A Game of Skill

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Jul 12, 2012

Once when I was at a tournament in Chicago, I was sitting in a restaurant in the hotel, analyzing chess with somebody. A waiter came over and said “Uh, excuse me fellas, but there is no gaming allowed in the restaurant area.” I guess he figured that since chess is a game, then it must be “gaming” (gambling). We protested that not only was chess not a game of luck, but we were not even playing. He was insistent. It was the law in Chicago, he said.

In most places, chess is legally classified as a game of skill – i.e. not gambling. Therefore tournaments can be held without any special permits and in states where gambling is not legal. If chess were classified as a game of luck, it would be devastating to the chess society. We all know that essentially there is no luck, because there is complete information – everything on the board is visible to both players. This is the tragedy of chess professionals – weak players soon discover that they have no chance. This deprives the devoted chess player of the ability to make a decent living at the thing into which he has put so much work.

Yet, at the same time, anybody playing chess in tournaments knows that your results are deeply affected by luck. There may be perfect information in the game, and if you are significantly stronger than your opposition you will win nearly 100% of the time – this is true. But at the same time, when things come down to the wire – and in individual games – fate will play a huge factor.

What is fate or luck in chess? It takes many forms. Although there is perfect information in chess about the objective state of the game (there is no probability, no hidden cards, no roll of the dice) there is one thing that you cannot control and you cannot really know – the moves and thoughts of the opponent. This is one of the ironies of chess – while it is a closed system and success entirely rests on the ability of the players, still you can only win with the help of something you cannot control, the moves of your opponent.

One of the parts of this that is clearly almost like roulette is in the opening choices. You have no control over which opening your opponent will play. He might walk into your favorite line, which you have just been studying for a week nonstop. Or, he might play something you cannot stand. If you are a significantly stronger player, you will probably win anyway; but if you are of similar strength, this is going to make all the difference.

Additionally, your opponent can make a slightly inferior move in the opening, but it can make a huge difference in the outcome of the game – sending one player to victory and another to defeat. For instance, the following was one of my better games. It was very complicated and sharp, and was a big fight to the end. Nevertheless, I honestly think the crucial moment came as early as move eight:

Here Kacheishvili chose 8.Qc2?!. It looks like much better is 8.Qa3, planning b2-b3. White has an initiative there, and I don’t like the black position so much. I did not repeat it when one of Kacheishvili’s students (also a GM) played the same line against me a couple of months later.

Would I have lost the game had he played 8.Qa3? I am not sure, but there are good chances I would. It was pure luck for me that he chose the inferior 8.Qc2 (even though both moves have been played before). By no means is the white position lost after 8.Qc2, and probably he is not even in trouble yet; but this gave me the opportunity to play actively and directly. Here is the entire game:

A year later I again played the same opponent. That time I played an inferior opening, walking into a position he had studied deeply, but with a tempo down in addition! It led to a bad loss. That time fate was not on my side – but additionally it was my own negative mindset which caused me to choose such a stubbornly fatalistic opening. This brings me to the next part of chance in chess – the energy of the players.

Chess is a certain percent technique and knowledge, but also a large part is energy. If you have no mojo, but are a much better player than your opponent, you might win anyway. But if your technical level is similar, it will come down to a battle of energy. In this area, a younger player is usually at an advantage, often enough so that it overcomes a large deficit in knowledge.

When I was playing in early 2011, for whatever reason I was at a very high energy level. Even if I didn’t get very good positions in the opening, I was still finding constant resources and winning. In some of the games I was “lucky”. But in this case, what we call “luck” is more like energy. People were unlucky to play me during that time. But in August my play crashed. Those playing me in the fall of 2011 or early 2012 were very lucky. I had a high rating in August 2011, but basically could not play chess at all.

Perhaps there is something supernatural in fate. Who knows? In the World Open in 2010 I played a game which was strongly influenced by fate. This was the second round game against Czech GM Viktor Laznicka. Laznicka had recently defeated GM Alexander Morozevich in a two game match in the World Cup, was a relatively young player and generally on the way to Super-GM-hood. I, on the other hand, growing up in a forest in Alaska where there were about three tournaments a year, simply do not have the type of background to make such a thing possible. But I was on my own sort of high, having just won clear first in the Philadelphia International.

The tension had reached a very high level in this game. Laznicka played an extremely risky opening and then thought for a huge amount of time to find a way to not lose immediately. With a very dangerous attacking position and my opponent already heading for time pressure as early as move 15, it looked like the game would easily go my way. But, tired from the preceding tournament, I could not find the best way and myself entered time pressure. With both players low on time and the position absurdly sharp, we traded blunders on almost every move. Finally, with both players having less than thirty seconds for seven moves (to reach move forty) the following position was reached:

Naturally I now played 33.Qb3+, forking the king and bishop. Since I am already up the exchange, I was then up a rook. Later, some amateur players have had the gall to say some things to me like “I heard you were up a rook, but the position wasn’t so clear”. Even just a few days ago – i.e. two years later – somebody brought up this game to me and said that. No, there is nothing unclear about it at all. Black would simply resign if there were a normal amount of time on the clock. I am sure the idea crossed his mind anyway. With me having somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds for seven moves, plus a delay of five seconds (the clock waits five seconds before it starts counting), winning should not be hard. However, nerves played a factor. Another major thing was that the organizers of the tournament had not created any kind of barrier to prevent spectators from crowding around the board and interfering with the game. At this moment there was a gigantic crowd of people literally leaning over the board, which made things more stressful.

After 33…Kf6 I played 34.Rxe3, which was fine, although 34.Qxe3 would force a queen trade which would end the game. Here is how it continued.

Neither player was keeping score, but I was fairly sure I had made the time control, since I was drawing little dashes on each move. I also knew that even before I reached move forty I could win the game by simply letting my flag fall and claiming my own time “un-forfeit”. The rule in the U.S. is that if a player does not have a full score of the game, he cannot win on time – and Laznicka most definitely did not have a full record of the game. Thus it would go to the second time control, and with me having a full hour on the clock to exploit my extra rook, he would have to resign. But I decided not to do that – it did not seem necessary, and also I anticipated that it would cause complications since the rule in the rest of the world is that you do lose on time even if your opponent does not have a full score. I also worried that maybe some mis-informed arbiter would rule against me.

But anyway, now it is move forty, and I was fairly sure of it, and also knew that even if it wasn’t, I could not lose on time. Still, nervously, I asked if it was move forty. Nobody in the gigantic crowd which was using up my oxygen said anything – and they were right not to. I decided to make one more move “just to make sure”.  Ironically, I did not even make this move in time. And instead of the obvious 41.Rb7+, which would be followed by 42.Rc7 and Black’s resignation, I played 41.Nc4?? which loses for White after 41…Qg1+. Here is the entire score of this roller-coaster game, for those who like to look at car crashes. If you want to know what was going on, you could look at Loek Van Wely’s notes to the game in the New In Chess magazine.

After this game the player’s fates went in opposite directions. Two rounds later I lost a similar game to a young IM, where I was winning a rook but blundered in time pressure. I withdrew from the tournament after only five rounds. Laznicka meanwhile crushed a series of grandmasters in sharp and nice games and won clear first in the tournament, a prize of something like $15,000.

So what is chess? A game of luck, or skill? You don’t have any direct indication of the element of luck. You cannot point to a bad card or a bad roll of the dice. If you lose, it means you did something wrong. But you cannot control who your opponent is or what they do. We are humans, and your success or failure depends on things far beyond pure logic or technique. Perhaps this is one of the cruel things about chess – there is no direct element of luck, so you can only blame yourself, even if there are big parts of the game which you cannot control. Having to take personal responsibility for the winds of fate is a heavy burden.


  • 11 months ago


    I think you make some good points, all of which point to exact absence of luck!

    Or at least the fact that we all have the same luck and over infinite iteration it all cancels and evens out. Just as it does in poker.

  • 2 years ago


    so nice

  • 4 years ago


    Great article

  • 4 years ago


    When they wish me "good luck" before a game starts, I... I just don't like it. I might get a little angry. I prefer to laugh sarcastically though.

    Sometimes I ask them, "what does luck have to do with chess?" They usually agree there's no dice ;)

  • 4 years ago


    chess itself isn't about luck or has anything to do with luck. the only luck slightly involed with chess is u and  ur opponet. it is luck that ur opponet misses a good move or it is luck that u happened to have a chess lesson on the opening ur opponet is playing but that is the only type of luck involved  with chess. as 4 energy the energy(towards chess and wanting to get better)  of a player impacts the game greatly it allows the player's mind to expand into every corner of his or her's brain invovled with chess it basically makes ur mind into a computer that searches its database in half a second for the best move and i have played in tournaments

  • 4 years ago


    chess has a lot to do with luck. Everyone here saying against it has never been in actual tournament play.  Good Article!

  • 4 years ago


    very nice article....thanks a lot

  • 4 years ago


    I think chess has very little to do with luck. I mean, you have bad luck if you break your leg before an important game but in the game itself?

    Your game with Laznicka, you played the last blunder and lost, it's a known rule in chess. But imagine he played the last. It would have been a great upset for him, losing to -200 opponent. If it happened, would he collapse and withdraw the tournament? We don't know, it depends how you manage your emotions. Some players like Ivanchuk or Morozevich seem high sensitive for this kind of upsets. Opposite, Gelfand rebuilt quickly after the biggest disappointment of his long career, game 8 of WCC. His rationality was able to control his emotions.

  • 4 years ago


    Very interesting and helpul. Thank you!

  • 4 years ago


    In my opinion, chess is based on exploiting blunders..

  • 4 years ago


    I'm a bit of a game theory buff, and if you have more to say on the subject of chess and game theory, I would be intereted in hearing it. Thanks for the excellent article.

    Chess, as you noted, is a game of complete information and more or less exempt from luck. Games of incomplete information may also be games of skill (and the supreme court has, in fact, ruled that poker belongs to this category). Games of skill do not constitute 'gambling' and are legal per federal law as long as no parties charge for the participation or activity itself. State laws may apply, but serve mostly to aid establishments with image concerns. I really doubt anything of the sort is enforced in this context, even in Chicago. In other words, sounds to me like your waiter was a jerk.

    I would also add that 'luck' in this context is an incalculable variable that includes preparation, diet, pathogens, psychology, general fitness, and personal relationship to the opponent. If we were able to measure these values accurately and weigh them against those of your opponents, we would be able to declare a winner of the chess meta-game, so to speak. The ratio we would have would probably have a direct statistical influence on the game's result. Since the values are incalculable, we might call it luck or energy, and it makes very little difference what word choices are used.


    SOME sorts of chess problems, however, seem to be hardwired in the brain. Nikolai Krogius wrote an excellent book on the psychology of chess some time in the 70's or 80's in which he describes problems related to information chunking and processing that can occur, even at an extremely high level. These sort of innate difficulties with thought as a system of information are really the only elements of pure chance, as it is nearly impossible to distinguish the cause of your own misinformation with your brain.

  • 4 years ago


    The states' laws against gambling are unjust. Even if chess involved dice or luck and was a gambling game, the states' laws threatening to enforce certain penalities against people who voluntarily agreeing to gamble with each other would be unjust.

    Note, however, that if the owner of the restaurant that you were playing in wanted to have a rule against gambling in his restaurant, then his rule, unlike the state's law against gambling, would be just.

    This is because as the just owner of the restaurant (or hotel, etc) he has the right to require that his customers either abide by his rules or leave his property. The state, on the other hand, does not own the restaurant and thus does not have the right impose such arbitrary rules on those in the people in the restaurant.

    Great chess article.

  • 4 years ago



    Of course chess has to do with luck. 

    Luck in chess is when your opponent makes a mistake and you exploit it, you get lucky BECAUSE your opponent makes a mistake.

    It's like in baseball, where someone makes an error and you make it to first base safely, you're telling me that has nothing to do with luck?

    Luck is an integral part of everything in life.

  • 4 years ago


    Komrad, when statutory law in the US references "gaming," it is generally understood to mean gambling.  Thanks for your helpful and relevant comment.

  • 4 years ago


    This might be a very well articulate article... but I disagree completely, chess has nothing to do with luck. If you lose that is a result of a miscalculation and / or a bad decision, it might only appear as luck but that is not the case... the rules in chess are consistent and agreed upon at the beginning, all the information is there to play and see. If properly calculated... a master should know the outcome. If I make any blunders... it has nothing to do with luck. Losses are a result of mistakes in chess. I'm not claiming I'm perfect or that I never make mistakes (before it turns into personal attacks on me... I can see it already from the sheeple baaahhhh baahhhhh ''look at ur score u r not teh best'' baaahhhh... but I'll stay on topic) but the fact stands on it's own... the better the player, the better the calculation, it's very difficult sure, but it's possible and that is the point of it... if the rules weren't cut and dry and if free choice wasn't allowed within those rules, it would be about luck yes... but that's not the case, a player has free will within those rules to make each move their own choice. It's not a random game or else you would just shake the pieces up and throw them on the board. It's a very deliberate cause and effect game that takes more and more mastery to see more and more of that cause and effect factor.

  • 4 years ago


    Very nice article!

  • 4 years ago


  • 4 years ago


    Great article as always. People who don't believe in luck in chess are not living in the real world.

  • 4 years ago


    Very brillian article as always, thank you!

  • 4 years ago


    Thank you

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