Poker, Chess and Life – Part 2: Luck

Now we’ll move from subjectivity to luck, a more central notion in our everyday thinking. Luck has been personified as a lady who randomly comes to the aid of those she decides she likes that day. Apparently irish people are just more fortunate than the rest of us. What is this magical force we seem  to posit as an all powerful erratic entity, turning the tables of our lives one way or the other whether we like it or not?

The questions I’ll be looking at in this part will be partly aimed at separating the various semantic applications of the word ‘luck’. I’ll be asking what it means to call something and someone lucky, in what sense luck exists as a thing and then investigating how much it applies in chess, poker and life given what we’ve learned. And as always, what these three realms teach us about our relationship with luck.

This is part of a series of articles, and if you haven’t already read it, you can find part 1 here.

1. What Does It Mean to Call Something Lucky?

I’ve found chess is always a nice place to start. It seems to be the most different from the other two realms, like a box of clarity where the waters are far less mirky. Your first thought might be to dismiss chess as a game where luck simply plays no role, but I don’t think that’s quite right. If luck does somehow exist in chess then here might be the best place to find its definition or at least definition.

Clearly when you win a game of chess against me it’s because you made better moves than I did and avoided mistakes more successfully. It’s never solely because you were lucky that day and I was unlucky. In poker you might beat me even though I played better than you did, at least in the short term. In life you might constantly make awful decisions, but have a rich family that constantly bail you out and ensure you’ll live a higher standard of life than I do. In chess, it seems that any good results must be an indication of out- performing your opponent. There are no lottery tickets to win or people to bail you out – you create your own demise and you’re fully responsible for it. Chess is a judge of desert and one who administers its justice with iron willed reliability.

It seems absurd to claim that luck can decide a chess match, yet people do say things like: ‘He was very lucky, I was crushing him for most of the game’

So what does this mean? If you were getting the better of me for 36 moves then you made a mistake which allowed me to find a winning combination out of the blue against the odds, it seems you’re justified in saying ‘That was a lucky escape, you were really under the cosh.’ You might even call it a ‘swindle’ or say that I didn’t deserve to win the game.

It’s false to claim that my shock win emerged from a combination of factors beyond the control of the players. It was fully a consequence of the moves we made on the board. So in what sense, then, can it be lucky?

Here we stumble upon our first meaning of luck.

(i) ‘Lucky’: unlikely and beneficial

In this interpretation it’s not at all mysterious how my win can be lucky and your loss unlucky. If you played the game 100 times from move 30 where I was a bishop down and stubbornly refusing to resign, you’d probably find I win less than 5 times, but this situation just so happened to be one of those few times in a hundred. Therefore, we call ourselves ‘lucky’ when we realise a generally unlikely positive outcome and ‘unlucky’ when that outcome happens to be negative.

In life we use the very same meaning of ‘luck’ – it often has nothing to do with whether the action is a result of skill or of pure chance. All that seems to matter for us to be able to apply our term or its antithesis is that it was statistically unlikely. A successful athlete when asked about their success will consider themselves lucky to have got to this point, irrespective of whether their success was a result of hard training and dedication or of being fortunate enough to evade drug use detection. Take the following statement for example:

‘Jenny had her swimming skills to thank after managing to swim 8 miles to safety after her yacht capsized in the middle of the ocean. In a later interview she said “I’m lucky to be alive.”

This statement sounds natural, but, in some sense we’d like to say that Jenny isn’t lucky at all. The very reason that she survived was due to her own abilities and had nothing to do with pure chance that lay outside of her control. Yet, we’d all agree that she was indeed lucky to be alive. Why? Because most people who end up in the middle of the ocean with no help around probably die.

A man who fights off a bear using martial arts training is also considered lucky to be alive, and his survival is a sole consequence of his physical skill. Most people don’t emerge from a bear fight as much more than a shredded mess, so this guy is lucky that he did.

It’s for this reason that you can call my chess victory over you lucky.

There we have it, luck doesn’t need to have anything to do with pure chance. A person can be fully responsible for their fate and still be called lucky or unlucky depending on how statistically unlikely that fate was for the average person.

The interesting thing in poker is that we’re simply never fully responsible for our fate in the short term. If we win a hand we’re always lucky to some extent – we need to be in order for our opponent to have a weak enough hand to fold or for us to have good enough hand to win at showdown. In poker, if we won in a 50/50 coin flip type of situation, we were lucky, but if we won a chess match against an opponent exactly as strong as us then luck had nothing to do with it. This brings us to the second definition.

(ii) ‘Lucky’: beneficial and out with the benefciary’s control

This is by far the most common use of the work ‘lucky’. A person profits from something that was consequentially (mostly) separate from any of their intentional actions. The same is true in life. If I win the lottery, I’m lucky because this win is almost exclusively down to chance. My buying the ticket is a necessary precursor to it, but whether I win or not is completely out of my control.

2. What does it mean to call someone lucky?

You might think I’m wasting time having just defined the word ‘lucky’ in relation to happenings, but there’s a huge difference here in the way we use this term when applied to people. Consider the following uses.

A: Sally is so lucky. She lost her phone last night and it got handed in.
B: Never forget how lucky you are to have clean water and a roof over your head.
C: Ross is so lucky, honestly he always flops the nuts.

In A, we’re using ‘lucky’ in exactly the same way we did when referring to things. Sally is lucky in virtue of a good thing happening to her that was either unlikely, outwith her control, or both.

B is a little different. While we’re still calling someone ‘lucky’ due to events that have taken place in their life. We’re going right back to their initial placement in the world. We’ll come back to this kind of luck later.

C is the most interesting use of the word. It refers to someone having a tendency for unlikely or uncontrollable things happening to them on a more frequent basis than would happen to the average person. The fact that we were able to separate two meanings of ‘lucky’ in part 1 is now essential in order to see what’s going on here. One definition can only be used fallaciously in this way while the other has a lurking truth to it, although one that isn’t obvious at first glance.

Ross has flopped the nuts a lot recently i.e made the best possible five card hand available after the first two betting rounds. Does this provide us with evidence that he has a tendency to score better in the realm of random chance than others? No. All it means is that up until now he has scored better. The gamblers fallacy is the belief that chance has a memory; that it will behave differently based on what it has done in the past. This belief completely false, yet gamblers still horde round a roulette table counting the amount of times certain numbers have come up so that they can bet on those that have appeared the least often. 7-red may not have been spun in 60 spins, but it is no more likely to spin in the future than 24 black which has come up a staggering 9 times. Similarly Ross is no more likely to flop the nuts on the next hand than Paul or Emma is.

There is no such thing as being lucky in sense C with definition (ii), when we make this assertion with the connection that it extends into the future, we’re simply committing the gamblers fallacy. That said we do it all the time in life. “You open it, you’re much luckier than I am” and “I’m an unlucky person” are just complete nonsense speak when referring to definition (ii), where lucky means: beneficial and out with control of the benefactor. But what about definition (i): unlikely and beneficial?

The magician and TV star Derren Brown conducted an experiment where he temporarily tracked the daily lives of two groups of people: those who considered themselves lucky and those who considered themselves unlucky. He went around placing £20 notes on the ground in front of them, sticking up flyers offering great and rare opportunities on their route to work and other such potentialities. What he found was that those people who considered themselves ‘lucky’ were more likely to spot the money on the ground or take advantage of the opportunity on the flyer, while the ‘unlucky’ group were more likely to miss out. There is no magical force like the one Ross was accused of benefitting from that makes the first group more prone to taking these chances, it’s clearly linked to their disposition. A positive outlook proved to render a person more likely to achieve or get something unlikely. The first definition of ‘lucky’: unlikely and beneficial, can vary based on the person’s attributes.

Ross might not be any luckier than Paul when it comes to flopping the nuts in the future, but if he’s better at achieving rare benefits, then we’d still call him ‘lucky’ and in this way there’d  be an element of truth to what we say, but as Derren Brown showed, that truth has nothing to do with pure chance throwing it’s weight around disproportionately. The good old saying ‘we make our own luck’ is half true and half false – true when we use definition (i) and false when we use definition (ii). This explains why some agree with it and others disagree.

3. What Is Luck as a thing?

We don’t just talk about luckiness as a thing that applies to people and events. We like to posit with our language an entity we refer to as ‘luck’ We talk about lady luck, luck shining on us today and being given a break by luck. Much of this talk is metaphorical, no doubt, but there’s definitely a tendency to see luck as some independent force from the rest of the world and this it is not.

We’ve already busted the myth that luck is some mysterious beast of chance that favours certain people for no reason. To recap, something is lucky/unlucky if it occurs due to factors out with someone’s control or occurs despite having an unlikely statistical probability. Luck then, is simply a measure of out-of-controlness. There’s a lot of luck in poker because lots of things happen that are out of our control to a large extent. There is less luck in chess because most of the things that happen are controlled by our actions.

So to debate the metaphysical question, of ‘is luck even a thing in the first place?’, as is so often the case with difficult questions, I believe the correct answer to be yes and no.

Yes, luck is a thing in that it’s a functional measurement of how little control or unlikeliness features in an outcome or category of outcomes (depending on the context) it’s also the measurement of how many good or bad things happen to you that have a high degree of out-of-controlness.

And no luck is not an independent entity that makes it’s own decisions about what will happen to people.

In fact, everything that happens due to luck has a determinable cause. The coin landed on heads not because luck decided it was so, but because the velocity and angle at which it was tossed into the air determined the angle at which it hit the ground which in turn determined which side of it would land face up. You won the lottery because the glamorous ex footballers wife’s brain sent certain signals to her hand that in turn resulted in balls 2 4 19 24 26 and 37 being pulled instead of some other permutation. We call these things matters of luck, because there’s a very high degree of uncontrollability in their execution, at least from a human perspective.

4. Poker and Life

So far, I’ve managed to purport a way of defining luck that fits with our semantic tendencies. Now perhaps we can use this understanding to observe the differences in our three realms where there are varying degrees of luck. How do things change in places where luck plays a larger role and how do we as humans react to different levels of luck being operational? If you found the earlier part of this article, a bit of a slog, don’t worry; so did I, but I thought it was necessary to better understand what we’re dealing with before we go making assumptions about how it affects us. I’m also a philosophy graduate and thus can’t help launching into a tirade of defining stuff. At least I refrained from using Latin.

Let’s start in poker where luck is at it’s highest. In poker we’re constantly grinning and bearing luck’s ruthless beatings. A serious poker player logs on to put in some hands, expecting to have an edge, yet realising that this only makes him marginally more likely to win rather than to lose that day. He knows deep down that the fruits of his labour will pay off in the long term, not the short term, and tells himself that money won or lost is not really won or lost until he’s played a great deal more hands than he can that day alone.

Nevertheless, and despite the most sincere and determined efforts of his will, he often buckles, swears, punches cats, or stabs himself in the leg due to bad short term luck (yes that last one really happened. No…not to me)

So why is it so infuriatingly hard for most of us to cope in this realm where luck levels are sky high? I think it’s because we’re not conditioned to it. Poker and chess are both really frustrating games and one reason they’re really frustrating at times is precisely because we’re dealing with levels of luck very different to those we’ve evolved to handle. We evolved in the realm of life where our luckometer reads 40 – to give a random arbitrary scale to things. Our minds grow up in an environment where the luckometer hovers around 40, possibly peaking or dipping at 30 or 50 depending on where we are in the world and what’s going on. If your father makes a living from the stock market you might do better some months than others and eat well for sporadic periods and then badly when things don’t go as expected. However, in general we get accustomed mentally to luck level 40 and moreover have probably evolved to function in a world where the lockometer reads there or thereabouts.

Then we step into poker and find the luckometer to read a scorching 600 degrees. This is immensely hard to deal with psychologically. If you’re a poker player who tilts then you shouldn’t feel alone, but in the majority of poker players who were not born with the mental mechanism to adapt instantly to such a climate. That said, we can adapt, slowly and carefully. I was far far tilter five years ago as a poker player than I am today. In fact, five years ago I’d blow my entire bankroll of $2000 in a few days of titled mayhem. Today it’s rare that I lose more than a tiny % of my roll in a week.

To recap a little, this high luckometer reading comes from the frequency at which intentional action translates into desired outcome. When our scale reads 40, we expect this to happen most of the time. I go shopping and purchase a bunch of products and I expect to be able to eat those products later on. In fact about 99.99% of the time I will indeed enjoy the fruits of my purchase. Very rarely, a bus will veer off the road and smash my shopping out of my hands on the way home, barely sparing my life, and in this case I’ll go hungry. But imagine if this happened 25% of the time, that’s one time in four that you went to buy your shopping, something smashed it all to pieces before you’d eaten a morsel. How infuriating would that be?

Imagine if every time you made the best choice about what to do that day it resulted in you having an awful day 40% of the time. What if when you tried open the fridge, you fell over and hit your face on the ground 15% of the time. Now imagine a full day full of all of these infuriating disconnects between intentional action and outcome and how angry you’d get. It’s a wonder we poker players even keep it together as much as we do.

But if we’d evolved in a world where the luckometer read 600, we wouldn’t be phased by these mini disasters anywhere near as badly. We’d be built to shrug it off, get up off the floor and try again to open the fridge, consoling ourselves with the thought that in the long run it’s beneficial for us to take the impact to our face in order to keep our food cool and delay the next potentially disastrous trip to the supermarket. Poker makes us mad because we did not evolve to deal with a reading of 600 on the luckometer. Realise that this is to be expected and try to adapt. Let’s not hate ourselves for reacting the way we’re programmed to. You tilt today and you probably always will to some degree, but so do all of your opponents and what sets you aside is how you try to lessen that – fortunately our opponents are really bad at improving in this respect so, as is often the case in poker, we’ve found a way of deriving an extra edge.

5. Chess and Life.

Like I said at the beginning, I don’t believe luck is absent from chess. There exist small and infrequent bouts of luck such as which colour you draw for the match and whether your opponent finds a ridiculously unlikely combination to beat you that a player of his strength seldom sees. Nevertheless, we must admit that our luckometer reading in this realm is going to be extremely low. Let’s call it 3.

So far the pattern has been that we cope better in environments with lower luckometer readings, but this is too shortsighted a view. It’s all about adaption and we simply cope better where the amount of luck is proportionate to what we’re used to. In poker it’s more than ten times what we’re used to, in chess it’s less than ten times what we’re used to. This is equally unsettling.

The following might sound totally bizarre and verging on psychotic to a non chess player, but some of the lowest, angriest, most unsettled etc. I’ve felt in a 15 minute period over the last few years has been immediately after losing a game of chess in an irritating way. I actually suffer more at the hands of tilt through chess than I do through poker in many cases. A lot of the friends I’ve met through chess share this bizarre emotional instability when it comes to the game. Winning can generate levels of euphoria that seem utterly inappropriate as an emotional representation of the fact that you’ve just moved bits of wood around a slab of wood, better than your opponent did. Losing and feeling utterly furious with yourself seems like an absurd response, but it’s a very natural one.

I believe I tilt worse i.e get angrier in chess than in poker because I’ve devoted much time to adapting to a luck level of 600. I’ve spent days reading up on the mental game of poker and applying the advice I’ve found. My brain is at least semi prepared for the high luck readings in that environment. You rarely if ever see literature dedicated to improving your mental game in chess, even though this is surely imperative to good results and something a grandmaster takes very seriously at the highest level. Perhaps my emotional instability at the chess board and that of my friends is only this bad because we feel we shouldn’t need to adapt to luck levels of 3. We think that surely such a low luck level can only help us keep our cool.

Imagine the luckometer also read 3 in life. There’d be very little spontaneity. Everything that wen’t well for you would be direct result of your brilliance and nothing else. Everything that went badly only proved to show your inadequacies. Getting your shopping destroyed by a renegade pavement bus would be even more irritating, as a failure to avoid that situation would be entirely your fault – there would have been ways to see it coming and react to it. You destroyed your own shopping by not taking them.

In chess we enjoy our victories euphorically because we know that we earned every bit of them in some way or another. This makes our defeats all the more bitter as we know we caused them in full. The brain fails to cope with very low luckometer readings just as it does high ones.


Luck is a curious beast. When we call someone or something ‘lucky’, we often mean different things. We personify and objectify luck in a way that just doesn’t fit with reality as in fact, luck is merely just a measure of how little control we have over a potentiality. We have adapted over time to function well in our environment. We’ve not just evolved and grown up to suit the weather, culture or society we’re a part of, but also to cope well with the amount of luck in that environment. Poker and chess show us that what appear to be irrational and unnecessary emotional responses are in fact just ordinary reactions from programmed creatures, unversed in dealing with extreme levels of luck.

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