Play the Game of Life
How backgammon taught me to pay attention to luck and risk
Every outcome you experience, every success you enjoy and every failure you endure, is the result of two things.
The actions you take and the luck that comes your way.
As a culture, we tend to focus on the primacy of individual action as the cause of success or failure. We look to successful people and try to break down what they did to get themselves there, hoping to emulate it for ourselves.
But looking at individual action will never account for the whole story.
In all walks of life and in every situation, luck is an invisible force that must be recognised.
I remember a story an Iranian friend told me years ago.
We were in the cafe next to the university library, enjoying a break from studying. On the shelf was a backgammon board and, having recently learned to play, I had asked him for a game.
“Do you know about the legend of backgammon?” he asked me.
“Long ago, there lived a Persian king who loved to play chess, the so-called game of life.
In time though, he became dissatisfied with it because he came to see that it was all strategy. Real life, the king realised, was not like that.
Real life has an undercurrent of luck running through it.
So he asked his aide to come up with a better game, one that better replicated life's unique mix of action and luck.
The result was backgammon.”
Backgammon, a primer
I'm tempted to go into an explanation of the rules of backgammon but I don’t want to lose you. So, if you're curious about learning to play, I urge you to give it a go.
Simply, backgammon is a race between two players. Whoever gets all their pieces around the board—and then out—first, wins.
To move, each player takes turns to throw two six-sided dice. (The result dictates by how much they can move their pieces).
At each roll, players must decide to balance the urge to run (as in, get their pieces to the finish line as fast as possible), with the need to create obstacles to block their opponent’s pieces.
That is the strategic part.
But it's a race with pitfalls because, if any piece ends up alone, it's open to be ‘eaten’ by the opposing player and, thus, be sent back to the starting point.
In building their strategy, each player is soon forced to decide which pieces are worth the risk of leaving unprotected.
And that's where luck comes in.
Luck is not binary
Playing backgammon will immediately teach you that luck is not binary. There is no absolute luck, nor absolute unluck.
Rather, luck exists on a continuum of probabilistic outcomes.
Because the game uses two six-sided dice, there is a set number of possible outcomes—36. That means you can calculate the likelihood of any given roll.
For example, the probability of getting a combination resulting in 6 moves is 47%. (The implication: you're risking big by leaving one of your pieces uncovered six moves away from your opponent).
The probability of getting a combination resulting in 11 is 6%. (That means you’re much safer to leave your piece uncovered if your opponent is 11 moves away).
The point is that, regardless of the roll, each move will always have less than 100% chance of succeeding.
In backgammon, just as in life, there is never a guarantee of safety. Said another way, every decision inherently carries a certain level of risk.
The razor’s edge
Good backgammon players always consider the level of risk tied to any move they make. Given the layout of the board, they factor in the probability of their opponent’s next roll into their decision-making.
That doesn't mean they will always win though.
You can be the best player in the world and still lose to a beginner. You can make the right decision, statistically speaking, and still lose. You can just get unlucky.
Conversely, you can take the biggest, craziest risk and still win.
(To illustrate this, think about flipping a coin. The probability of getting ten heads in a row is just under 1%. This makes it highly unlikely but, flip a coin long enough, and it will happen).
Backgammon teaches you that the difference between success and failure is as thin as a razor's edge.
You are either in luck, or you're not.
The psychology of luck
In backgammon, an optimal decision does not necessarily result in a desired result. It just makes it more likely.
The takeaway is that the outcome of any given roll should never influence the quality of your decision-making, which is remains the only element under your control. The outcome is a misleading teacher.
But making a good decision and still lose can be difficult to accept.
In the heat of the game, it is too easy to get dejected and react from a place of emotion, which will then open you up to taking outsized risks.
Being lucky can be just as dangerous.
When you're on a winning streak, it's hard to not become over-confident. But the reality is, your situation might not be as good as it seems.
All it takes is one roll of the dice to fall back onto the wrong side of luck.
Luck in real life
Although I think there is a lot to learn from backgammon, it still isn’t real life.
In life, we're not playing with a finite set of probabilities that two six-sided dice give us. We’re playing with situations that are infinitely more complex and nuanced.
In life, luck operates deeper from the surface.
It’s impossible for us to fully make sense of it; so we look for easy narratives:
If I succeed, it's easier to attribute it to hard work than luck.
If I fail, it's easier to attribute it to bad luck rather than poor decisions.
If others around me fail, it's easier to attribute it to their poor decisions.
If others around me succeed, it's easier to attribute it to luck.
The reality is, of course, much more messy.
Protect your downside
So, what can you do?
There’s one more thing we can learn from backgammon; it isn’t played over one game.
To find out who the best player is, an odd number of games are played and, whoever wins the most, wins. Over the long run, luck will even itself out and the better player will emerge.
To have a shot at winning then, you must learn to adjust to the good rolls and to the bad rolls. The most important thing is to stay in the game.
The same, I think, is applicable in life.
What do think about the role of luck and risk in your life?
Have you played backgammon before?
What do you love about the game that I missed?