Are you Lady Luck’s slave?

I don’t use the phrase “good luck” when wishing other’s well.  And it isn’t because I don’t believe in wishing people well.  It’s because I believe in wishing them well in meaningful and positive ways.

A big question that people ask when they play games is: To what extent are skill and luck important to success?  This is certainly a good question for life as well.  How do we begin to answer this question?

Luck certainly plays a roll in games and some games more than others.  How much of a part?  Are we at the mercy of Lady Luck?  In some respects, very much so.  If a deck of cards is properly randomized, you always have a 1 in 52 chance of drawing a particular card on the first draw.

My personal experience is that gamers get themselves into a lot of trouble by over-estimating the role that luck plays in the games they play.  They use it as an excuse for a defeat and an excuse not to learn.  How might they avoid this trap?

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase: “I make my own luck.”  Han Solo is quite famous for his comment in Empire Strikes Back: “Never tell me the odds.”  This is one of many phrases that endear people to this character.  Check out my fridge magnet!

Why is Han Solo such a compelling character to so many people? Is he just foolishly optimistic?  Or does he have the “street” experience needed to understand that there is more to life than “just” luck?  I’ll argue that part of the reason why Han Solo is such a compelling character is because he has the life experience to truly understand the extent to which luck governs his actions, and it isn’t as great as some people who worship it think it is.

I’m not saying that there aren’t circumstances in games and in life that are unrecoverable.  That would be naive.  But my experience as a public educator has taught me that the hardships of life have a nasty way of teaching people to believe that they lack power in certain situations.  I don’t fault them for sometimes giving up.  Part of my job is to teach them alternatives to “its all just luck” futilism.

The way you deal with luck is by understanding its extent.  You can understand the basic principles of probability.  Chance has limitations.

Let’s take a simple game.  Yahtzee.  I love it.  Its deceptively simple yet also pretty deep, from a probability standpoint.  Once you understand the probability inherent in a five dice shake and one, two, three, and four dice re-rolls, you’ll rarely if ever score less than 200 in a game.  People that do consistently poorly in Yahtzee tend to do so because they’re approach to the game is that they are at the mercy of probability, rather than in command of understanding it.

A simple example of this is the well-known strategy for getting the bonus on the Upper section.  If you score at least 63 points on the Upper section, you get the 35 point bonus.  63 points is the value you get when you score exactly three dice for each number.  The fives and sixes contribute much more than the ones and twos.  If you only score two dice for a particular number you have to “make up” for this loss in score by scoring four dice on another number.  A lot of people don’t bother to understand this very simple principle.  Don’t get me wrong.  That’s ok.  People play games for different reasons, and for some, challenge is not a compelling reason.  They may prioritize the community experience.  But, if you find yourself motivated by your level of success and challenge, you can control that by understanding probability and some strategies to play the odds to their fullest!

Here are some examples of other strategies related to the inherent probabilities of the game, thanks to Cornell’s Math Department:

Did you know that there is a way that you can absolutely guarantee the roll that luck will play in games and life?  Yes!  You can eliminate the roll that luck plays entirely!  How?!?!?  It’s quite simple.  You give up.  You concede.  When you stop playing, you guarantee a zero percent chance of success!  Playing games competitively has shown me that the dividing line between top players and not top players is often the simple willingness of top players to stick out bad situations and try to turn their odds around.  It doesn’t always work, but it works enough to give them an edge. One of the most challenging and fascinating aspects of games for me is understanding and figuring out the exact moment when a tactical or strategic situation becomes untenable.  A lot of people enjoy this aspect of games, but the problem becomes when we over-estimate the chance of a poor outcome and prematurely throw the towel into the ring, so to speak.

Gamers can learn to understand and use probability to their advantage.  It is often not a done deal unless they choose to make it such.

What about skill?  You can practice, learn tactics and strategies, and get better from experience.  My entire profession is focused on thinking skills, which is why games are such a useful model for experiential learning.  Skill is a discussion point of development for hundreds of blog posts, not just one.

These concepts can have a positive influence on people’s lives as well.  At the risk of getting too serious on a recreational blog, I’ll let the reader think about that.

I detest the phrase “Good luck!” because it implies that factors out of someone’s control are the primary determiners of that person’s success.  If you think about it, it’s a pretty crappy way to encourage someone.  You are essentially telling them that their own skill is inconsequential.  It is crass and patronizing, in my opinion.  I don’t think that people intend this and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t wish people well.  That leads me to my substitute phrase.  I say to people:  “I wish you success.”  Because that’s what we really want for them, right?  It is more optimistic, it is more realistic, and it accomplishes our goals for support.  It also has the benefit of being vague enough to allow someone to define what that success is.  It isn’t our job to define success for someone, especially in recreational endeavors.  Everyone is different and gets different things out of the same hobby.  For some people success isnt winning, it is pursuit of improvement that holds their attention more, for example.

Being a public educator, in combination with a passion for the challenge of games, has forced me to rethink my modes of support for others.  Where do you fall on this critical question?


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