Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Luck in Chess

I read lots about chess on the internet, some of which I agree with and some of which I disagree with, but virtually all of which stimulates me. I follow US senior chess coach Dan Heisman on Twitter and I've used a number of his ideas (de-Americanised, of course) in my own chess teachings. He is excellent at finding things which average level players and beginners need to think about. But I saw a tweet by him yesterday linking to an article that suggested that luck exists in chess. This is something which I personally disagree with, and I try to avoid using luck as an influencing factor in life generally.

Heisman suggests that chess authors use luck to mean that there is no randomness in chess in the selection of moves. There are no dice or other random elements at play and it is only the choice and effort of the players which determines the moves made. He goes on to state that choosing moves is only one aspect of the game, and others may be affected by luck. He then goes on to talk about good move and games played by low rated players which could be considered lucky, and weak moves and games played by high rated players which may be considered unlucky. This use of luck in chess I strongly disagree with as it takes away a players responsibility for his actions and gives a person excuses to rationalise a bad loss or a good win. I take a much more down to earth view. If I play badly and lose to a lower rated player than me, then that isn't anything to do with luck, the best man won on the day. To avoid this happening in the future, I need to ask some hard questions about my play, and my preparation for the game. On the other hand, if I beat a player much higher rated than me, rather than saying I was lucky that they didn't play their best chess, I can turn around and rightly be proud of my achievement.

Another issue he talks about is luck of the draw in a tournament. Sometimes draws seem to be favourable to players, while sometimes they are really bad. However, again, this seems to me to be an excuse players make when results don't necessarily go with them. I remember playing in a weekend tournament in the UK and arriving for the first round where my opponent hadn't turned up. The rules were that players without a first round opponent could be re-paired up to 30 minutes after the start of the round. After 20 minutes I had no opponent to play and was thinking in terms of getting a full point bye when IM Chris Baker walked in the door and asked of it was to late to join the tournament. I was asked if it would be ok to play with Chris, I said yes, no problems, we played, I lost and turned a full point bye into a first round loss. As a player in the top half of the draw, it was also a first round point dropped. Now you could say I was unlucky in that instance, but I wouldn't say that. Those were the rules, and that was the draw. Simple as!

While I use a lot of ideas from a lot of coaches in my lessons (including Dan Heisman), I try to make my students take responsibility for their mistakes and their victories. I am working hard towards making a future generation of chess players accountable for their actions, and to take charge of improving their play. I now have kids coming up to me telling me about their blunders, about how they didn't work hard enough before a tournament or didn't get enough sleep due to parties so tired through the day, things which they intend to put right in the future. They are not making excuses, they are analysing their mistakes in playing and preparing for events which they can then attempt to remedy. I get immense satisfaction when kids have turned the corner from just wanting to win every game they play to realising that losing isn't a bad thing as long as things are taken from the game.


  1. I think that there is some luck in chess, if you think of "luck" as something with a low percentage of happening, or something that is unlikely to happen.

    For example
    a novice player rated 800 might blunder every one out of 10 moves.
    a 1600 rated player might blunder one out of every 40-60 moves.
    A Master might blunder once out of every 1000 moves.

    So if you are the one that happens to be playing against the master when he makes this "1 out of a 1000" blunder - you are possibly getting "lucky".

    The master is not going to blunder like this often, but we are all human, and all make mistakes at some point. The stronger players just make mistakes less often.

    It is like you have a 1 in a 1000 chance of something, and if you pick that one, most people would say that is "lucky".

    I played a rated game against Life Master Brian Wall last summer. He missed a simple mate in one with a battery of Bishop and Queen pointing at h7. This is probably something that he is going to see 99,999 times out of of 100,000. But in this particular game he missed it. I am fine with saying "I got lucky", because these things do happen in a game.

    Luck favors the prepared mind!

  2. Hi Timothy, first congratulations on a good win, sounds like you stepped up in that game. When a lower rated player does step up (sorry, I'm assuming you are lower rated than the life master), it puts all sorts of pressures on higher rated players, and while it doesn't force the stronger player to blunder it increases the chances of that blunder happening.

    On the subject of 'chance', which you seem to be using synonymously with luck, I'd prefer to believe that it doesn't exist. There are statistical advantages to certain openings for example, but choosing an opening based on these isn't lucky, it's using data in an analytical way. The statistical model that you're using makes chess sound like some kind of slot machine where there will be payouts every percentage of times. However we know this isn't the case, and there are many factors which influence the result of a game, some of which have nothing to do with chess itself (eg work issues, bills, family issues which may play on the mind etc).

    On the other hand, you might be suggesting that when a player is lucky that his strong opponent missed something obvious, then it is a case of 'being in the right place at the right time'. As a matter of fact, I'd completely agree with this, but I'd say that has nothing to do with luck but is a direct result of someone putting them self into that opportunistic position and taking advantage of it.

    My biggest problem with using luck in chess is when it is used as an excuse for failure or success. You had a good win and beat a player. You were the better player on the day. Accept it and enjoy that accolade. You deserve it :)