17. The role of luck in chess
One thing that always attracted me to chess is its leading position in terms of clarity and purity. There is nothing obscure to it. All information is clearly visible to the stakeholders. There are no hidden items involved, like in card games where you don’t know the hand of your opponents and the community cards which are still to appear. After the event, a chess game can be subjected to scrutiny according to objective standards. The truth will come to the fore.
In that respect, chess is much purer then science. Throughout history, science was blurred by power, politics, lobbyism and envy among colleagues. Generally, scientists are people who have to make a living and very often have to feed a family like the rest of us. That makes them vulnerable and dependent to some degree. If a scientist works for a university, he better represents a school of thought, which is in line with what the financiers of that university appreciate. If the scientist works “independently” he will only get assignments for research which is in line with the powers that be. Scientists who contradict the mainstream opinion, might find themselves out of work quickly or are being bullied by their mainstream colleagues. For them it will also be difficult to publish their work in journals, because this can be suppressed by the reigning power structure. It even implies a boycott with regard to getting quoted, which is vital for receiving global acknowledgement. Since chess is l’art pour l’art and politically innocent (with only a few exception which took place in the former Soviet Union), research and personal development can unfold unimpeded.
In contrast to many aspects of live, chess is absolutely fair. Whoever has talent and works hard will have sustainable success. It is not relevant, whether you are born wealthy or come from humble homes. Also looks and connections don’t play a role. All that counts for your success is your own performance. What I welcome very much is, that in chess there is no place for dishonest marketing or BS. Someone may talk as strong a chess as he wants, if this is not backed by good tournament results or profound publications, he will simply appear as a weirdo.
Having said all that, I would like to point to an area, where luck and uncertainty actually do have a home. I am talking about the short-term tournament results.
Let’s take a player who achieves a good tournament result, but a rather modest one in the following event one month later (with enough time to rest between the events). This happens all the time. Very often, it is explained with good shape versus bad shape. To me, this interpretation appears too simplistic, because the factor luck is not represented appropriately.
Imagine, that in the first of the two tournaments, our player happened to get many of his his pet lines on the board. He knew what he was doing and he also could play relatively fast. As a consequence, his opponents on the other side probably ended up in inferior positions or, being White, had to face the frustration of quickly losing the initiative. Both, psychological pressure and time trouble would be the result. If we now also add adverse factors on the opponent’s side to the equation, such as lack of sleep, a full stomach or bad health conditions, we can easily compose a tournament situation which is strongly biased for our hero in terms of luck. Opposed to a neutral environment, this bias could easily account for a performance difference of 100 Elo points.
Finally, let’s assume a negative scenario: instead of having everything under control, our man runs into the pet openings of his opponents. Alternatively, his opposition coincidentally chose variations, which would reveal his knowledge gaps or lead to structures he is not too fond of….. Additionally, he might suffer from back pain during the tournament or cannot find sleep, because his bed is too small or the curtains don’t protect against the street light. Compared to the positive scenario, there might be a difference of 200 Elo points in performance.
Everyone with rudimentary knowledge in probability calculus knows, that the sample size is one of the most decisive factors. While in the long run, good luck and bad luck are balanced, short-term results might be subject to rather big swings to either side. If we compare two tournaments, we are talking about 18 – 22 games. That is definitively a small sample size.