Luck, By Ed Smith

How to make your fortune

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The Independent Culture

Just as Ed Smith joined Kent County Cricket Club in 1999, the team decided to professionalise itself. Along with a new practice regime that included 50 extra catches a day, the team's management banned the word "luck". No longer, as you left the pavilion padded-up, could your team-mates wish you "good luck"; nor could they say "bad luck" to soften the blow when the opposing bowler worked his magic.

This was one year after the crash of the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, founded by Myron Scholes, the co-originator of the Black-Scholes formula which claimed to eliminate risk from options and derivative trading. LTCM discovered, at a cost of nearly $5bn during the 1998 Russian financial crisis, that practice does not make perfect. So too did Smith when he choked at the crease in his first match for Kent.

Smith's new book, Luck, gambols through a number of fields – international finance, war, sport and his own marriage – in order to investigate how chance disturbs both nature and nurture. He interviews James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of the DNA molecule which determines whether you are born with the physique of a boxer or a ballerina, and whether you will have the aptitude to be either. This is nature, one's innate form, codified.

But Watson's great 20th-century breakthrough sits uncomfortably with the fashionable modern mantra of meritocracy. By that rule, those who practise the hardest and who nurture their skills will be the best sportsmen and women. But this, argues Smith, doesn't hold. Even if tennis players were forbidden from ever practising, surely a Roger Federer would outplay his opponents through sheer raw talent?

Sport – which is Smith's strongest subject – is often more like backgammon than chess. Smith cites a US study of the National Football League which found that half the games won over the course of several seasons were done so by skill, and the other half due to good luck. Similarly, in football, the better team, despite a combination of natural and practised skill, does not automatically triumph – especially when the underdog gets a lucky goal. And football allows many such chances. "Uncertainty is a pain to predict," says Smith, "but a joy to follow."

Luck is a vast, unwieldy idea and, by its nature, unquantifiable. Smith occasionally loses command of his subject, but his book is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Take a chance on it.