As a young man, a friend of mine had a gambling problem. Shortly after his 21st birthday and not into college, he took the Greyhound to Las Vegas and proceeded to wipe out his savings at the roulette table. That summer I was living in L.A. and my friend, now broke, made his way there and asked if I would loan him some money so he could return to the roulette tables. He insisted that he had finally figured out how to win and it would just be a matter of time until he could repay me on his way to becoming wealthy. When I explained to him that winning is, in the end, just a matter of probabilities and that those probabilities inexorably favor the casino, particularly in roulette, he replied that those odds didn’t apply to him, since he was “lucky.” There was no loan.
Then there was a former colleague who also had a bit of a gambling habit. His “drug” of choice was video poker. He would often point out (that is, brag) how the casinos had granted him high roller status that included discounts on airfare, hotel rooms, drinks, and food. I asked him why it was that casinos would offer him such perks, implying that he was actually paying for those perks by gambling—and losing. No, he said, perhaps most high rollers lost money but he didn’t. He said that he had been keeping track of winnings and losses and that he was thousands ahead. When I pointed out that the odds favored the casino, his response was, yes, but he could tell when the machines were “running hot” and when they weren’t and knew when he should bet or walk away. Besides, he said, he was “lucky.” We’ve lost touch, though I did learn that a few years ago he left his job in Milwaukee and moved to Las Vegas, only to move back a couple of years later. Hmm . . . .
We generally refer to two kinds of luck. First, there is the luck that simply happens to us, that is beyond our control and for which we claim no credit, or responsibility. It is something that happens, not because of a quality or ability that we have, but simply “by chance.” We catch a foul ball at a baseball game and realize that it was just luck that we happened to be in the right place at the right time. We were “just” lucky. We park our car on a busy street, and ours happens to be the one car that a careless driver clips in passing. It’s “just” bad luck. We speak of this kind of luck as a matter of chance as if it were truly random or uncaused. We don’t attribute it to some quality we possess.
The second way that individuals refer to luck is in the sense that it is a special quality that they believe they have. This is sometimes referred to as prescriptive luck, and it is this kind of luck that I’m most concerned about. Is there such a thing as prescriptive luck? If so, what is it? Are some people luckier than others? I don’t ask myself those questions anymore. I know that prescriptive luck doesn’t actually exist. But that hasn’t stopped many people from believing in the idea, as is evident to anyone who visits a casino to watch the hundreds of players hoping to take advantage of their luck.
Certainly no one seriously refers to “being lucky” as a question of divine providence. Sometimes individuals will say that their good or bad fortune is attributable to “the gods,” probably a throwback to a time when humans commonly thought that whatever happened was due to the whims of the gods rather than to the operation of natural laws. But I think those people are simply trying to be literary. Indeed, most people think that being lucky or unlucky is something that occurs in the absence of, rather than through, divine intervention, despite the fact that there may be a lot of praying going on among fans of spectator sports.
For someone to say that they are lucky (or unlucky)—and believe it—is tantamount to saying that their fortunes in games of chance or in some other aspect of life—avoidance of natural disasters, financial success, love—are governed by some quality they have that overrides the laws of nature. But I believe it’s really much simpler than that. I have a firm belief in the inviolability of natural laws. So luck is not a matter of overriding those laws. Rather, luck is simply the absence of knowledge. When we deal out a hand of cards, we may say that each player’s hand is a matter of luck. But what we really mean is that we simply don’t have enough information to know what hand each player is dealt. The hands are determined by the shuffle and cut of the cards. That’s strictly a mechanical process. Would anyone seriously claim that his or her “luck” had influenced the shuffle or cut of the deck? One would hope not. If we had complete information about the shuffle and cut, we would know what hands would be dealt, and we wouldn’t be referring to the hands as a matter of luck. All one would have to do would be to turn the deck face up.
The same can be said for roulette. The wheel is set spinning in one direction and the croupier sends the ball circling the wheel in the opposite direction. Eventually, gravity pulls the ball down into a specific slot in the wheel. The mechanics of the process are sufficiently complicated that, as a practical matter, it is impossible to determine in advance where the ball will finally land, assuming the wheel is “true.” And, in fact, casinos routinely check roulette wheels to ensure that they remain fair. Casinos understand that, because the odds on every bet in roulette favor the house, it is simply a matter of time for them to make money off of the bettors. But whether a wheel is true or not, we should understand that which slot on the wheel the ball eventually falls into is a mechanical one. We should understand that we do not have the ability to influence the path of the ball. Unless, that is, one believes she or he has telekinesis, the ability to move objects by nonphysical means (mind over matter), or clairvoyance, the ability to see into the future.
It’s a little trickier with slot machines, including video poker. Older machines were “mechanical” in the sense that the result of any particular play was determined by a process involving levers, gears, or other mechanical apparatuses within the machine. The play in modern slots is based, not on pulleys and levers, but on a computer chip. There is no lineup of results built into the machine. Rather, the result is determined only after the player has initiated a play. So, unlike with mechanical machines, no one could say that a particular machine is “overdue to hit.” More importantly, no one could open up a modern machine and, based on the position of levers, gears, wheels, or whatever, determine the future results of the machine. I’m no expert on random-number generating devices, so I don’t know if it would be theoretically possible to analyze the state of the computer chip used to generate the numbers and determine the future choices that would occur. And in fact these devices may actually allow for the operation of quantum indeterminacy. in any event, the issue is not one of “luck.” Rather, the issue is, once again, simply lack of knowledge. And, more importantly, the result is totally unrelated to the player’s sense of timing or sense of personal luck.
So the idea of luck is really no different from all the other phenomena that through the years humans have been unable to explain. They simply attribute it to some force beyond the laws of nature. Until, that is, it succumbs to the natural ones.
© 2014 John M. Phillips