Lady Luck is a mercurial, sometimes cruel mistress. Ask anyone who plays the stock market, the ponies or the blackjack table. Or tries to pick the winner of the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
Today may be your lucky day. Then again, maybe not. It does no good to beg, pray or shake your fists. Lady Luck will do as she damn well pleases.
Recent news stories are testimony to this:
* The California couple who found a $10 million bag of rare gold coins while walking their dog.
* The Virginia couple who are $2 million richer after winning the lottery three times in two weeks.
* The Chicago man who won the lottery three times in three weeks.
Events like these seem beyond the realm of possible. Not to mention unfair. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "Nothing is as obnoxious as other people's luck."
The concept of luck, in all its mystery and elusiveness, has confounded people since the beginning of civilization. Craving a logical, ordered universe, people turn to religion, mythology, numerology and complex scientific analysis to explain why things happen as they do. But sometimes the question, "Why?" is simply unanswerable.
Take, for example, business franchise owner Hunter Lisle, 42, from Lexington, Kentucky. Lisle is lucky, maybe even freakishly lucky. Besides winning, in his words, "staggering amounts" at slot machines ("I once won thousands of dollars consistently for seven days on the same machine"), the Arthur Murray Dance Studio owner has an enviable career as a behind-the-scenes judge on Dancing With the Stars.
"I really do feel I'm a lucky person," says Lisle with a grin. "I play the stock market and go to the casino whenever I can. I win a lot. I think astronomical odds are not really random. People who are extremely lucky know it and that's why they're playing."
Lisle believes optimism is key. "If you expect to win, you tend to win," he says. While some gamblers might take issue with that, British psychologist Richard Wiseman believes it's true. His book, "The Luck Factor" (Random House, 2003) concludes that so-called "lucky people" generate their own good fortune by noticing chance opportunities, listening to their intuition, creating positive self-fulfilling prophecies and being resilient.
Dan Geller, Ph.D, 58, a behavioral economist from San Rafael, California, believes the phenomenon goes beyond optimism. Believing we're lucky, he says, helps our survival.
"Thinking we're the lucky ones keeps us going," Geller said. "It helps us go through life. It's the same phenomenon as, 'it won't happen to me.' We always tend to feel we're special."
Geller studies people and money—specifically, the way people perceive risk in speculative business ventures. According to his research, there is a correlation between people's expectations and their level of money anxiety. In other words, if there is a 50/50 chance of losing $100, people will likely expect their win to be twice the amount of their loss; in times of high anxiety, people expect to win four times the amount of the loss.
Geller's findings were inspired by the studies of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for their development of the prospect theory, which analyzed the way people make decisions based on probabilities and risk.
Geller was also influenced by economists' research on the expected utility theory, "basically that people hate to lose more than they love to win." Geller published his findings in an ebook, "Money Anxiety," in 2013.
"My belief, based on my research, is that luck does exist," says Geller. "When you take out all the other factors, luck is the only thing that's left to explain why certain things happen."
Don Fishback, 56, President of Fishback Management and Research in Kentucky, disagrees.
"The retail broker or retail trader is a die-hard believer in luck," he acknowledges, "but the logic guy in me says luck doesn't exist at all."
Fishback's company, OptionsApp.com, designs software for traders based on measured, rather than theoretical, probabilities. For the former stock option trader, wild, unpredictable chance has no place in money games. It's all about clear, definable numbers.
"If you study the numbers, that's all you need to know," he says. "Sure, on an unlikely event in the stock market, it's definitely possible to go from rags to riches. But it's so improbable it's not worth playing the game."
Amy Friedman, 54, a real estate agent from Rockland County, N.Y., has been playing the odds most of her adult life, via slot machines and lottery cards. She says she's well aware that the odds are not in her favor.
She does it anyway.
"Look, Atlantic City is not built on winners," Friedman says. "I know that. I probably lose more than I win. If I'm lucky I break even."
Still, Friedman continues to play, hoping for that one big win.
"It's just exciting. I saw someone win a million dollars once," she recalls. "I'm not going to stop. It's like any addiction. You get that rush, that hit of dopamine."
John Talmage "JT" Mathis, 31, from Birmingham, Alabama, used to work at a casino in Shreveport, Louisiana, as a data analyst. He quit a couple of years ago, disillusioned by the gambling business.
"I've seen a lot of terrible things at casinos," says Mathis. "You see people lose $20,000, $30,000 in one night. People have committed suicide. I've seen their faces."
Mathis says casinos track customers' movements from the moment they walk in the door. Information is gathered and analyzed to determine players' patterns, and every effort is made to ensure they lose. For example, the longer they play, the more money they're likely to lose, so players will often be comped rooms and meals, just for the asking.
Nonetheless, experienced players know both winning and losing are possible (albeit in unequal measures) or the casino would go out of business. The real mystery is, who will win?
"The thing about the casino business is, nothing's being sold but hope," says Mathis.
"What you call 'luck' is a distorted illusion at a casino. You might win a bag of money but if people around you are in despair, putting their last dollar bill into the machine—is that lucky?"