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Luck: Understanding Luck and Improving the Odds

Luck: Understanding Luck and Improving the Odds

by Barrie Dolnick

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Have you ever noticed that you talk about luck every day of your life? Luck is your silent companion, sometimes bringing awesome parking spaces, a chance meeting with a new love interest, or a small windfall. Most of the time you probably don’t even pay attention to luck. Chances are, you only really think about luck when you buy a lottery ticket or participate


Have you ever noticed that you talk about luck every day of your life? Luck is your silent companion, sometimes bringing awesome parking spaces, a chance meeting with a new love interest, or a small windfall. Most of the time you probably don’t even pay attention to luck. Chances are, you only really think about luck when you buy a lottery ticket or participate in a contest.

Luck is so much more than that.

If you take steps to live longer by eating right and exercising, why wouldn’t you also take similar steps to improve your good fortune? Barrie Dolnick and Anthony Davidson asked themselves this very question, and set out to study luck and decipher how it works. In this insightful and engaging book, they share the secrets they’ve uncovered so you can use luck more effectively in your day-to-day life. Where does luck originate? Does one need to be “born lucky” in order to be lucky? Answering these and many other pressing questions, Dolnick and Davidson investigate both ancient and scientific approaches to luck. From early man to famous rationalists, luck has been prayed for, played with, and courted. You’ll learn how ancient practices such as the I Ching, astrology, tarot, and numerology have been used to understand luck, and how great mathematicians studied luck–some guided by their own interest in gambling. Every- one wants to be lucky. Once you know the fundamentals of luck, the authors take you through your own Personal Luck Profile so that you can use this wisdom and try your luck. People do a lot of weird things to improve their luck–and now you can make smart choices and informed decisions about how to play with yours.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Chapter 1

Luck Begins

You very likely utter this word at least once a day without even thinking about it. Luck.

"Bye--and good luck," you say, ending a phone call.

"I got lucky," you think when you snag a great parking space.

"She's so lucky," you think when you hear about a friend who got a better job.

You live with luck as your silent companion for your whole life. Most of the time, you probably don't even pay attention to it. Chances are, you really think about luck only when you buy a lottery ticket or participate in a contest.

Luck is so much more than that.

Superstition? Luck? What's the Difference?

The interweaving themes of luck and superstition are so knotted over time that it's almost impossible to separate them. Yet we want you to notice a slight difference.

According to Dictionary.com, luck (as a noun) is:

THE FORCE THAT SEEMS TO OPERATE FOR GOOD OR ILL in a person's life, as in shaping circumstances, events, or opportunities.

Superstition is:

A BELIEF OR NOTION, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of THE OMINOUS SIGNIFICANCE of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.

Luck is defined as a force that tips the balance in life. Superstition is merely a belief or idea based on "nothing" to alleviate fear or harm. Forget superstition--let's study luck and see if this force can be understood.

For our purposes, we define luck as winning in the short term or being successful in the long term owing to chance.

Does Luck Exist?

From the philosophical perspective, luck exists because often we lack complete information and perfect predictive powers. If an event is uncertain and the result is positive, it can be attributed to good luck.

Is Luck a Force of Nature?

We think so. It is certainly a part of human nature. The belief in luck is somewhat similar to the belief in God. It takes faith that it exists.

We've seen luck appear in the most unusual circumstances. It intervenes, like grace, in situations where even hope is fading. What differs is that luck can appear even when you don't need it. Luck is just one of those things in life that you either acknowledge and work with or ignore and deny. It is there whatever you do.

We have written this book to reacquaint you with the concept of luck and to help you develop a relationship with it. What is luck? Why is it sometimes defined through a horseshoe or a four-leaf clover? What's been lucky in the past, and what might be lucky in the future? Are some people born lucky? Can you improve your own luck?

The history of luck is extensive and fascinating. The belief in luck began with the most ancient cultures--as early as cavemen. We have found that our ancestors studied the subject carefully, and much of what they found and believed survives today.

Is luck something we can understand? Is it just superstitious to assume we can attract luck? We've examined the issue from many angles, and we've come to believe that although you can't control luck, you can certainly understand it and explore your relationship with luck effectively. We believe that there are luckier times in our lives and that it's possible to forecast when luck will be with us. We also think that knowing when your luck is "out" is even more interesting--those are the "walk away and don't take risks" periods when you don't have luck working for you.

How people see luck these days is varied and personal. Yet no one, not even the most hard-core rationalist, is immune from using the word luck or judging something or someone to be lucky. Luck in embedded in our consciousness, if not our DNA.

Where do you start with luck? It's tough to approach such a huge topic. To get an idea of how the concept of luck takes root in society, we thought we'd just look around. In the short history of the United States, it is fascinating to see how luck worked its way through the melting pot. Our brief survey of luck in America provides a fast-forwarded summary of how luck is seen through the eyes of different people.

The history of luck itself is also curious. Since the belief in luck seems as ancient as humans, we went back in time as far as we could. We found that luck originates with nature itself. Abundance, prosperity, health, triumph--these were and still are the needs, wants, and wishes of all men and women. But the natural world was chaotic and unpredictable, which is precisely why the ancients studied it for its links and clues to luck and good fortune. To understand nature was to interpret its signs. Good luck is grounded in the natural world, and we examine some ancient luck symbols that are still found today.

These symbols of luck are as simple as acorns and dolphins. Luck in the natural world is about animals, plants, and minerals that became, through experience, associated with prosperity and health and therefore luck. Certain symbols also took on meaning, such as the horseshoe. Once you understand how these symbols became lucky, you can decide whether they are indeed relevant to your luck.

From the natural world, ancient people became more sophisticated with interpretation and advanced methods for prediction and forecasting. In some societies, divination was a part of spiritual practice. In other cultures, predictions were simply like farm reports or policy advice. The best advisers to kings, emperors, chiefs, and leaders, and in some cases the leaders themselves, devised ways to predict the future so that they could anticipate and plan for events. In examining luck, it is important to follow these ancient roads that determined today's major forms of divination. History is filled with instances where divinations correctly predicted events. The sighting of a comet was interpreted to predict the assassination of the Roman emperor Claudius; he was poisoned soon after. Bad luck and good luck might be predictable. We cover astrology, the oldest science, and numerology--very important in identifying lucky numbers--as well as the I Ching (developed by an emperor), tarot, palmistry, and even tea leaf reading. It is truly amazing to witness how cultures around the world developed methods to predict future events and therefore prepare for good luck or bad.

After you gain a better understanding of luck over the ages, some of your curiosity might be satisfied. Maybe you'll find that you now understand why your grandmother always had nutmeg or hung a horseshoe. Having perspective of where traditional luck beliefs come from can free you to either use it or toss it. You'll be able to make choices about luck just from understanding a bit about its history.

From this subjective perspective on luck, we'll move into a more rational framework. Great mathematicians, many of whom were avid gamblers, developed mathematical theories that contributed to our knowledge of luck. While no mathematician provides key evidence to prove good luck or bad luck, some have given us a chance to see "how much luck is needed" to win in a given situation. Much of their work is used every day in gambling and games of chance, not just in the classroom. Of course, mathematicians are only human, and they did what they could to improve their own chances of winning.

Nowhere is luck courted more openly and more often than in gambling. Gross gambling revenue in the United States is reported to be over $84 billion. Almost everyone in the country is offered a chance to enter a sweepstakes, buy a lottery ticket, or enter a casino. States rely on gambling revenues for operating budgets. Since luck has a great deal to do with gambling (skill plays a role, but luck is always the final word), we address games of chance in a dedicated chapter. Our experience and study provide an explanation not only of the most popular games, but also of the odds of winning and how much luck you need to win. It is here that the mathematical information will come in handy. We also give you eight rules of luck to help you get lucky in gambling and risk taking in other parts of your life.

Finally, no book about luck would be complete without a tribute to the wacky things people do for luck. From wearing lucky pajamas (passed down from one champ to another) to carrying weird objects, these stories make us smile and, perhaps, wonder if that stuff might just work for us. Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson, the only living men to twice win the World Series of Poker held at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, are both known for lucky objects.

Entertaining, perhaps inspiring, these stories of luck and lucky charms will make you think twice about what you're doing about your own luck.

That's where the second part of the book will help. We have established some diagnostic information so that you can predict your lucky cycles. You'll be able to use some of the tools we present in earlier chapters and apply them to create your personal luck profile. We also provide more information on lucky herbs, stones, colors, and other details that you may want to try on your own.

By giving you some strong sense of how luck has been tracked and understood through the millennia, we hope that you can use this information in your own life to enrich your experience, if not your bank account.

From our own research, we have enjoyed a great deal of new information and even some sense--if luck permits the use of the word--of how to cope with and understand how luck works. The gambler looking for luck at the craps table who cries out, "God, give me money!" attracts the wise counsel of his fellow gamblers: "God has nothing to do with money." That might be true. But luck does care about money, and so do most of us. Luck, however, isn't just about cash. Luck helps with health, love, and abundance in many forms. God might help with that as well, but luck is perhaps a creation of God that gives us a little something to play with. Luck keeps us surprised.

So let's play.

I think that Americans, of all the nationalities, most profoundly believe in luck. We began as a nation by gambling on the future of a continent. Most of our great industrial pioneers have been inspired gamblers. We are the three-card monte men of the world. We have roulette wheels spinning in our brains, and anything is likely to turn up.

--William Rose Benet

Chapter 2

Luck in Our

Own Backyard

In a New York Times review of new television game shows, Alessandra Stanley opens her article with the following assertion:

Game shows are not quiz shows. That should be understood at the outset, because knowledge is not an American virtue; luck is.

Television both reflects our culture and shapes it. Today's game shows give us a glimpse into our own relationship with luck. We watch others test their luck to see how tolerant we would be as luck gets pushed again and again. Game shows are popular staples of radio and television, but we can dial back a few centuries, way before television, and catch the beginning of America's delight in playing with luck.

America's Brand of Luck

American luck began with Native American culture, thriving thousands of years before the first English settlers came to eastern shores. Since then, American luck has been shaped by waves of Western European immigration and the influence of Africans who came as slaves, as well as by people with diverse cultures from around the world who have come to live in the "melting pot" of America. To catch a glimpse of American luck, we can flip through the pages of history. There are many contributors who have shaped our attitude toward luck today, but we pluck only a few of these contributions to give you a sense of how luck rules so much of our cultural heritage. While we glance through history, keep in mind the elements that contribute to a belief in luck.

Throughout American history, luck has been shaped by multicultural influences and basic human nature.

Native American Luck: Nature Rules

Native Americans are a diverse group of tribal nations that in general defy a blanket cultural definition. There are over five hundred distinct groups across the country, most of which differ in language, tribal culture, and history. However, certain broad strokes are clear: Nature and spirituality are intertwined, and a profound belief in luck is common throughout tribal cultures. Luck is spirit; there is no separation.

Luck was in many cases defined as "medicine" derived from the connection between the spirit world and the physical world. "Medicine" means mystery, sensibility, power, and influence--a connection to the spirit world. Luck was medicine that brought people together and ensured prosperity and harmony for the tribe.

The medicine man (who can also be a woman) is something of a holy person who is designated as such by the tribe. He or she typically apprentices with an elder to learn by oral tradition and hands-on experience. The gift of medicine, however, is also found among other tribe members. He or she is a person who understands nature and messages of the spirit world.

Professor Kathryn Shanley (Assiniboine/Nakota), chair of the Department of Native American Studies at the University of Montana, asserts that in twentieth-century Plains Indian literature, luck appears as "a metaphysical concept; roughly described, it is a 'portal' to the spiritual realm where power--better termed 'medicine'--can be obtained."

All tribe members could be given medicine in dreams. Luck was tied to omens that came in strong dream scenarios that were shared among the tribe. Members would acquire names and positions from their dream scenarios. Sometimes dreams were induced by herbs or by spiritual journeys in coming-of-age rituals. It was so important to have medicine dreams that luck would actually turn for the better after someone had a medicine dream.

Medicine was--and still is--administered through herbs, rituals, and songs. You can find Native American gambling songs, gaming songs, and even something called "Geronimo's Medicine Song" on the Internet. Chanting and the power of word and sound is a way to attract luck and strong medicine.


For the Sioux, Zuni, and Dakota tribes, the number 4 was sacred. Four was a number that held the power of the universe, the seasons, the four directions--and the nature of good luck.

Various good-luck symbols in Native American culture included rain clouds, raindrops, and buffalo. A fence symbol guarded good luck, and a mountain symbol stood for abundance. The herbs avens and fuzzy weed were used by Native Americans for luck in love, meadow rue for protection, and yellow evening primrose for luck in hunting. Sagebrush was and is still used to drive away negative forces so that good influences can thrive.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

BARRIE DOLNICK is the author of twelve books (this is lucky number thirteen!). She works as a consultant and astrologer, in addition to teaching metaphysical concepts to the general public. She is a regular contributor to Match.com’s Happen magazine.

ANTHONY H. DAVIDSON is an attorney and has long studied luck and its effects on risk taking.

From the Hardcover edition.

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