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Luck review: A gambler digs into our belief in luck and superstition

An intriguing new book by a semi-professional poker player looks at why we feel lucky, and reflects on some hard-won lessons about living with uncertainty

Humans 6 April 2022

RUSSIAN novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was a gambling addict. He believed that if he could only maintain his composure, the various strategies and systems he dreamed up to beat the roulette wheel would one day pay off. He was kidding himself. No strategy can defeat pure chance.

David Flusfeder is a semi-professional poker player, who knows all about the thrill of the gamble. In Luck, he bypasses the scientific harsh truth about randomness and probability and instead has written a book about the human side of luck, which he defines as “the operations of chance taken personally”.

His eccentric, insightful meditations focus on fortune’s favourites and its gulls throughout history. We hear the stories of the Marquis de Dangeau, 18th-century Versailles’s wiliest card shark, right up to the experience of four-time lottery winner Joan Ginther, also known as”the luckiest woman on Earth”.

In an effort to stop his project sprawling, each of the essays here is largely self-contained. They have to be, because Flusfeder decided to put the hand of fate to good use by presenting them in an order determined by an online randomiser.

Dostoevsky’s experience is perhaps the most compelling. Even after he managed to rid himself of his addiction, the novelist retained the conviction “that in games of chance, if one has perfect control of one’s will, so that the subtlety of one’s intelligence and one’s power of calculation are preserved, one cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance and to win.”

Flusfeder reckons Dostoevsky was born in the wrong place at the right time; he should have been playing poker with French settlers in New Orleans. The card game invented there in 1829 really does reward composure and nerve, as well as luck.

Not that poker is an altogether rational pursuit. If it were, then Flusfeder wouldn’t be wearing green underpants to every important game. Superstition abounds on the poker circuit, as it does wherever people wield little or no control over their lives. Professional tennis is one example, writes Flusfeder. “There is so much time to think, and doubt, and lose the learned rhythms of technique, and to be afraid”, that the sport is awash with lucky tics, habits and absurd pre-match routines, he points out.

Superstition, Flusfeder argues, isn’t some primitive hangover from our distant past. It is the inevitable result of our capacity for taking mental shortcuts, which makes us capable of thinking on our feet, and without which we wouldn’t be able to function at all. If we had to constantly re-evaluate what was going on around us, we would quickly get left behind.

Instead, our brains make reasonable assumptions and update them if necessary. Along the way, we develop habits, and the impression that we live in a deterministic world in which what happened yesterday is a reliable guide for our actions today.

This works well enough in day-to-day life, but, writes Flusfeder, the extension of this very human way of thinking to economics often fails when it turns out that past results are an imperfect guide to future performance.

On this, statistician David Spiegelhalter, who studies the public perception of risk, puts it bluntly. Probability doesn’t exist outside the mind, he says: “It is not an objective aspect of the world. It’s a way to operationalise a belief.” At best, he says, it provides us with a map to help us navigate outcomes that are immeasurable and ultimately unknowable.

Given our weaknesses in the face of randomness, how should we proceed? According to Flusfeder, rather than cowering from the unknown and avoiding all randomness, we should pick our battles carefully, seizing good fortune when it arises, while swerving unnecessary risks. It is an imperfect guide to life, but it is a start at least.

Virtue may be an even better option, says Flusfeder. A life lived with honesty and integrity will at least be consistent, whether we are suffering adversity or enjoying good fortune. As the Renaissance poet Petrarch put it: “Many times whom fortune has made bond, virtue has made free.”

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