Chess and Luck

Is there luck in chess? After receiving a “gift” from former World Champion Viswanathan Anand in sixth game of the current match for the championship of the world, World Champion Magnus Carlsen admitted he was “lucky.” When playing backgammon professionally decades ago some of my vanquished opponents would say, “You were lucky.” My response was invariably the same, “I had rather be lucky than good, because when I am good and lucky, I cannot be beat!”

I found this on the “Sabermetric Research” blog by Phil Birnbaum: Monday, January 14, 2013

Chess and luck

“In previous posts, I argued about how there’s luck in golf, and how there’s luck in foul shooting in basketball. But what about games of pure mental performance, like chess? Is there luck involved in chess? Can you win a chess game because you were lucky?

Yes.” ( Read the post to understand why Phil thinks there is luck involved in chess.

Later in the post Phil writes, “On an old thread ( over at Tango’s blog, someone pointed this out: if you get two chess players of exactly equal skill, it’s 100 percent a matter of luck which one wins. That’s got to be true, right?”

In #27 James writes, “I think it comes down to what is the relative difference in skill between players and the role of skill vs luck in a game.

If a game is 100% skill (say chess) and say for the sake of argument that the two players are perfectly equally skilled then who wins a single game is purely luck. Regardless of whether they are two unskilled beginners or the two best players in the world.

How do you differentiate between that and the two of them tossing a coin.”

Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov were “the two players perfectly equally skilled.” Garry was obviously not the equal of Anatoly when they first met in the ill-fated match that went on for many months, with one short draw after another after Kasparov was down 0-5, until the slight Karpov neared collapse, when Kasparov won 3 games before FIDE President Florencio Campomanes ended the match, fearing one of the players may “drop dead at the board.” From the second match on, Kasparov was ever so slightly better than the much older Karpov. We know this because they played hundreds of games in many matches for the title. Games are played to determine who is the better player, and by what margin.

Because my friend the Discman played, and has followed, baseball, and because Sabermetrics emanates from the field of dreams, I asked him to read the post and let me know what he thought of luck in chess. This is his response:

“I have a much less esoteric and simplistic example of luck in chess. This happens frequently in over-the-board tournament games where neither player is being assisted by a computer. The frequency is directly correlated to the strength of the players, occurring less frequently the stronger the players are. At my level of play when facing competition of similar strength it occurred maybe once every 20-25 games. Here goes:

I’m sure you have heard it said that chess is 98% tactics and I generally agree with that. How many times have you gone back over your games and realized that you had made a significant oversight that your opponent could have taken advantage of, but also missed?

In many cases, seeing the correct combination to punish you was well within the skill level of your opponent, but for any number of reasons (he was having a bad day, he was distracted at that moment, his biorhythm’s were off, etc.) he just missed it.

If he had been put in that same situation next Tuesday instead of today he may very well have seen it. You were lucky that he missed it – he didn’t miss it because you were a stronger player than he was.

Sometimes the oversight is so simple a 1200 player could see it, like the time Leonard Dickerson missed a mate in 1 and got checkmated by a 1500 player. There was a simple defense to the checkmate – in fact the move Leonard made allowed the mate so it was truly a Helpmate. You could put Leonard in similar situations 10,000 times and he would make a similar mistake 1 time.

Did his opponent get lucky? Hell yes he did. You might argue that the 1500 player was better than the master at that one point in time but I don’t think so – he got extremely lucky that Leonard had a brain-fart that allowed a mate in 1.”

Luck in Chess?

‘Chess,’ said the Dutch grandmaster, Jan Hein Donner, ‘is as much a game of chance as blackjack; or tossing cards into a top hat.’ There was a pained silence, then a polite babel of disagreement: it was a game of the utmost skill; a conflict between disciplined minds in which victory would inexorably go to the more perceptive, the more analytical player; a duel of the intellect in which luck played no part. Donner shrugged, lit another cigarette and said: ‘Believe that if you like.’ Bent Larsen smiled the smile of a man who had heard his friend air such iconoclastic arguments in the past but was quite happy to contest them again, when the score of the fifth game of the World Championship match between Karpov and Korchnoi was brought in. Both men pulled out of their inside pockets the wallet sets all grandmasters seem to carry at all times and began to skim through the moves.

It happened that the teleprinter tape had been torn off after Karpov’s 54th move as Black […]. They studied the position for a few moments, mated Karpov in four moves and were surprised when another whole sheet of moves was brought from the teleprinter.

When they saw Korchnoi’s 55th move – Be4+ – Larsen’s eyebrows went up.

‘There you are,’ Donner said, quietly and without triumph as though some self-evident truth had been revealed, ‘pure luck’.

KORTSCHNOJ,V (2665) – KARPOV,AN (2725) (05) [E42]

1. c4 Nf6 2. d4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 c5 5. Nge2 d5 6. a3 Bxc3+ 7. Nxc3
cxd4 8. exd4 dxc4 9. Bxc4 Nc6 10. Be3 O-O 11. O-O b6 12. Qd3 Bb7 13.
Rad1 h6 14. f3 Ne7 15. Bf2 Nfd5 16. Ba2 Nf4 17. Qd2 Nfg6 18. Bb1 Qd7
19. h4 Rfd8 20. h5 Nf8 21. Bh4 f6 22. Ne4 Nd5 23. g4 Rac8 24. Bg3 Ba6
25. Rfe1 Rc6 26. Rc1 Ne7 27. Rxc6 Qxc6 28. Ba2 Qd7 29. Nd6 Bb7 30.
Nxb7 Qxb7 31. Qe3 Kh8 32. Rc1 Nd5 33. Qe4 Qd7 34. Bb1 Qb5 35. b4 Qd7
36. Qd3 Qe7 37. Kf2 f5 38. gxf5 exf5 39. Re1 Qf6 40. Be5 Qh4+ 41. Bg3
Qf6 42. Rh1 Nh7 43. Be5 Qg5 44. Qxf5 Qd2+ 45. Kg3 Nhf6 46. Rg1 Re8
47. Be4 Ne7 48. Qh3 Rc8 49. Kh4 Rc1 50. Qg3 Rxg1 51. Qxg1 Kg8 52. Qg3
Kf7 53. Bg6+ Ke6 54. Qh3+ Kd5
55. Be4+
[55. Bf7+ Kc6 56. Qe6+ Kb7 [56… Kb5 57. Qc4+ Ka4 58. Qa6#] 57. Qxe7+
Ka8 58. Qd8+ Kb7 59. Qc7+ Ka6 [59… Ka8 60. Qb8#] 60. Bc4+ b5 61.

55… Nxe4 56. fxe4+ Kxe4 57. Qg4+ Kd3 58. Qf3+ Qe3 59. Kg4 Qxf3+ 60.
Kxf3 g6 61. Bd6 Nf5 62. Kf4 Nh4 63. Kg4 gxh5+ 64. Kxh4 Kxd4 65. Bb8
a5 66. Bd6 Kc4 67. Kxh5 a4 68. Kxh6 Kb3 69. b5 Kc4 70. Kg5 Kxb5 71.
Kf5 Ka6 72. Ke6 Ka7 73. Kd7 Kb7 74. Be7 Ka7 75. Kc7 Ka8 76. Bd6 Ka7
77. Kc8 Ka6 78. Kb8 b5 79. Bb4 Kb6 80. Kc8 Kc6 81. Kd8 Kd5 82. Ke7
Ke5 83. Kf7 Kd5 84. Kf6 Kd4 85. Ke6 Ke4 86. Bf8 Kd4 87. Kd6 Ke4 88.
Bg7 Kf4 89. Ke6 Kf3 90. Ke5 Kg4 91. Bf6 Kh5 92. Kf5 Kh6 93. Bd4 Kh7
94. Kf6 Kh6 95. Be3+ Kh5 96. Kf5 Kh4 97. Bd2 Kg3 98. Bg5 Kf3 99. Bf4
Kg2 100. Bd6 Kf3 101. Bh2 Kg2 102. Bc7 Kf3 103. Bd6 Ke3 104. Ke5 Kf3
105. Kd5 Kg4 106. Kc5 Kf5 107. Kxb5 Ke6 108. Kc6 Kf6 109. Kd7 Kg7
110. Be7 Kg8 111. Ke6 Kg7 112. Bc5 Kg8 113. Kf6 Kh7 114. Kf7 Kh8 115.
Bd4+ Kh7 116. Bb2 Kh6 117. Kg8 Kg6 118. Bg7 Kf5 119. Kf7 Kg5 120. Bb2
Kh6 121. Bc1+ Kh7 122. Bd2 Kh8 123. Bc3+ Kh7 124. Bg7 1/2-1/2

From The Master Game, Book 2, Jeremy James and William Hartston (1981). London: BBC.


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