My husband, a retired fighter pilot, claims to believe in luck. Maybe that’s because he’s defied the odds too many times to ascribe it something as meaningless as chance.
I’ve led a safer life, and that may explain why I’ve been more of a skeptic. If you play by the rules, you shouldn’t need luck to get ahead. In fact, luck just screws you up. In my mind, it’s always the other guy’s good luck, stealing the rewards I’ve worked so hard to earn.
So I prefer to see luck as a lazy man’s friend, and an imaginary friend at that. But then I think about a certain coin toss 25 years ago and I wonder if I have it wrong.
I was single and living in Los Angeles when a friend invited me to move across town to share her apartment. I had finally settled into an apartment I liked and I’d spent all my savings moving in. But her apartment was nice, she was good company, and I would save money in the long run. So I accepted her offer.
It worked out well until, several months later, she invited her boyfriend to move in. She apologetically told me I’d have to leave. But I balked. I didn’t want to move again. I couldn’t afford to move again. I dug in my heels.
So did she.
Our friendship fell into the toilet. We avoided each other and communicated via terse notes. The apartment felt hostile and cold. But we wanted peace and didn’t like our suddenly ugly selves. We agreed to determine the apartment’s fate with a neutral, friendship-saving process: a single toss of a coin. The date: 6 p.m. the next evening. The rule: winner takes all.
The next day, I went to work determined to learn about luck. Fortunately, I had a fit tutor nearby. My co-worker, John, was an enthusiastic participant in games of chance and skill. He wagered on almost anything. And, it seemed to me, he usually won.
When I told him about my situation, he looked concerned. He immediately gave me advice. It was crucial, he said, that I call the toss, not flip. Flippers have no real power. Then he told me to come back at lunch — for training.
And so my coin-toss intensive began.
At lunch, he was all business. He was waiting, quarter in hand. “Let’s see how you do,” he said. He tossed the quarter and I called. He tossed again. He kept on tossing and I kept on calling. Then he paused.
“It’s a good thing we are training,” he said. “You keep losing. Something is wrong with your concentration and timing.”
He instructed me to empty my mind of chatter. I was to stay blank as the coin was tossed and hit the peak of its arc. Then, as the coin rushed toward the floor, I was to call out heads or tails as soon as it came into my mind.
By now I was nervous. I should never have ventured into the suspect world of luck. Soon, however, he began tossing and I dutifully followed the procedure he’d laid out. But my calls were getting worse.
He stopped again, looking puzzled. Then a light went on. “I know what the trouble is!” he exclaimed. “You have reverse luck. Do everything the same, but if your mind says heads, call tails. And if it says tails, call heads.”
It was time to double down. I emptied my mind as he tossed, made my decision and said the opposite. To my surprise and his satisfaction, my call was correct.
He tossed again and I called correctly a second time. We went though this several more times and soon realized I was in the middle of a winning streak.
John abruptly stopped tossing. “Time to end,” he announced. He had one more instruction, however.
“No matter what,” he insisted, “do not flip another coin until the actual coin toss. Don’t even think about coins. You must not change the direction of your luck.”
That evening, my friend and I met for the fateful toss. I asked to call and she agreed. As the coin rose in the air, I tried to stay blank. As it dropped, my mind yelled, “Heads!” I quickly called out, “Tails!”
I don’t know if I should feel bad for stealing her apartment. She’d lived there five years, and probably earned the right to keep it. My husband, however, says it was meant to be. After all, he adds, you really can’t change luck.