Business & Backgammon & Luck
I recently saw this post on the Facebook wall of Backgammon News: “How can I get over it when I play so much better vs. a much stronger opponent and still lose because they had ludicrous luck??” What followed was a string of responses that either mocked the person posting the question or seriously answered that it is what it is.
Much of what we do in our business and personal lives today is done with the assumption that there is a level playing field, and if we fail, it is because we didn’t get it right. This is the way chess works. We believe our expertise will be the sole determiner in whether we win or lose. We make this assumption — erroneously, if you ask me — that pitching to raise money for our company or competing with a company that is selling the same service or product we are takes place on a level playing field. In other words, our success — or failure — is our responsibility and within our power.
In reality, success or failure is much more like backgammon. It’s part luck and part skill, but only in backgammon is that accurately measurable. This is why I love to play backgammon.
I learned to play backgammon in the 1970s. My father, a killer businessman who believed that winning was everything, owned a hotel in the Caribbean. Prince Alexis Obolensky, the father of modern backgammon and one of the founders of the golden age of backgammon, wanted to hold a tournament at Mullet Bay, in St. Maarten. My dad told him he would give him a free stay at the hotel if he taught me how to play. I never thought about it because it wasn’t an option; I was told to show up for the lessons, and I did.
I stopped playing in the late ’70s and just recently, over the last four years, started playing again. I love it now in a new way. It is a welcome relief to know that whether I win or lose depends on my skill and luck. Like, a lot of luck.
Jeff Willis answered the question of luck this way in 2009. (It doesn’t matter if the computers have reworked these numbers, and I’m sure they have; it gives us perspective on why backgammon is one of the oldest surviving games in the history of the world.)
I like Harald Torvatn’s answer very much.
“What percentage is luck, and what percentage skill?” is not a good question; it shows a lack of understanding of the scope of the game. I don’t bet my house on a single game. Backgammon is about odds, and backgammon is a fast game, meant to be played multiple times in a night. There are probably around 100 moves each game. Half of these may be fairly automatic. If you can play 2% better than your opponent on the 50 ‘thinking’ moves of the game, you might gain a 60% chance to win the game. If I have a 60% chance to win a single game, what are my odds of winning a 5 point match? Such a match may only last 3 or 4 games depending on how the double cube gets used. Allowing for some luck, I will win a large majority (perhaps 80%) of 5 point matches against a 60–40 opponent. Make the match 7 or 9 points, and the odds for the better opponent might improve to the 90% range. So, what is the percentage skill in backgammon? (How do you define percentage luck? I might define it as the percentage of games greater than half that the more skillful player will win on average.) For a single move, skill can make a 1–3% difference, rarely more than 5%. For a single game, around 10%. For a 5 point match, perhaps 30%. For 1,000 games, more than 95%. After several years, 99.999…%. These numbers are all wild estimates. The point is that if you multiply a small skill advantage over many, many occurrences, then the luck component is gradually ground out of existence.
In other words, you will win more times than they will if you play better than them, and you can still lose the overall match. I love that. It’s more like my life.
Here is the thing: It’s easy to lose the perspective we’ve gained on life and winning and losing. Winning is everything at this moment in history, in this country, at the watering hole I choose to inhabit. Those around me strive to win at whatever they are doing. And, when we do not win, we often don’t take into account luck and the “Hunger Games” mantra that has always stood out to me, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” “May” is the key word here. We should hope the odds are in our favor, but we are not entitled to assume they are. And we should make allowances for when they aren’t.
I play backgammon with my significant other on a daily basis. He gets excited when he wins. I do not, actually. I get excited when I look at the analysis and see that I had an error rate under 10%, and I always note what the luck ratio was in his game versus mine. Surprisingly, it’s not always apparent when one is playing. The game, when played well, moves quickly, and one must leave the past behind and stick with the present and possible future. I love that. It reminds me of one of my mantras: “The rearview mirror is smaller than the windshield for a reason.”
I play backgammon for pleasure. I want to win, but more importantly, it’s the one place in my overprogrammed, over–success-oriented life, where winning is not as important to me as doing it well. Improving. Never striving to win, win, win, but always striving to be better than I was the time before. And where else in my life can a computer tell me the exact numbers that determine whether or not I was better? Nowhere. I’ll stick that in my pipe and smoke it. It’s a game changer.
If you are looking for a sure bet by doing every single thing right in life — or in backgammon — you will not find it.