Chapter 1
Some Background
and Preliminaries
In that it is an attempt to model mathematically a phenomenon that may
or may not actually exist, probability theory is a rather peculiar subject.
If two people play a game of dice and one of them repeatedly wins, is the
explanation that the winner is “a chosen of the gods” or is there something
more that can be said? Until the late Middle Ages, most of the Westerners
who gave it any thought interpreted luck as a manifestation of an individ-
ual’s standing with whatever divinity or divinities were in vogue. Since
other inexplicable phenomena were also assumed to have divine origins, this
interpretation was reasonable. On the other hand, like the biblical account
of the origins of life, attributing luck to divine sources leaves little room for
further analysis. Indeed, it is a prerogative of any self-respecting deity to be
inscrutable, and therefore one is rude, if not sinful, to subject the motives
of one’s deity to detailed analysis.
Simply abandoning a divine explanation of luck does not solve the prob-
lem but only opens it to further inquiry. For instance, if one believes that
all experience is a corollary of “the laws of nature,” then there is no such
thing as luck. One person wins more often than the other because “the laws
of nature” dictate that outcome. From this hyper-rational perspective, the
concept of luck is a cop-out: a crutch that need never be used if one is suf-
ficiently diligent in one’s application of “the laws of nature.” Although its
origins may be strictly rational, this reason for denying the existence of luck
does little to advance one’s understanding of many phenomena. Even if one
accepts Newton’s laws of motion as sacrosanct, it is unlikely that one will
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