Is There Luck in Chess?

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

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Is chess a game of luck? No.

Is there luck in chess? Of course... I think.

Like in many sports, activities, competitions, etc., there is always luck involved. As skill increases in any endeavor, not just chess, luck diminishes quite significantly. For example, luck in a game between scholastic players is going to differ greatly from the amount of luck in a game between grandmasters. 

Well, what constitutes luck in chess? A lucky move generally arises in chess if:

  • one makes a move that is better than intended

  • one arbitrarily makes a chess move with no logical reasoning behind it

  • an opportunity suddenly arises that wasn't available on the previous move

  • one player is playing below their skill level

That being said, skill is most prevalent in chess as luck for one player occurs from a lack of skill from the other player. Because of this, one may argue that there is no luck in chess. It may come down to how one defines luck. 

Though... there appears to be luck at even the highest levels of chess. Take a look at the example below:

In the above position, Nakamura missed a win with Qf1! (instead, d6? was played). If someone said, "Carlsen was lucky to get out of that", they would be correct. Carlsen did get lucky. But it's where this luck originated from that causes controversy over whether or not there is luck in chess. 

The lack of skill that overcame Nakamura at that moment in the game created the luck.

So does luck in chess simply come from a lack of skill? Maybe. 

There are other ways luck originates even before a game is started. A player may be having a bad tournament and be playing below strength. Or, the player may be frustrated, thus causing more mistakes and more luck for his or her opponent. 

However, luck in chess is more frequent as ratings decrease. For example, a lot of times, scholastic players will just play a move without much thought. In return, the move may be terrible, okay, or excellent. What I am trying to say is a lower-rated player may make a move for whatever reason, but the move may turn out to be much better or worse than planned. In this case, it proves that luck exists in chess. 

Take for example, a scholastic player vs. a grandmaster. Chances are, the grandmaster will win because he will create his own luck due to the substantial gap in understanding. But, if the scholastic player plays the best moves purely by chance and luck, with or without intending them, the scholastic player will win. 

The graph below shows the objective probability of wins and losses. Notice how the lines never reach 1 or 0. This is because the chance of winning a game will never be exactly 0% or 100%. 

Obviously, skill is the overriding factor in who will win a chess game. That's why a grandmaster will almost never lose to a scholastic player. But, just as luck increases as ratings decrease, luck increase when the skill levels of both players are roughly equal. 

For example, when two 2200's playing each other, objectively, the chance of either winning is 50/50. So, what determines whether one will win or lose? This is where luck may play a role.

Referring back to bullet points at the beginning of the post, one player may have played a move that was better than expected, or one player may have been having a bad tournament, etc. As I see it, this goes to show that luck exists in chess.

So, the next time you play a chess game, hope that luck is on your side! 

In my opinion, chess is not 100% skill, but... 

Is there luck in chess? It's up for debate.

I am offering private lessons to anyone who wants them. Just message me and we can work things out there!

Post in comments what you think. Share your opinion!

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