There’s no such thing as luck? Convince someone who’s unlucky.

Sunday, April 11th, 2004, 11:29 pm

I took statistics in both college and B-school, and found the subject fascinating. Not because I understood stats too well, mind you–I was an English major, and math is to me what grammar and syntax would be to, oh, Jessica Simpson. Maybe I’m being a bit hard on myself there, because I did get B’s both times. Not that I deserved the grade I got in business school, as our final was a group project and one of my teammates was an absolutely gorgeous young woman who was also a part-time aerobics teacher and obviously made our male professor think of statistics like 36-24-36. But I digress.

Statistics is defined as “the mathematics of the collection, organization, and interpretation of numerical data, especially the analysis of population characteristics by inference from sampling”. It can also be described in much more simplistic terms (the kind of terms I generally prefer) as the study of probability. In B-school we used a computer program that would gobble up data and spit out analyses of almost oracular insight. I didn’t quite understand what the program was telling me, and to be perfectly honest I don’t know if I really believed it. If I understood ideas like standard deviation, other concepts like regression and multicullinarity struck me as akin to astrology, or voodoo. I accepted what the computer told me because it would make the teacher happy, but I really didn’t buy what the program was selling. The idea that I could feed the computer 10,000 data points about seven different attributes and the program could tell you which of those attributes affected the others and which didn’t…sorry, but the soft, wet computer inside my skull had trouble accepting that.

And that’s why, for me at least, statistics can also be defined as “the mathematics of proving that your intution, your guts, or your hunches, are total bullshit”. Statistics can tell you how likely an event is to happen–but whether you believe those numbers is another thing altogether. If you flip a coin twenty times, and it comes up heads twenty times, the probabilty that it will come up heads the twenty-first time is fifty-fifty. That’s the math. Those are the facts. But in your heart of hearts, in your very marrow, don’t you think that, doggone it, tails are due? OK, maybe not the very next flip, but pretty soon, you’re gonna see a tail. No matter that the odds are exactly even every time you flip–you’re gonna see some tail.

Let’s take an example we poker players can better appreciate. You have an open-end straight draw. You need one of eight cards to make your straight. The odds are approximately 32% you’ll hit your card. But you’re on a rush. You’ve been catching cards out the wazoo. When you need a card, you get it. You wait for the turn, and when your card appears it’s no big surprise. You expected it. You expected it because, well, you’re a good poker player. Good poker players play the odds and make savvy decisions. You rake in the pot and nod modestly to the other players, acknowledging that, this time, you got a little lucky.

Play the same hand three weeks later. You haven’t hit a straight since that miracle hand 21 days ago, when you actually won a pot now and then. You’ve lost 87% of your bankroll. Other players won’t make eye contact with you, for fear that whatever you have is contagious. You flop an open-end straight draw. There are eight cards to make your straight. The odds are approximately 32% you’ll hit your card. But, come on. The odds are really 200,000-1. There’s no way your card will come up. Or, if it does, that’ll be the card that give the other guy his flush. You’re actually hoping your card doesn’t come, because it will prove what you already know. That you’re a terrible poker player. That you’re a loser. That God, in whatever His form, hates you.

I don’t think God hates anyone, or if He does, he would manifest His malice a bit more directly than by denying you a poker hand. Blaspheming against the Almighty because you didn’t make your straight seems a bit whiny when you consider events like the Holocaust, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Black Death. But it does seem within your rights to complain to someone. If mathematics is the language of the Universe, then having your pocket aces busted time and time again seems like some kind of cosmically extended middle finger. If you keep taking beat after beat after beat, it seems to make a lie out of statistical probability. And if you can’t count on the math, well, what in the world CAN you count on?

The explaination you hear a lot is “variance”. While you would expect a flipped coin to, on average, come up heads half the time, at times heads will come up more than its fair share. Over the long haul, over a long enough sampling period, things will even out. Maybe right now you can’t win a hand, but that’s just short-term variance. If you’re playing better than the other guys, things will even out, and you’ll win your money back and more. That’s why every poker book out there says that even the greatest players go through tough times, and that how you react to those bad runs in large part defines your overall success.

This, again, makes perfect sense. And it’s comforting to think that, even though you haven’t had a winning session since September, the worm will turn any day now and you’ll start winning again. Any day now. Maybe even tomorrow. Or the day after. But soon.

But how big a sample is big enough? Five hundred hands? A million? Five hundred quadrillion? Statistics also teachers that there is what is called a “statistically significant sample”, meaning enough data points have been collected to make predictions reasonably valid. This is what allows the Nielsen people to put monitors in a few thousand US households and ensure that no good show lasts more than 7 episodes. There’s no need to put monitors in every American living room–the small sample they use provides enough data to accurately show that our nation has banal, pedestrian tastes.

And so, again, the poker player is often presented with what looks to either be a paradox or a theoretical kick in the nuts. I’m playing well, the unfortunate rounder cries, so how come these fishy bastards keeping killing me with J-6 offsuit when I only play premium hands? The obvious answer is that your typical poker player is a crybaby who needs to grow up. This may be true, may almost certainly be true, most definitely IS true where you, personally, are concerned, but is that the only answer?

We now delve into the realm of the unquantifiable, the mystical, the probably completely stupid. Could it be that there are people who are, through no fault of their own, unlucky? I don’t mean unlucky in the sense that being born in North Korea as opposed to Grosse Pointe is unlucky, though I suppose that too could be food for thought. Perhaps you’re born in Pyongyang, but your parents are bigshots in Kim Jong Il’s cult of personality, you live in relative comfort (food AND shelter), you meet and marry the girl of your dreams and raise a happy family. Whearas the Grosse Pointe native gets run over by the Porsche his next-door neighbor bought his daughter on her Sweet Sixteen. Luck, one could say, is a matter of perception.

But let me get back to the point I was going to make. Luck could perhaps be defined as an event that flies in the face of statistical probability. You go all-in with AQ, and the other guy turns over AA. Rags on the flop and you’re dead. The queen on the turn serves only to stick yet another knife in your heart, this one a blade of false hope. But when that third queen comes on the river, you feel the touch of Divine Providence. The fact that the other guy is trying to slash his wrists with the dealer button doesn’t change the fact that, for some reason, you got incredibly lucky. You don’t know why, but you did. And it feels good.

Are there people who are simply luckier than others? Not just in the macro (born in affluence compared to born in poverty) but in a micro sense as well. We all know poor souls who always have cars with dents left by other careless drivers, whose grass is always invaded by ultra-hardy weeds, whose few minor extra-legal pecadillos always seem to attract the attention of law enforcement. Then there are the bastards who always win radio call-in contests, who elude a dozen DUI checkpoints after a Lost Weekend-caliber bender, who screw the principal’s jailbait daughter in a Confessional without getting caught. They’re just lucky. We’d like to be like them. Even if we know we never will.

Is luck a zero-sum game? Is there some cosmic reservoir maintained by leprechauns that must always be kept at the same level? I don’t think so. Baseball legend Branch Rickey once said, “Luck is the residue of design”. To a certain extent, you can manufacture luck where there was none before. If you’re in a poker tournament and you’re playing smart and accumulating chips and not pissing them away on lamebrain hands, you give yourself more opportunities to not only survive mistakes, but to get paid off big by getting lucky.

That’s statistics throwing its weight around again. But it’s much easier to quantify luck in a poker game than in life writ large. Is luck in fact quantifiable, could it be statistically analyzed if we had the means to gather a large enough and accurate enough sample? Are there people who are just luckier (or unluckier) than others? Or is luck, like so many of the mysterious and unseen forces of life (like love) totally random, capricious, and ultimately unknowable?

The poets among us would say that without the mystery of luck and love, life itself would be dull and predictable. Poets are, for the most part, irritating wack-jobs who should go out and get real jobs. It isn’t so much the idea that life would be dull and predictable if we truly understood luck and love, since life is mostly dull and predictable anyway. No, the really horrible thing would be if there was some kind of scan or blood test that would tell you that, no matter what you did, you were gonna be unlucky. And that blonde who makes your heart go pitter pat? She’s gonna marry your best friend. The one you actually hate and only pretend to like. Now go have a nice life.

The concept of Predestination is one I think most folks today would actively resist. The idea that our ultimate salvation is determined not by the life we lead, but whatever God happens to decide, rankles the free-thinking mind. If that’s the case, why be good? Why not surrender to our basest instincts and desires? While this sort of moral abdication happens every Spring Break in Ft. Lauderdale, most God-fearing people think its a good idea to hedge their bets and live a decent life too. Predestination takes luck totally out of the equation, since God has already decided whether you’re going to hit your flush even before the river card is dealt. Before the hand even begins. Before you’re even BORN. A belief in predestination makes playing poker less an exercise in skill, guile and aggression than simply waiting patiently for the inevitable to, well, evit.

Predestination seems even fishier to my off-kilter brain than statistics. I’m perfectly willing to believe that God, Whomever He is, is basically unknowable. My puny intellect cannot hope to grasp the enormity of the Almightly. But the brain He did give me doesn’t like the idea that He created the Universe only to have us play out a script He already wrote. What’s the point? God, Einstein famously said, does not play dice with the Universe. I’d like to think that the Universe isn’t a play He wrote, all the lines already scripted. Because if Life was a play, it probably would have been cancelled by now. Woody Allen once said that he didn’t think that God was evil, that the worst thing you could say about Him is that basically He’s an underachiever. I think we should cut God some slack and not assume that our stupid behavior is all His doing.

But is luck one of His creations, or is it just the inability for our tiny minds to grasp the grand machinery of the Universe? Not only is the human lifespan microscopically short on the cosmic scale, our attention spans can be measured in mere seconds, even less if your name is A.J. Soprano. Perhaps what we see as one person’s bad luck is simply that person’s inability to live a long-enough life for the cosmic variance to even out. That’s small solace to the person who has a piano fall on them, but it might give some comfort to the non-squashed among us.

On of my favorite TV shows in the Britcom Red Dwarf, and on one episode Lister and Kryten and the Cat discover the lab of a doctor who experiemented with “positive” viruses. The idea is that, just as the flu is a virus that can make you sick, there are viruses that actually cause beneficial changes. They find a virus for sexual magnetism (“Sexual magnetism is a virus?” preens the Cat. “Then call the Mayo Clinic, ’cause I got a terminal case!”), and also find a virus for luck. The idea that luck is a disease is of course totally ludicrous, and would be totally counter-productive if the germ was contagious. If you’re on a hot streak, hitting hand after hand, pretty soon you’d know that the underserving scumballs next to you will trying to pick up your “illness” by doing God knows what. Most viruses are best transmitted by the exchange of bodily fluids, and I think most of us would like to limit our fluid-exchanges with those we WANT to exchange them with. You get a desperate grinder at your table watching you hit flush after flush and you’re liable to be on the receiving end of a most unwelcome French kiss. Or worse. Let’s cross viral infection off the list.

So does luck exist? Maybe, like beauty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Maybe luck is just standard deviation by another name. Maybe luck is just a byproduct of our tiny brains not comprehending reality. Maybe luck is something that just happens to other people.

But for those hardy types who believe that they are the only captain of their souls, that luck is just the refuge of the weak and the stupid and the desperate, let me (again) quote from Gregg Easterbrook’s blog. Last September the University of Chicago sponsored a conference at which cosmologist tried to establish plans for locating “dark matter” and “dark energy”. What’s dark matter and dark energy? Good question. No one knows. But current calculations estimate that 90% of the Universe is made up of it. Studies have shown that galaxies at the outer reaches of the Universe are not only speeding away from us, they’re accelerating. Something is making all those stars rush away from us, some force that is much, much stronger than gravity. As Easterbrook says, “An energy strong enough to push the entire universe is pulsing through your body right now; you can’t feel it, and science has no idea how it works or where it originates. How many other nonmaterial forces might there be?”.

How many indeed? I’m not some New Age nutball, I don’t think that God speaks directly to Pat Robinson, and I don’t think aliens built the pyramids. But I’d like to think that there is an even deeper, richer Universe than the one we currently perceive, a “reality” that, for the moment, we lack the insight or tools to appreciate. A humble poker player like myself will leave that task to the scientists and mathematicians. To them I can only say, good luck.

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One Response to “There’s no such thing as luck? Convince someone who’s unlucky.”

  1. charlie johnston Says:

    Maybe you would be interested in reading my book – No Such Thing as Luck – A Biblical Perspective You can find it at http://www.nosuchthingasluck.com Thank-you , Charlie Johnston

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