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Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters

Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters
Ed Smith
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £16.99

In the early 1970s, a team headed by the sociologist Christopher Jencks made an exhaustive study of the causes of economic inequality in the US. Contrary to beliefs that had underpinned public policy for the previous 30 years, the team found that neither parental background nor schooling adequately explained why some succeeded and others failed. Innate ability, as measured by abstract reasoning tests, was an equally poor predictor. Who got ahead, the academics concluded, was largely down to luck.

The study caused enormous shock not only in the US but also in Britain and other western societies. Academics were particularly horrified that Jencks and his colleagues should invoke such an unscientific and unrigorous concept as luck, which is associated with fairground fortune tellers and children who avoid cracks in the pavement. Politicians didn't like it either. The right believed that rewards were distributed justly and the rich had earned them; the left that better-funded state schools would eradicate the effects of privilege and equalise life chances. Neither cared for Jencks's conclusion: that if differences in incomes were mainly a matter of chance, the most just and effective remedy was simply to redistribute the money.

Jencks is now largely forgotten and, in a later study, he admitted that "luck" was just a term for income differences that he couldn't account for and that, if enough information was collected, most inequality could after all be explained. Now, Ed Smith, a former England cricketer turned journalist, tries to rehabilitate luck. Far from dismissing it as an idea that belongs to the Middle Ages, he argues that we should accept and even embrace the role of luck in our lives, because it will make us a better, kinder, more civilised society.

Among certain tribes in Sudan and Papua New Guinea, Smith reports, there is no word for luck. If anything goes wrong, a witch is blamed and duly punished. We are drifting into the same mindset. If we suffer any kind of accident, lawyers encourage us to seek compensation from a company, public authority or individual who may be held responsible.

Smith didn't accept the role of luck in life until he was 30. As a young man, he believed that if he practised hard enough and analysed his game sufficiently to eliminate error, he could become one of cricket's best batsmen. This attitude now dominates all sports and, indeed, almost any area of life where a small number of people are universally recognised as the most outstanding performers.

Innate talent will only take you so far. As Malcolm Gladwell argues in Outliers, to reach the very top, you need long hours of practice, probably starting in childhood. Even cricket has left behind the languid amateur who never bothers with nets but, on the field, flays bowlers to all parts. The England Test team attributes its success to spreadsheets showing how to exploit opponents' weaknesses, as well as intense coaching.

Yet cricketers should be well aware of the role that good or bad fortune plays. Some sports eliminate luck almost entirely. In tennis, for example, the better player nearly always wins, because one marginal line call or fortunate net point can't determine the match. Luck may bring you the winning point but no more than one or two of the 71 points (minimum) that lead up to it. In football, by contrast, one goal can decide a match so that, while the best (or most expensive) teams win the Premier League, the outcome of any particular match remains unpredictable and, in the FA Cup, the most unlikely "giant-killings" are possible.

Cricket, the most complex of all games, lies somewhere in between. While a lucky goal in football can provide 100 per cent of the "currency" needed to win, and a lucky point in men's tennis less than 2 per cent, a fortunate wicket in cricket gives you, on a strict numerical reckoning, 5 per cent. But some wickets are worth more than others, their value depending not only on the number of runs a batsman has scored but also how many he may potentially score. So one umpiring error or a ball that just misses the stumps can affect the outcome of a match and even whole Test series and careers. If Shane Warne hadn't dropped Kevin Pietersen on 13 at the Oval in 2005 (Pietersen went on to make 158), Australia would probably have retained the Ashes and the batsman's career might never have taken off.

Even if luck, in that sense, is eliminated, matches in all sports can be crucially influenced by injury. A broken ankle interrupted Smith's career when he was in the best form of his life and that, apparently, was what "converted" him to a belief in luck and made him, he seems to suggest, a nicer, better-balanced person.

This book could have been more rigorous and would have benefited particularly from a longer discussion of how the blessings and curses of God (or gods) can play the same role as luck. But Smith is a beguiling and skilful writer: good-humoured, anecdotal, discursive and often fascinating. You'll probably read his book in an evening but think about it for weeks, even years, afterwards.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible