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What It Means and Why It Matters

by Ed Smith

Many sportsmen deeply superstitious - if they are successful then they are compelled to repeat whatever they did that day. The ritual tips into near madness. The baseball player who put a coin in his jockstrap every time he hit the ball. Rafael Nadal refusing to meet the Queen because he hadn't met her the day before, and 'couldn't' interfere with a winning pattern of behaviour. The Arsenal player who had to be the last one out of changing room after half-time, and so when one of the players needed medical attention, Arsenal had to start the second half with nine men.

'January effect' (aka Cumulative Advantage) - kids born at start of year twice as likely to become top footballers or ice hockey players as those born later in year. The slightly stronger and bigger child is singled out for extra coaching, and gets opportunities denied slightly less developed (because few months younger) child. But other factors - a significant number of star players come from small towns. Suggestion that this is because in small towns get chance to try lots of different sports and don't specialize too early, and thus less likely to suffer physical or psychological burnout.

And this refutes the Tiger Woods Fallacy - the idea that only way to the top is to concentrate on a single sport from age 3.

Britain, like most of West, has become more of a fortunocracy than a meritocracy, in sport, business and politics. Far more social mobility (in terms of rising from bottom quarter to top quarter of society) if born in 1958 than in 1970. Ironically get more people pretending to have come up from bottom. This phony modesty is a deceit - trying to deny the luck of your birth in order to claim more credit for yourself.

Author reckoned he personally benefited from this. If everyone had had the same sporting education that he had, someone with more innate talent would have taken my place. Lucky for me, not so lucky for England.

America prides itself on the 'American Dream' whereby anyone can pull themselves up if they try hard enough. Yet social mobility is lower in US than in Australia, Canada or the Nordic countries. Parental income is a better predictor of a child's future than in most countries of Europe. The rhetoric of meritocracy stays the same, but the reality is that US has become a fortunocracy.

"How did Bill Gates get all his good luck? He wasn't sitting on his ass smoking dope.." is basic attitude that success and failure are always deserved. But riposte that 44 million Americans lived in poverty in 2009. The conventional explanation makes you wonder whether there really was that much dope to go around.

Optimal strategy for rock-paper-scissors is to be completely random. Bad players have a 'Plan', and by trying to out-think their opponent, end up giving away clues as to what they are going to do.

Interviewed a guy who had survived a cardiac arrest only by a series of lucky accidents - the right people and equipment available in time - that 9999 out of 10000 would have died. Many asked him if he became religious/thanked God for escape, but his attitude was "What about all the others who die with this condition - are we supposed to think God doesn't care about them?" If something good happens it's divine intervention. But when something bad happens, it isn't.

Same thing with coaching/investment - good outcomes attributed to skill, bad outcomes to forces beyond your control.

Successful people say "You make your own luck." But there's a self-selection bias. Nobody wants to listen to someone who blames their failure on terrible luck. When he's starting out, young sportsman will tell you he's going to succeed due to his raw talent. But at end of his career he'll claim it was hard work. This fits audience belief in just desserts and the idea that they could do it too, if they'd wanted it enough.

1859 great year for publishing - Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty first printed. But another book easily outsold both - Samuel Smile's bestseller Self-Help outsold everything except the Bible. Smile said luck was irrelevant - success due to hard work. But nasty corollary of this was the verdict that those who failed hadn't tried hard enough.

Alain de Botton in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work argued that this self-help attitude is a purely modern one. Older societies were hierarchical, and relied on everyone knowing their place, and being content to stay there. Stoicism and bravery were the desired character attributes. But modern meritocratic society rewards those with self-confidence to make the most of opportunities.

Evangelicals strongly deny 'luck' bc they believe everything is down to God's plan.

Concept of risk freeing society from the shackles of fate and superstition. The urge to measure, calculate, quantify and predict pushing back idea of rogue chance. Technology means we can see the hurricane approaching. Scientists give us global warming explanation.

Colin Montgomery has record for the most (9) holes-in-one on pro circuit. He says to hit a ball 1.68 inches wide 200 yards into a hole 4.25 inches wide - you cannot control the flight through the air, the bounce as it hits, and then the roll across the turf. To put the ball close to the hole is skill, to put the ball in the hole needs luck.

'Modernity is the transition from fate to choice'

Ivan Lendl famously made himself world champ 1986 - 1989, by taking preparation to a whole new level. But since then, everybody trains at that level, so an Ivan Lendl would not make it today.

Imagine a world where nobody was allowed to train or practice. Then, the talent will win. Or imagine a world where everybody trains at the same level. Again, talent will be the difference. That is the stage we have reached today with most professional sports.

Great deal of randomness in sport. If a difficult and disruptive player went through a good spell, I, as captain, gets congratulated for "managing him well". You can either tell the truth "I doubt if I've had any influence on him at all because his behaviour is always random and unpredictable", or, when the player reverts to type, you'll get the blame for not managing him well."

One of Nicolas Taleb's themes - what looks like a great track record is often just a lucky streak about to run out.

All sports have an element of luck, but soccer extreme. In tennis, a bad call may affect one point out of hundreds. But in soccer, in any game, the result is likely to be the odd goal - so often a lower-ranked side pulls off an unexpected upset. (But of course, over the season, it's always going to come down to who has bought the best players, and so it's always either Man United or Chelsea at the top of the table.)

Incredible series of lucky outcomes which meant Winston Churchill in position to lead wartime Britain. Nearly got kicked out of Sandhurst - if he failed his exams for a third time he'd be expelled. (He could only remember one topic, so he put all the maps in a hat and learned the one he pulled out - New Zealand railway system - and sure enough that was the one that came up in exam). He could have died in Boer War if he hadn't put his gun down to try to start a locomotive. He would have died in WW1 shelling if he hadn't gone back to pick up his matches (smoking saved his life!). He should have been killed in a road accident in NY in 1931. And there were a whole lot of twists and turns in his political career.

Author concludes by recounting the bizarre coincidences that led to him meeting his future wife on a train - huge amount of luck in this world.

(London Times Review)

Unluckily, nothing serendipitous happened to me on the way to write this review. No chance encounters, or near-death misses to give me a pithy introduction to Luck, Ed Smith's elegant and absorbing new book.

Luck, as Smith makes abundantly clear, cannot be mastered, cannot be bent to our will. We have variously ignored it, deified it or downplayed it. But Smith has returned luck to its central place in human experience. He is well-qualified to write this book. For a start, he's an accomplished sportsman - an England cricketer and former captain of Middlesex. Sport allows us to see luck at its most capricious, and has witnessed our most hubristic attempts to deny its power.

But Smith, who writes for this newspaper, is also skilled with words. He's not bad looking either, and he is clever enough to spin an engaging book out of an argument which could be reduced to "stuff happens". In other words, in the lottery of birth, Smith was gilded from the start. Is that luck or providence, fate or genetic determinism? Or are they all just faces of the same tumbling dice?

Smith's definition of luck is simple and occasionally problematic: "Luck is what happens to me that is outside my control." In exploring this phenomenon, he weaves personal experience with a broad survey of luck's cultural history.

In June 2008, in a match between Essex and Middlesex, Smith hit a two into the outfield. Turning into the second run, a routine played out countless times before, he pushed off his left foot, heard a cracking noise and crumpled to the ground. He struggled to get up again. "Someone in the crowd laughed, as though I was a clown who lost his balance."

Smith and his medical advisers failed to recognise the scale of the damage to his foot, which deepened the injury. It was, an older and wiser Smith recognises, simply bad luck - a conclusion which is pretty lenient on his doctors. The implications of this bad luck are far-reaching - for a start, he wouldn't otherwise have written this book. That would have been unlucky indeed for the readers: at its best, Luck is gripping. Smith is excellent at exploring nuances - the difference, for example, between superstition and luck.

Smith, like many of his sporting brethren, refused to believe in luck but nevertheless cocooned himself in a superstitious routine. He knew it was silly and yet persisted. "What appealed to me about superstition," he writes, "was the same thing that made me wary about luck: I wanted to be in control."

The writing on sport is superb. Smith's acclaimed earlier book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, demanded that we take sport seriously as a mirror to life, and that theme re-emerges here. He argues that football is the most-watched sport in the world partly because we are drawn to its capacity for randomness. When one or two goals can determine matches, the potential for luck to play a dominant role is huge; hence our compulsion to watch the beautiful game. The Grand National is more popular than the Cheltenham Gold Cup precisely because it is so unpredictable. Formula One has such a problem because it's too easy to call.

Smith moves beyond sport, too, with great effect. He meets James Watson, one of the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA, who believes that human destiny is determined more by the luck of your genes than any sequence of serendipitous events.

Bill Green, an RAF pilot from the Second World War, tells Smith of his extraordinary series of lucky escapes: parachutes open seconds from impact; homicidal Nazis are narrowly avoided. Smith calls it luck, but Green calls it divine blessing. Smith is too willing to believe the two concepts are interchangeable. There is a larger difference than he allows between the secular notion of luck and the believer's notion of providence.

Religious belief at least allows for the notion that someone is in control; if not you then Him upstairs. Believing in an unknowable God and His influence on events outside your control is different from believing in total randomness. Smith's definition of luck cannot account for this difference; the beliefs and experience of the human agents, one religious and one secular, are not at all the same.

Smith's original definition also does not allow for the fact that luck is normally perceived as charged with good or bad force. It is rarely neutral. Whether through design or natural sunniness, he concentrates on good luck. Even his unlucky ankle injury brings blessings in the shapely form of his wife, met by chance on a train he should not have been on. His 'what if' scenarios tend to involve good luck intervening to divert history, personal and political, from rotten paths.

For those of a cloudier disposition, his elevation of luck is terrifying as well as convincing. The book forces reckoning of the kerbs that were nearly clipped, the exams that were nearly failed, the rashes that weren't meningitis; all the near misses that could one day be hits. Luck can direct bullets as well as misdirecting them. The what-ifs are hardly more comforting. What if I had gone to that party in Portsmouth instead of the Kurry-oke night? Four pints, one prawn bhuna and one rendition of Daydream Believer by a lovely Scottish lawyer and my whole life changed course.

Smith's book raises spectres of alternative lives; ones where I'm propping up a bar with an ageing womb and a pickled liver. For those of us who like the illusion that we have free will and control, Smith's book is disturbing, heady stuff.

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