Do you remember the very first time you played chess? Perhaps it was with your father, or an older brother. Whichever it was, he would probably have mystified you by taking one pawn of each colour, shuffling them behind his back, and then holding out two closed fists, inviting you to choose.
I used to get a tiny thrill if I guessed the hand holding the black pawn. This was perverse of me, both practically and theoretically. Theoretically, because almost all the openings manuals suggest that it is easier to gain an advantage with the opportunity to move first; practically, because all meta-analyses of chess games at the professional level demonstrate that White scores more heavily than Black.
For example, the database in the vast chessgames.com website, covering all recorded games in 2008, shows that White won 36.81 per cent, 36.50 per cent were drawn, and Black won only 26.69 per cent — leaving a White score of 55.08 per cent. A similar analysis covering all tournaments between 1919 and 1932 shows an almost identical pattern, with White scoring at 55.47 per cent. Most conclusively of all, a recent experiment that tested computer engines by playing them against each other produced a White score of 55.4 per cent.
This last result is particularly significant. Those few brave spirits who claim that Black is objectively at no disadvantage base their case on the idea that because conventional wisdom says that White is better from the first move, players with Black are almost brainwashed into believing that they are at a disadvantage — and that this accounts for their relatively poor score overall.
The most persistent advocate of this view has been the Hungarian grandmaster András Adorján. He has written a whole series of theoretical books under the general title of Black is OK! In one he states: "The tale of White's advantage is a delusion...based on mass psychosis." The Scottish grandmaster Jonathan Rowson, in his superb 2005 book Chess for Zebras: Thinking Differently About Black and White (Gambit), admiringly declares Adorján's premise "one of the most important chess ideas of the last two decades. It has shaken our assumption that White begins the game with some advantage and revealed its ideological nature."
Nevertheless, even Rowson does not accept Adorján's full argument, concluding that, while Black may indeed be "OK" and have many more resources than some have imagined, that doesn't mean that he is completely equal, from either a theoretical or a practical standpoint.
Adorján's own playing style was razor sharp, so he played counter-attacking systems as Black; in this he was following the greatest player of his era, Bobby Fischer. Even with the Black pieces against the strongest opponents, Fischer would try to gain an advantage right out of the opening. Garry Kasparov had the same approach; indeed, for much of his career he adopted identical opening systems to those previously employed by Fischer: against the King's Pawn opening he would play the ultra-sharp Najdorf variation of the Sicilian Defence, and against the Queen's Pawn opening he would play either the Grunfeld Defence or the King's Indian Defence — both of them fundamental and principled challenges to the very idea that White could lay claim to the initiative.