Taming Luck

You can have all the talent in the world and still be affected by circumstances beyond your control. Luck can't be ignored, but it can be managed.

A poker hand rests on a pile of chips.

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Maria Konnikova set out a personal challenge. Having never played a hand of poker in her life, she would master the game in a year and enter the poker world’s most prestigious event, The World Series of Poker. In her memoir The Biggest Bluff, she explains her mission was not merely to excel at poker, but to study the relationship between luck and skill, the two central factors in the game — and critically in life as well. As she writes, “I hoped to learn how to make the best decisions I possibly could, not just at the card table but in the world. Through poker, I wanted to tame luck — to learn to make a difference even when the deck seemed stacked against me.” Under the tutelage of some of the world’s best professional poker players, Konnikova had some extraordinary successes, but along the way, she made an interesting discovery — those who had mastered the science of the game, winning tens of millions of dollars, were, almost unanimously, deeply superstitious. 

I actually cultivate some superstitions just on purpose,” says poker pro Ike Haxton, who looks exactly like Harry Potter, with a mess of dark hair swept to the side, dark-rimmed glasses, everything there but the scar.

His words catch me off guard. Ike Haxton? One of the most mathematical, logical minds I’d encountered in or out of the poker world, purposefully cultivating superstition? “You don’t actually believe in all that, do you?”

“Well, I feel like the brain just doesn’t cope well with luck,” he explains. “And just really struggles to latch on to things to associate with good or bad luck. So I’m just taking the reins on that.”

It’s like the story that’s apocryphally attributed to Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist. A friend of his was visiting his office and kept looking up at the horseshoe over the door. Finally, he could no longer contain his curiosity. Could it really be that a mind as remarkable as Bohr’s believed that horseshoes brought luck? Of course he didn’t believe it, Bohr replied. “But I understand it’s lucky whether I believe in it or not.”

“Life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.”

-Fausto Maijstral, in Thomas Pynchon’s V

So Ike is making the rational decision to be irrational, in an attempt to make that irrationality more … rational?

Something like that, he says. “It’s mainly lucky objects and articles of clothing. Like the shirt I was wearing when I won the Prague 25K one-day tournament [poker lingo for a tournament that costs $25,000 to enter and is completed in a single day] is now my designated 25K, one-day tournament shirt. I had a lucky quarter in my pocket for about a year and a half a while ago. I think I have a lucky dollar bill in my wallet right now.”

He furrows his eyebrows and reaches into his pocket for his wallet, to check whether the bill is in fact in place. It is.

From The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Maria Konnikova.

He explains that he got it from another professional player, Nick Petrangelo, when they were both playing in a tournament in Florida in which they’d agreed to share five percent of any winnings. Nick left for dinner break one hand early. “I’m extremely anal about not missing hands,” Ike recalls. “That’s really unacceptable.” So, while Nick was off having his dinner, Ike ran some quick calculations. How much expected value had Nick cost him by his decision to leave early? It turned out to be a dollar, give or take. Ike told Nick as much, and after dinner break, Nick ceremonially offered him a single dollar bill. On the next hand, Ike stacked an opponent — that is, he took all of his chips.

“It was the most ridiculous pot I’d played in quite a while,” he remembers. And he went on to run deep in the tournament, and the dollar was deemed extra lucky. “It’s been in my wallet since.” So what would have happened, I ask, if he’d checked his wallet just now only to find the dollar missing? Or if his lucky shirt got ripped in the wash?

“The dollar, I think I would be mildly distressed for a few minutes and then get over it. The shirt, I might just wear it anyway.”

I object that he’s purposefully avoiding the point of my question. Isn’t attaching himself and any part of his mental well-being to random objects just adding one more factor that you might not ultimately be able to control?

In one study conducted in Italy, for instance, 700 students were randomly assigned to seat numbers during a written exam. Some of the numbers were tagged as culturally lucky — that is, according to Italian cultural reference, they brought good fortune — and others unlucky. It turns out that students who were in the “lucky” seats were consistently overconfident in how they would do — and those in “unlucky” seats were actually expecting lower grades. Confidence is an important factor in how you play. Wouldn’t you want to minimize the potential confounding variables?

Belief is a powerful thing. Our mental state is crucial to our performance. And ultimately, while some superstitions may give you a veneer of false confidence, they also have the power to destroy your mental equilibrium. I like to think of this as the black cat effect. You see one cross the parking lot as you walk to a poker tournament. You brood about the bad luck. Your game is thrown off. You blame the cat. You bust. You feel validated. Superstitions are false attributions, so they give you a false sense of your own abilities and, in the end, impede learning. What do you do if your lucky charm falls down the drain or the cleaners lose the shirt that led you to victory?

You may think you’d deal with it with grace, buying a new shirt or donning a new lucky charm, but the research disagrees. In that moment where the lucky object is lost, a degree of mental equilibrium often goes with it, consciously or not. You may feel off your game. You may push your edge a little less as you recover. In a sense, you lose your control, because something outside your control has disrupted an object you’d imbued with power — even if only jokingly. In my mind, this isn’t a harmless enough pastime. It’s something with implications that are potentially troubling for optimal performance in the long run.

Ike doesn’t quite agree. “The point of the practice as I see it is to acknowledge and accept that my mind is going to make these associations no matter what, and try to take ownership of that process,” he tells me. “And also, to be honest, I think it’s funny to talk about it because people find it very strange. Like, I don’t really believe it, but I do put a medium amount of effort into keeping track of my lucky objects and making sure I have them.”

Maria Konnikova at a Poker Stars event.
Wild card: Author Maria Konnikova argues that, real or not, our superstitions do affect us. “I like to think of this as the black cat effect. You see one cross the parking lot as your walk to a poker tournament, You brood about the bad luck. Your game is thrown off. You blame the cat. You bust. You feel validated.”(Neil Stoddart / Poker Stars)

Jane Risen, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, calls this kind of thinking from people like Ike — “smart, educated, emotionally stable adults” — a form of acquiescence. We can recognize that something is wrong and irrational but then consciously and purposefully choose to let the false belief stand rather than correct it. “People can recognize that one course of action is rationally ­superior yet choose to follow a different one,” Risen writes. You know the sports team you support won’t lose if you don’t wear your lucky jersey — but you put it on anyway. You may not actually believe in astrology, but can it really hurt to read your monthly horoscope?

Ike is far from alone. Johnny Chan, a World Series of Poker (WSOP) winner, is known to play with an orange — the fruit — at his side. Sammy Farha has an unlit cigarette. Doyle Brunson has a Ghostbusters card protector — and apparently even rents it out to those in need of a lucky boost ($200 if you want it for a half hour). More recently, Frank Stepuchin, who won the World Poker Tour Gardens Main Event in 2019, has taken to bringing a chicken wing to the table, for the lucky wings that propelled him to his Gardens win. At the WSOP, I played with one man who lugged a stuffed penguin to every tournament. You’d be right to question my choice of lugged, but let me assure you, lugged is indeed the word. The penguin was large enough that the man was threatened with disqualification from one event if he didn’t remove it from the table area. As far as I could tell, he never made it very far in any event, but the penguin remained faithfully by his side throughout. (I later learned that the player in question was a successful one from Hong Kong, Sparrow Cheung.)

Then there’s the player who won the European Poker Tour Monte Carlo Main Event back in 2014, Antonio Buonanno. In an interview during his incredible run, the interviewer asked him if he was superstitious. Not at all, came the reply. You see, he went on to say, he had tried all the superstitions he could over the years and nothing seemed to work, so he gave it up. Of course, it goes without saying that he was wearing the same shirt he’d worn the day prior because it had brought him this far in the event and he was scared to try his luck with any other outfit. And he had his lucky glasses. Naturally. But no, no, not at all superstitious.

It goes beyond objects, to a sort of magical thinking that you wouldn’t expect in a high-level player. Phil Hellmuth often talks about his “white magic” — an ability to see into his opponents’ souls and hole cards to make huge plays. Daniel Negreanu has often claimed to be able to know what card is coming next — something he has said repeatedly on many a poker stream. Even Jason Koon has admitted to having a “lucky feeling” that he was going to win an all-in during a major event, even though he was far behind. He just knew the card was coming.

When you see unsuccessful players embrace the mythical, it raises an eyebrow but not much else. After all, about a quarter of the American population actually admits to being either somewhat or very superstitious. In a 2019 poll, 27 percent reported that a four-leaf clover is lucky, 23 percent thought breaking a mirror was unlucky, 22 percent will knock on wood, 21 percent won’t walk under a ladder (actually, that one seems eminently reasonable; show me someone who regularly walks under active ladders and I’ll show you an idiot without basic safety training), and so on. Even the rabbit’s foot is a lucky object for 14 percent — and a black cat will ruin the day for about 11 percent. That’s not even getting into the significance of numbers. The number 13, especially if paired with Friday: unlucky for some cultures, lucky for others. Hotels and airplanes often go to great lengths to avoid floors and rows and rooms of any offending number. Same with sports jerseys: some numbers can never be used; others are held in certain veneration by virtue of their history. The ultimate compliment: a retired number.

But at the higher levels, even with all the rationality in the world behind a practice, the mind craves control. We are on an endless quest to put our stamp on the things that couldn’t care less about our existence. Even if it’s not altogether rational, just let me be.

Superstitions … give you a false sense of your own abilities and, in the end, impede learning.

Acquiescence is not harmless. Because the moment you acquiesce, you give up a bit of control, however tiny, to the process of superstition. And if you actually believe in it, you become a gambler in the real sense of the word, ready to gamble with fate in a way that is the very antithesis of everything poker has taught me about approaching life. But I am coming to appreciate the power of belief in a broader sense. As it happens, there may indeed be something to the hot hand: Thinking you’re on a streak may not be a fallacy after all, at least not always. Here’s what more recent analyses have shown. Yes, a basketball player who seems to be on a winning streak may not always be making more baskets — but sometimes she is. Her confidence translates to her execution, especially in the immediate term.

A human being is not a robot. How you feel affects how you act. And while a hot streak of cards or dice is actually not possible — the gambler’s fallacy remains eternally fallacious — streaks that require actual human performance may indeed exist. The more the realm is subject to individual action, such as creative careers where mindset is one of the central elements, the more this is the case. A 2018 study in Nature found clear evidence of hot streaks in artistic and film careers, as well as in scientific trajectories. The streak “emerges randomly” and inevitably comes to an end, but while it lasts, it has a self-reinforcing effect.

That self-reinforcement can lead to a performance boost in most any field — and poker seems to be particularly well suited as a demonstration. Because at the poker table, perceived confidence often translates to incorrect assumptions on the part of your opponent: If you look self-assured and act with conviction, your actions will garner more respect. People may fold to you more often — and you will win more often. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

Maria Konnikova, who graduated from Harvard University and received her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University, is the author of Mastermind and The Confidence Game. A contributing writer for The New Yorker, she has written articles for The Atlantic, Scientific American, and Wired, among many other publications.

This article is featured in the January/February 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Asia Evtyshok / Shutterstock

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