The Nature of Luck
This past weekend I competed in a made-for television event called “World Series of Blackjack.” The producers invited 25 gambling luminaries — if such a thing can be said to exist — to square off in 5-person, 30-hand matches. The winners got a pile of money, and the others got to be on cable television.
I’m contractually bound to keep secret the results of the games, but I can say this: As with any gambling endeavor, the fine line between success and failure was largely defined by this thing we call “luck.”
In the game of blackjack — or poker or dice or any other game that relies on random numbers — luck is actually our human perception of the natural tendencies and variances of mathematics. Some results are more likely than others, but in the universe of possibilities, almost nothing defies statistical explanation. What this means is that when it seems that one player is “getting lucky” (hitting natural 21s when he has a large bet out) and another is “getting unlucky” (busting every hand he plays) what’s really happening is the common manifestation of random results working themselves out in simultaneously expected and unpredictable patterns. It’s this paradox — explainable and unexplainable — that makes us think we are in the grips of luck when, in fact, we’re merely witnessing math at work.
In my first collection of gambling stories, The Man With the $100,000 Breasts, the final chapter is called “The Hand You’re Dealt.” It was about competing in the World Series of Poker against a deformed young man who suffered from a degenerative disease that left him splayed on a gurney. I realized then that any of us who play cards seriously need to remember that “getting lucky” has nothing to do with making winning hands in the casino. While filming this blackjack tournament, not every turn of the card went my way. But as I enjoyed all my senses and the mobility of all four limbs — and everything else we sentient and healthy human beings tend to take for granted — I realized again that I’m as lucky as a man can get.