"Better an Ounce of Luck than a Pound of Gold"

The story of luck vs. skill

The luck vs. skill debate has long raged among gaming circles

On one hand there are those who think that every element of gaming is governed by luck, from bingo to poker games. On the other hand, there are those who believe that success can’t truly be reaped in gaming unless a player utilises carefully-honed skill.

So what is gaming - or, indeed, life in general - governed by: luck or skill?

Artiom Gorgan / Flickr.com

luck, n
1. Success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions.

Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary

At some point in our lives we have all attributed something to luck. Whether we dodged a rain shower or were envious of a friend's good fortune, the word ‘luck’ is tossed around with great regularity.

Nowhere is this truer than in the world of gaming, where much of a player’s progress depends on the luck of the draw. After all, you can’t control which cards you are dealt or when the roulette wheel will stop spinning.

But is there a limit? And is an over-reliance on luck the loser's downfall?

Crickets and beetles and pigs, oh my!

While luck is synonymous with gaming, the concept has played an important role in various cultures throughout history. To some, luck has been seen as a simple matter of chance. For others, it has been attributed to faith or superstition. For example, the Romans believed that luck was personified as the goddess Fortuna, while many West African cultures believe that luck can be influenced by Juju: spells, good or bad deeds and the possession of lucky tokens.

Lucky tokens aren’t just a staple of African cultures though: they are present the world over.

· In China, crickets are considered lucky and are often kept in cages.

· In Egypt, scarab beetles are still revered as sacred beings.

· In Germanic cultures, pigs are a symbol of good luck, with marzipan versions given to loved ones for the New Year.

· In many Western cultures, a rabbit’s foot is said to bring good luck.

· In Ireland, four-leaf clovers are said to bring good luck to those who chance upon them.

· In Japan, Maneki-neko figurines are tokens of good luck, and also prosperity.

· In Thai cultures, white elephants are seen as a blessing and sign of good fortune.

And it isn’t just physical symbols that are considered to be good luck. ‘Lucky number seven’ is thought to have been drawn from the seven days of Creation in the Bible, and the number was also revered by the ancient Babylonians. In China, a host of different numbers are thought to bring luck, both good and bad. People will even pay huge sums of money for telephone numbers, home addresses and license plates containing lucky numbers!

With its numerical associations, it is no surprise that the word ‘luck’ is said to have entered the English language as a gaming term.

A charmed game

It is widely acknowledged that gamers are some of the most superstitious people around, and it is no surprise that the luck vs. skill argument is so prevalent. Superstitions, lucky tokens and even bizarre, ritualistic preparations abound in gaming circles, such as:

· Carrying a good luck charm like a four-leaf clover, rabbit’s foot, horseshoe or something personal.

· Crossing your fingers to attract good luck.

· Blowing on the dice before a roll.

· Wearing an item of ‘lucky clothing’ that may have been worn during a previous win.

· Sprinkling ‘lucky water’ onto money.

Even some of the world’s most famous gamers rely on good luck charms:

· Dan Harrington, winner of the 1995 World Series of Poker (WSOP), never plays a game without his trusty Boston Red Sox hat.

· Kun Dollinson brings along a giant mechanical mouse with blinking eyes, which she sometimes allows to roam the table!

· Sami Farha, despite not smoking, dangles an unlit cigarette from his mouth while watching his chips pile. If he's losing, he’ll change the cigarette.

· Simon Trumper always caps his cards with a pair of gold and diamond aces.

· Johnny Chan, A.K.A. The Orient Express, is often found calling next to an orange.

· World Poker Open Champion Humberto Brenes brings a toy shark to the poker table, for use as both a good luck charm and card protector.

Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit.

R.E. Shay, humorist

Casino expert Bill Burton recently wrote about some of the most weird and wonderful ways in which he, or his readers, have seen gamers try to attract Lady Luck.

For the Bingo crowd, Trolls seem to be the charm of choice, brightening up the Bingo halls with their Crayola-coloured hair. In other gaming halls, stuffed animals are the norm, with one person telling Burton that they once saw a man playing slots with a large teddy on his lap. Between spins he’d carry out full conversations with the bear, and would use its paw to hit the spin button.

Other players attempt to draw on the power of God while gaming, with some praying out loud and others clutching rosary beads or crosses as they play. Some players even get up close and personal with the machines, kissing them, touching them and even whispering to them intimately. One person told Burton that they always say hello to a gaming machine before playing, while another once saw a woman begging a machine to “Please, please, let me win, come on and give me the money,” while rubbing her hands all over it.

While these methods sound extreme, many gamers report ample wins and great success after using them. But could it all just be in their minds? Is luck just a psychological coping mechanism?

The psychology of luck

The concept of luck has long piqued the interest of psychologists and philosophers: do good luck charms like those mentioned above actually work? Are ‘lucky’ people making their own luck? Is there a way that unlucky people can break an unfortunate streak?

Jean-Paul Sartre and Sigmund Freud had strong views about the nature of luck. Both concluded that a belief in luck has more to do with a locus of control than pure chance (a locus of control being the extent to which individuals believe they can control the events that affect them). This means that things like good and bad luck are used as an escape from personal responsibility, such as blaming a failure on bad luck rather than your own personal actions.

The most significant study of recent times, however, comes from Professor Richard Wiseman. Internationally recognised for his work into the more unusual areas of psychology, he has studied everything from deception to self-help and, of course, luck.

Luck is believing you’re lucky.

Tennessee Williams, playwright

In his 10-year study - published in the book ‘The Luck Factor’ in 2004 - Professor Wiseman placed newspaper adverts that asked 'lucky' and 'unlucky' people to come forward, to take part in an experiment. Once he had his participants, he asked them to complete diaries, questionnaires and intelligence tests, and participate in laboratory experiments to gauge the extent to which ‘luck’ dictated their lives.

He discovered four basic, subconscious principles to which 'lucky' people adhered:

1. Maximise chance opportunities

Professor Wiseman’s 'luckier' participants were more skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities. For example, in an experiment where Wiseman asked them to count the number of pictures in a newspaper, the ‘lucky’ participants were most likely to notice the two-inch high “Stop counting – there are 43 photographs in this newspaper” advert placed two pages in.

The logic behind this is that ‘unlucky’ people are much more anxious, and therefore more prone to missing opportunities that stare them in the face. This also explains why luck isn’t actually as important in gaming as some people think: in poker, for example, winning is all about seizing as many opportunities as possible.

2. Pay attention to hunches

Professor Wiseman’s studies indicated that 'lucky' people make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut instincts. This maximises opportunities for positive end results.

3. Expect good fortune

One of the main results of the study was that, 'lucky' people create self-fulfilling prophecies. Their positive expectations and confidence in the future help them to persist in the face of failure and hardship, shaping their actions and interactions for the better.

4. Turn bad luck into good luck

Whether they realise they are doing it or not, Professor Wiseman discovered that 'lucky' people employ various psychological techniques to cope with misfortunes that come their way. He conducted an experiment where he asked his 'lucky' and 'unlucky' groups to imagine they were queuing in a bank. Suddenly, an armed robber enters, fires a single shot, and the bullet hits them in the arm. Wiseman then asked whether this event would be 'lucky' or 'unlucky.'

The 'unlucky' participants were more likely to say it would be hugely 'unlucky,' and that it would be “just their bad luck” to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 'lucky' participants, on the other hand, were much more likely to say that the situation could have been worse. One person told Wiseman that, “It’s lucky because you could have been shot in the head – also, you could sell your story to the newspapers and make some money.”

Every artist was first an amateur.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist

So if luck is simply a product of certain trains of thought, personality traits and psychological coping mechanisms, is it really the reason for certain gamers' success? Could it be that, in line with Professor Wiseman’s findings, luck is actually a skill that can be learnt? When you take into account his creation of a ‘luck school,’ it does seem so!

This project aimed to teach participants all about the four main principles of luck, and how to employ them in their own daily lives. For example, taking a different route to work to maximise chance opportunities, or countering 'bad luck' by imagining ways in which the outcome could have been worse.

After a month of carrying out these exercises, Professor Wiseman found that a remarkable 80% of participants felt happier, more satisfied with their lives and 'luckier!' Accident-prone participants no longer felt clumsy, some people had met significant others through chance encounters, and others had received job promotions through 'lucky breaks.'

skill, n
1. The ability to do something well; expertise.

Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary

As the saying goes, 'Gambling is a game of chance.” Indeed, you can’t control the cards you will be dealt or influence the number on which a dice will land. You could, however, use a slice of carefully cultivated skill to throw the dice in a potentially advantageous way, or to play your blackjack hand differently according to the cards you hold and your knowledge of how the game works.

In fact, the more you stop and think about it, the less certain aspects of gaming – such as poker – appear to be a ‘game of chance’ after all.

True luck consists not in holding the best of the cards at the table; luckiest he who knows just when to rise and go home.

John Ray, naturalist

Think about it in these terms: could you intentionally lose a game of poker? The answer, of course, is yes, by making moves and decisions you know to be bad. If poker was a game based solely on chance, it couldn’t be governed by good or bad decisions, as you would have no control over the outcome.

So why, with such a rational case for polishing your skills and playing with an acute awareness of the ins and outs of a game, do so many gamers still place such emphasis on the influence of luck? This question, which plagues psychologists and experts from all walks of life, has led many of them to make a career out of showing us just how many ‘lucky’ feats their skills can accomplish.

potential past / Flickr.com

You are feeling very sleepy...

My techniques are concerned with reading signals from people, tiny unconscious clues that betray their thoughts. I tend to see it like a game.

Derren Brown

One of the things with which luck is most commonly associated is magic. At the same time, a magician's knack for picking the right card or for reading somebody’s mind is known to be down to skill, rather than luck.

Take TV performer Derren Brown. From hypnotising an upstanding member of the public to make an assassination attempt upon Stephen Fry, to convincing a young man that he was living through a zombie apocalypse, Derren Brown’s tricks have proven truly astonishing. What is perhaps more surprising though, is that he achieves these feats through simple psychology: utilising suggestion, misdirection, the reading of body language and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the workings of the mind.

Memory tricks, amongst other things which I’ll show you, have got me banned from a lot of casinos in this country.

Derren Brown

Derren Brown regularly demonstrates that tricks often perceived as being reliant on luck are actually carried out using impressive skills.

Take what is perhaps his most famous stunt: the time he correctly predicted the winning Lottery numbers. Rather than making a set of lucky guesses, Brown coupled his knowledge of problem-solving with his understanding of the nature of prediction to arrive at a correct set of answers.

Derren Brown predicts the Lottery

He told journalists that he looked at a week's worth of previous results before using automatic writing – a process of writing without conscious thought – to predict his own guesses. Automatic writing is reputed to free the subconscious part of the brain to make deductions and calculations that aren’t normally accessible to the waking mind.

He also likened the process to an instance where visitors to a county fair were asked to guess the weight of a bull. When everyone’s answers were averaged, the result was exactly the bull’s weight, no decimal places or ‘give or take.’

All of us can be influenced through psychological techniques. For example, if I say “don’t think of a black cat,” what do you do? You think of a black cat because the command ‘think of a black cat’ was there in the sentence. Techniques like this can be used to influence people’s thoughts, behaviour, even their memory.

Derren Brown

Derren Brown has also rejected claims that magicians who claim to read minds are just taking a stab in the dark. He guesses correctly every time by offering participants subtle, barely noticeable cues in his own body language, and very carefully reading theirs, before using the information to ask the right questions and draw the right conclusions.

Don't hate the player, hate the game

At this point, you might be wondering what Derren Brown has to do with gaming. Well, his methods of deception, suggestion and misdirection are all skills that have been mastered by successful gamers. By reading your opponent and deliberately altering your behaviour to give off deceptive cues (all while employing a detailed knowledge of the game), you are much more likely to get your hands on the kitty.

This is particularly apparent in the game of poker, where these techniques have become so ingrained they have spawned their own name: 'poker facing.'

A 'poker face' is nothing more than a blank expression, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a poker-playing essential. By maintaining this steely exterior, you can conceal information about your hand. No stress or elation is exhibited, and your opponent is none the wiser about whether you are bluffing, ready to fold or clutching a set of winning cards.

So how can you master the perfect 'poker face?'

'Poker face' 101

  1. Keep a straight face. Reveal nothing about what you might actually be feeling, as your emotions are the only clues your opponents have as to the cards you hold in your hand.

  2. Keep your voice calm and level, talking as normal. You can tell a significant amount from the tone and pitch of someone’s voice.

  3. Keep your body language in check. Twitching, fidgeting, breathing rapidly, and playing with your hair or your clothes are all tell-tale signs of nervousness.

  4. Don’t allow anyone else to intimidate you. Keep your cool, and you will be rewarded with a clearer head and more room to think about your strategy. You could even tote a pair of sunglasses so your opponents can’t see your eyes.

Play Among Friends Paf / Flickr.com

Having total control over your emotions is a hard-won skill, but it is one that all the greatest poker players have mastered.

'Poker facing' isn’t the only skill used by players to gain advantages at the tables, however. Others resort to impressive scientific and mathematical techniques.

Play Among Friends Paf / Flickr.com

Gonzalo Garcia-Pelayo

In the 1990s, Gonzalo Garcia-Pelayo became the first person to exploit 'wheel bias' successfully. This concept stems from the belief that not all roulette wheels are equal, and that none of them are perfect. For example, each individual wheel is unique in that certain numbers are more likely to drop than others, due to slight inaccuracies in measurements and make up.

Garcia-Pelayo decided to test this theory. He began in Spain, watching a specific wheel for thousands of spins before recording his results and analysing them. When he felt the time was right, he bet on the wheel's 'hot numbers'... Garcia-Pelayo swung a 5% house edge to a 15% player’s edge, raking in the money.

Eventually though, his winning streak had to end. Once Garcia-Pelayo became too well known on the worldwide casino circuit, he retired with a cool $1.5 million in the bank!

Dominic LoRiggio

Dominic LoRiggio’s nickname, ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ was well-earned, as he spent years practising his delicate art of ‘controlled shooting.’ He used the technique to get the rolls he needed in games of craps, and it wasn’t an easy feat.

Controlled shooting involves setting the dice a certain way, gripping them precisely, tossing them so they stay together in the air and then having them land as gently as possible against the wall of the craps table. It might sound impossible to pull off, but LoRiggio says he was able to do so using simple physics.

His determination definitely paid off, as he claims to have won thousands of dollars using controlled shooting.

Edward Thorp

Professor Edward Thorp isn't your average gaming pioneer. A mathematics professor who holds a master's degree in physics and a doctorate in mathematics, Professor Thorp is incredibly intelligent, and developed a twist on the old art of card counting which became known as the 'Thorp count.'

Professor Thorp invented the system after becoming convinced that there was a mathematical way in which a blackjack player could gain an advantage. To prove his theory, he systematically studied the game and exhaustively examined every element. Next, he used one of his university’s computers to simulate billions of blackjack hands, adding in his calculations and observations to predict the outcome and create a system, which “accounted for the variations in those cards that remained after certain hands were dealt.”

He discovered that lower cards were more advantageous for the dealer, and when they left the deck, an advantage shifted towards the player. The same was true vice versa, leading Professor Thorp to calculate that the player could secure an advantage of up to five per cent over the house.

Using this principle, Professor Thorp began raking in money at casinos. In a typical weekend, he could win up to $70,000 in today’s money! Eventually, many casinos asked Professor Thorp to leave because his winnings were so great.

If these innovators had relied solely on luck rather than developing their theories into invaluable skills, would they have won such astronomical sums of money?

Luck vs. skill in poker:

Jeff Kimber talks

Grosvenor-sponsored poker player Jeff Kimber knows a thing or two about the forces at play in gaming. But where does his allegiance lie, and why?

Do you feel that luck or skill plays more of a role in poker at a professional level?

Jeff Kimber: Well, whilst you can argue that a combination of luck and skill in poker is necessary, I feel there is much more skill than luck needed. At a professional level we have accepted that there is some luck in the game, but not only does it level out over the long term, there's nothing we can do about luck anyway.

Where we can affect the outcome of the game is by being better than our opponent, using any number of skills to outplay them – picking up tells, playing our stack size perfectly, seizing on weakness, pressurising them, understanding game situations, getting our bet sizes right so value bets are paid off, but overall seeing the bluff to get us through.

Can you think of specific times when using luck or skill has really paid off – and relying on the other would have been no use?

Jeff Kimber: As a professional poker player, I try not to leave anything to luck. I’d much prefer to use my skill to ensure victory. However, in poker, you need to know that there are always opportunities to ‘get lucky.’

Luck can of course come in many forms, as well as the most obvious, such as outdrawing someone when you have a worse hand. Other lucky situations might lead you to a big hand – you might get a lucky table draw where you play with less skilled players from other tables, you may not have to face your fiercest opponents if they’re knocked out in an earlier stage. It’s really all down to chance and cannot be predicted. Sometimes though, if everybody at the table plays perfect poker, the game can come down to one big hand where neither player has messed up. In this situation, the winner of that coin flip is then definitely the luckiest.

I say the key in poker is to use that good luck to go on to win big. One of the first lessons you’ll learn in poker is this – things even themselves out. If you’re on one side of luck, you'll almost certainly be on the flip side soon enough.

No pro wants the skill taken out of the game, but less skilled players should give themselves ample chance to 'get lucky.'

Jeff Kimber, professional poker player

Can a player who thinks they’re ‘lucky’ be more dangerous to a pro player?

Jeff Kimber: Merely thinking you're lucky is not particularly scary to professional players. They’ll be experienced enough to know that that variance evens itself out in the long term. After all, no-one is naturally luckier than anyone else, as much as we think this is the case.

What is dangerous to pros, however, is when a player makes their pots big. This turns the game into something much more about luck than skill. Rather than letting the pro outplay them and win lots of small pots, amateurs are far more dangerous when they play aggressively and ask a lot of questions of their more experienced opponent.

Remember, if two people play a game of heads-up poker, they will on average be dealt the best hand 50 per cent of the time each. If the hand goes to showdown every time they should win half the hands each. In this case, making pots big and forcing the pro to make big decisions for their stack is not a scenario favoured by any professional.

Play Among Friends Paf / Flickr.com

So, what will it be?

Tom Godber / Flickr.com

Tom Godber / Flickr.com

Is gambling truly gambling, if it isn't a game of chance? As we have found out, however, luck is a psychological phenomenon open to a huge amount of influence, not to mention potential manipulation.

With the right knowledge and frame of mind, you can make your own luck, both in everyday life as well as the gaming hall.

Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist

A stroke of good luck in gaming may amount to a flash of skill. As legendary gamers such as Gonzalo Garcia-Pelayo have shown, even 'games of chance' like roulette can be manipulated. For games like poker, however, the luck vs. skill argument folds firmly in favour of the latter.

Think about it: if skill played no part, would there be revered poker champions and professional players who make their livings from poker hands? Clearly, something sets them apart from your average Joes in the gaming hall. They can outwit their opponents and turn bad situations and cards to their advantage.

An unskilled player wouldn’t know how to do this, and would more than likely slouch home with empty pockets and a wallet full of cobwebs.