What Chess Can Teach You About Luck
At face value, there is no luck in chess. There are no random factors beyond our control; no dice, no card shuffle, no relevant weather conditions, no basketballs tremulously skirting the rim of the basket or tennis balls scuffing the top of the net and landing inexplicably on one side rather than the other.
Most chess players think our game is resolutely a game of skill. We are in control of events just as much as our opponent is, but there are no outside factors to hope for—or to blame. Norwegian player Jim Loy captures our playful determination to take responsibility for our plight on the board: “There is luck in chess. My opponent was lucky that he was playing against an idiot.”
I have been a chess grandmaster for 20 years. In my experience, there actually is luck in chess; it’s just deeper than we usually think of it. Let me illustrate with an example.
In the summer of 2006, at the British Chess Championship in Swansea, Wales, on the eve of the final round, I was returning by bus to my hotel, having fought my way back into contention with three straight wins. We were playing with a Swiss tournament format, where the winner is determined from points accrued over the course of multiple games. I was paired with grandmaster Jonathan Parker, a friendly rival since childhood. We were due to play the following day, and we both had 7.5 points from 10 games. I had been the British champion for two years. At stake were the title and the cash prizes.
If the game was drawn, as it can be simply when the players agree to that result, we were guaranteed a good financial outcome of at least £5,000 — at the time, equivalent to more than $9,000 — which is a big payday for most professional players. That would allow us to compete for more money and the title in a playoff.
“There is luck in chess. My opponent was lucky that he was playing against an idiot.”
The last round in a chess event is like decisive moments in any sphere of life when the significance of whatever we are caught up in suddenly becomes palpable. Losing when it really matters leaves a bitter taste, but that year, I realized that the need to “end well” is a craving for comfort for its own sake, unworthy of the sublime beauty of the game, which arises from an existential encounter with risk and death. I had to find the strength and composure to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” as the T-shirts say.
This feeling grew stronger while I was sitting on a bus to return to my hotel and a young man sat down on the seat in front of me. He was wearing an orange promotional T-shirt for a famous brand of pens. The words on his back read, “Parker: Aim High!” It felt like a sign: Jonathan Parker was very much on my mind, and so was my prospective game strategy.
Skepticism toward the provenance of such coincidences is wise, but we should have skepticism toward our skepticism, too. This particular experience of my own concentrated energy and willpower, combined with a coalescence of implicit question and symbolic answer may well have arisen by chance, but it felt so apt and so timely that it removed all doubts about playing for a win the following day.
The game that followed was probably the best that I have ever played, and not “lucky” in any straightforward sense. What was lucky was being present to that moment of chance on the bus. In his classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes, “Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.”
Perhaps anticipating mystical maneuvers of this sort, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that only the shallow believe in luck, while the strong believe in cause and effect. With the greatest of respect to Emerson, I would say it’s the other way round. To reduce our experience of luck to the presumed reality of cause and effect makes heroic assumptions about the intelligibility of causation.
To grapple with luck intellectually, we need to understand the relationship between willpower and the interaction of thousands of dynamic complex systems in play at any moment, the magical nature of emergence in which more or less conscious parts become wholes that didn’t exist before parts got together, and frankly, who can do that? Who can really fathom the idea of cause and effect and our place in shaping it?
In chess, we may not know what luck is, but any seasoned player, if they are honest with themselves, knows what it feels like to be lucky. Luck is experienced as a gift, and it usually occurs when you suddenly have a crucial resource in the position that you didn’t foresee, or when you make a good move for the wrong reasons. Such gifts rarely occur to those who have checked out mentally. The idea that we make our own luck is no truism. There is a relationship between how lucky we are and our presence of mind that is intelligible enough to be worth attending to.
In my experience, the best chess players approach the game with what might be described as “confident uncertainty.” We know our strengths, and we are ready to create and take our opportunities, but we accept that the depth and complexity of the game, like life, is ultimately beyond our grasp. Very often, we don’t really know what is going on, and we are not fully in control. In that context, our challenge is to prepare ourselves to be present to whatever emerges. Or, as the Russian grandmaster Evgeny Bareev puts it: “There is always luck in the air, and one has to grab it.”