Just lucky

According to world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, the secret to his success is…

I’ve just been lucky.

Lucky? At chess?

Well, no, actually. This is Carlsen talking about his success at Fantasy Football. At the time of writing, Carlsen’s Premier League Fantasy Football team, Kjell Ankedal, is top of the League:

Top of the league sounds great, but this picture, which shows just the top 10 teams, is a little misleading. The Premier League Fantasy Football League actually has more than 6 million teams, and Kjell Ankedal is currently top of all of them. Moreover, Kjell Ankedal has finished in the top 5% of the league for the past 4 seasons, and in 2017-18 finished 2397th. Again, with 6 million teams the 2017-18 result would place Carlsen in the top  0.04%.

Obviously, football – and by corollary fantasy football –  is a game with many more sources of random intervention than chess, including the referee, the weather, VAR, the managers and just the inevitable chaos that can ensue from the physics of 22 people chasing, kicking and punching a ball. Compare that with the deterministic simplicity of a chess move such as e4.

And yet…

Can it be that Carlsen is ‘just lucky’ at Fantasy Football? Lucky to be top of the league after finishing in the top 5% or so, year after year? Well, we could make some assumptions about Carlsen actually being just an average player, and then work out the probability that he got the set of results he actually got, over this and recent seasons, if he was really just lucky rather than a very good player…

And it would be vanishingly small.

In his Ted Talk, Rasmus Ankersen says that the famous quote ‘The league table never lies’ should be replaced with ‘The league table always lies’. There’s simply too much randomness in football matches for a league table based on 38 matches or so per team to end up with a ranking of teams that reflects their exact ability. And yet, if you look at the top and bottom of most league tables there are very few surprises. League tables are noisy arrangements of teams ranked by their ability, but they are not just total chaos. Better teams generally do better than poorer teams, and teams are never champions or relegated just due to good or bad luck. So, to be in the top few percent of players, consistently over several seasons, with so many people playing is just implausible unless Carlsen is a much-better-than-average player.

So, while it’s true that Carlsen’s precise Fantasy Football ranking is affected to a greater extent by luck than is his world chess ranking, it’s probably a little disingenuous for him to say he’s just been lucky

And maybe it’s no coincidence that someone who’s eminently brilliant at chess turns out also to be eminently brilliant at fantasy football. Maybe one of the keys to Carlsen’s success at chess is an ability to optimise his strategy over the uncertainty in the moves his opponent will make.

Or maybe he’s just brilliant at everything he does.


Obviously, what applies to Carlsen with respect to Fantasy Football applies equally well to betting syndicates trading on football markets. Luck will play a large part in determining short term wins and losses, but in the very long term luck is ironed out, and what determines the success of the syndicate is their skill, judgement and strategy.

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