As Luck Would Have It: Incredible Stories, from Lottery Wins to Lightning Strikes

As Luck Would Have It: Incredible Stories, from Lottery Wins to Lightning Strikes

by Joshua Piven

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Once upon a time there was a swimming pool repairman who only had a hundred-dollar bill to pay for a hot dog. He requested his change in lottery tickets and subsequently won $180 million. Strange, but wonderfully true. In this insightful, thoroughly entertaining book, countless similar case studies of "as luck would have it" situations are presented. Interweaving the subjects' own beliefs about their experiences with compelling research on chance, probability, and luck psychology, As Luck Would Have It also includes research on how to prepare for luck, how to deal with it when it arrives, and how to make the choices that will be most beneficial.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780792730545
Publisher: Sound Library
Publication date: 11/28/2003
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 6.82(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.55(d)

About the Author

Joshua Piven is coauthor, with David Borgenicht, of the bestselling Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and its sequels. More than five million copies of his books have been sold. He lives in Philadelphia.

J.P. Guimont (Jonathan) has been stage acting since the age of 5. He attended the University of Maine at Orono and studied theater under Dr. Sandra Hardy. Jonathan is also a charter member and co-founder of "The Cast", a theater company located in Portland, Maine.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Do Not Rip the Ticket or Otherwise Mutilate It

Steve Roberts is having trouble reading the numbers.

It's dark outside, and he's driving, so try as he might, he can barely make them out. It's late, and he's tired, and the woman on the radio is announcing the winning numbers over and over, since the drawing was hours ago, and the winning combination was sold. Yet still no one has come forward to claim the jackpot. With his ten tickets, each containing ten series of numbers, there's no way he can listen to the announcer on the radio, watch the road, and read the tickets at the same time. Instead, he tries a quick glance at each Big Money Ball number, knowing that, without that number, there's no chance he'll win the Big Game.

But it's no use, he just can't see the numbers. He doesn't bother pulling over, since it's after 11:00 p.m. and he's tired. He's had a long day putting in and inspecting pools in the Michigan suburbs where, in May 2000, the hot, humid summer—his busy season—is just getting under way. He gives up on the tickets. And anyway that hot dog he ate at lunchtime, the one he bought just before he decided to pick up some tickets, isn't sitting too well. He'd just as soon get home, see his wife and kids, maybe have a beer and a snack, and go to bed.

What are the odds that he's the winner? Who ever heard of a guy like him winning the Big Game? Much less today's jackpot, the biggest in the history of any lottery. And anyway, he's never even bought a lottery ticket in his life. Wasn't it always the guys who bought a ticket every day for twenty years who won? He puts the tickets back into his pocket and laughs—atired, exhausted, end-of-a-long-day laugh. Then he sighs.

What was it up to now? Something like $363 million? He pulls into his driveway. It's nearing 11:30, and he has to be up early in the morning. He sighs again.

A lottery win is luck in its purest form: unexpected, unpredictable, and with external causes over which we have absolutely no control. And, of course, there are the tremendous odds. These vary with the game and the number of tickets sold, but the odds of winning a multistate lottery are in the tens or scores of millions to one. These odds generally rise in direct proportion to the dollar amount of the potential payout: More money means more media hype, which means more people buying more tickets, which means a larger jackpot, which starts the cycle all over again.

But winning a big-money lottery game, while clearly lucky, often comes with a price, and that price can quickly turn untold millions into a liability instead of an asset. With big money comes big pub- licity, and on the heels of publicity come those looking for an investment, a loan, or simply a handout. Furthermore, many lottery winners are unprepared for their huge tax liability and for the suddenly needy relatives, the scheming business associates, and the jealousy and resentment of their friends and colleagues. Add in the huge psychological burden of dealing with sudden wealth and you get a depressing but sobering statistic: Two out of every three lottery winners either lose or spend all their winnings within five years.

Still, winning the lottery may seem like a problem well worth having. That wouldn't be me, we think. I'd invest all my money. I'd play it safe. But the fact is that managing the good luck of a lot- tery win is not as easy as it might seem. Several researchers have even identified a psychological disorder, termed "sudden wealth syndrome," that can result from a large influx of money and can severely hamper our day-to-day ability to function in the world. And these symptoms can afflict those who get sudden, unexpected wealth not just from a lottery ticket but via an inheritance, or even from an unexpected business success. Examining the story of Steve Roberts can tell us much about how we can manage the good luck of sudden wealth in our lives, so that we can learn how to use good fortune to remain fortunate.

Roberts (he asked that his real name not be used) is a workaday guy, albeit one with a fairly successful swimming pool contracting business. At age forty-eight, he's doing pretty well for himself, bringing in $100,000 in a good year, although like everyone he knows he's also saddled with a mortgage and a car payment. With one son still in college and his daughter about to enter high school, he's having trouble keeping his savings in the five digits. Still, things are pretty good, and with a few more hot summers, he figures he might be able to dig a pool for himself.

The Big Game is a seven-state combined lottery. By May 2000 it has rolled over so many times that everyone has lost track of when the last Big Money Ball winner was. While many people pick the winning five numbers, they win only smaller payouts, generally about $150,000 each before taxes. Unless you have all five numbers and the Big Money Ball number, you do not win the jackpot. The May 2000 Big Game jackpot, at $366 million, is the largest in U.S. history, eclipsing even 1998's $296 million Powerball jackpot, which had been split among thirteen lucky Ohio machinists. (A December 1999 Spanish lottery, called El Gordo, was valued at $1.2 billion but was split among thousands of winners.)

The night before the May 9 drawing, Peg, Steve's wife, sees a news story on the size of the jackpot, now over $300 million, making the pot the most valuable in the history of multistate lotteries. Peg is by no means a gambler; she's never even dropped a nickel in a slot machine. In fact, she and Steve have good-naturedly teased their friends about buying lottery tickets. With the odds against winning so high, what's the point? You'd probably have a better chance striking oil in your backyard!

Still, she thinks, so much money! What would anyone possibly do with it all? Give it away to family and friends, she supposes, and to charity. And pay off the mortgage, of course. Pay off the car. She comments to Steve on the size of the jackpot and, with skepticism thick in his voice, he agrees that, if he's somewhere where he can pick up a ticket quickly, he will. But he knows he probably won't: He has a full day of work on Tuesday, and he's seen the news stories, too. Those lottery places have lines stretching around the block.

The next day Steve has of course forgotten all about the Big Game. Instead, he's thinking about the pools he needs to inspect and, if necessary, repair. With the weather getting hot already, he knows that by Memorial Day suburban Michiganites will be clamoring for relief from the stifling humidity.

At lunchtime, Steve heads over to Mr. K's Party Shoppe, twenty miles north of Detroit, to pick up a hot dog and a Coke. While standing at the counter, he suddenly realizes that the store has a lottery machine and, even more amazingly, there is no line at all. He opens his wallet, figuring that he'll pick up a ticket with the few loose dollars in his pocket, but quickly realizes that all he has is a hundred-dollar bill. He pays for the hot dog and, figuring what the hell, asks for his change in lottery tickets, receiving ninety-eight one-dollar tickets. He's never played before, so he doesn't have a lucky number, and anyway he's in a hurry, so he just asks the kid behind the counter for "easy picks," random numbers generated by the lottery machine. The clerk asks him if he wants the lump-sum payout or the annuity option; the annuity pays more in the long run, of course, but gives him no control over how his "winnings" are invested. He chooses the annuity. He laughs to himself. He can always change his option later, after he wins.

That night, as he fumbles with the tickets in his truck, he again wonders why he bothered buying them—and why he bought so many. He's hardly rich, and he's not a gambler (except occasionally on a game of pool). Ninety-eight dollars, while not likely to break the bank, is still a decent amount of money for him, and lottery tickets are not exactly a smart investment. Indeed, for someone like him, a strong believer in saving for the future, buying lottery tickets seems more like voodoo economics than sound financial planning. Oh well, he thinks, we all make rash decisions now and then.

As he listens to the voice on the radio, he glances down one last time. He does not see a matching Big Money Ball number, although in the darkness he can't be sure. But who knows, maybe he's just won $150,000. That wouldn't be so bad. After taxes, it comes to something near a hundred grand. He could live with that.

When he finally gets home, he's so tired he goes to bed immediately.

The next morning, as Peg pours orange juice, they watch the early news. The talk show Good Morning America is interviewing twenty-three-year-old Melvin Kassab, the man who sold the winning ticket. Steve comments to Peg that he looks really familiar. In a second he makes the connection and says to his wife, "That's the kid from Mr. K's, the one who sold me my ticket!" Peg thinks for a second, then asks Steve how closely he looked at the lottery tickets last night. Their eyes lock, and she immediately goes over to the counter and grabs the tickets, still sitting in a neat pile where her husband left them last night. She looks at the first of the ten tickets, reads the Big Money Ball number, then says quietly, "Steve, we have the Big Money Ball."

But it can't be. It must be a mistake. They both check again, carefully comparing the numbers on the ticket with the winning numbers, which are coming up on the screen every few seconds: 33, 2, 1, 12, 37, and Big Money Ball 4. They look at one another, freeze, and then time stops completely.

What is it like to realize, in an instant, that you have suddenly become one of the richest people in America? Not by merit, not by hard work, not by good fortune (as in an inheritance), but rather by pure luck—indeed by virtually the purest form of luck, unplanned, un- expected, against incredible, almost unfathomable odds, and by a means that you have eschewed your entire adult life.

There's no single emotion, or rather there are too many emotions at the same time. Steve Roberts experiences a very brief period of elation, followed by a period of abject terror. What if someone realizes he has the winning ticket and tries to steal it? What if the ticket gets lost or, worse, damaged? What if someone does something to his kids, perhaps a kidnapping? He quickly calls the Michigan Lottery Commission and is asked to read the validation numbers below the bar code printed on the ticket. He does, and they confirm that he is the winner. Then come the warnings: Do not get the ticket wet, or it is null and void. Do not rip the ticket or otherwise mutilate it, or it is null and void. And please, do not lose the ticket.

For half an hour, Steve and Peg do not speak. Alone, each contemplates the unimaginable wealth they have just been handed. How much will it be? A hundred million? Two hundred million? More? And what difference would it make if it was more? Would they really be able to spend an extra hundred million? What if there are multiple winners? What will their take be then? How much will they give to their families? To charity? Will they move away from Michigan? Where will their daughter go to school?

Steve quickly puts the ticket in a waterproof bag. He and Peg drive to their daughter's school and make up an excuse to pull her out. Then the three of them drive to the Michigan State Lottery Commission offices, where a throng of reporters has already gathered. Because more than twenty people had picked the correct five numbers (but not the Big Money Ball), there are many other winners arriving, each entitled to a $150,000 payout. With each arrival, the shouting begins anew: "Are you the Big Game winner?" "Did you win the big money?" "How much did you win?"

Fearing for his family's safety as well as their privacy, Steve says nothing as he enters the building. After validating his ticket, the lottery commission decides on a ruse to protect the family's privacy for the time being. Steve will be issued one of the large "TV checks" that winners hold up in front of the television cameras. Except, they all agree, his check will read $150,000, not the $181.5 million that he's actually won (there was one other Big Money Ball winner). Steve is relieved, but he knows it's only a temporary reprieve. By law he will be forced to go public when the lottery commission officially announces he's won.

The commission begins to tell him the practical ramifications of his extraordinary luck. His $181.5 million? Since he's suddenly in the highest tax bracket, it's closer to $120 million, after paying the tax man. Does he want the lump sum or the twenty-year annuity? He changes his former preference and chooses the lump sum, and the payout instantly shrinks to $90 million. Does he plan to give any of his winnings away? Of course. Does he realize that gifts over $10,000 are subject to the federal gift tax? No, he hadn't known that. To avoid this tax, he is informed, Steve will need to form a "lottery club," basically a partnership that allows his designated recipients to share in his winnings without paying the tax. His head spinning, Steve must now decide who will join this exclusive club, and how much money each member will receive.

With so many decisions to make, Steve decides to go home and do some thinking. But when he pulls into their street, he sees a crew from Channel 7, the local ABC affiliate, in front of the house. Has there been a leak? Does the press know he's the big winner? Soon more news crews show up, and Steve decides he needs to get his family out of the house. After they contact a friend in the Justice Department, Steve and his family are spirited to a hotel in Frankenmuth, Michigan, for the night. There, finding sleep impossible, he begins to think about how he will distribute his winnings.

He decides to give his immediate family members—mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters—$500,000 each. He also decides to pay off the mortgages of other family members, including aunts and uncles, which will allow them to take early retirement. He will pay the college tuitions of some nieces and nephews, and buy new cars for his two grown sons. Because of estate tax laws, he also decides to set up annuities for his children. And he will give lots of money to various charities.

Next morning, the official press circus begins. Steve and his family have been driven, via limousine, to the civic center in Lan- sing, the state capital. There, entering through an underground garage, they take Governor Engler's private elevator to a meeting room, where they are officially congratulated by the governor. With a press agent supplied by the lottery commission at his side, Steve enters the press conference room. Packed with reporters, the press conference is nationally televised, and the questions are pretty much what he expected. "How does it feel?" "What are you going to do with the money?" "How often do you play the lottery?" It's all a blur. At some point, Steve's press agent informs him that there is a list of two hundred people seeking interviews. Invitations from the morning shows begin pouring in. Steve flies to New York to appear on the Today show and Live with Regis & Kathie Lee. He is interviewed by Bryant Gumbel and Diane Sawyer.

Then, almost as soon as it began, the publicity starts to fade. Within a week the nationals stop calling. After two weeks even the local news reporters pack up their equipment and drive off. Steve is finally able to get back to his life. He decides to work through the summer, at least to finish the jobs he began in the spring. But he soon realizes that his old life is gone. It's as if, at age forty-eight, he's been born into a new existence, one with incredible wealth but also incredible pressures, pressures that he's never experienced before. He now has a new job: wealth management. And everyone's got a hand out.

A recent survey by Forbes found that 37 percent of the four hundred richest Americans are unhappy. According to Steve, there's much truth in the old saw that money can't buy happiness. "Money can't make you happy, but it can make you more unhappy," he says. In fact, psychologists have coined a term, affluenza, to describe a wide range of symptoms that can result from sudden wealth, including shame, anger, fear, guilt, and rampant materialism. Affluenza, sudden wealth syndrome, or whatever the diagnosis, the condition of being instantly rich can have profound consequences, not only psychologically but also socially.

Steve discovered that his good fortune meant acquaintances and friends soon began asking for loans or "investments" in their businesses. He found that normal conversations he had had in his "preluck" life were now emotionally charged land mines, forcing him to filter his words. "In the past, if one of my friends got a new car, it was naturally a topic of conversation," he recalls. "But now, if I talk about a new car, it's bragging."

Similarly, Steve found it difficult to maintain some of his former hobbies, because his newfound wealth was always a topic of con- versation. "I used to really enjoy playing competitive pool, and I played in some tournaments," he says. "But now, people say, ‘Why is he playing? He doesn't need the money.' So I don't compete any- more. Simple things just become much more complicated." While he maintained his close friendships, other people became standoffish and, eventually, drifted away.

Indeed, psychologists have found that, while acquiring a vast sum of money can make life easier in many ways, it often makes personal relationships much more difficult. "A flood of economic power can be really destabilizing to your sense of personal balance," says Mark Levy, a California psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. In particular, those who are not born into wealth but rather acquire it through luck (the lottery, the stock market) or other means (business success) often lack the skills necessary to manage money, not simply financially but in their relationships as well. Coming into money will also fundamentally test the basis of relationships, many experts say, and will quickly make bad or unhealthy relationships worse.

Steve continually encountered friends and even slight acquaintances who asked to borrow money, and he mostly obliged them. He estimates that "99 percent" of them came back for more. "At the beginning, you just have no comprehension of the power you have, the responsibility that comes with having so much wealth," he says.



1) First off, why luck?
Well, it's actually two reasons. First, I've been very, very lucky as an author. My first book (The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook) was a global bestseller, and many of my subsequent books have hit The New York Times bestseller list–and while this isn't exactly Harry Potter territory, it's highly unusual for any author, much less one who is relatively new to book publishing. The WCS series has really been a "good luck" phenomenon, spawning a TV series, board games, cards, journals, and so on, which is also highly unusual. So, it's been a really lucky ride. That's one part.

Second, while doing research for my previous books I always heard from my sources about how they had "gotten lucky" in a particular survival situation (and, of course, had been unlucky as well). I found it odd that people who had trained to survive harrowing encounters often attributed their success to luck. Why didn't they credit their skills, or preparation, or their vast mental file of knowledge?

So, I began doing some research on luck, only to find that there had never been a book about luck that actually used as its subjects people who had experienced incredible strokes of good or bad luck (or both). I wanted to write a book that would combine these amazing stories with my own original research on the mechanics of luck.

2) What does the field of science have to say about the phenomenon of luck?
Interestingly, there's a limited amount of scientific research on luck. (This seems strange to me, since luck is a universal phenomenon.) But what studies there have been arereally intriguing: that people actually perform better on an unrelated task after experiencing good luck, and that a vast majority of people consider themselves "lucky" rather than "unlucky." Much of the scientific research I did was aimed at finding reasons why the subjects in the book acted in particular ways, or made particular decisions (which, it should be noted, were sometimes wrong.)

I actually went pretty far afield in my research: I read psychology and sociology journals, marketing studies, even statistical papers, all with the goal of finding how luck works, and how we can take advantage of it.

3) How do you feel about people who say that there is no such thing as luck and that people are responsible for their own successes and failures?
Well, I suppose it depends on the circumstances, and what your definition of luck is. But how can someone be responsible for winning the lottery? Or being hit by lightning when they are inside a building and it isn't stormy outside?

That said, one of the things I found is that while we can't make luck, we can make the most of it (or deal with it effectively, if it's bad luck). There's no question that there are people who put themselves in a position to get lucky: this is one of the main points I found in my research and writing. But does that mean they actually made their own luck? I don't think it necessarily does.
4) You delve into ten instances of good and bad luck in AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT. Besides your own story, how did you choose your other stories?
One of the main goals I had was to examine luck from a very broad perspective. Yes, of course most people think of lottery wins and lightning strikes when it comes to luck, and these are two great stories in the book.

But I wanted to look at luck in a larger context: how it works in business, in survival situations, in plane crashes, in fads. These are areas where luck has always played important roles: why are some people spectacularly successful in business? Why do some people survive being lost in the wilderness while others die? Why do some little gag gifts become huge sellers? I felt readers would benefit most from a book with a varied series of compelling luck narratives that covered lots of different aspects of life.

Once I had a general idea of the areas I wanted to cover, I set out researching them, looking for people who had amazing stories to tell–and of course were still alive to tell them. What was incredible about the interviewing process was that the stories had even more elements of luck than I had anticipated–often not just the one "luck moment" but a series of incredible successes and failures, many highly dramatic.

5) I particularly enjoyed your chapter on one-hit wonders in the music business, but is that really luck or just having a catchy tune?
Yes, I love that one–maybe because I vividly remember living through the rise of MTV and the music in the early 80s. Some of it was so bad!

I guess my answer is a question: think about all the great songs you've heard that don't become hits or all the bands that you really love that never have a hit record (or song, for that matter). How come they never make it? And how come some one-hit wonders are just really, really bad songs? Why do they succeed where others fail? I mean, "The Macarena"? Come on.

The music industry is a really tough business–perhaps even more so now because if you don't have a hit immediately, you're history. But against all the best intentions of the record companies, some groups still have a single hit song and then disappear. I wanted to understand why this happens, and how luck plays a part in this kind of sudden success. In the process I learned a lot about how the recording industry works–or, just as often, doesn't work–and how hard it is to succeed in that business.

I was also really interested in the rise of MTV and how music videos contribute to the popularity of particular songs, so that's another piece of it, too.

6) Al Kahn seems to have been lucky twice with both the Cabbage Patch Dolls and Pokemon. What do you attribute this to?
I've gotten to know Al personally since our interviews (that is, outside of the context of author and subject) and I have to say he is one of the most socially savvy people I have ever met. He just intuitively understands how to deal with people. After understanding this, I think the conclusions drawn in the book about business relationships are even more valid: luck in business often results from a keen appreciation and a broad understanding of relationships and a commitment to keeping them healthy. I've actually learned quite a bit about my own business relationships from his story.

He may have been lucky, but he's also really, really smart. And hey, he gets to play with really cool toys for a living.

7) In several of the bad luck stories (the plane crash, being lost on the mountain, etc.), the subjects kept their heads about them and were able to survive events that easily could have killed them. What do you attribute this to?
Some of it may be personality traits, some of it may be previous experience, and some of it may simply be an innate understanding of how to act under pressure. Some people, by contrast, are prone to panic, there's no question about that. But one of the cool things in the book is that people can learn how to react to setbacks in constructive ways--not just in survival situations but in "real life" as well.

And, for those anxiety-prone readers, take heart: the book even discusses ways that anxiety can actually be beneficial in some circumstances. Let's hear it for the hypochondriacs out there!

8) You conclude AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT with a discussion of luck management. In a nutshell, what is luck management?
Wow, you want me to give away all the secrets, eh? OK, briefly. Pure luck events cannot be made, since by definition they are random and unpredictable (or their causes are hidden). But they can be made to work for us (and, unfortunately, against us, too) based on the choices we make and the actions we take. These choices and actions make up the technique of luck management.

Since we cannot control luck, we need ways to deal with its effects, and luck management is a strategy for doing this. Without giving away too much, luck management is a series of steps that make it much more likely that we will benefit from good luck--or reduce the negative effects of bad luck. Things like understanding how our ties to other people and groups operate, how to harness anxiety, how our emotions help us prepare for events, how optimism and faith work, and even how we can "generate" good luck through a broad base of knowledge about our chosen fields of work/study.

9) Do you believe in luck?
Of course! I wrote the book on it . . .

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