Play a lot of poker and you’ll come to realize there are several different forms of good luck involved in both cards and in life:
1. Something positive happens due to chance
This what we tend to think of when we consider good luck: there’s a small chance of something positive happening and it does.
Poker: You get all in preflop with nines vs someone else’s kings, hit a nine on the river, and win the pot despite being a 4-1 dog when you got all in.
Life: You win the lottery for a few million dollars.
2. You avoid bad luck
I’ve written about how if you expose yourself to small probabilities repeatedly, the odds of that thing happening rise dramatically. For example, a rock climber who estimates his odds of dying on a climb are 1 in 1,000 has a 63% chance of dying after 1,000 climbs.
Poker: You win a tournament after getting all in with AK vs Ax (like A9, etc) multiple times. You’re roughly a 3-1 favorite each time you get all in, but were lucky that your opponents never hit one of their outs and knocked you out.
Life: You’ve never been rear-ended while waiting at a traffic light.
3. A random situation favors a positive outcome for you
Poker: It’s late in the tournament and it folds around to the small blind who raises with kings. You look down and find aces in the big blind, re-raise, get it all in, and your aces hold up. You were lucky because had the small blind gotten aces and you gotten kings, you would have also wound up all in, with you likely losing. There was no skill involved in the outcome.
Life: You’re born in America and not a third world country.
4. You get to experience lucky situations at all
Poker: When you first started playing, you ran well, which encouraged you to play more, which led you to improving and playing long term.
Life: Bill Bryson says it best in a one of my favorite books, A Short History of Nearly Everything:
Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely-make that miraculously-fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result-eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly-in you.
I’ve found that knowing about these different forms of luck has made it easier for me to recognize and appreciate when chance is playing a role in a situation, good or bad, and not to overstate the role of my decisions in the outcomes.