Dear Dr K,
I have recently begun playing chess against one of my classmates on a regular basis. He has managed to utterly trounce me every single time, no matter what approach I use against him. How is this
possible? Is he just incredibly lucky? Is there a secret to winning every time?
All board games, and all other kinds of games for that matter, are based on some combination of skill and chance. The distribution of skill and chance varies depending on the game. Snakes and ladders, for example, is almost entirely a game of chance or luck. A game like poker is mostly a game of luck if you are a novice, but increasingly becomes a game of skill the better you are at it. This is true for most games, in fact.
There is a large degree of chance in a game like Scrabble, where the letters you draw from the bag dictate what words you can play on the board, but it is the kind of chance that can be overcome with skill — if you manage your rack of letters judiciously, you can prevent yourself from falling into a situation in which you wish that IIIIEEU, or some variation of that, is a legal word to play. There is, however, always some degree of chance involved in any game that has a randomised aspect to it, whether it is drawing tiles out of a bag or cards from a shuffled deck.
The game of chess, however, has long been considered one that minimises the element of chance to the greatest possible extent and in which winning is entirely a result of the player’s skill.
The only thing that is random in the game is deciding who plays as white and who plays as black. While playing as white has been statistically shown to be slightly advantageous, the degree of the advantage is very slight and there is no consensus on whether this is an advantage built into the game or merely a psychological one.
Clearly then, the fact that you are consistently losing to your friend at chess has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with his superior skill at the game. There are two ways for you to prove yourself a worthy opponent in such a situation. The first, most obvious solution is to improve your own skill at the game, and this would involve a lot of careful study of various openings and defences, and intense practice, against yourself or a computer, or a different opponent.
It may take you several months or even years to get to the point where your skill at the game matches your classmate’s, or, if he is really good and continues to improve, you may never catch up with him. This is, therefore, an uncertain strategy at best.
The second, more surefire option in this situation is to reintroduce the element of chance to this game which is mostly about strategy. How do you do this, you may wonder, since the rules of the game are fixed. The idea is to harness chance outside the board. The pieces on the board may be governed by the rules of the game, but the rules have no say in determining the external factors.
Thus, you may resort to measures such as distracting or frightening your opponent by wearing a scary mask and making eerie cackling noises, or if that fails, you can force him, at the very least, to draw the game by knocking the board over by either simulating an earthquake or making your cat jump on the board or any other number of unconventional tactics.