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Some Ruminations on the Concept of Luck

“They call you lady luck/ But there is room for doubt/ At times you have the most unladylike way of running out/ You’re on a date with me/ The pickings have been lush/ And yet before this evening is over/ You might give me the brush/ You might forget your manners/ You might refuse to stay/ And so the best that I can do is pray…”

That is the intro to the great song “Luck Be a Lady,” from Frank Loesser’s musical “Guys and Dolls,” based on stories by Damon Runyon, most specifically, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.” I hope that most of you have seen it, most likely in the excellent movie musical version in 1955, starring Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Marlon Brando, and Vivian Blaine, along with a wonderful supporting cast. It is about life on the street of Broadway in the 1920’s or so, where monied people hobnobbed with gamblers and touts. I am using.it as a springboard to write a little about the concept of luck.

There are all kinds of luck. And one could contend that “luck” is a term which humans use to describe what might otherwise be termed good or bad fortune, or just the vagaries of circumstance. “Luck” connotes something which can’t be otherwise accounted for. If you find a hundred dollar bill which apparently flew out of a car, that could be good luck for you, but bad luck for the person who let it slip out of his hand. One could say that on his part, it was not luck, it was simply not being as careful as he should have been. Hopefully, he is not in great need of money, so he passes it off. Luck is almost always, except in the extreme cases, a matter of perspective.

If you bought a lottery ticket using a “Quick Pick,” which the computer simply randomly selects, and you win a hundred million dollars, you would be said to be incredibly lucky in that instance. Of course, as was the stuff of many movies or short stories, you could be hit by a bus ten minutes later, which would do worse than obviate the lottery ticket luck. It is also a question of significance. As an aside, the fascinating movie “Three Strangers,” with Geraldine Fitzgerald, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet, deals with the concept of various kinds of luck, along with human nature, as its themes.

It should be obvious that some things are far more important than others. I will just focus on those things which are not the most important, but where people do deal with luck: whether it exists, or is a cover, excuse or rationalization. That is most prevalent in gambling, whether it is dice, roulette, poker, horse racing, or sports betting. The last of those involves betting on sporting events, and so then there is always the question as to whether which team wins and loses; or often, just who covers the pointspread, even when the game result has been decided, is largely due to chance.

There was a famous baseball executive, Branch Rickey, who was a great judge of talent, and who built superb farm systems with the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey was educated, and liked to pontificate sometimes. He would say that “Luck is the residue of design.” He meant that if you are smart, and make good decisions, you will likely have favorable results, which others might jealously or unperceptively attribute to luck. Ricky had a very good point, but certainly it is not always the case that luck is a result of your earlier planning.

Better poker players will win more than bad ones. But even bad players can draw a lucky hand, or a last-ditch card which turns the better player’s hand into a losing one, where he loses the money. This could actually go on all night, but almost certainly will turn around. But that is the extreme; among players whose abilities are not so disparate, it might take a very long time for the evening-out to take place.

I used to play a lot of poker at the legal poker clubs in Gardena. Those were “limit” games, where you could only bet a specified amount before or after the draw, though raises were unlimited. So in the game I played, Ace to Five Lowball, even if you had the second best hand one could draw, and another player had the hand that could not be beaten, only tied, the most you were going to lose was maybe 15 units, which would not at all be pleasant, but is not like the “all in” of Texas Hold-’em, where you can bet and lose all your chips at any time.

The way to play in a limit game is to be cautious, only play good hands, and figure that eventually being careful, and yet aggressive at a few times, would make money. And I did win at this, and I kept records to validate it to me. But that did not mean that one could not lose on a given day, and even on several days, mostly due to not making the hands you are drawing to. In Lowball, you do not often have a “pat,” or made hand, you are usually drawing one card. If you keep hitting bad cards, you can rarely win by bluffing; the cost to call is too little to get players out, unless they also did not hit anything.

Anyway, I had this one miserable run of cards where I either was dealt junk hands, which I had to fold, or I would draw to a good hand, and never hit it. This went on for a few days. One time, when there was a hand with many people drawing, that meant that most of the low cards were already held, so that most of the players would hit bad high cards. So when I ended up with a pair of deuces (pairs are not good at all in Lowball), and since I had laid down missed draw after missed draw, I thought that I might successfully bluff.

Five players folded, but the last player called–with a pair of aces, also an awful hand, but just slightly better than mine. I was quite upset, though I did not show it outwardly. If he had watched me play for hours, he would have seen me never bluffing even one time–but maybe he wasn’t even watching the game carefully But in retrospect, it was good odds for him to call, maybe $10 to win $150, so he was completely warranted in calling. It still was very frustrating, though. Then I went back to getting junk hands again.

I must have been down $750 in three days of this, which is a lot in a $5/$10 game. It would take weeks to get that back. And yet I kept playing, because I figured that this run was bound to turn around. I might have changed tables, but this may have been the only $5/$10 game there. I was logical, I figured that changing tables would not mean anything; each hand is independent, and I had no thought that anyone was cheating.

But luck can exist in poker, irrespective of rational probabilities. So finally I got up and left. But rather than drive home and deal with it, I did something rather reckless. I went to the bank, took out about $1,500, which was a lot for me then, and went to another casino in Gardena, to play $15/$30, with a “double blind.” That is an expensive game, higher than I had ever played. You could lose $1000 in twenty minutes in that game. And the rumor at the tables at the club I regularly played at, was that there was cheating. I probably naively thought it was with dealing, but it probably was with confederates, where someone signals that he has a great hand, and the other player raises, and they keep raising, forcing other players to keep calling, and then splitting the money later.

Well, I was quite nervous, but somehow changing tables and clubs got me some better hands, at least playable. I won one which was a percentage play, but still risky, and that helped. Then I won another on a draw. Then I was dealt a very good pat hand, and was disappointed that only one other player stayed in the pot. I was not getting great hands, but I might have been starting on a very good run–but I quit. I had won back the $750, plus another $220 or so, and I was so relieved, that I left the game, not wanting to risk losing it back, which could happen in such a game. I had a very pleasant drive home

Now, there is nothing profound about this story. The money involved was so small compared to the big poker games now, but many of those players are “backed” by others who try to buy a share of the profits, so there is not is very much risk for them, though of course they want to win, for the money, their reputation, and their ego.

For me at that time, this was a lot of money. The lessons were that you should try to change tables, if you can, if you simply can’t get a hand, because even though mathematics says that it should not matter as far as what cards you get, it might, somehow. Yes, of course changing players at the table would matter in certain poker games, but in a limit lowball game of $5/$10, there are not many choices to make; you play a certain type of hand, you rarely play the opponent.

Also, it is a prime example of a certain truth, which is that gamblers ordinarily will risk more when they are down, than when they are ahead. Somebody goes to Vegas, plays blackjack, gets up $300, loses some back, is only up $140, and walks away from the table, proud that he played smart. The next night, he is down $200, but rather than walk away, and figure that he lost $60 in two nights, he keeps playing, trying to get it back. It feels good to win, it feels bad to lose; and most gamblers want to go to dinner, or get up the next day, or start a work week, feeling good. That is the psychology of gamblers, for the most part.

Had I stayed in the game, I might have won a few thousand dollars. They didn’t know me, or how I played. And I had just started getting some good cards. But I knew I could lose a few hundred dollars on one hand, and I wasn’t any mood to risk that, and maybe even end up losing more money than I started with, or just breaking even that game, and going though all that and still being down the $750. A real gambler would have stayed in there, probably.

As to luck, sometimes there are runs of luck. And one could say that those are just random occurrences, like flipping heads eight times in a row with a fair coin And they might be just that. Or maybe there is something about luck there. Now, when a player is winning, he is apt to feel on top of his game, he might make better decisions. When he is down, he might do foolish things. So that could have some of the aspect of “making your own luck.” It is commonly said that one should not go against a poker player on a hot streak, try to stay out of his hands. Is that rational? Who knows? But I have seen players go on what they call “rushes,” and just win a streak of hands.

Most people do not gamble in casinos. But many are sports fans, and they may attribute their team’s win or loss to luck. Players and coaches like to say that luck evens out, but they almost have to think that. It may well not, even in a season. And some games are bigger than others, of course.

If you are playing poker, getting a lot of worthless hands which you throw into the discards is not terrible luck. It means you won’t win anything on those hands, and you will lose your antes or blinds,and over a few hours, your stack of chips will dwindle. But much worse than that, is when you get second-best hands; and the stronger those are, the more money you will lose.

You can be doing fine in the game, and then get a very strong hand that someone beats, and you lose all that back, or maybe even all your chips, if it is a table stakes game. In the superb movie “The Cincinnati Kid,”Steve McQueen lost all of his money, plus an additional $25,000, an immense sum back in the 1930’s when the movie was set, because Lancey Howard hit an inside straight flush on his last card. Now the Kid did not have to call,but that is a different story, as well as whether Lancey was actually the devil. But you are never quite sure who you are sitting down with.

Those who do not gamble, or who do not follow the ups and downs of sports, likely still have thoughts about luck; whether it exists, or only in retrospect; or whether it is an excuse for their own mistakes or misperceptions. And often it does seem, in the workplace, or other such environments, that some people seem very lucky: in getting away with things; in getting credit for things they did not do; of being gifted with the nicer manager, or the raise before the “belt-tightening” excuses start. Is it luck? Is it smartness on their part? Or is it something set up by various factors and various people which favor him?

And how does one react to that? Does one keep on believing that you make your own luck, and that talent and perseverance are rewarded? Or do you become disillusioned,and decide that the game, and maybe all of the games, are fixed in advance?