Friday, June 19, 2009

Do Losers Make Their Own Bad Luck?

Here's some food for thought.

As chess players, what do we regard as really important ?

I for one have no ambitions of ever attaining any titled rank. The amount of effort required to reach the highest echelons of chess involves an enormous amount of time and resources which I currently do not possess.

But is it possible that chess players suffer from status anxiety in one form or another?

IMHO, the more engrossed we are in chess and the more emphasis we place in chess, there is a chance that the level of our dissatisfaction with chess itself arises.

We start to compare with other people, be it other players of the same club or with people who we perceive to be our
"equals". And when our peers start to get better or rise up the ranks quicker than us, we feel resentful. We may even starting cursing ourselves for our own inadequacies and our failings.

Chess is a rather strange beast.

Much like the secular world we live in, we largely perceive the chess world as meritocratic. In chess, everyone is more or less granted the same in terms of equality with regards to the various rights, opportunities and methods to improve our knowledge and understanding of chess.

And herein lies one of the problems with this meritocracy. If as chess players, we believe that those at the top merit their success, then by logical reasoning, are we also inclined to believe that those at the bottom merit their failure? Does this also not mean that those at the bottom brought it upon themselves? Are they - as Ben Kingsley so coldly call them in the movie, Searching For Bobby Fischer - losers?

The oft quoted modern punishing mantra in the chess world is "We make our own luck."

So why is it that when winners say they were lucky, we are more inclined to believe it. But for the defeated to blame it on bad luck, why are we less inclined to believe the opposite?


  1. Anytime I hear someone say they were lucky for winning (in chess) or unlucky for losing, I take it with a grain of salt.

    I believe there is always a way to explain things ... at least with regards to chess. When someone waters a chess game result down to "luck", then to me that means both players played flawlessly and that their minds and bodies were in perfect condition in which case the game should be a draw.

    I guess I equate 'luck' to things uncontrolled by those playing the game. And in chess, there seems to be perfect information (both sides at least see what the other is doing) and therefore the uncontrollable factors are minimized.

    Now in life ... well, that is a different matter. There are MANY uncontrollable events in our lives and I admit that in some cases, Lady Luck seems to touch some people while she turns her back on others.

  2. Bobby Fischer once said "In chess there is no such thing as luck". And i agree. In life however, i think there is.

  3. How many times do we hear, "I was lucky he didn't see that my knight was en prise.", "I can't believe my opponent didn't see that he had mate in 3. Man was I lucky!" "I was lucky he blundered in time pressure, otherwise I lose."? Sound familiar? We've probably have said one if not all of those things in speaking about some of our wins.

    Obviously chess is not like card games or board games that have an element of luck to them based on what cards were dealt or what was rolled on the dice. Though what makes the difference between a top bridge player and a club player is the ability to make the best out of bad cards.

    In chess we start out on equal terms, but skill plays an important on what we do with the pieces and the result that comes from that.

    I'm don't think it's so much losers making their own bad luck. I think it's more about the mindset. When I look back at my losses, there are always different factors at work. One factor is the skill level of my opponent. If my opponent out rates me by 300+ points it's probably going to boil down to his skill and knowledge versus mine. When I'm playing against one of my peers then I think it becomes more about how I feel about the game, and my chances. If I lose a pawn early, or my opponent is attacking like crazy it's easy to fall in to the rut of "I'm losing, and I can't do anything about it." That's not luck, that's a matter of taking control of my thoughts and fighting back, both in my mind and over the board. How many times have I missed good moves that would turn the game in my favor because I'm thinking to myself, "My position sucks, and there's nothing here. I'm going to lose sooner or later."?

    There was a show on TV back in the 60-70s called Hee Haw. Part of the theme song went "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

    It's unfortunate that I throw games away because I got into time trouble, or moves too fast. Was that unlucky? Not by Rocky's definition because I have control over those things. I could manage my time better so that I could avoid time pressure implosions. I could spend another minute or two double checking my move before making it.

  4. Rocky and CMoB, very interesting points that both of you have raised.

    Rocky, you were spot on with the observation about both players having perfect information (which we know it's impossible to achieve given the limitations of the human mind).

    It would seem that we then perceive the lack of access to perfect information that chess players make mistakes and that these mistakes are subsequently regarded by the winner as "luck".

    eg. Topalov mentions about it here:
    "I was lucky to have 40..Kg8! which is the only move to win here."

    CMoB, interesting quote from Fischer about luck and about him not believing in it. :)

    Thank you both for your inputs. It's certainly given me some food for thought.


  5. Hi Polly,

    Wow. That is a great reply!

    The mindset aspect of things is very interesting in the determination of bad luck. Throw in other things like psychological pressure and indeed, it all adds up into the clumination of what determines a winner and a loser.

    All of your replies definitely warrant a further blog post else it won't do proper justice. :)

    Thank you!

  6. Tanc: Unfortunately I have way too much experience on that topic, which is why I went into such great length in my reply.

  7. I think the main two elements of luck have to do with openings. One, did you get white or black? Two, perhaps you recently studied the opening he played in great depth even though you didn't know he would play it. Both of those I would call luck, obviously the first especially.

    I agree though that when people call it luck that the opponent missed a tactic, or that the opponent mismanaged his clock, that's not true. The opponent played poorly in both cases.

  8. (Bad) Luck one makes oneself!

    Before starting a game of chess, no matter who the opponent is, i always say my mantra (i can beat this guy) a few times. It makes me relaxed and also more focussed on my game at hand since "i can beat this guy" which make me trying to find good moves.

    Offcourse i dont always succeed in finding good moves or win the game but atleast i dont jinx myself with thoughts as 'Thats gonna be a piece of cake' when playing against a lower rated player or 'Gosh, i have no chance against that guy' when facing a higher rated player.

  9. Tiger: Being able to keep focused on finding good moves is key. I wish it was always as simple as a mantra like "I can beat this guy". Though if you can truly have that attitude it certainly makes it easier to be confident in your moves.