Nagare, Luck, or whatever you want to call that crap

There was an interesting post in one of the forums asking about whether people believe in luck or “nagare” as it’s referred to in Japanese. Actually “nagare” translates more as “flow” I think, than “tide” but I think the nuance in either word is interesting because it seems like a force even stronger than luck, like destiny. What can you do against the inevitable rising and ebbing of the ocean tide or the flow of a mighty river?

I don’t want to make anyone feel stupid or offended. Unfortunately it’s something that seems to come naturally to me. Here goes. Let’s say a believer in luck flips a coin and by some unbelievably 1 in 2 to the tenth power miracle, it comes up heads 10 times in a row! Are you telling me you believe that heads is lucky right now and that you believe, er, I mean, the luck believer believes that heads is more likely to come up an 11th time now also? If such logic makes sense to you, may I suggest that you never go to Las Vegas or at least have a responsible adult hold your money for you.

On the flip side, while in a single 10 flip trial such an occurrence would only happen once in 1024 tries (less than 0.1%), if you flipped the coin a couple hundred times, it’s more likely that you’ll flip heads 10 times in a row somewhere in there than that you won’t! I think it’s a lack of appreciation for statistics and probability that accounts for a lot of people’s belief in luck.

Mahjong is a game that involves luck and is not simply of it. Over the long term, the luck generally evens out, and the players who depend less on luck and depend more on “solid” play will win. I’m sure we’ve all played games where we had to look on in hateful silence as some donkey reached and instantly drew one single tile wait after another. Some of us are better at looking on silently than others. Those times are frustrating and will tend to make us want to believe that it is just a game of luck after all and we might as well play as badly as that guy who (we think) is just getting lucky.

And it is those situations especially in which I think luck has acquired and bolstered its reputation. When someone goes on a run, we may attribute it to just luck, but it can certainly be explained otherwise also. Take the above mentioned coin flipping trial for example; it could just be that crazy streak in the middle of a longer run that in total is fairly average. Another that people may not think about is how winning a game or even just one hand, changes not only the winner’s attitude but also that of the other players. His confidence will be boosted, he will be emboldened to play stronger, attack more, and attacking players generally win more than passive ones. Correspondingly, the players around him will also lose confidence and probably start to play more weakly, anticipating the strength of that “lucky” player and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of his continuing success.

There’s a lot to be said for optimism; study after study confirms that people who believe they are lucky do indeed tend to be “luckier” than others. Optimism allows us to see opportunity where others don’t.

Finally, there are a lot of good quotes about luck. My favorite is Thomas Jefferson’s “I find that the harder I work, the luckier I get.” Another one I like from one of the up and coming young stars in JPML with Jenn and me – though maybe a few leagues above us – Sarukawa told me once, “I create my own luck.” (I know that’s been said by others but he said it specifically about how he plays Mahjong) There are a lot of things you can do to create your own luck but one that I think many don’t think about is table image. Poker players think a lot about how to maintain a strong table image. If that means making people think you’re lucky so be it. The point is that it’s going to be a lot easier to get lucky if the other players aren’t gunning for you because they’re afraid you’re too strong for them. When I’ve played Mahjong with him, Sarukawa maintains a fierce table image and it definitely makes me think twice about declaring reach even with a strong hand, thus increasing his chances of getting lucky and decreasing mine.

So call it what you will, Luck, Flow, Destiny or just plain old Chutzpah, whatever it is, it’s not out of your hands. Take control and get lucky!

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