Where a chance encounter helps our hero understand the nature of risk
“The bourgeois prefers comfort to pleasure, convenience to liberty, and a pleasant temperature to the deathly inner consuming fire.”
Der Steppenwolf Hermann Hesse 1927
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Attributed to Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the Younger1
The pub interior was a welcome respite from the cold sea air outside, for it was one of those wet blowy Winter days. The red lamps were low and the log fire crackled, all very cosy and just the sort of atmosphere his soul needed.
He ordered a large beer and sat swathed in the red interior trying to make better sense of things. This far, water seemed to have figured strongly and the seasons presented in great disorder. His age had swung wildly and it was still not clear to him if the Magpie was actually able to talk. He did not believe in magic magpies as it was so this made it most unlikely. Some kind of modern fairytale?
He looked around. There was no open log fire in the Cricketers last time he was here either. Could it be altogether too cosy in here?
Still raw but calmer, he was missing his mother, whom he actually knew to be a figment of his imagination, never having grown up with her, but this was the comfort he craved. Somewhere to crawl into and have your wounds licked instead of always having to do it for yourself, somewhere to wallow in a private sorrow.
He looked around. His recent companion was absent from the scene. The slot machine in the corner was cycling through its come-hither light show. He toyed with his glass as he studied the sequence and mindlessly sought to memorise it. Mesmerised by the sequence more like. First, flash all the lights on and off, then run them clockwise in a wheel format, now anti-clockwise, scroll from top to bottom, fill up sequentially from the bottom until the jackpot amount is lit, flash all on and off a second time, wash from left to right, wash from right to left, fill from top right, fill from top left and start again. The LED window display was running messages while all this was going on, somehow registering in another part of his brain. Hey girls, multi-tasking.
Jack the Ripper game – Copyright Whirligig Games – A full 35 pounds payout – Put your coin in the slot now – Best Score 345 698 – Jack the Ripper game – and so on, round again.
He knew the pub had figured in Greene’s Brighton Rock, but Jack the Ripper? Bit far-fetched. He sat in here and planned murder? I thought no-one had yet identified him, so how do they know it was him sitting here all those years ago?
Cheap trick. It reminded him of gullible Neil, that podgy Northerner at the Bank, who thought nothing of blowing forty pounds each lunchtime trying to beat the beast in their local, defying all national stereotypes. What a crazy activity, and expensive. He wondered if Neil could afford it now there was a recession on?
He found himself standing with a hand on the slot machine, the blue display indicating that he had one pound in credit. The hand, which must be his own, hit the fat start button with the assurance of the experienced gamblers he had so often observed. The wheels span rather lazily, rolling to a satisfying dud, dud, dud stop at the end of their cycle.
The counter went down, his hand hit again.
Dud, dud, dud.
Not a single series came up with a winning combination, not even one possibility to exploit. The machine halted, the blue zero in the credit window flashing at him.
Only five goes for a quid?
He hit the big button anyway, rapidly and a few times in a row, rather like he did when a pedestrian at Pelican crossings to get the lights to change faster, even though he knew that that was not how they were wired.
Time to put some more in. It clicked through five more barren cycles.
What, not one chance in ten goes?
There would be a knack to this but he clearly had not got it. He wondered much he could afford to invest to buy the necessary learning time to outwit the foibles the on-board computer was designed to present to him.
The machine suddenly defaulted to its come-hither light show, flash all the lights on and off, clockwise wheel, anti-clockwise wheel…
Hold on a minute! Christ, he was standing in front of the damned thing. Give us a chance!
Had he been standing there that long? He looked around. The barmaid appeared to be dressed as a French waitress, actually quite glamorous in the black and white outfit. Straight out of Beryl Cook all the same, or off a naughty postcard. She looked up quizzically from reading her redtop; he ignored her.
His eye roamed; not many in, must be a weekday afternoon.
He felt suddenly overwhelmed by this manically flashing robot. It had only been programmed by another human, so he should be able to crack it. It couldn’t be that difficult otherwise no-one would continue to play. But where to start? Weary, he crossed the beery carpet and slumped back down onto the padded bench; allowed the red to envelop him. Perhaps the whores would be in soon.
That was a joke.
He stared sullenly at the English beer going warm in his glass, already flat. More than half empty.
– This one done love?
The barmaid stretched out a hand only to withdraw it in some fright at the vehemence with which he encircled it with his hand.
– Sorry, I’m sure.
She studied him sympathetically.
– Having a bad day? Living with risk and uncertainty is not to everyone’s taste. Maybe you should try reducing your exposure?
She plumped herself down next to him.
– My legs, by way of explanation, rubbing her black-stockinged calves.
– Oh, I see them all in here. For what it’s worth, my observation is that risk is uncomfortable at the best of times, if not downright dangerous. It is in all our interests to reduce our exposure to it and hang onto some other more certain notion. I have read somewhere that risk is defined as “the uncertainty of bad things happening”, tapping his knee in emphasis.
– Oops, sorry, my italics.
She smiled knowingly; a young, ample woman who smelled good.
– That kind of statement merely leaves a Comfortable mind like mine wondering: whatever happened to the certainty of good things happening?
Laughing. Now wagging a finger.
– I reckon that too fixed a focus on preventing bad things happening, means less time spent on making good things more certain, don’t you agree?
He, on the contrary, felt that seeking safety (“playing safe”), whilst perhaps seen to deliver serendipity, more often than not just ended up sticking you in the mud. A situation that can quickly develop into some ghastly social stasis, out of which many people never seem to emerge, gripped as they are by an increasing state of paralysis that hinders all ability to head for the exit.
– Lord, you do take life seriously, as if reading his thoughts. I will admit that within my proposition does lie a terrible behavioural paradox.
She settled back in her seat.
– In their search for certainty, we get Comfort-seekers in here wishing to reduce their exposure, who might have walked away from both risk and uncertainty, but come straight into this halfway house of happenstance, wherein dwell Mistresses Good Luck and Good Fortune.
– In here they find solace in the Gambler’s Fallacy, ominously also known as the Monte Carlo Fallacy, did you know? That is: Serious Bucks. I see them in front of that machine, throwing to the winds not only money, but also any knowledge borne of experience that they might have accumulated. They kid themselves that the likelihood of them winning from a random sequence actually goes up with the number of wins they have already had, and consequently, that the possibility of winning actually goes up each time they fail to win.
He tried to keep up.
– Let me put it more simply. If you were to toss up an undoctored coin of the realm again and again, and tails came up many times in a row, you would start to believe that heads becomes more likely on each following toss, wouldn’t you? As day follows night you might say. Indeed, due to the simple law of averages, heads seems to get ever more certain as time goes by, becoming due you might say. I use these gambling notions as a metaphor of course. Mine is not a treatise against gambling – it is one of the ways we earn our money in here after all – but more a consideration of how my punters often substitute the notion of risk for that of luck, as they seek personal Comfort through gambling; which merely seems to be their particular avoidance technique.
She tapped the side of her nose knowingly.
– When transferred to their rather more complex social lives, I do see how disempowering these simple beliefs can be, where they sincerely believe that a run of bad luck in their personal or professional relations is bound to be followed by good fortune by mere dint of time passing. I’ve lost count of the number of barflies who come out with that one of an evening. How many of us risk (I use the word advisedly) being mired in this waiting game, where there are in fact no guarantees that our luck will change as we while away perhaps a whole life thus suspended? What a formidable handicap to action this simple belief presents.
Such self-assured delivery left him speechless.
She leant into him to confide the next truth, patting his knee once more.
– Yet more perversely, the Comfortable will pursue this even unto what is termed the Inverse Gambler’s Fallacy. This is built on the belief that a particular outcome is less likely to occur precisely because it has happened recently. How twisted is that? This is characterised in popular parlance as being subject to “the law of averages”, or just being “out of luck”. You know, because a win has not in fact happened that recently, we excuse it as just being part of a “run of bad luck”. It took me a while to fathom how people in such a complex dwelling place finally found heart, but I did it. Did they but know it, by embracing the Problem of Points as resolved by those ace mathematicians Messieurs Pascal and Fermat!
He was a little bewildered by the triumphant flash in her eyes and could not comprehend how she might know of these two.
– That problem states that what is important is not the number of rounds each player has won so far, but the number of rounds each player “still needs to win” in order to achieve overall victory. Yet more contorted, no?
He was lost.
She absent-mindedly brushed down the velvet seat of one of the chairs. The grey cushion on the next one moved of its own accord. A feline form emerged from its nap and stretched, jumped down on the floor and sought to entwine itself inextricably in her legs.
– Hello Dinger.
She bent down to stroke its tail.
– He does tricks you know. I have seen a dog do this but watch this cat.
She addressed the cat in that particular voice one uses for a pet.
– Here Dinger. Come here. Show Dinger, show.
She held out her hand.
– Come on. Show. Dinger?
The cat finally deigned to sit and offer up its paw. She shook it.
– There’s a good little cat. Incredible no?
She turned to him in query. He felt safe admitting to himself that he was left cold by reluctant performing cats but decided it would be cruel to share his thought at this juncture. He made some sort of mumbling noise that might have been approval for the moggy’s undoubted talents.
– Anyway, as I was saying, running your life to this scheme seems to me inevitably to induce a kind of self-harm, if that is not too strongly put. Yes, relying on luck as a substitute for risk is a surprisingly wide-spread solution and makes luck a very acceptable choice. But – wagging a finger again – it is a danger, for it prevents you taking control of your own solutions!
Funny how you can underestimate people.
She motioned with her head and he followed her gaze.
– I deliberately put that quote from Seneca over the fireplace because it seems to posit a more proactive view of luck, which is a sign of the affection in which I hold this overblown old place I suppose. The difficulty I have with his definition however, is that it implies both preparation and opportunity, which to my mind seriously reduces the likelihood of things happening by accident – “as sheer luck would have it” – because those two are more proactive values which imply a personal engagement with your environment, which Certainly does allow you more control over the outcome. But we see precious little of that in here, everyone’s far too Comfy!
Patting a cushion, that ample laugh again.
– I’ll have that glass now, abruptly picking up the warm beer and waddling back to the bar.
Reeling, bemused, he sat to contemplate the nature of the insights into which he had just been initiated. Preparation and opportunity? Might they not also be seen to arm one against the nefarious effects of uncalculated risk, for being thus prepared reduces your exposure to risk and where luck has less and less to do with it?
Feeling feverish, claustrophobic, lacking oxygen, overheated, what you will, he burst out of the pub into the English seaside, bootleg Chanel No 5 still in his nose.
1 Source unavailable. The Italian version may be closer to the original Latin: “La fortuna non esiste: esiste il momento in cui il talento incontra l’occasione.” (Luck does not exist: there is only the moment when talent meets opportunity)