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MACA Chess Horizons Magazine Article
 Chess Strength and the Power of the First Move
 NM Mike Hart
  August 2014
Though long-retired, I often wonder about two questions and their implications:
  1. Do Club Players actually win more often when they have White? How does their win rate compare to results for GMs?
  2. How often do Club players draw as compared to GMs?

When my wife was doing her Master's in Business at Harvard a few years back, we decided to look into these questions with some formal statistical methods. We analyzed the results from ChessBase 10 for 250 random, representative games by competitors that I termed as "Club Players" (ratings 1605-1625) as well as 507 games by "GMs" (ratings 2595 - 2605). 

Table 1: Game Outcome by Rating Category

Result Club Players GMs
WIN 94 128
DRAW 71 302
LOSS 85 77
Total 250 507

On Question 1: Table 1 shows that "Club Players" had 179 decisive games (94 wins and 85 losses as White) out of the 250 games played, or 52.5% of the games that were decisive. The 95% confidence interval of the win rate for these 179 games is 45.2% to 59.8%. By comparison, flipping a coin 180 times results in a 95% confidence interval of 77 to 103 "heads". For Club Players, winning with White is similar to flipping a coin, statistically speaking. 

The analysis of the "GM Class" yields a different result; the percentage of wins based on the 507 outcomes shows a win rate of 62.4% in the decisive games with a corresponding 95% confidence of the true rate between 56% and 69%.

On Question 2: Regarding the number of draws in each class, the Club Players had 28.4% (= 71/250) while the GMs had 59.6% (= 302/507). This difference is quite large and the 31.2% gap is statistically significant.

Based on these results, White is significantly advantageous for GMs but not so for Club Players. What does this mean in practical terms for improvement of the club player? My conjecture is that due to positional awareness, GMs can make the advantage of the first move (about +0.17 pawns per Houdini 4.0) tell in their favor. Tactics generally flow from good positions due to space or other positional advantages. It might be preferable for club players to focus their energy on the development of positional skills rather than the fine details of specific openings, for even if club players have a significant advantage in the opening (perhaps as high as a quarter of a pawn)...the game outcome is still fairly random. One can study openings forever to get a small advantage, without the positional sense to go with it, it makes little difference.

Additional details and the complete study can be found in here.