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Is Life a Game of Skill?

Patrik Antonius | Photo Credit: Supl0v PokerOkay, poker’s a game of skill. What about the rest of life? I’m serious. Is life a game where skill dominates luck, where talent and aptitude trump the RNG running in the background? This isn’t an idle question. It’s attracted the attention of social scientists and some interesting things are known – perhaps the most interesting is that the ol’ fickle finger of fate plays a larger role in our lives than we realize, and a far larger one than we like to acknowledge.

I’m a smart, hard-working, focused and motivated dude but, when I look dispassionately at my life, it’s pretty obvious that if I hadn’t, to use a poker term, “sucked out” a couple of times, I might be just another smart, hard-working dumpster diver.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell took a look at the lives of the very successful in domains as varied as finance, science and sport. He began with what’s called the “10,000-hour rule.” In virtually every complex professional endeavor it takes roughly five years of full-time focus and practice to master one’s craft. This rule pretty much covers everything from medicine to writing, from music to chess, and from tennis to hockey. But not every writer wins a Pulitzer, not every violinist makes it to the stage at Carnegie Hall, and precious few tennis players end up winning a Grand Slam tournament. They all put in the requisite hours. They all have remarkable talents, skills, motivation and desire. Why do some transcend and others become merely good?
Gladwell’s answer: Luck plays a far bigger role than you might imagine. It’s true that without these talents and hours none of us has much of a chance, but the fascinating truth that emerges from the data is that even with them there just aren’t any guarantees. Gladwell has lots of examples but let’s take one that’s a beaut. Far more hockey players who make it to the NHL are born in January, February and March than in October, November and December. Huh? Why? Is there some hidden astrological principle operating here?

Nope. It’s simple, and once you see it, obvious. The 8-year old kids who get picked for early special attention and coaching tend to be the bigger ones. Those who turned 8 the previous January or February are going to be, on average, bigger and more developed than the ones who just turned 8 in November or December – the organized programs for young players all use the turn of the calendar as the cut point. So “January’s child” is going to get better coaching, more attention and will develop his natural skills more than the equally skilled but (momentarily) smaller kid conceived in April rather than the previous May.

Just so you don’t think this is a fluke, a similar pattern exists for European soccer players only it’s the kids born in June, July and August who have an edge because the international soccer organizations use June 1 as their age cut-point. Similar fluky features of life impact success in many other domains like business and innovation.
Gladwell isn’t alone in emphasizing the impact of dumb luck. Daniel Kahneman, one of two psychologists to have won the Nobel Prize in economics notes in Thinking, Fast and Slow that luck and chance play a large and largely unsuspected role in success. In addition to supporting Gladwell’s claims, he also points out that the success and/or lack thereof doesn’t just apply to individuals. Randomness plays a surprisingly strong role in the triumph and failure of whole companies, corporations and even countries.

This analysis feels right and fits with that classic line that poker is a mirror of life. The parallels are rather compelling. In both, you need to put in your hours, focus, work hard, have some natural talent and take advantage of those times you just get lucky. The hard work, the naked ambition, the drive are all obvious to us and to the onlookers. The luck part is largely hidden and often goes unacknowledged.

For example, Joe Cada was down to just four big blinds at the final table of the 2009 WSOP (as in “World Series of Poker”) Main Event and took home the title – and 8.5 million rutabagas. Did he work harder than the others? Did he play better poker? Was he more motivated? No. He just got bloody lucky. He went on an epic heater replete with flopped sets and magic rivers. It would be folly not to recognize the impact of “dame fortune” here.

It’s also possible to take a larger perspective. People like Tom Dwan, Phil Galfond, Patrik Antonius and many others have become multi-millionaires playing poker online. Ten years ago there was no online poker – and, since “Black Friday” we’re pretty much back to where we were. If these guys, with the same package of skill, drive, intelligence and psychological stability came along ten years earlier or today they wouldn’t (couldn’t) have lived lives like they have.

Is life a game of skill? Absofreakinglutely. With sizeable dollops of luck? Sure … just like poker.

Reader Comments (1)

Interesting analogy between poker and life...
Some of us would prefer to take credit for those moments in life where they "won/succeeded" and it wasn't obvious that luck was a factor, while blaming their "bad luck" for the failures they had. Luck, indeed, has a significant role in human lives. What is luck though? How is it defined? Is it just a mere coincidence of events that leads to very fortunate/unfortunate outcomes?
Or, there is more to it?

Thank you for your article, Professor Reber.

August 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEl Capitano

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