of the best chess games ever played by the former World Chess Champion, Vishy Anand.
In this brilliant miniature, Vishy Anand crushes Levon Aronian in only 23 moves with Black. This game illustrates that it’s worth the investment to study good chess openings for Black.
Aronian, Levon (2802) – Anand, Viswanathan (2772), Wijk aan Zee 2013
The second example features a game played by GM Eugene Perelshteyn with Black back in 2009. In this game, GM Perelshteyn played one of the most famous chess openings for Black among club players – the Accelerated Dragon. In response, his opponent went for the Maroczy Bind. Black went for a relatively rare and new opening concept and crushed White with a stunning kingside attack:
Rensch, Daniel (2399) – Perelshteyn, Eugene (2543), Philadelphia 2009
The third example is the game Aronian – Kramnik from the recent Candidates Tournament in Berlin 2018. Kramnik, playing Black, came up with a fantastic opening novelty as early as move 7.
Aronian, Levon (2794) – Kramnik, Vladimir (2800), Berlin 2018
Best Chess Openings For Black: How To Create Your Opening Repertoire
“I am convinced, the way one plays chess always reflects the player’s personality. If something defines his character, then it will also define his way of playing.” – Vladimir Kramnik
In a recent article, we already discussed many key aspects to studying good chess openings. Now, we want to take a look at how you can build up an opening repertoire for Black.
One of the most difficult parts of building a chess opening repertoire is to find positions which suit you and which you enjoy playing. The chess openings for Black you play have to fit well with your playing style.
If you’re an intuitive chess player, who makes decisions at the chess board mostly based on general and abstract concepts rather than concrete calculation and memorization of razor-sharp lines, you should probably stay away from playing the Sicilian Najdorf or the King Indian Defense and choose other good chess openings like the Caro-Kann or the Nimzo-Indian which require less memorization of concrete lines instead.
Generally speaking, there are 3 main strategies for Black in the opening:
- Burning Bridges: Sharp and double-edged openings
Black aims for complicated and sharp positions. Although these chess openings for Black might not be the best ones objectively, Black tries to create major imbalances. These Black players aim to create such unclear and complex positions, that evaluations like “=” or +=” become meaningless. The positions are extremely concrete and every move counts. Black does not mind positions where he commits everything and stakes everything in an all-out-attack – like going all-in in poker.
Examples: Benoni, Pirc Defense, Modern Defense, Albin Counter Gambit, Chigorin Defense, Latvian Gambit
- Solid and Safe: Openings which aim for clear equality
Black tries to reach clear equality from the opening. These Black players play very solid chess openings for Black. The downside of this approach, however, is that in the resulting positions, it’s often tough to play for a win against weaker opponents or in a must-win situation.
Examples: Queen’s Gambit Declined, Slav-Defense, Petroff Defense
- Controlled Counterattacks:
Black tries to combine both other approaches, by playing solid, but not too solid. These Black players try to keep the tension and some imbalances in the position. Simultaneously, they try to avoid burning all the bridges behind them.
Examples: Sicilian Defense, French Defense, Caro-Kann, Dutch Defense, Grunfeld Defense
Of course, these three opening strategies for Black depend on your general objective in the opening.
There is plenty of debate on the question of whether Black’s objective in the opening should be to fight for the initiative or to obtain equality.
As there is no definite answer to this question, the decision is up to you and probably largely affected by your personality.
Still, it might be sensible to play more than one opening with Black against White’s different first moves.
Against 1.d4, for example, you could play the solid Slav-Defense against stronger opponents where a draw is sufficient and the more dynamic Grunfeld Defense against weaker opponents.
The same approach can be used against 1.e4. You can play the main line of the dynamic Sicilian Defense against weaker opponents and 1…e5 against stronger opponents.
Of course, the decision of which chess opening for Black to play against which opponent should not only be affected by the opponent’s rating.
There are many other factors like your opponent’s playing style, the tournament situation, your general mood and so on.
Finally, achieving good results is not only about playing good openings and understanding the positions you play.
In Chess For Zebras, GM Jonathan Rowson emphasizes that some chess skills are of paramount importance if you want to play for a win with Black:
“[…] I think it is important to broaden your ability to play different kinds of positions and have a wider repertoire of mental attitudes. To do well with Black you need to be less dependent on the initiative and more comfortable with defending, counterattacking and endgame grinds.”
Conclusion – Chess Openings for Black
“When I am White I win because I am White. When I am Black I win because I am Bogoljubow.” — Efim Bogoljubov
In this article, we questioned the assumption that White is better due to his first-move advantage. If you’re regularly playing tournaments, you’ll have to play Black roughly as often as White.
Therefore, it is key to not let your pre-game attitude be affected by the color you will play with. A negative mindset about playing Black will not only hurt your confidence but also your results.
As we’ve seen in this article, the so-called first-mover advantage in chess does not always have to be an advantage.
If you want to become an outstanding chess player, you need to learn how to win at chess with Black. If you’re looking forward to greatly improve your chess openings for Black and White, we’ve got a special deal for you.
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Other interesting articles for you:
- Best Chess Openings for Beginners: Queen’s Gambit Declined
- The Pirc Defense: How To Face White’s Sidelines – GM Damian Lemos (Deep Dive)
- What are the Best Chess Opening Moves? – The Definitive Guide
- Fried Liver Attack – The Ultimate Guide
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